Nora Ephron, a Writer Who Made Sure the Joke Was On Her

In the trailer for the film “Everything Is Copy,” Nora Ephron describes writers. 

“Writers are cannibals,” Ephron says. “They really are. And if you are friends with them and you say anything funny at dinner or anything good happens to you, you are in big trouble.”

Ephron knew from experience. Her writing career took off when, in the 1960s and 1970s, she wrote essays and celebrity profiles for Esquire magazine. 

No person or topic was untouchable for Ephron, including herself. The May 1, 1972, issue of Esquire carried an Ephron piece titled, “A Few Words About Breasts.” 

In it, Ephron shares her experience of having a smaller chest than many other women. The approach was typical Ephron, making herself the butt of a joke. 

As she later said, “When you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you. But when you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it’s your laugh.”

“Writers are cannibals.” — Nora Ephron
Nicholas E. Barron © 2021

Nora Ephron Goes to Hollywood

In her writing, Ephron did what she knew best, tapping her personal life. Her first novel, Heartburn, is a fictionalized, humorous telling of her divorce from the Watergate-famous reporter Carl Bernstein after Bernstein had an affair.

A film of the same name starring Merryl Streep and Jack Nicholson hit theaters in 1986. 

“I highly recommend having Meryl Streep play you,” Ephron said. “If your husband is cheating on you with a carhop, get Meryl to play you. You will feel much better.”

Ephron wrote the script for “Heartburn,” but it wasn’t her first screenplay. Back in 1976, when she was still married to Bernstein, she worked with him on a screenplay for “All the President’s Men.” Unfortunately, the studio didn’t use the couple’s script. Still, the experience launched Ephron’s film career.

She wrote the script for the 1983 film “Silkwood,” earning Ephron her first Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay. “Heartburn” followed, then Ephron wrote, “When Harry Met Sally.” 

The movie starred Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal, and it cemented Ephron’s status as a Hollywood hitmaker. Ephron’s later films include “Sleepless in Seattle,” “You’ve Got Mail,” and the 2009 movie “Julie & Julia.”

Ephron returned to publishing, though, in the 2000s. She produced two essay collections, one in 2006 and the other in 2010. Both became bestsellers.

True to form, Ephron had no qualms making herself the punchline. 

“Why do people write books that say it’s better to be older than to be younger? It’s not better,” she wrote in her 2006 collection, I Feel Bad About My Neck. “Even if you have all your marbles, you’re constantly reaching for the name of the person you met the day before yesterday.”

There’s one thing Ephron didn’t share with the public, though. In 2006, doctors diagnosed Ephron with a rare blood disorder. Initially, doctors gave the writer six months to live. But, instead, she made it six years, passing away in 2012.

“When you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it’s your laugh.”

Nora Ephron

She Made Life More Fun

Four years later, the film “Everything Is Copy,” aired on HBO. Directed by Ephron’s son, Jacob, the documentary focuses on Ephron’s life. The movie takes its title from a lesson that Ephron’s mother, Phoebe, shared with her four daughters. 

Phoebe was a writer. She told her daughters that “everything is copy,” meaning writers should tap all aspects of life in their work. The lesson stuck with Nora, whose writing delivered some of the most beloved films of the late twentieth century. 

Throughout “Everything Is Copy,” movie stars and directors talk about Ephron’s impact on their lives and work. Steven Spielberg relays that he sought Ephron’s approval by trying to make her laugh.

And Meryl Streep says of her friend, “Nora just looked at every situation and cocked her head and thought, ‘Hmmmm, how can I make this more fun?’”

This article originally appeared on Medium.

Seamus Heaney: A Rare Poet Who Received Two Exceptional Honors After His Death

On Nov. 29, 2019, family and friends of poet Seamus Heaney and British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) representatives gathered in the Northern Ireland village of Bellaghy for a movie screening. 

The viewing occurred at the Seamus Heaney HomePlace, an art and literary center dedicated to Heaney’s honor. And the film was “Seamus Heaney and the Music of What Happens.”

The 90-minute documentary features Heaney’s friends and family sharing memories of the late poet. And they read some of his poetry, including Marie, Heaney’s wife of 48 years. In one moment, she shares love poems Heaney handwrote for her in a notebook. It was a Christmas present because he’d forgotten to buy her a gift. 

Included in the notebook is Heaney’s poem, “Scaffolding,” which Heaney published in his 1998 collection, Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966–1996. Today, the poem’s often read at many Irish weddings. 

Its final stanza reads:

Never fear. We may let the scaffolds fall
Confident that we have built our wall.

It’s rare for a film to be about a poet, but Seamus Heaney was a unique poet.

He was born the oldest of nine children in a Catholic family with a long farming tradition near Bellaghy. Heaney, though, wasn’t cut out for agricultural activities. So instead, he went to college, graduating from Queens University in Belfast in 1961.

