Creative Writing

Starting My Book: Nine Things I Learned During NaNoWriMo

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) came and went, and I did my best-ish—which is more than I can usually say, so LOUD NOISES! I’m a mediocre champion.

Did I write the full 50,000 words in a month? Please, fool. Don’t ask a woman her age or weight, and don’t ask a writer about her word count.

I did, however, finally start the book that has been baking in my skull for years, and I’ll take what I can get. Regardless of the number of words I actually slopped onto paper, NaNoWriMo wasn’t about how good those words were (thank the writing gods). Instead, NaNoWriMo was an education, schooling me hard about what it means to be a real writer—instead of just calling myself one. Here’s what I learned about being an actual, madcap, doing-it writer (without the booze but with the cat).

Writing-induced insomnia.

I usually sleep long, easy, and through anything, but even I suffered nights of wakefulness after writing. My mind…I don’t know, something happened to it when it was engaged in prose and story. There was nothing I could do to slow it from racing in wild, writerly circles long after I had set my alarm, and yes, my anxiety increased with my word count. (There’s nothing like a panic attack while you’re trying to sleep.) Also, counting sheep only adds them to your novel, so don’t.

Bookish dreams.

When I finally fell asleep, there they were—my characters, my plot, my setting. Fortunately, being able to watch my book’s wildfire race down the hill or be locked in my book’s basement was helpful. Experiencing the world I was building via dreams became a tool, lending perspective, authenticity, and fresh ideas to the thing.

Politics and Poetry: Slam Poetry

In the last year, I’ve been giving a series of lectures titled Politics and Poetry for The Socialist Party USA. This is an excerpt from the Slam Poetry section of that lecture.


For those of us that grew up as part of the MTV generation, we were taught that Slam Poetry is this:

If you couldn’t make it all the way through that ‘poem,’ don’t worry, I couldn’t either. That’s Joe Hernandez-Kolski performing “COOL” on Def Poetry back in 2007.

Poetry is also supposed to be about ‘feelings,’ so comedians like Nick Offerman have also put out their own idea of what slam poetry is. This video is from 2012:

Slam poetry is, actually, a competitive form of poetry in which artists perform original pieces of poetry and can be judged by a panel of up to five judges (which are usually random audience members selected from the audience before the performances begin) or winners can be selected from the audience’s response. The origins of Slam Poetry are credited to Marc Smith, a poet who performed in the Get Me High Lounge in Chicago in 1984, but scholars say that the history of Slam goes back much further to African oral traditions imported to America through slavery. And here’s four examples of what Slam poetry actually is.

First we’ll start with a slam poem by Amal Kassir from 2012, a native Syrian, who now resides in the United States in Denver:

Comparing what the perception of Slam Poetry is to an actual Slam Poem done in 2012 is, I feel, a great way to dispel the myths surrounding this art form.

Politics and Poetry: The Occupy Wall Street Movement

In the last year, I’ve been giving a series of lectures titled Politics and Poetry for The Socialist Party USA. This is an excerpt from the Slam Poetry section of that lecture.


Image of Robert Hass
Image from PoetryFoundation.Org

A lot of what I’ve been covering for the modern era more focuses on the works themselves and not the poets direct ties to politics. For the Occupy poetry, we’re going to look at Robert Hass, who was the Poet Laureate (believe it or not – that means like the nation’s poet) for Bill Clinton from 1995 to 1997. The position itself is fairly a-political in nature. The poet gets an amount awarded and writes poems for milestones in the administration (swearing in, etc.).

