Friday, November 1, 2019

National Novel Writing Month

November 1st marks the beginning of National Novel Writing Month: NaNoWriMo! If you are working on any project (it doesn't even have to be prose), you'll find encouragement everywhere to help keep your writing every day. The official goal is to write 50,000 words of your first draft in 30 days.

Everyone writes differently. I tend to quickly write early drafts that are very long and need a lot of editing. Others write very, very slowly. If you decide to participate in this month, my advice is to use the encouragement and community to amplify what you already do well. If you tend to write a lot, do that. If you tend to write slowly, give yourself the time to do that.

Today, make a goal that is attainable for this month's schedule and then re-group at the end of the month to see what you accomplished and how you can continue this momentum. You might focus on time (how long will you write each day?) or word count (how many words on the page can you reach each day?)

Happy writing!

Some resources:
Official NaNoWriMo website
Follow the hashtag on Twitter to read what writers are accomplishing: #NaNoWriMo2019
Related events and online resources from the DC Public Library
Female identifying writers might join the Facebook Binders (and then look for the endless subgroups)
TED talks about writing
Reddit for Writers: 47 Writing Subreddits to Explore by Jess Zafarris (Writer's Digest)
NaNoWriMo Begins! 30 Tips for Conquering Your 30-Day Writing Challenge by Jess Zaffaris (Writer's Digest)

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Advanced Memoir Writing Workshop at Politics and Prose Bookstore (Jan. 2020)

I'm excited to be offering a new class at Politics and Prose Bookstore this winter: Advanced Memoir Writing Workshop. The details are below; please register through the bookstore. Don't hesitate to reach out with any questions (chloemiller(at)gmail(dot)com.

The class will be held in the condo around the corner from the flagship location (5015 Connecticut Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. 20008).

Advanced Memoir Writing Workshop 

Five Wednesdays: Jan. 22, Jan. 29, Feb. 5, 12, (skip Feb. 19) Feb. 26, from 9:30 a.m. to 12: 30 p.m.

$250 (10% off for members)
Do you have a memoir manuscript started that you’re ready to discuss and critique in a workshop?  The first class we’ll focus entirely on the craft of writing and setting workshop critique guidelines. In the following classes, we will dedicate a full hour to each student’s submission and spend the additional time deepening our craft discussion based on the submissions. Students will submit 1,500 words (about 6 pages double spaced) and an outline (no more than 5 pages double-spaced) after the first class. Each student will be expected to write at least one page double-spaced in response to the submissions following guidelines. Each writer will receive this feedback and additional feedback from the instructor.


1.     Have taken a memoir writing workshop and/or had creative non-fiction prose published.

2.     Have 1,500 words and a detailed outline from a memoir manuscript ready to submit for feedback.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Halloween Fundraiser!

Cover of the Halloween Zine (English)

The six-year-old and I are running a fundraiser to help immigrants to the United States. If you email me (chloemiller(at)gmail(dot)com) a donation receipt - of any amount - to RAICES, I will send you the PDFs for his original Halloween zine in the language(s) of your choosing: English, Arabic, Hindi, Italian, Korean, Persian or Spanish. I'll also send you instructions on how to fold the paper into a zine.

We are missing our friends currently stalled in India (read more about them here in the Washington Post). We are feeling how our nation has been changing these last few years. This multi-language book project and fundraiser does its own tiny part in bridging the gap between cultures and languages. We believe in the mission of RAICES and hope to support their work through this project. 

The six-year-old is very interested in writing books. If you an adult with a kindergartener in the Washington, D.C., area and would like to make your own book together, you might be interested in taking the class that the six-year-old and I are co-teaching at the Writer's Center on Saturday, November 23. You can register through the Writer's Center directly here.

How to join this fundraiser: 

2. Email me your receipt (chloemiller(at)gmail(dot)com and list the language(s) of the zines that you' like emailed to you. Each zine is a single piece of paper that you can print out and then cut and fold according to the directions that I will also email to you.

3. Want to help some more? Can you translate the book into a language not listed above? Let me know and I will send you a blank version to fill in or you can email me the words. There are three sentences total, so it shouldn't be too hard. Thank you to the friends who have already helped with translations!

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Publication: Poems in Two Cities Review

Thank you to Two Cities Review for publishing three of my poems:

Three Weeks Early
I Knew

These poems are from a manuscript that narrates a miscarriage, difficult birth and postpartum depression. 

Please read these poems if you are in a good place considering these subjects. If you're having a hard time, I encourage you to seek help from your doctor. I cannot express how much my doctor and therapist helped me in that period. Writing these poems also helped me to clarify my feelings at the time.

From the same poetry manuscript, you can also listen or read online: 
Composer Lauren Spavelko set some poems from the manuscript to music (here, under Baby Book)
Almost Seven Months in Crack the Spine 
Short Duet / Dualities, Figs and Objects in Literary Mama

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Washington, D.C., Fall Workshop

There's still time to register for my remaining 2019 writing workshop! I'd love to see you there.

If you have any questions or concerns, don't hesitate to email me (chloemiller(at)gmail(dot)com.

Stay tuned for 2020 workshop announcements soon! In the meanwhile, check out Moonlit's open workshops and Politics and Prose bookstore for local classes.