Five years later, Heaney published his first collection, Death of a Naturalist. The book’s poems portray the pastoral, Irish life of Heaney’s youth and that his ancestors practiced for generations. Readers and critics praised Death of a Naturalist, turning Heaney into a famous poet.

The Troubles, a three-decade-long conflict between factions for and against Northern Ireland staying in the United Kingdom, ignited in the late-1960s. The struggle captured Heaney’s attention. Two collections, 1972’s Wintering Out and 1975’s North, tackle the clash and related contemporary Northern Ireland issues.

Heaney was, by that time, the rare rock star poet. Irish critic Conor Cruise O’Brien called Heaney “the most important Irish poet since (W.B.) Yeats.” It was a comparison Heaney lived up to, as showed by his winning the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature. 

He was the first Irish person to win since playwright Samuel Beckett received the award in 1969. And Heaney was the fourth Irish person to receive the honor. The first? William Butler Yeats.

Along with writing poetry, Heaney taught at Oxford and Harvard. There, he helped raise a new generation of poets. Alumni from Heaney’s Harvard days include The New Yorker’s poetry editor, Kevin Young, and former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith. 

Two days after Heaney died in 2013, thousands of fans gathered for the All-Ireland semi-final football match. Before the game, they stood, applauded, and held a moment of silence in Heaney’s honor. 

Stadiums don’t usually clap for poets. And documentarians don’t often make movies about them, either.

But Seamus Heaney received both. The documentary “Seamus Heaney and the Music of What Happens” aired on BBC Two on Nov. 30, 2019. 

Heaney’s brother, Hugh, who now runs the family farm, appears in the film. At one moment in the movie, Hugh says, “I miss Seamus a lot.”

This article originally appeared on Medium.

When the Words Don’t Come, Here’s How You Can Make the Most Out of Writing Winter.

It’s cicada season here in Washington, D.C., a big one. And lily and hydrangea season, and oh-Jesus-it’s-so-hot-and-humid season, too.

As someone in history wrote in Ecclesiastes, “To everything, there is a season.” Even writing.

There’s a lot of oft-repeated writing advice we writers are supposed to follow. Write every day. Set a schedule and follow a routine. Aim for at least 500 words a day. No, write at least 1,000 words a day.

And that’s all excellent advice, some of the time. But what about when the words just don’t come, when you can’t string together two coherent sentences?

What do you do when writing winter arrives?

A rock covered in snow jutting out of a frozen lake
Photo by Sergey Pesterev on Unsplash

Getting buried By writing winter

There are times when we writers have no problem churning out engaging stories, impactful poems, and informative articles. Ideas are flowing, and so are the words.

These periods I call writing summer. The grass is green, and flowers are blooming, and, even if writing isn’t easy for us, what we write is at least good.

But other times, we struggle. We stare at blank pages and blank screens and wonder what happened to the person who enjoyed writing summer. The thought of trying to write forces us under the covers, and we’re convinced we will never again produce anything worth reading.

That season is writing winter. It’s brutal. Not only are we not writing, but we also start to doubt ourselves and our ability. Could we really ever write in the first place? Will we ever write again?

Having gone through more than a few writing winters myself, I’ve learned to recognize the season for what it is, an opportunity to rest, restore, and rejuvenate. So while I don’t look forward to writing winter when it arrives, I now take a few steps to make the most of it.

Below are three things you can do to benefit from writing winter. But, first is something I implore you not to do.

Don’t kill your younglings.

In past writing winters, I routinely deleted my writing drafts. Like Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars: Episode III, I killed all my Younglings. Thousands of words, countless ideas, and kernels that could have popped into something vanished because I was frustrated and furious.

If you take one thing away from this piece, let it be this: When going through writing winter, do not do away with anything you’ve written. Leave your drafts be. Don’t delete your stories and articles.

An old writing adage is to “kill your darlings.” It means that while editing, writers need to be willing to scrap parts of a story that isn’t working, no matter how precious that sentence, scene, or quote is to you.

What I’m suggesting you do is not edit during writing winter, especially if you, like me, tend to slash and burn your works in progress. Of course, good writing is as much good editing, but what’s the rush?

Your drafts will be there when you emerge from winter and are in a better mental place to review your writing. So, while in winter, give editing a rest, unless you trust yourself to not over-correct and kill your Younglings.

Now that your drafts are safe from their creator let’s talk about three things you can do to get the most out of writing winter.

Give yourself a break.

A writer has no worse critic than themselves. But, unfortunately, we can turn the weapons that make us good writers, such as our knack for introspection, against us, leading us to attack our talent and work.

This self-inflicted assault may be most vicious during writing winter, but that’s when we most need to be kind to ourselves. We’re in a fragile state. Beating up on ourselves makes matters worse.

Instead, we need to permit ourselves to experience writing winter. We need to rest, and we need to give ourselves a break for doing so.

And while resting could mean a literal rest, such as sleeping more, skipping the gym, or taking a mental health day from work, I’m really talking about pausing your writing.