That’s not really what I want to focus on – but know that Robert Hass has strong political ties to Democrats and Occupy happened under a Democrat (Obama). While he’s been part of “the system,” he’s also written poetry to critique wars and political decisions (made more by the Bush admin than Clinton’s or Obama’s however):

Between the Wars

When I ran, it rained. Late in the afternoon—
midsummer, upstate New York, mornings I wrote,
read Polish history, and there was a woman
whom I thought about; outside the moody, humid
American sublime—late in the afternoon,
toward sundown, just as the sky was darkening,
the light came up and redwings settled in the cattails.
They were death’s idea of twilight, the whole notes
of a requiem the massed clouds croaked
above the somber fields. Lady of eyelashes,
do you hear me? Whiteness, otter’s body,
coolness of the morning, rubbed amber
and the skin’s salt, do you hear me? This is Poland speaking,
“era of the dawn of freedom,” nineteen twenty-two.
When I ran, it rained. The blackbirds settled
their clannish squabbles in the reeds, and light came up.
First darkening, then light. And then pure fire.
Where does it come from? out of the impure
shining that rises from the soaked odor of the grass,
the levitating, Congregational, meadow-light-at-twilight
light that darkens the heavy-headed blossoms
of wild carrot, out of that, out of nothing
it boils up, pools on the horizon, fissures up,
igniting the undersides of clouds: pink flame,
red flame, vermilion, purple, deeper purple, dark.
You could wring the sourness of the sumac from the air,
the fescue sweetness from the grass, the slightly
maniacal cicadas tuning up to tear the fabric
of the silence into tatters, so that night,
if it wants to, comes as a beggar to the door
at which, if you do not offer milk and barley
to the maimed figure of the god, your well will foul,
your crops will wither in the fields. In the eastern marches
children know the story that the aspen quivers
because it failed to hide the Virgin and the Child
when Herod’s hunters were abroad. Think: night is the god
dressed as the beggar drinking the sweet milk.
Gray beard, thin shanks, the look in the eyes
idiot, unbearable, the wizened mouth agape,
like an infant’s that has cried and sucked and cried
and paused to catch its breath. The pink nubbin
of the nipple glistens. I’ll suckle at that breast,
the one in the song of the muttering illumination
of the fields before the sun goes down, before
the black train crosses the frontier from Prussia
into Poland in the age of the dawn of freedom.
Fifty freight cars from America, full of medicine
and the latest miracle, canned food.
The war is over. There are unburied bones
in the fields at sun-up, skylarks singing,
starved children begging chocolate on the tracks.


Robert Hass was also a teacher at Berkeley during the time of the protests taking place on campus.

Dear Stephen King

Dear Stephen King,

I don’t like most of what you do. I’d apologize for telling you that, but I know you give zero damns if I like your work or not, and you write like hell itself couldn’t stop you anyway. That’s something I do like.

When you visited my hometown in Montana this month on your book tour, the weather knew you were here and took a turn for the dark and squally. I was the one in the back, the one who shared your love for Jerry Lee Lewis and was very hungry.

Until this summer, I had previously only seen film adaptations of your work and read one of your books, Cujo, when I was much too young. I mainly remember a description of some crusty sheets and how you desperately needed Jesus, you dirty old man. There was also something about a sweaty kid trapped in a car and a dog loitering outside like a bum.

But this year I received an education in all things King. It started with your terrific nonfiction book On Writing. You’re actually funny, witty, smart, I guess—not just the guy who writes about gummy aliens and fetid zombies. So next I read Misery, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, 11/22/63, The Shining, Pet Cemetery, and Tommy Knockers. The first two were fantastic, the next two were wastes of time, and the last two were spectacular disasters. (I can say that because you yourself admitted Tommy Knockers was “awful,” written at the height of your drug addiction, and when the man is right, he’s right. Your coke was on coke, bro.)

The most recent book I read, however, was about a certain clown everyone knows, even if they’ve never read about it. As a kid with teeth too big for my face, I’d sneak into libraries to read the scary parts of It, and as an adult I finally slogged through its thousand-plus pages this summer knowing a remake of the movie adaptation would be released in October. And yes, I broke a sweat conquering that sucker. Unfortunately, I found both the book and movie underwhelming, but I’m the only one. It made a killing at the box office, launched a series of sightings of creepy clowns, and caused a crisis of employment for friendly ones. (“I’ll tell you one thing—the clowns of the world fucking hate me,” you said during your book tour this month.)

I wonder what it’s like to wield such clownly power.