Remington Standard Typewriter Number 2

Write & Illustrate a Picture Book (For Kindergarteners and their Grownups)
Saturday, November 23 (one morning workshop)
10:00 AM - 12:00 PM
Click through for the course description and to register.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Publication: 100 Things to Pack on the 100th Day of School

Thank you to MockMom (Sammiches and Psych Meds) for publishing my new piece 100 Things to Pack on the 100th Day of School. I'm sure the parent readers will appreciate the ideas for their own upcoming 100th day of school celebration (wink.)

Friday, October 4, 2019

The Power of Stories

Screenshot of the article, "A D.C. family stranded in India by our dysfunctional immigration system" by Petula Dvorak including a family picture in front of the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C.

In memoir writing workshops, I open with a discussion of the power of individual stories. Individual stories have the power to make a large, complicated situation tangible and, hopefully, comprehensible.

Our dear friends are in India waiting - and waiting and waiting - for the necessary paperwork to return to their home in Washington, D.C. They spoke recently with Petula Dvorak at the Washington Post about their ongoing experience. The resulting article captures their very human response to an intensely bureaucratic experience.

Please read the article for a glimpse into this family's life in order to better understand a larger situation. Please share the article widely in an effort to educate readers about this experience which is an increasingly common one.

Let's continue to believe in our stories and believe in each other. The result of understanding ourselves and each other through our personal stories? Empathy as we recognize our emotions in others. And then, most importantly in these urgent times, action.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

If you write, you are a writer

Telephone Conversation (Telefonisch Es Gespräch), 1907, Moriz Jung Austrian

We each feel imposter syndrome from time to time. Don't let it stop you from embracing the fact that if you write, you are a writer.

When my students in writing classes introduce themselves, they often say something like, "I'm not good at this. I write in my journal, but I'm terrible" or "I want to write stories one day, but what I'm doing now isn't writing."

If you are writing and communicating something, you are a writer. Own the term and believe in yourself. Give yourself permission to draft something, edit and revise it. Give yourself permission to believe in yourself. 

Believe in yourself even if other people don't understand. At a kid's party once, I asked a father what he did. He answered with a vague, Washingtonian answer that included the words "policy" and "consultant." He didn't ask me what I did, but I offered anyway. "I'm a poet." He looked down at me (he was very tall) and said something like, "You're right! I am a poet at work! I never thought of it like that."

Hell, if he can embrace calling himself a writer, you who are writing certainly can. (We'll discuss the patriarchy another day, wink.)

Happy writing!

Monday, September 9, 2019

Writing = Communication

Shadows of Leaves on Rock

Writing is a form of communication. Sure, I teach for-credit, undergraduate writing courses and grade students on their use of punctuation and molding of crisp thesis statements. But in the end, what is most important about a piece of writing is that it communicates something to the intended audience.

Our first grader is intrigued by reading and writing. He wrote a birthday card to a bilingual friend half in Italian and half in English. He sometimes sends text messages that include both emojis and words. He mixes languages, images and words - spelled 'correctly' and phonetically. Sometimes he shows us words he's learned in American or Australian sign language and sometimes he acts out his own "picture language." Based on his friends' responses, all of these marks, images and gestures are effusive forms of communication.

Sometimes we adults need to be reminded that we don't have to spend all of our time flipping and flopping a comma around in a sentence; we should instead focus on communicating. Sure, we need to be understood. Sometimes that means following the rules, but sometimes that means creating new rules or catching rules as they morph into new ones.

Give yourself a pass today to write freely. Let the words flow. Focus on grammar and punctuation later when you edit and revise your work. Maybe you'll learn something new and maybe you'll communicate that thought well, too.

For more, link through to some of my writing prompts. You might also watch these Ted Talks on how language changes over time.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

There Are Things We Can't Say published by Jellyfish Review

Thank you to Jellyfish Review for publishing my piece, There Are Things We Can't Say. This short piece of prose considers what is said and what is unsaid, as well as who has permission to tell what story. While you're on their site, I hope you'll stick around to read more!

Monday, July 15, 2019

Poem Almost Seven Months published in Crack the Spine Literary Magazine

Thank you to Crack the Spine for publishing my poem Almost Seven Months. I hope you'll click through to read the full issue!

Our child turned six this spring. I wrote the first draft of this poem when he was almost seven months old. This is all to say, keep writing, parent-writers! It might take even longer than the long time it took to write and publish before becoming a parent and that's ok. Just keep writing.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

If You Give a Mom Some Wi-Fi… published in Mock Mom (Sammiches & Psych Meds)

Thanks to Mock Mom (Sammiches & Psych Meds) for publishing my latest piece, "If You Give a Mom Some Wi-Fi..." And, of course, thanks to the amazing children's book author Laura Numeroff for her series, "If you give a ...", which inspired the piece.

Here's to a summer of continued laughs and writing! 

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Publication - Infant Girl Photo Shoot on Soft-focus Blanket in Defenestration today

Thanks to Defenestration for publishing my piece Infant Girl Photo Shoot on Soft-focus Blanket today.