GASP — I know, sacrilege to spend a day not writing. May the writing gods smite me where I sit, but I’ve found that not writing during writing winter is the best way to reawaken and do my best work.

Give yourself a break when writing winter arrives. Permit yourself not to write. Instead, rest and pursue some other activities that will refresh you.

Pamper yourself and practice self-care

Along with giving yourself a break, do something for yourself. Think of this as a Netflix-and-chill tactic.

If you want to spend the day in your pajamas watching Netflix, then you should spend the day in your pajamas watching Netflix. Book a spa day. Go for a long run. Eat ice cream.

Identify something satisfying you don’t often do or haven’t been able to enjoy in a while and do that thing. It’s OK, and it’s helpful.

During a writing winter, there have been times when watching a movie or TV show triggered something inside me that propelled me out of the doldrums. The next thing I knew, I was at my laptop typing away, basking in the light of writing summer.

But even if your pampering activity doesn’t spur you out of writing winter, it can at least restore you. Treat yourself so you can derive the greatest value from writing winter.

Person laying their head back with their eyes closed
Photo by Adetayo Adefala on Unsplash

Read whatever you want.

So far, I’ve asked you not to edit and not write during writing winter. Is there anything writing-related I encourage you to do during this season?

Yes. Read, and read whatever you want to read.

A devilish romance novel? Go for it. A listicle of the 22 best players in your favorite sports team’s history? Sure thing. Back of a cereal box? That counts.

We know writers should be readers, and writing winter is a perfect time to read. We’re not writing or editing, after all, so we have some time on our hands.

Let’s fill it by indulging ourselves. Read that book everyone’s talking about if you want. Or, grab whatever magazine catches your fancy.

You may discover a new writer, genre, website, or magazine you enjoy reading that you otherwise wouldn’t. Plus, you’ll be absorbing words, refilling your tank for when you’re again ready to write.

Taking advantage of writing winter

Nearly all writers go through seasons. Sometimes we’re productive, stringing together meaningful, entertaining words that others enjoy.

Other times, we can’t function as writers. Nothing we write works. We’re at a loss for how we’ll ever write again.

These periods are writing winter, and they suck. But writing winter serves a purpose if we allow ourselves to take advantage of them by:

  • Giving ourselves a break.
  • Treating ourselves.
  • Reading whatever we want.

Plus, an activity we should avoid is reading or editing any of our work. Let our Younglings live for a brighter day.

And those days, writing summer, will come again. When they do, if we follow the guidance above, we’ll be sturdier, healthier writers in a position to do our best work.

This article originally appeared on Medium.

Entrepreneurs, Can We Finally Start Talking About Our Privilege?

They mean well. All the gurus, the influencers, the people selling courses and eBooks about how you, too, can have a life like theirs, have good intentions.

And they’re helpful. These folks provide guidance and ideas for many aspiring writers and entrepreneurs, including myself.

But there’s something, or in some cases, many somethings, these self-employed sherpas don’t mention. They walk you through what and how they’ve achieved, yet they leave out the invisible hands that helped them.

A woman holding a finger to her lips.
Photo by Sound On from Pexels

The Self-Made Person Is B.S.

“The whole concept of self-made man, or woman, is a myth,” Arnold Schwarzenegger told University of Houston graduates in 2017. “None of us can make it alone. None of us.”

It’s popular in entrepreneurial circles to talk up your accomplishments and highlight your determination and willingness to make sacrifices to grow your business. As a result, tales of eating instant noodles to save money or working 70-hour weeks proliferate. 

Writers also fall into this trap. We talk about the early mornings or late nights spent hammering out a draft. We promote our endurance of waiting through publisher rejection after publisher rejection before finally seeing our work released. 

And so it is with some entrepreneur writers. These self-employed freelancers and influencers are earning good money doing what they love, and they want to help you do it, too.

They publish Medium articles, social media posts, and newsletters about their writing habits, tips, and tricks. In addition, they sell eBooks and courses and give webinars showing you what they did to get where they are.

Many of these folks are helpful. I know because they’ve helped me. And I believe many of them are earnest in wanting to assist others. 

Sure, they charge for some of what they do. But there’s nothing wrong with receiving financial rewards for helping other people, as these influencers do.

But to me, in the stuff these gurus put out, there’s a glaring omission.

We’re Not All the Same

As the Terminator himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger, said, “None of us can make it alone. None of us.”

And yet, many of the entrepreneurial writers sharing and selling their guidance to others fail to mention the societal factors that helped make their success possible.

For example, in the U.S., white people are more likely to go to college than Black and Latinx students. The net worth of a white family is almost ten times higher than a Black family’s net worth. And 65 percent of Black Americans say they’ve experienced people acting suspicious because of their race or ethnicity.

What does it do to your psyche to know is suspicious of you only because of your skin color? How does a potential employer, a guidance counselor, college admissions officer, law enforcement official, or client treat you if they’re dubious of you?