Story Shots: Pumpkin

‘Tis the season – for pumpkins. Carving pumpkins is a long held American Halloween tradition that’s on par with, well, pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving. For those not already familiar with our Story Shots as a series, Story Shots are short creative nonfiction pieces (generally but not always in the form of a story) in which our writers all write with the same theme in mind and come up with vastly different stories for your enjoyment.


In college, I squatted between classes into a miniature chair—knees crammed to chest—and faced seven pairs of eyes.

“Tummies touching the table, please,” I said in the only place I said words like “tummy.”

I let Kyndal start the bread basket and passed a bowl to CJ, his hair as orange as a clownfish, as orange as a corn snake.

“Teacher, I don’t want those,” he said with a fantastic lisp, eyeing the willowy vegetables. “I just want ranch.”
“Just take a look-at-it bite, bro.”

CJ took the tiniest carrot with a martyred frown and shoved the bowl to Frankie. She took five slender sticks and blinked with the narrow eyes of a Cabbage Patch doll.

“I like carrots,” she said in that pious way so absurd for a four-year-old.

“Good.” I spoke slowly. “Carrots are healthy for us. They are good for our eyes.”

“And even milk!” CJ said.

I rubbed his buzzed head, his hair as orange as the leaf pile outside, as orange as the carrots he hated.

“Yes, milk makes us healthy too.”

“When my mom eats carrots, she even sees in the dark!” he said.
Lies.

“Oh, yeah?” I said anyway.

The wobbly rotation of dishes finished its first lap.

Frankie frowned. “I can’t see in the dark, even when I eat carrots.”

“You don’t?”

“No.”

“Hm.”

“But I see fog!”

“Well, that’s good.”

CJ’s meatball slipped from his fork and hit the floor with a splat. Goofy laughter erupted from the table, and every preschooler stabbed their own slippery globes of meat.

I put on my most dangerous Teacher Face before a dozen slick meatballs could fill the air.

“Hey! Where do our sillies belong?” They froze, rearranged their impish faces, and licked solemnly at the gravy instead, their round cheeks already smeared and brown as acorns. “Where, CJ?”

Sheepish, he pantomimed throwing something outside.

“Teacher, my sillies are in my pocket,” Frankie said and hugged my arm. I felt a rush of affection for her and kissed her forehead, bangs straight as a ruler.

“How’s that look-at-it bite coming?” I asked CJ. “What about what your mom can do?”

CJ pushed his carrot off his plate. Even his fingers were freckled. “I don’t want to eat a stupid carrot to see in the stupid dark.”

His head was so round, his hair was so orange, and he looked exactly like a pumpkin. I imagined lighting a candle in his mouth, flames shining out of his eyes so he could see in the stupid dark.

I bit my own orange, bendy vegetable. I didn’t like carrots either.

– Missy Lacock


When Can You Call Yourself a Writer?

This is a concept I personally struggle with. I’ve been writing poetry for years, had my first poem published in 2013, and have had multiple piecing of writing published since. I’ve been a writer on this blog, as well as the managing editor, since its inception in 2012. I’ve been published in The Socialist before being asked to join the editorial board and becoming the managing editor for my political party’s magazine as well.

But when people ask me what I do, these are projects of passion in my mind. I don’t call myself a writer. Instead, I say I work at Cal Poly or that I’m a student. I say that poetry, writing, and editing are all hobbies.

I do them, I’m good at them, but because I’m not paid to do them, I don’t see myself as a writer first. I think part of my reluctance to call myself a writer does have to do with capitalistic ideals—you are your job, not your hobbies. When people ask what you do, after all, they want to assess your income and living.

That’s how it was when I was growing up. That’s how it was in movies. But times have changed, and I think my idea of when to call myself a writer should change too.

Story Shots: Fall

The fall is a time of leaves changing colors, weather cooling down, harvest, pumpkin festivals, people going back to school, and so much more. Story Shots, our creative nonfiction series, has taken on this theme in our latest installment. Below we have four fall-themed pieces from different writers for your pleasure.