It begins:

You wanted to see pictures of my infant girl swaddled in soft-focus, white blankets, right? I’ve posted my top fifty outtakes on my Facebook page. I don’t see that you gave the post a heart yet and you probably want to.

Once you see the photos, you won’t forget that our baby is a girl. We stretched that purple ribbon over her head to help with that. Boys don’t wear purple, right? We’d never dress our boy like that because you might think he was a girl. (He’s not. Remember his infant pictures with a football and crisp focus blankets?)

I wonder when my baby girl will learn how to put on a bra. Then it will be even more obvious that she’s a girl. She might need a padded bra at first, but that’s a good start.

Click through to read the rest and, I hope, laugh!

For more on raising your child - rather than a defined boy or girl - read 10 Science-Backed Tips for Raising Your Child Gender Neutral (Forbes) and check out Let Toys Be Toys.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Publication - Cost Saving Advantages of Perimenopause in McSweeney's today

Thanks to McSweeney's for publishing my piece Cost Saving Advantages of Perimenopause today! It starts:

1. Winter scarves. Winter feels like a tropical vacation, despite the snow. You create your own heat, baby.

2. Pads and tampons. You don’t need them. Sure, occasionally you’ll need to stop at Costco, but then suddenly you won’t need any. Give away that big box to someone younger. Until you need more again, but maybe not.

Click through to read the full piece for a laugh - and solidarity!

Monday, May 20, 2019


The end of the school year is accelerating and summer is quickly approaching. I hope that you have some time built in to rest, enjoy your friends and family and write, too, over the next few months.

I'd love to help you with your writing project. This summer, I'll take writing coach appointments via email and video conferencing (Skype, FaceTime or WhatsApp). In September, I'll return to in-person appointments in the D.C. area. You can learn more about my writing coaching here

I'll be offering a fall memoir writing workshop through Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C. (please follow the bookstore for class announcements, including registration details.)

I'd love to connect with you on FacebookTwitter. and Goodreads

Don't hesitate to email me any time with questions (chloemiller(at)gmail(dot)com).

Monday, May 13, 2019


Our almost 6yrold dressed as Luke Skywalker
looking at comics at Big Planet Comics
on Free Comic Book Day, which was also Star Wars Day

My goal is to make this website a useful source of information.

Have you searched for something recently and not found it? What are you looking for?

Local folks - Do you run or know about a local reading series, publisher, etc., which is not listed under "Selected DC Area Literary Readings, Festivals & Resources"?

Let me know via email (chloemiller(at)gmail(dot)com) and I'll be sure to add the resource!

Monday, May 6, 2019

New Moonlit Workshop: Point of View (Wednesday, May 15)

I'm excited to be offering my first Moonlit workshop next week! Sign up for my workshop or one of the many others today through their website, MoonlitDC or link through via Facebook.

Here are the details:

Point of View: Who? You? Me?
Wednesday, May 15, 2019 at 6 PM – 8 PM
Capitol Hill Books
657 C St SE, Washington, District of Columbia 20003

In this workshop, we will discuss point of view in general and as it relates specifically to a piece of writing that you are currently working on. Your goal is always to craft a clear and consistent narrative; a clear point of view can help with this. While you want to surprise your reader with your writing, you never want to confuse them. We will look closely at a few examples (first, second and third) and see what happens when the point of view changes. We will dedicate half of our time to completing a hands-on writing exercise.

Writers should bring a draft of a piece (1 – 2 pages double-spaced, Times New Roman 12-point font) printed out or on a laptop. If this isn’t possible, an example will be provided that can be used for the workshop exercise.

About the Instructor: Chloe Yelena Miller is a writer and teacher living in Washington, D.C., with her husband, child and their many books. Her poetry chapbook Unrest was published by Finishing Line Press. Her work is published or forthcoming in Alimentum, The Cortland Review, McSweeney’s, Narrative Magazine, Poet’s Market, and Storyscape Literary Journal, among others.

Chloe teaches writing at the University of Maryland University College, Fairleigh Dickinson University and Politics & Prose Bookstore, as well as privately. Chloe has an MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Contact her and read some of her work at /

Scholarships are available for this workshop. If you are interested in applying for a scholarship, please send a few sentences about yourself, your goals as a writer, and an outline of how you would benefit from a scholarship through the contact form on our website. Alternate payment methods are also available. Learn more or be in touch at

Monday, April 29, 2019

A Love Letter to Chores And Errands (Or: Write-Think Time Today!)

I got distracted by the 80's time traveling to Target.
Here's a mannequin wearing tie-dyed shorts and a t-shirt tied in front. 
Ok, I can't say that I really "love" chores and errands or that I would ever write them a love letter. But, I'm here to argue that these chores and errands can be fruitful writing-thinking times.

I recommend that my my busy writing students read a troublesome part of their piece or think about an issue in their piece before they start their day. This allows their mind to actively - and perhaps subconsciously  - work out an issue. Maybe a character needs a better backstory or someone from the past needs to be better understood in order to move past a boring caricature. Whatever it is, you can think about it while you fold laundry or go food shopping (of course, pay attention while you drive, bike, scooter or walk!)

I recommended this technique recently and I was challenged. The writer said, "Really? You do that and you can still pay attention to whatever you're doing?" I responded with a firm, "Yes!" She looked doubtful and a little annoyed.