If you’re a white self-employed writer, can you say you’ve done it all independently?

The advantages some entrepreneurial gurus enjoy aren’t limited to race and ethnicity. Forty-two percent of U.S. women say they’ve faced workplace discrimination. And 23% of women say they’ve been treated differently because of their gender, versus just 6 percent of men. 

Many experts shelling advice and guidance to aspiring entrepreneurial writers enjoy innumerable privileges and benefits. They may work hard and make choices that lead to them climbing the ladder of success. Still, many do so with assists from everything from institutional racism to generational wealth and gender discrimination.

Each person’s background is unique. All of us have a different story.

But I know many self-employed writers enjoy advantages others do not because I am a self-employed writer who couldn’t do what I do without my privileges.

For starters, I’m a white man in the U.S. Plus, my husband’s salary comes with good health insurance, making it easier for me to take the entrepreneurial plunge. So while I don’t come from money, today, I enjoy some benefits of generational wealth that aren’t often available to people of color.

So, what are we entrepreneurial writers who benefit from privilege to do? Should we include a disclaimer in everything we write, every course we give, and eBooks we sell?

It’s Time to Acknowledge Our Advantages

If you visit my Medium profile, you’ll see a pinned story with a short bio about myself. And below that, you’ll see what I call a Privilege Disclosure.

The disclosure is a short, 185-word blurb in which I acknowledge some of the most prominent advantages that make my self-employed existence possible. But, of course, it’s impossible to list every bit of privilege, and I don’t even try.

Yet, I feel it’s important for others to know I did not get where I am alone, and I can’t keep doing what I do without assistance. 

No, I don’t think a disclaimer or a disclosure in every piece of self-improvement, and entrepreneurial content that self-employed writers such as myself produce is necessary. It’s impractical, won’t be an exhaustive list, and can make for poor writing.

But we shouldn’t pretend we’re self-made. We shouldn’t make it hard for others to see what advantages and privileges assisted us on our journey.

Doing so not only perpetuates the self-made person myth that Schwarzenegger talked about in his commencement speech. It also doesn’t help those we claim we’re trying to help. 

These folks need to know we didn’t do this alone. It’s not as simple for everyone as making the jump into entrepreneurship. Many factors can make self-employment difficult, from student loan debt to discrimination to having someone who can help out if you’re a little short on rent that month.

If we want to help aspiring freelance writers and authors, we’ll be honest about how we got where we are today. Not doing so is dishonest, at best, and not helpful, at worst.

A final word

Some people enjoy privileges not available to others. Money, race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation are just a handful of ways some benefit from advantages that others do not have.

These privileges can make it easier for some of us to become entrepreneurs, and they can boost our chances of success. But, if we’re going to offer advice to others for how they can follow our lead, shouldn’t we acknowledge the assistance we received along the way? 

Not doing so plays into the myth of a self-made entrepreneur. Plus, it potentially harms those we say we’re trying to help by setting unrealistic expectations and making them feel less than for something they can’t control.

Instead, let’s openly acknowledge the privileges we enjoy that make it easier or possible for us to do what we do. Let’s be transparent about the invisible hands that helped us climb our ladder.

This story originally appeared on Medium.

Seven Profound Things Annie Dillard Taught Alexander Chee About Writing

Before Chee was a famous writer, he learned the craft from Dillard

We all start somewhere, even Alexander Chee. 

Chee is a famous writer and poet, the author of Edinburgh and How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays. But in 1989, he was a senior at Wesleyan University who hoped and wondered if he could make it as a writer.

That’s when he took Annie Dillard’s Literary Nonfiction class. Dillard’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and 300 students applied to take her course. She only accepted 13, one of which was Chee. 

Chee covers what Dillard taught him about writing in her class in this essay. Below are seven of the most profound lessons Dillard imparted to Chee. 

Show, Don’t Tell Emotions.

Which of these sentences do you enjoy reading the most?

A) The puppy was giddy.

B) The puppy galloped along the lane, its open snout exposing a lolling, pink tongue as brown ears flapped about the sides of its head.

Dillard taught Chee that good writing shows characters’ emotions. It doesn’t say it.

“Don’t tell the reader that someone was happy or sad. When you do that, the reader has nothing to see. She isn’t angry, Annie said. She throws his clothes out the window.”

Your Story’s Start May Be Buried

Dillard suggests your story may begin later than you realize. 

Months ago, I finished the manuscript for a novel. But the story wasn’t right, and I couldn’t figure out why. 

Dillard’s advice in hand, I revisited the manuscript and realized I’d buried the story’s beginning. A scene that sets up everything for what comes later in the novel was many pages deep, so now I’m bringing it to the surface. 

“The first three pages of a draft are usually where you clear your throat, that most times, the place your draft begins is around page four…If the beginning isn’t there sometimes it’s at the end, that you’ve spent the whole time getting to your beginning, and that if you switch the first and last pages you might have a better result than if you leave them where they were.”