A List: We fall…

into bed.
and asleep.

in and out
of love.
into another’s arms.
in and out
of bad habits.
apart, and
together.

into debt.
onto hard times.
into a deep depression,
and on our knees.

down the rabbit hole,
like fall leaves;
ashes, ashes,
we all fall down.

– Nicole Embrey


As a child, I mainly remember triangle sandwiches at bible camp, but I also remember believing in the God of Israel as much as I believed the sun would come up each day. I was raised by a Christian, single mother and attended those camps at my grandma’s church every summer in an old logging town pared into mountains as green and buckled as elephant apples. The fundamentalist church preached a tough no-sin doctrine, and I pled for salvation at camp the summer before I turned fourteen, old enough to engage with an ancient text about God’s chosen people and a certain Israeli.

I entered the Bush administration wild with purpose. My love affair with Israel had begun.

Politics and Poetry: Feminism

In the last year, I’ve been giving a series of lectures titled Politics and Poetry for The Socialist Party USA. This is an excerpt from the Slam Poetry section of that lecture.


Image of Sylvia Plath
Image from PoetryFoundation.Org

So, Sylvia Plath. She’s not my favorite, but one can’t talk about feminist poetry without talking about Sylvia Plath. She’s most well known for her work The Bell Jar, which is semi-autobiographical and was published right before her death. She had a tumultuous life, attempting suicide multiple times until the last time, when she stuck her head in an oven with the gas on in 1963. She was married to another poet, Ted Hughes, who cheated on her, often, and had two children. She is known for her intensely autobiographical works and the social restrictions facing women. This poem, Lady Lazarus is from her book Collected Poems and was written in 1960:

Lady Lazarus

I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it——

A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot

A paperweight,
My face a featureless, fine
Jew linen.

Peel off the napkin
O my enemy.
Do I terrify?——

The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?
The sour breath
Will vanish in a day.

Soon, soon the flesh
The grave cave ate will be
At home on me

And I a smiling woman.
I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.

This is Number Three.
What a trash
To annihilate each decade.

What a million filaments.
The peanut-crunching crowd
Shoves in to see

Them unwrap me hand and foot——
The big strip tease.
Gentlemen, ladies

These are my hands
My knees.
I may be skin and bone,

Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.
The first time it happened I was ten.
It was an accident.

The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.
I rocked shut

As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.

Dying
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.

It’s easy enough to do it in a cell.
It’s easy enough to do it and stay put.
It’s the theatrical

Comeback in broad day
To the same place, the same face, the same brute
Amused shout:

‘A miracle!’
That knocks me out.
There is a charge

For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge
For the hearing of my heart——
It really goes.

And there is a charge, a very large charge
For a word or a touch
Or a bit of blood

Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.
So, so, Herr Doktor.
So, Herr Enemy.

I am your opus,
I am your valuable,
The pure gold baby

That melts to a shriek.
I turn and burn.
Do not think I underestimate your great concern.

Ash, ash—
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there——

A cake of soap,
A wedding ring,
A gold filling.

Herr God, Herr Lucifer
Beware
Beware.

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.


Pomona Valley Review: On the Selection Process

Earlier this summer, I was selected to be part of the editorial board of Pomona Valley Review – an arts journal that comes out once a year. Because of my experience here as a managing editor, as well as Melanie and I presenting on Pomona Valley Review’s poetry panel last year at the Pacific Ancient and Modern Language Associate conference (PAMLA), I was put in charge of the editorial board and took on the position of lead editor for the 11th edition of the journal.

While I have been published in the past through a handful of smaller journals (PVR included), this was my first time behind the scenes selecting artistic items that would be published. The process, I found, was very different from what we do here and not something I took into consideration when I would submit pieces myself.

I know that the knowledge I’ve gained in working as an editorial board member during this past issue of Pomona Valley Review has helped me understand how I should submit my work as a writer/poet to increase my chances of being published in the future. And, of course, I want to share that gained knowledge with you, the reader.