I worried I was optimistically misrepresenting myself (so many writers are prone to anxiety and second guessing.) Do I? Do I sometimes or even ever focus that much on a writing problem while doing something else? I think I do, but do I? As it quickly turned into questions about my ability to live in the present (anxiety!), I decided to test it.

I had an essay idea in mind. A friend had asked me a question the other day and as I started to answer, she said, "You should write that! I'd read it!" I decided to take that challenge.

So since I also had to go to Target today, I decided to make it a three prong challenge: 1. Go to Target. 2. Think about the essay I want to write. 3. Prove that I can both go to Target and think about an essay.

I needed to make sure that going to Target with a list of different kinds of soaps and cereals to buy wouldn't be counter to writing. I wrote myself an email with some key words and then thought a lot about the issues, possible scenes and bigger ideas as I gathered items in my cart.

Back home, I sat down to write. And, lo and behold,  I succeeded in writing a 1,500 word draft fairly quickly. Is it finished? Far from it. But I did succeed in getting out some ideas in my "sh*tty first draft."

This is all to say that while it can sound pretty "woo woo" to  make running errands a part of writing, it is possible. Undo your boredom and write-think today!

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Memoir Writing Challenges

Old Typewriter

The memoir writing workshop that I teach regularly at Politics & Prose bookstore just ended, which always leads to some nostalgia. I look forward to teaching the class again in the fall (stay tuned for details!) 

For now, I wanted to share some challenges beyond the course material that I offered to the writers in the class. If you are writing memoir or personal essays, you might find these helpful, too. 

1. List the many parts of your self (gender, sex, religion, political leanings, education, class, profession, interests, family roles, etc.) Think about how these aspects - some more visual than others in different settings - effect how you behave and how people relate to you. (This is a very private exercise; you don't have to share this with anyone.)

2. Write the backstory for your characters, especially the ones that you don't like, feel have wronged you or find hilarious. This exercise might help you to develop them as characters, rather than stereotypes or caricatures.

3. Look for 3-5 contemporary news stories that overlap with your memoir (facts or themes.) If you are interested in publishing, you might submit responses to recent events and relate them to your memoir. You can also think about these connections as you work to sell your book to agents or publishers.

4. If you are writing in the past tense, take 1-5 paragraphs and rewrite them in the present tense. Notice what changes.

5. Look at the first three paragraphs of your favorite (or at least well-loved) books from your bookshelf. Notice where these books begin and how important details are revealed (or not.)

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Happy National Poetry Month!

Happy Poetry Month and, on Thursday, Poem in Your Pocket Day! I hope that you will celebrate today, this month and all year long by reading, writing and listening to poetry. You can find many online resources from the Academy of American Poets here

Who are your favorite poets (past, present, English language or otherwise)? I most recently read - and loved and was moved by - Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky. You can watch a recording of him reading here

Our child's elementary school is celebrating poetry by inviting the students to write and submit poems. They also asked the students to bring a poem to school - in their pockets! - last week. Since our child is excited about baseball, I was excited to share these two poems with him: First Girls in Little League Baseball by J. Patrick Lewis and Grand Slam by Marjorie Maddox. This month (and always, really), we'll also be rereading some of my favorite Shel Silverstein poems and poems from Poetry Speaks to Children.

So many of us grew up with sighing teachers who presented poetry as out of date and hard to understand. What a bummer, right? You might find some poetry books for your favorite kids on Common Sense Media. I enjoyed listening to authors Kwame Alexander, 
Eloise Greenfield, and Ayinde Sekou speak with Kojo Nnamdi about their books and music for children on WAMU.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Archiving and Organizing Materials

Some of you might find yourselves with boxes, drawers or piles of papers and photographs. How can you digitize and archive these materials?

Here are some resources to get you started:

The Society of American Archivists have online courses (and much more!) listed on their website.

The Smithsonian's Archives of American Art has a thorough online book with resources that they used to digitize collections (and you can follow, too.) Click through for more from the Smithsonian on Digitizing Collections.

The National Archives put together the useful reading Archive Principles and Practice: an introduction to archives for non-archivists.

Please add any additional resources in the Comments section below.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Focusing On the Process

Our Almost Six-Year-Old's Portrait of His Mamma
(That is to say, me!)

Our almost six-year-old is fearlessly creative. And, as you might have guessed, there's a lesson in there for the creative process.

When he was home with the flu, we watched the movie Black Panther. Then he wanted to make a Black Panther paper costume and asked for construction paper, tape and scissors. I was hesitant since I knew neither one of us could create something that would look anything like the movie character. I didn't want to set us up to fail.

Bu our child was eager to try. Even as the cut out eyes in the mask were too close together for him to see out of and the mask was too small to fit over his head, he didn't give up. When he encountered a problem, he tried to fix it or start that part over. He was thrilled to show us the final project that he taped directly to his cheeks.

He (inadvertently) practiced many skills in the process (holding a pen correctly, drawing intended lines, cutting those lines and measuring - and re-measuring - distances.) He relied on his memory and creativity to create something out of a different material from the original. What mattered was the process, but he was also building on past skills and working towards future skills.