Verbs Make Your Story Go

Everyone hates boring writing. Writers don’t want to create it, and readers don’t want to read it.

The trick, according to Dillard, is in the verbs we use. Picking the proper verbs drives our writing and brings it to life. 

“You want vivid writing. How do we get vivid writing? Verbs, first. Precise verbs. All of the action on the page, everything that happens, happens in the verbs.”

Forget About Being Original

We hear it all the time, and still, it bears repeating. We’re the only ones who can write from our experience with our perspective.

Dillard pointed out to her students that no one expects a writer to create something that never before existed. Doing so is nearly impossible. So instead, write in your voice, from your view.

“You are the only one of you…Your unique perspective, at this time, in our age, whether it’s on Tunis or the trees outside your window, is what matters. Don’t worry about being original.”

Compare Yourself to the Best Writers

This piece of advice surprised me. Writers often talk on social media about how unhealthy it is to compare yourself to others.

Why, I wondered, did Dillard tell her students to compare themselves to some of the greatest writers who ever lived?

Then I realized Dillard wasn’t talking about comparing book sales, page views, or accolades with the greats. She was talking about comparing our writing with theirs. 

Joan Didion taught herself to write by copying Hemingway’s novels, word for word. Likewise, Hunter S. Thompson copied F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

We should set our sights high. Let’s compare ourselves to those who write the best versions of what we aim to write, be it novels, online articles, or poems. 

“Don’t compare yourselves to each other. Compare yourself to Colette, or Henry James, or Edith Wharton. Compare yourselves to the classics. Shoot there.”

You Need More Than Talent

In college, I spent a summer working on a political campaign. Some of the folks I worked with weren’t too much older than me, yet they ran the show, and some soon took influential roles on a U.S. Presidential campaign.

These people didn’t get the jobs and responsibilities they did because they were the smartest. They simply outlasted everyone else, so they were the only ones remotely qualified for the positions. 

Working in politics is brutal, and most, as I did, do it for a short while before burning out. But, if you stick with it, before long you’ll be more experienced than most. Then you’ll get the more prominent gigs.

It’s the same in writing, according to Dillard. The longer you work at it, the more likely you are to succeed.

“Talent isn’t enough. Writing is work. Anyone can do this, anyone can learn to do this. It’s not rocket science, it’s habits of mind and habits of work. I started with people much more talented than me, she said, and they’re dead or in jail or not writing. The difference between myself and them is that I’m writing.”

Seven Writing Truths From Annie Dillard

Annie Dillard is a champion writer. She’s won a Pulitzer Prize, published novels and essay and poem collections.

And, according to a former student, the writer Alexander Chee, Dillard is also a skilled teacher. Here’s some of the best writing advice she gave Chee:

  • Show, don’t tell your character’s emotions.
  • You may bury your story’s beginning.
  • Verbs give your story life.
  • Don’t worry about originality.
  • Compare your work against the best writers.
  • Writing requires longevity.

Keeping Dillard’s thoughts in mind can help us become better writers who stick with our art for the long haul. 

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Smelling the Reading Right Under Your Nose May Open New Doors In Your Writing

Sometimes the best writing, the writing you need to read, is where you least expect it.

It’s not news to most writers that they should read if they want to improve their craft. “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot,” Stephen King wrote in his book On Writing.

We read books, maybe venturing outside our preferred genres, but usually sticking to what we know and love. We may read magazines, blog posts, perhaps even vehicle owner’s manuals. (Hey, that counts!) And if you’re reading this, you probably read Medium articles.

The New Yorker is part of my regular reading rotation. Doing so requires diligence as the magazine comes out most weeks of the year. Miss one week, and you’ll never catch up.

But I don’t read every issue of The New Yorker from cover to cover. Who has the time?

Instead, I read only the stuff that interests or relates to me in some way. At least that’s how I used to read The New Yorker until I discovered something.

It Was Under My Nose This Whole Time

One section of The New Yorker I skipped every issue is titled Talk of the Town. These are short, roughly 500-700 word pieces about something or someone somehow connected to current events, often about New York City. 

Not living in New York, I figured I could ignore Talk of the Town and not miss anything. The other day, though, I read this Susan Orlean article about how she mentally approaches her writing. 

When Orlean first started at The New Yorker, she wrote for Talk of the Town. Learning to write for that section of the magazine established a writing framework she follows still today.

“The metric I live by is the Talk of the Town,” Orleans said.

Realizing that today’s Talk of the Town writers could be tomorrow’s Susan Orleans, and recognizing how Orleans compartmentalizes her writing is similar to my mindset, I decided to give Talk of the Town another chance. Good thing I did. 

The pieces are quick, engaging, entertaining, informative, and short. They are perfect templates for online writing, which is how I make my living as a self-employed freelance writer. And, newsflash, that’s the kind of writing we do here on Medium. 