Submissions Interface

Pomona Valley Review uses Submittable for all of it’s submissions – stories, poetry, pictures, paintings, etc. But there are still many people who try to email in their submissions. When a journal selects one way and makes that way apparent, as a submitter, you should really follow what the journal asks. In general, if a journal asks for submissions one way and you send it in another way, your chances of being considered go down from the start. The policy at Pomona Valley Review is that unless we’re hurting for submissions, we won’t look at work that isn’t submitted in the correct manner.

Now, there was one author with poor vision and their adaptive software (text to speak) worked best in email. The process of creating a word document, uploading it, attaching it, and submitting a biography wasn’t accessible for that individual so their submission was taken via email. So exceptions can be made for accessibility purposes but otherwise, you’d need to stick with the platform the journal asks you to use.

Writing Prompt: Dungeons & Dragons

D&D Books

If you are a writer then you have inevitably run into the dreaded writer’s block. You have probably scoured the internet for writing prompts that might just yield something. You may have even dived back into your own favorite stories in the hopes that something will inspire you. Well, I’m here to provide you with one more tool to combat this unwelcome guest.

Play Dungeons & Dragons.

Aside from the fact that geek chic is apparently “in” at the moment, renewed interest in this classic table-top game seems to be growing. Perhaps this is because it was featured prominently in Stranger Things, or maybe the 5th edition release made it easier for new players to join and became more accessible. Either way, it shouldn’t be too hard to find a group of willing victims to play with you while you battle your own personal writer’s block demon. Here’s some of the intricacies and how it can help you with your own writing:

Start with character development: Build your own character
Having a tough time creating characters that are likable? Untrustworthy? Or just down right evil? D&D can absolutely help with this. To even start playing, you need to build character on your “character sheet.” This includes picking a race, class, backstory, and alignment. (Actually, it includes quite a bit more than this, but these elements help you write a story for your character.) If one were to purchase the 5th edition Player’s Handbook for D&D, one is provided with extensive race and class break-downs that also give you some insight as to the kind of character you would create, should you choose those prompts. For instance, elves have three different sub-races with drastically different characteristics. High elves, as one might imagine, are often arrogant, but incredibly noble. They are wicked intelligent and are often interested in their own self-preservation. Wood elves, on the other hand, are a bit more mischievous, sometimes to the detriment of themselves or their team. Dark elves, known in the game as Drow, are dark and mysterious beings, and at times very dangerous. There are many other races and sub-races within the game to choose from, each with general strengths and weaknesses to play on. Selecting a class also adds some characterization. Druids are keenly and primarily concerned with nature and gravitate to the more natural elements of the world. They can even transform into animals, and some druids even prefer that form over their human one. Clerics are a bit more complicated, but incredibly fun to create. You can have your standard, holy cleric driven by a divine deity aimed towards healing the weak and innocent. Or you can create a trickster cleric that does best when they deceive and talk their way out of confrontations. Your deity could be, oh I don’t know, Loki? Characters are so customizable in this game that creating something as contradictory as that actually works!


Next, you work on the backstory, but perhaps that writer’s block is just too darn heavy to push, even for this. Do not fret, you can turn to the backstory chapter in the Handbook and roll for it. That’s right, roll the dice and leave it to chance. What are one of your ideals? Roll a 2: To protect myself first. What is a weakness you have? Roll a 4: I am incredibly clumsy. Now how would a character constantly worried about their own self-being be able to survive in the world by being a klutz? You get to act that out. Lastly, your character alignment helps make your character more complex. You have probably seen those memes floating around on social media where they place characters from popular television shows into an alignment chart, starting with lawful good and ending with chaotic evil. While these are fun to look at, they actually go a bit more in-depth. One character I currently play is chaotic good. This means that she is drawn to freedom and kindness, but has little use for laws and regulations. She performs good acts to help others achieve their own freedom as well. The way this is enacted in play is by keeping my actions in check and making sure I stay true to my character. Killing someone out of spite would have negative affects on my character, whereas showing mercy would be more in line with her views. Dungeon Masters will also help with this by giving you real in-game consequences if you stray. It is possible you can change your alignment, but that requires cooperation with your DM, which leads me to my next point.