It seems that most children, given some space, will essentially educate themselves through play. This is an important part of any learning process and something adults should continue to practice.

Adults working towards writing projects often forget about the process. We are fixated on the final product and don't "count" unrelated tasks as a part of the drafting process. Sure, we shouldn't only generate work and ignore editing, but there's value in creating for the sake of creating. We should each spend some time exploring our craft in different ways and taking chances. We might find that we have unexpected skills, learn something new about ourselves or understand our creations in new ways. If nothing else, we are likely to enjoy ourselves in the moment.

I've been trying to write children's stories. I've gotten myself all tangled up in complicated stories that don't work on many (or sometimes any) levels. I decided to write some stories that are exceptionally simple and direct in an effort to practice writing plot for children. Are the stories generally bland and boring? Sure. Am I having fun? Yes. It feels productive and I'm learning something by completing these exercises. I am also feeling free to try some new things since I'm not sitting down with any expectations of greatness. None of these stories will ever be submitted for publication as I view them 100% as process.

I will always remember my high school art teacher, Mr. Paul Aspell, saying something like, "Never sit down with the intention to create a masterpiece. You'll be too frightened to create something new."

I encourage you to create something new today without any expectations. See what happens.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Twitter Pitches

This weekend I attended SCBWI's 2019 MD/DE/WV Regional Conference: Steering the Craft. Literary Agent Beth Phelan talked about finding an agent, including Twitter pitches. After I got over feeling old (so old!), I was able to focus and learn about this (not as new as I would ignorantly think) trend.

A Twitter pitch is a very, very short pitch in response to a call for pitches from an agent or an organization. Your goal is to succinctly summarize your project and use the appropriate hashtags so that an agent can find your pitch and review it. If the agent is interested, your next move is to send a query letter to the agent with more information (for more on query letter writing, check out Jane Friedman or Mary Kole.)

Here are some resources to get you started:

@BrittneyMMorris offers a formula to get you started:
[Age] y/o [Name] is [critical backstory]. When [inciting incident] does [major plot change], [pronoun] must [major decision] or else [stakes]. [comps] [hashtags]

Carissa Taylor has put together resources, including researching literary agents and a pitch generator.

When you're ready, Meg LaTorre keeps an updated calendar of upcoming Twitter pitch parties (days to pitch within particular genres.)

To help navigate the many hashtags and genres, Dan Koboldt has a comprehensive list of hashtags and more how-to information about pitching.

To learn more about what agents are looking for, follow the website Manuscript Wish List and follow the Twitter hashtag: #MWL

If you want to find a mentor and participate in Pitch Wars, click through here.

You might be interested in following Writer Beware as you continue to learn more about the publishing world.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Poetry & Music: Lauren Spavelko's composition, "Baby Book" performed by Laurel Irene

Thanks to composer Lauren Spavelko, my poems continue to have a new life in the form of songs. Recently, Laurel Irene sang Lauren's song cycle, "Baby Book", in a West Coast premiere. If the video below doesn't work, you can watch the video here and view or buy the score here. Read and hear more about vocal artist and voice educator Laurel here.

If you are a writer or composer looking to connect with other writers or composers to perhaps collaborate or discuss your art, please join our Facebook group, Composer Writer Connection.

Thank you again to Lauren and Laurel. It is so moving to hear these words transformed into another art form.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Post-Residency & the Writing To-Do List

A paint palette and typewriter pin that reads, "create something new"
to mark our time creating together

My mother and I had a lovely and productive time during our Artist Residency in Motherhood. I set clear goals for myself and mostly stayed on track during the week. Sure, I was also teaching my online classes, but by being away from my usually busy, parenting life, I was able to make more space for creativity and thought.

A few weeks before I left home, I started a residency specific "writing to-do list." I have my long term writing to-do list, but this list broke my goals into smaller pieces that I could slowly work on. Of course, my whole list got mixed up when, at the train station, my husband hit on an exciting idea for me to try that would pull together some of my pieces (more on that another day.) That said, the to-do list was a good place to start and helped me to keep on task each day.

I spent my time drafting, revising, submitting, reading literature and reading about humor writing. I tried stand-up comedy and that experience - especially the experience of preparing - became a metaphor for or new approach to editing.

I'm already looking forward to next year's retreat!

For more, read:
An Artist Residency in Motherhood 2019
Writing Lessons from Stand-Up Comedy
Writing To-Do List

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Writing Lessons from Stand-Up Comedy

Helium Comedy's stage (no photos allowed during the performance)

When I tell people, "I think I might be funny," they often laugh. It is hard to tell if it is the delivery or the content.

This winter I took Second City's Writing Satire for the Internet with Brooke Preston. It was challenging and fun. (Browse Second City's online classes here.) I'm feeling more confident to write and submit new things. Whatever happens publication wise, I learned some new drafting and editing techniques.

It is always helpful to a new writing genre to hone your writing in general. My mantra in writing classes is that the work should be "as precise and concise as possible." This is, of course, hard. Funny pieces need to be precise and concise in a different way from, say, a poem, so drafting these funny pieces has been a helpful exercise, sometimes with good results.