Plus, as Orlean points out, it can be wise to tackle any writing project as if it’s a Talk of the Town vignette.

“I find myself sitting down and writing the equivalent of a Talk piece and thinking, wow, that wasn’t so hard, was it? and then writing the next and the next, and then suddenly I’ve written a piece or a book,” Orleans said.

Switch Up Your Reading, Open New Doors

No longer do I skip Talk of the Town. The pieces in this section of The New Yorker are ideal reading for those of us writing for an online audience. And, as Stephen King said, good writers read a lot. 

So, I stopped to smell the writing right under my nose. Now I’m enjoying well-written, professionally edited content that is a good example of my writing.

What about you? Is there writing you could be reading that will help you grow as a writer?

Try reading something different, maybe a newsletter you’ve heard about but ignored, or a book you’ve been putting off reading. You never know what doors in your writing you may open by switching up what you read.

The Three Impactful Lessons Writers Can Gleam From Bo Burnham’s Inside

Bo Burnham’s Inside is many things. Funny. Entertaining social commentary. Perhaps one of the first widely consumed pieces of post-pandemic art.

And Bo Burnham: Inside is a fantastic look at the creative process. While watching this 87-minute film, three things stood out to me as impactful lessons for writers.

Bo Burnham is a comedian/actor who got his start on YouTube in 2006. Burnham starred in the 2020 film Promising Young Woman, and he released Inside on May 30 of this year.

Burnham recorded Inside during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic from inside one room in his home. Pandemic restrictions forced Burnham to make the film alone. He was director, star, producer, lighting, grip, and so on.

Inside includes some hilarious songs commenting on present culture, such as “White Woman’s Instagram” and “FaceTime with My Mom (Tonight).” 

As the film progresses, though, things turn dark. Burnham grows frustrated, panicked by the isolation of quarantining and of making a massive piece of art. 

By spotlighting, literally at times, his creative process, Burnham provides three notable lessons for writers.

Screenshot from Bo Burnham's Inside
Bo Burnham: Inside. Photo: YouTube

Writing Ain’t Easy.

A famous writing quote, often attributed to Ernest Hemingway, goes something like this: “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

Most writers can relate to this sentiment. Writing is painful. It’s hard, sometimes almost impossible, and not always fun. 

How many times have you labored over the same sentence, struggling to find the right words to express what’s inside your head? Who hasn’t stared at a blank page or screen, begging for a writing idea to arrive?

We know what it’s like to be alone in a room trying to birth into the world this thing that’s inside you, but we do not see how this appears.

Burnham shows us. Inside holds a mirror to the creative process we writers go through, and the results are jarring, a visual reminder that writing is not easy.

Your Endurance Will Be Tested.

Right now, I have around 40,000 words of a novel I stopped writing a few years ago. The other day on Twitter, I saw a writer say a story they’d submitted to dozens of websites and journals finally got accepted.

The cliché holds: Writing is a marathon, not a sprint. And any marathoner will tell you endurance is a critical part of finishing the race.

Writers have many definitions for finishing. It could mean completing a first draft, or it could mean publishing something you’ve written.

For Burnham, finishing Inside meant getting it ready for release on Netflix. It took him months. He worked alone inside the same room, bringing us along as he raced this marathon.

In the beginning, we see him freshly shaved, rested, and energetic. Then we watch as Burnham’s hair gets long, he grows a beard, bags appear under his eyes, and he appears on the verge of giving up.

But Burnham didn’t stop. He pushed through, dug deep, and finished Inside.

It takes endurance for us writers to finish our first draft, make it through editing and revisions, and see our creations released into the world.

It Will Hit the Fan.

In Jan. 2020, Burnham wasn’t planning to make Inside. He was instead returning to standup comedy, which he’d paused doing for a few years. COVID-19 stopped all that.

So, Burnham retreated to his house and created Inside. 

The business world calls this pivoting. Startup companies often pivot from their initial business model to something they think may make them more profitable.

Burnham pivoted. Many of us writers pivot, too.

Your story may not work, so you scrap parts of it. The article you’re writing may need a new angle or more or different sources. 

External forces can also impact your work. Your kid gets sick, your job gets busy, and we all know the wrench a pandemic can throw into the best-laid plans.

Writing is as much pivoting as it is creating. That’s why we writers need to be agile and able to withstand the unexpected. 

Three Lessons for Writers From Inside

Bo Burnham’s Inside is a magnificent look at the creative process, highlighting three crucial lessons for writers:

  • Writing is not easy.
  • Writers need endurance.
  • Things will not go as planned.

Keeping these points in mind can help us survive the tricky parts and create our best writing. And it’s powerful to know you’re not alone in what you’re going through. 

All of us writers have our difficulties. All of us, at times, want to give up. But Bo Burnham: Inside proves that by pushing through the challenges, we can create something magical.

Writers, We Gotta Slay This Bad Habit to Produce Our Most Profound Work and Find Our Audience

Here’s a trap that often snares us, writers. Instead of writing in our voice, we write to people’s expectations.

