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.



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?


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.


5 Career Lessons it Took me 3 Years to Learn

by Marian Schembari on December 26, 2012

My inbox floods in waves. Every May and every December I get a few dozen emails from recent graduates who are frantically trying to figure out what the hell to do with their lives. For some reason they think I have an answer on how to get a job. I don’t.

But over the past few years I have learned a thing or to about work and my career and what I want out of work and my career. And there’s a list a mile long of the things I wish I had known after graduating college, things that only come from experience and making stupid mistakes.

Lesson 1: Get over your fear of falling.

It’s been 3 years now since I graduated Davidson College and if I knew right off the bat that I didn’t have to get a ‘safe’ job and the only way to be happy is to do what your gut tells you that you really love than I would have done things differently. I wouldn’t have settled for a boring office job, but I’m glad I quit when I did and traveled when I did.

Lesson 2: Get published.

If I had known how valuable this blog would be three years down the line, I would have started in college. Even if your job doesn’t involve writing, WRITE. Not a great writer? Learn. Seriously, the ability to have people from all industries in all countries to be able to see your work/thoughts/skills is worth the few hours you’d spend a week writing. And it doesn’t have to be a blog. This can be your school newspaper, someone else’s blog, your local paper, a community leaflet, whatever. It doesn’t matter. Point is, people will want to see that you’ve gone the extra mile and have ideas worth listening to. Plus, I can’t remember the last time someone asked me what my degree was.

Lesson 3: Start small.

When I was looking at jobs for the big publishers, they wanted other publishing experience, even though I was only 21. So take publishing for example: find boutique, weird, quirky or niche publishing houses (or websites!) and start there. That’s not to say you can’t go big, but in terms of being “realistic”, small is good. Plus, I LOVE working for small companies. You get heaps more experience and – surprisingly – the pay is often better for newbies.


Emailing strangers is a good place to start, but won’t be enough. Join MeetUp groups, email every industry leader in your area, join a professional organization, shell out for conferences, read top blogs and contact the contributors. Then connect with them on LinkedIn. You do have LinkedIn, right? These are the people who are going to help you get jobs and vouch for you. If any of them are near your school, invite them for a coffee. Meeting in person is ALWAYS better than email. ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS.

Lesson 5: Hire a resume writer.

I used social media to get a job and I’ve been using it since. But don’t underestimate the power of a good resume. I hired Jenny Foss of jobjenny.com and had the guys at Loft design it. They both blew my mind. My resume is the best thing since sliced bread and every job I’ve applied for has at least asked me in for an interview since then. My newest job in San Francisco called me for an interview within 12 hours of sending my resume. I was offered the gig less than 2 weeks later.

While I want to say that I would have saved myself a lot of grief by following these lessons three years ago instead of now, sometimes you just gotta make mistakes to really drive a lesson home. What was the dumbest career mistake you ever made?



The Blogger’s Guilt No One Talks About

by Marian Schembari on September 25, 2012

I recently wrote a post for Brazen Careerist about how neglecting my blog helped me accomplish some big life goals. The content of this post is so important – so near and dear to my heart – that I need to re-mention it.

Go here to read the full post. In it, I discuss what prompted a two month hiatus on this site, despite having worked so hard to get it to a certain point, as well as the life goals I’ve accomplished because I haven’t had to worry about posting every day.

What I don’t talk about is the guilt.

I’m at work by 8am every day and stay until 5 or 6. I rush home, then hop into class, where I stay until 8 or 9pm. I rush home again, then frantically shower and make dinner. Which is a bloody mission because I’ve had a slew of health problems recently, meaning my diet is severely limited and every meal is this major stress. Then it’s 10pm and if I want any sort of sanity I need five fucking seconds to myself before collapsing into – thankfully – a dreamless sleep.

But every day I want to blog. There is so much in my brain you have no idea. I love the online community and I love everything writing has opened up for me. So I wanted to keep it going. But with finally getting my yoga teaching certification (squeal!), work, couchsurfing and my health, there was never enough time for it.

So I let it go. But I never did it officially. I never gave myself permission to let it go, even for a while. Every day I wanted to be the kind of person who could fit in a post during her lunch break or whip something up first thing in the morning before work.

But I see so many other bloggers who just had babies sharing updates the day after they gave birth. And apparently if you sleep at night you’re doing it wrong because apparently to be successful you can’t ever rest because if you’re not working you have to be working on a side project.

Maybe I’ve been in New Zealand too long, but the thought of working when I get home from work AND teaching makes me want to kill myself. I want a life. I love blogging, but I love going out into the world more. I love taking epic walks on the beach in the Coromandel or flying to Australia for the weekend to visit my childhood best friend.

When I DO get time to myself I love going home and curling up in bed with a fantastic book more than I love reviewing that book. (And on that note, I really do owe you a dozen book reviews.)

My point isn’t that I want to abandon this site. I couldn’t. What I do want is an understanding of how people do it! Is it even possible?