During my Artist Residency in Motherhood, I tried stand-up. I signed up online the week before to have a three-minute slot at Helium Comedy Club (years of signing our Kindergartner up for hard-to-get-into classes had me ready to click the minute it opened up!) Thankfully, it called for a "tight three" rather than Mrs. Maisel's "tight ten."

I got some laughs! Some comedians congratulated me when I exited the stage into the green room! One woman in the bathroom kindly compared my set to Jenny Lawson's work, which was high flattery.

I wrote, practiced and practiced, timed myself, and practiced some more before going up. I had just about exactly three minutes prepared. Sometimes I went over by twelve seconds and sometimes under by twelve seconds, which was vaguely baffling. There was about thirty seconds wiggle room, so I was fine.

I sometimes suggest to writers that a good editing technique is to close the document you're working on and try to rewrite it from memory. What you forget to include is either an accident or excess words   that you didn't need to begin with. This can be a helpful fat-trimming exercise.

I found that practicing my set produced the same results. Extra words, explanation and details that weren't key to the jokes naturally fell away. (Also, I became self-conscious about my hair as I practiced in the mirror, but that's another issue.)

This is all to say that practicing to do stand-up is both terrifying and the perfect editing exercise.

Other things I learned? I had been warned that the comedy scene would be a "total bro-fest." That warning was not unnecessary. Lots of men and penis jokes. In fact, I opened with a joke about trying stand-up for the very first time and bringing my mother. "Hi, Mom!" A later comedian then opened with questions to my mom about how she liked the, ahem, penis jokes. Luckily, my mom is a very good sport and laughed. (Did I? Well...years of being trained in how to behave as a woman had me smiling uncomfortably.)

There were twenty-one of us in total for the open mike show. We were asked to wait in the green room three comedians before our set, so we were ready to go. There was chatter about a guy who announced it was only his second time. No one could believe it! When I said it was my first time, the group quieted before I was thoroughly man-splained: Comedy clubs are terrible places to try out because the audience is ready to laugh! You'll get laughs and be ruined for "real" comedy at bars where there are only comedians in the audience. Comedians will never laugh at each other's jokes.

I also learned that comedians and comedy clubs are much more serious about length than, say, poets at poetry readings. There was a red lightbulb on the ceiling pointing towards the stage. We were instructed that it would flash to give a warning that your time was coming to an end, change to a solid red light if you went over and then, if you continued for more than twenty seconds, your mike would be cut off and the stage would go dark. Based on my experience at poetry readings, open mike or otherwise, I expected many folks to have their mikes turned off. But no one did. The comedians were prepared and well-timed. Impressive.

Will I quit my day job for comedy? Never. I love teaching and my child and I naturally wake up early. I'm not built for late nights. But, I will continue to write funny things, learn from the process and maybe try stand-up again.

If you're curious, here are some funny things I've written:

Accumulated Wisdom from the Mom with Kids Just a Little Bit Older Than Yours (McSweeney's)

Do Your Parents Have Amnesia About Parenting? (Hint: Yes) (Sammiches & Psych Meds/ Mock Mom)

Dear Young Neighbor Who Complains About My Baby (Scary Mommy)

How to Answer Your Nosy Family’s Questions Like a Toddler (Sammiches & Psych Meds/ Mock Mom)

Fried mozzarella sticks and Philly cheesesteak egg rolls

Monday, March 4, 2019

An Artist Residency in Motherhood 2019

I packed not only my favorite coffee pot, but a little astronaut
because if humans can go into space, surely I can keep writing.
Last January I completed An Artist Residency in Motherhood in Florence, Italy (read more about my experience here and the other mothers completing the residency in the same period here on Cut + Paste radio.) This year I am doing the same thing, only this time I am in Philadelphia with my mother, Melabee Miller, a visual artist. 

Astronaut looking out on a snowy day.
I'm still teaching my online classes, but I'm also spending substantial hours a day drafting, editing, submitting, and reading. It has been a very productive and generative time, which feels wonderful. While my mom and I are enjoying each other's company over meals, we're mostly focused on our own work.

We I chose Philadelphia since it is more or less between our homes; we found an airbnb close to the museums so that she could visit them easily. Of course, the many sites of Philadelphia and friends nearby call out to me and I hope to be back soon to see more. I'm happy to be writing and sad to be missing so many people and things, but that seems to summarize the life of both a parent and a creative person, I suppose.

Today I snuck out with my mom to visit the Rodin MuseumBarnes Collection and the Free Library of Philadelphia. Below are a few related pieces of art: a mother with her child and women reading. (Yes, I do wish that I had seen paintings by women artists showing women reading, but that's another post.) There was also Pierre Bonnard's Young Woman Writing, but I missed taking a picture of it (see it here.) You might be interested in reading about the raven who inspired Poe, Grip. I was surprised to learn that he both exists (stuffed) and is on view at the Free library.

Rodin's Young Mother in a Grotto

Jules Pascin's Girl in Blue Dress on Sofa

Henri Mattise's Figure with Bouquet

Henri Matisse's The Venetian Blinds

If you are a mom artist, I do encourage you to look at the many resources on An Artist Residency in Motherhood's site here. Happy creating!

Thank you again to my husband for helping to make this possible!