Post-it notes with words like "norms" and "expectation" on them
Photo by Yasin Yusuf on Unsplash

We give people what they expect, not what we can create. Other artists do it, too, including country music singer Mickey Guyton.

A recent New Yorker profile of Guyton relayed a conversation Guyton had a few years ago with her husband.

“I remember asking, ‘Why do you think country music isn’t working for me?’” Guyton says in the profile. “And he said, ‘Because you’re running away from everything that makes you different. Why aren’t you writing country songs from the perspective of a Black woman? Not from the perspective of what you think country music looks like for other people, but what country music is for you?’”

We writers do that, too. We run from what makes us different and instead deliver writing that looks like what others expect from us. And we do that for a few reasons.

For one thing, the experts tell us to produce writing that meets others’ expectations. You know as well as I do, there’s plenty of writing guidance that tells us to understand our audience so we can publish what they want to read. 

That advice makes sense in a business context. If you’re writing a client’s blog or publishing on Medium only to earn money, then, sure, you should probably only write what your target audience wants to read.

Many of us writers, though, want to produce—dare I say it—art. Writing for us turns inside out our existences, from our memories to our present feelings. We write poems, stories, articles, novels, and stuff we can’t even categorize.

But we sometimes let others’ expectations dictate our art. We, like Mickey Guyton, run from what makes us different so we can produce writing we think others want to see.

This challenge is perhaps the most significant obstacle I face in my writing. The last thing I want to do is embarrass or disappoint those closest to me. 

And that’s a pitiful mindset for an artist.  

There’s a scene in the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers in which an officer’s trying to help a private overcome his fear.

“The only hope you have is to accept the fact that you’re already dead,” the lieutenant says. “The sooner you accept that the sooner you’ll be able to function as a soldier is supposed to function: without mercy, without compassion, without remorse. All war depends upon it.”

Writers need a similar mindset. We need to accept that we’re going to offend people. We’re not going to meet everyone’s expectations, and not everyone will like or approve of us or our writing. 

The sooner we accept that, the sooner we can function as an artist is supposed to function: without mercy, without compassion, without remorse. All art depends upon it.

That acceptance is not easy. I’ve struggled with it my whole artistic life, even today as a middle-aged man who’s finally committed to his art. And I can’t today tell you exactly how to overcome the compulsion to write to others’ expectations.

What I can do is let you know you’re not alone if this is your struggle. I can encourage you to fight the desire to write for others without first writing for yourself, and in doing so, I remind and support myself to do the same.

Write in your voice, from your perspective. Tap your deepest veins and give us what lies inside you. 

That is the art you want to produce, the art you need, for your sanity and enrichment, to create. That is the art we need you to make.

Nine Powerful Lessons From Poet Edward Hirsch and How Writers Can Apply Them to Their Work

Writers learn a lot from other writers, and poet Edward Hirsch is no exception.

Hirsch shared some thoughts on poetry in an interview with The Paris Review that has instrumental guidance and insight for writers of all stripes. Whether we’re poets, freelancers, novelists, or more, we can enhance your writing practice by absorbing Hirsch’s words. 

Here are nine powerful things for writers to absorb from Edward Hirsch.

Person holding their open palm below the sun
Photo by Rampal Singh on Unsplash

It’s Not Where You Start. It’s Where You Go and Grow

“I started writing in high school to make myself feel better. I wrote the way a lot of teenagers write, out of emotional desperation. I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. I hadn’t really read anything. But when I wrote things down in lines—it would be generous to call what I was writing poetry—I felt consoled. And so I kept doing it.”

We’re not born excellent writers. We become good by making ourselves, through doing, writing, and writing, and by reading others’ work. 

All writers have a beginning. The best of us keep going.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to read poetry to the exclusion of other things. That would be like eating only one kind of food.”

We writers need to branch out in our reading. Read genres we usually don’t, magazines we ordinarily avoid. Consume poetry, essays, blog posts, and more. 

The more we read, the more our writing grows.

“Poetry needs to continually enlarge its vocabulary and its subject matter.”

Swap “poetry needs” for “writers need” in this sentence, and it remains true. Writers like you and I need to enlarge our vocabulary and subject matter continually. That’s why reading all we can is a big part of our writer evolution.

Be a Responsible Writer Who Uses Their Secret Sauce

“We have a responsibility to the words we employ, since, as poets, language is in our care, our keeping.”

Edward Hirsch
Edward Hirsch | Photo by Michael Lionstar, licensed under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Language is in the care of all of us writers. Words are our currency, and we’d be wise to spend them carefully. 

May every word we use advance our story and make our argument. May we show language the respect it deserves by using it to communicate to our readers effectively.

“We need poetry to keep expanding so that it can account for the actual lives that people are living. It can’t all be just about love, death, and the changing of the seasons.”

