writing

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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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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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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