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Write Like the Sea

View of Miami Beach waves on a sunny day with some clouds

I know, "Write like the sea" sounds like woo-woo advice at best. But I'll tell you what I mean.

When you write, you write step-by-step. Maybe you start with a scene that draws you in or a character description. Or perhaps you are very organized and start with an outline. Being human, you can only do one thing at a time so you work methodically through your piece in your own way.

Remember that writing is a form of learning - you understand your ideas better by naming them with words. Therefore, you might find that your outlook or plans shift as you continue to write and better understand your ideas. This is where the sea metaphor comes in.

At a long beach, you can watch the waves lap the shore in (sometimes uneven) lines. This is a lot like writing. You need to work step-by-step, but you also need to consider the piece as a whole. At some points, you need to step back and think about the piece in its entirety.

Before you groan and decide that's impossible, think about how your ideas shift as you write. You will need to go back and update your earlier writing and your outline in order to keep everything even. This is what I mean by writing like the sea or thinking about your piece holistically as you continue to write and revise.

So be like the beach and write. Or better yet, go to the beach and write.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Finding the best writing coach for you

Sunset over the water (Malta)

Have you been thinking about working with a writing coach? Here are some tips on finding the best one for you and your writing.

Sometimes folks giggle when I say this, but I think finding a good writing coach is like finding a good therapist. You need to find someone who challenges you and leads you to new discoveries. You should trust the person and, of course, like and respect them, too. A writing coach might be perfect for your friend and her work but a bad fit for you and your work. And that's ok.

I recommend starting off small if you have someone in mind. You might take a short workshop with the person and see if you like their approach. Or you might request a short phone or in-person consultation. I am happy to schedule a twenty minute phone call with a possible writing coach client before our first formal appointment, just to make sure we are a good fit.

If you aren't sure how to find someone, you might contact a local writer's center, bookstore or university to see if they can recommend someone. Writers who teach often also work privately with writers. A quick internet search will turn up some names, too. You can work with someone locally in-person or call/video conference with someone elsewhere.

When you meet with the person, don't hesitate to ask if the coach wouldn't mind sharing some names of folks they've worked with as references (the coach might need to check with the clients first, so give them some time.) Take some time to read the person's published work, too.

When you first talk, the coach will probably ask you a lot of questions about your work, experience, goals, favorite books and more. You should also ask the coach questions, mostly about the process and the coach's expectations. This is a period to learn more about each other and see if you can come up with a plan that works well for both of you.

Remember that the coach is also deciding if she will be a good fit for you. There have been times that I've met with writers who are working on projects that I don't fully understand because of the subject matter. In these cases, I might recommend another coach to the writer. This isn't a rejection, but rather an effort to help the writer find the best writing coach.

Trust yourself and your gut in this process. If you like someone and think you will benefit from working together, say so. If you don't feel like the person is a good fit, then keep looking for the right person.

If you think I can help you and your work as a writing coach, let's talk more. You can read more about my writing coach services and what happens during a writing coach appointment. Email me to set up your first consultation (chloemiller(at)gmail(dot)com. I will have slots for a few new clients starting in mid-March.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Love & Outlining

Heart Amulet from Egypt (ca. 1295–1070 B.C.)

This is the month of love. Our kindergartner was asked to decorate a shoe box to receive Valentines and to bring a Valentine for each classmate. He was also asked to choose an African-American to present in class and he chose Michael Jordan. To add to the month's love, our child is excited to celebrate Michael Jordan on his birthday on Sunday, Feb. 17th, with "round like a basketball" food.

I'm quite taken by how basic assignments - exchange cards on the holiday! Choose someone to study and present! - can morph into discussions about friendship, history lessons and new interests. What do you love? What can you learn from your loves?

I challenge you to return to the books that you love this month. Choose 1 - 3 of your favorite books, essays or stories and outline them. Look for their bones and notice how the books are constructed. When are key plot points introduced? Who are the most important minor characters? Where is the book's central climax? What is the conflict that drives each chapter?

Study the resulting outline. You can use this as you think about structure for your own piece. Think about your pacing, character development and overall plot development. If you follow another structure, you aren't plagiarizing the book, but building on the craft that the writer used. You will write a different piece and likely make many adjustments along the way.

For more, read:
It's Alive! Your Outline
From Writer's Digest: The 4 Story Structures that Dominate Novels by Orson Scott Card and 5 Things to Consider When Structuring Your Memoir by Cheryl Suchors
From Ploughshares: How to Structure Your Memoir by Amy Jo Burns

Monday, February 4, 2019

Adults Starting the Writing Habit: Rely on the calendar

Our 5.5 year-old-child took this picture of the library stacks
at the Georgetown Neighborhood Library

I work with many adults who are returning to school to finish their undergraduate degree or starting (or returning to) a writing practice. These are busy people who are adding new deadlines to professional, familial and personal obligations.

It isn't easy, but it is possible to squeeze in something new to already full lives. I think the best way to do this is to rely heavily on a calendar.

I ask my writers to not only introduce themselves, but also to discuss time management. When and how will they complete their proposed projects? What has or has not worked for them in the past? Most of them remember having missed deadlines and are committed to avoiding that error again. But how?