Our writing must evolve because our readers evolve. Think about your ideal reader in Jan. 2020. Are they the same, having gone through the COVID-19 pandemic and visible instances of ongoing racial injustice in the U.S.? 

We need to grow as writers so we can push and pull our writing to change with us. It’s how we progress as artists. It’s how we continue creating art that resonates with others.

“You need to write about the life you’ve lived. It can’t all be aspirational. It’s part of your job, as a poet, to write out of experience. To name what matters to you. You’ve only got one life to draw on.”

It’s become cliché, but it remains true: Only you can write in your voice from your perspective. So tap your life, your background, lessons you’ve learned, and mistakes you’ve made in your writing. 

As writers, every piece of our being comprises our intellectual property (IP). We need to put that IP into our writing. 

“It takes a certain kind of recklessness to face oneself. The more upsetting it is, the more you’re supposed to fly toward it, like a moth to the flame.”

Easier said than done, right? But we each have stories only we can tell, and we should do our best to try and tell them.

Remember, Edward Hirsch Says, It’s Not About You

“It’s good for poetry to keep human beings in mind.”

All of us writers need to remember we’re writing for humans. If we tap into our intellectual property, fly like a moth to the flame of our story, we’ll produce writing that serves a purpose that provides meaning and attracts an audience. Our audience.

“I’m writing to a stranger in the future.”

We want to be mindful about what we put out into the world. Are we writing in our voice, saying something authentic? Is each piece the best version we can make it? 

Much of what we publish will be around for others to read, maybe as early as tomorrow, perhaps long after we’re gone. So let’s be proud of what we produce, for we’re all writing to a stranger in the future.

You can read the full interview with Edward Hirsch on The Paris Review.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an epic historical fiction novel taking place during the Nigerian Civil War, or Biafran War.

The book’s an enthralling tale about multiple struggles. There’s Nigeria’s endeavor to overcome European colonialism, the armed conflict between Nigeria and the rebel state of Biafra. And like any good story, there is contention among the novel’s characters, particularly between sisters Olanna and Kainene and their male partners, Odenigbo and Richard Churchill.

A story in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s hands is a thing to behold, and Half of a Yellow Sun is a prime example of its creator’s talents.

The plot advances despite occasional flashbacks and background information detailing the politics and events leading up to and shaping the Nigerian Civil War. The book’s characters are real, unique, with varying perspectives and motivations that shift as the novel unfolds. And Adichie drapes over it all Igbo cultures and traditions that elucidate the frictions between characters, Nigeria’s ethnic groups, and post-colonial Africa.

Not often do I read a novel that feels like a masterpiece. While I can’t quite put Half of a Yellow Sun on the level of legendary books such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Toni Morrison’s Beloved, it’s certainly close.

You can get Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie through my Bidwell Hollow store on Bookshop.org.

My rating: 5/5


Memorable Quotes from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun

“This is our world, although the people who drew this map decided to put their own land on top of ours. There is no top or bottom, you see.”

“She was used to this, being grabbed by men who walked around in a cloud of cologne-drenched entitlement, with the presumption that, because they were powerful and found her beautiful, they belonged together.”

"Those who could feel real grief were lucky to have loved." - Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

“He wished his whole village were here, so he could join in the moonlight conversations and quarrels and yet live in Master’s house with its running taps and refrigerator and stove.”

“The real tragedy of our postcolonial world is not that the majority of people had no say in whether or not they wanted this new world; rather, it is that the majority have not been given the tools to negotiate this new world.”

“What will you do with the misery you have chosen? Will you eat misery?”

“Olanna gently placed a pillow beneath her head and sat thinking about how a single act could reverberate over time and space and leave stains that could never be washed off.”

“How much did one know of the true feelings of those who did not have a voice?”

“There are some things that are so unforgivable that they make other things easily forgivable.”

“He was not living his life; life was living him.”

“The rule of Western journalism: One hundred dead black people equal one dead white person.”

“Grief was the celebration of love, those who could feel real grief were lucky to have loved.”


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Half of a Yellow Sun Book Cover Half of a Yellow Sun
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Fiction
Anchor
November 12, 2008
560

From the award-winning, bestselling author of Americanah and We Should All Be Feminists—a haunting story of love and war Recipient of the Women’s Prize for Fiction “Winner of Winners” award With effortless grace, celebrated author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie illuminates a seminal moment in modern African history: Biafra's impassioned struggle to establish an independent republic in southeastern Nigeria during the late 1960s. We experience this tumultuous decade alongside five unforgettable characters: Ugwu, a thirteen-year-old houseboy who works for Odenigbo, a university professor full of revolutionary zeal; Olanna, the professor’s beautiful young mistress who has abandoned her life in Lagos for a dusty town and her lover’s charm; and Richard, a shy young Englishman infatuated with Olanna’s willful twin sister Kainene. Half of a Yellow Sun is a tremendously evocative novel of the promise, hope, and disappointment of the Biafran war.