Let's imagine that you are like these busy adults and you want to start something new. If, say, you want to submit a research paper or finish a draft of a short story, you might start by adding the deadline to the calendar. But that's not enough. The next step is to find time when you can work on that writing. You'll need time for editing, revising and maybe research, too. If you can block time off, then you are more likely to complete the assignment.

I recommend giving yourself enough time so that you can finish early, just in case you end up needing some extra wiggle room. Online classes or personal projects can be deceptively flexible. It seems like you have all the time in the world, but then suddenly you run out of time.

Think of these writing projects as in-person appointments. I suggest blocking off the time to work and treating that time as an appointment. If you miss the appointment, which will happen sometimes, then be sure to reschedule. But work hard to keep the appointments and complete the assignments.

It can take an average of 66 days to develop a new habit. I know, that sounds daunting. But instead, think of this new, desired habit as something that won't happen naturally. You will need to work at establishing the new pattern and making it happen.

I know that you can do it (with your calendar!)

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Reading to Teach

Cover of the book hidden

Thanks to Facebook friends who posted the link, I read this article, "Holocaust Remembrance Day 40 Mighty Girl Books About the Holocaust" on the site A Mighty Girl. Thanks to the DC Library system, I was able to quickly request one of the books recommended for smaller kids, hidden: a child's story of the Holocaust written by Loïc Dauvillier, illustrated by Marc Lizano and colored by Greg Salsedo.

And I do mean to repeat my thanks to many people, because I have wondered for years how I would ever introduce our child to the Holocaust and the events surrounding it.

I was caught off guard on the anniversary of 9/11 when our child, walking home hand-in-hand with me, told me he knew about "the towers that fell" because his teacher had read him a book. We found the book they'd read, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein, and read it together. I had wanted to tell him about the Towers and my memories, but I never knew how to start that conversation. Thanks to his teachers, the author and the availability of books, we could continue the conversation at home. Knowing I could talk about 9/11 with our child made me feel braver about continuing hard discussions with him.

I cried while reading hidden this morning with our five year-old. He sat close, his head on my shoulder, and was very attentive. We paused at times to discuss the text and images. Not everything was directly described, but some basic facts, fears and questions were addressed in the book. I practiced being quiet and giving him space to ask questions. He didn't, but I imagine he will one day and we can work to find answers (that is, where there are answers.)

Mr. Rogers says, "look for the helpers." hidden does just that from a child's perspective. But how do we explain the others who did even worse than not helping? I don't know and I'm not sure that there's a book that shares the answers, but I do know that we will keep reading and learning about how to best grow into a helper.

The luxury of choosing when and how to discuss these hard subjects is a great privilege. We didn't earn that privilege and we owe it to the world to keep learning and working to make each human as safe as possible.

My partner and I pledge to continue to educate our child as well as we can, no matter how hard it is for us. Thank you to the many authors, teachers, librarians and friends who make that possible.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Drafts & Feedback: Heartache and Progress

Writing Table (American,  1795 - 1805) The Metropolitan Museum of Art

You write something. You're excited about it. You decide to share it with friends. You have different friends who reliably offer a variety of encouraging feedback - one friend always writes back enthusiastically that she loves it. Another asks you to write more! because everything you write is so great! Another one corrects your commas and a few verbs before declaring it done!

But there are the other friends, teachers or classmates who offer feedback that stings at first. Someone suggests you change the point of view. Another person recommends changing the verb tense. Someone else suggests that the story really starts to emerge at the end, meaning that you need to cut a lot and probably write even more.

It stings. Your heart hurts. Your ego hurts. You thought you were close to done and now you are feeling all mixed up about what you meant to write, what you did write and what to write now. You start to think of excuses (You never really wanted to write this anyhow. What a stupid topic! Why put any more time that you don't even have into this piece that can't possibly go somewhere?)

Congratulations! You're now in the middle of the process. It is hard - so hard! - to get the gumption to write something and share it with friends. But you shared it with certain readers because you really, truly, definitely wanted their feedback because you want to make the writing as strong as possible.

I know, it is hard to swallow the feedback sometimes. Sometimes the feedback feels right and you follow the advice. Sometimes it doesn't feel right, but you realize you can't exactly stand behind what you wrote and you need to make some edits even if you're not sure which ones yet. Sometimes a draft really is a part of the overall writing practice and isn't something that needs to be edited, but you learned a lot during the process.

To use some friendly cliches, writing takes a very thin skin to create and a very thick skin to manage the editing process, feedback and submitting. I'm here to remind you that you can do this. You can stick with it - you already have for this long, right? - and keep trying.

Continue to write, share and consider the feedback. And write, revise, edit and write some more. Read a whole lot, too, and think about what you've read in terms of your own writing.

True and personal story: I fell in love with my husband when he gave me some honest feedback on a poem. He didn't know why something didn't work, but he noted which section of a poem fell flat for him. Sure, my ego and feelings were hurt, but I knew I could trust him to both be honest and honor my work by taking it seriously.

Keep sharing your writing and value all the readers - the ones who love you and your work unconditionally to encourage you to keep going and the ones who give you more concrete, sometimes difficult feedback that makes you a better writer. They are all a part of your tribe.

And keep writing!