Catching Up

It’s been a while since I last wrote a post for this blog. This is nothing new for me. I am a sporadic sharer-of-information when sharing at a distance, even at the best of times. Very quickly, here’s the short version of what the last year or so has looked like for me:

• I was hired at Linfield College as a visiting faculty librarian.
• My wife became a production and stage manager at Artists Repertory Theatre.
• Over the course of the last school year I collaborated with thirteen other faculty members in eleven departments at Linfield to teach information literacy. I taught for a combined total of 41 hours with 245 students. Half of the classes I taught were freshman seminars; the rest were 200 and 300 level classes.
• I took over two big projects at work: training and supervising my library’s team of student reference workers, and analyzing data from the HEDS Student Research Survey that we administered back in 2013/14.
• I took steps to becoming a point-of-contact on our campus for questions related to copyright and intellectual freedom.
• I applied for, and was offered, a tenure-track faculty librarian position at Linfield.
• I wrote one short play, which was produced in concert with several others written by my colleagues in Playwrights West, by Shaking The Tree Theater in Portland.
• I commuted approximately 17,766 miles – 567 hours spent in the car, listening to between 30 and 35 audiobooks and a comparable number of individual podcast episodes.
• I was, effectively, a single father for 18-20 weeks out of the last school year whenever my wife was stage-managing a production.
• I was overjoyed when my son started to develop, in addition to his love of other tabletop games and Pokemon, a passion first for Magic: The Gathering, and then role-playing games.
• Heard my daughter bemoan the fact that she doesn’t get homework anymore this year, and then realized that she loves school more than her genius big brother; and immediately fell in love with that little girl all over again.
• Watched my wife, almost 50 years old, apply herself to finally getting her driver’s license.

As you can see, it’s been a busy year. I trust that, if you read this blog, you’ll forgive me for not writing more. I have a six-week break coming up, though, so I plan to write more.

How’s your year been?

Meta-Radicalism and Considerations of Balanced Thought and Action

A collection of zines on a red tablecloth.
“Zines!” by Antonio Roberts. Shared on a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA-2.0 license. Available at the photographer’s Flickr page:

Update – May 29th, 2015: When this post was originally written, Sellie’s chapter on Meta-Radicalism was available at a different link. I have corrected the post to include the new link the the chapter: In addition, there was an error in the original post. Alycia works at the CUNY Graduate Center Library, not the CUNY Academic Commons. Apologies to Alycia and CUNY for the mistake.

This morning I read a book chapter authored by Alycia Sellie, a librarian at the CUNY Academic Commons whose research focuses on radical librarianship and print culture. The chapter is titled, “Meta-Radicalism: The Alternative Press by and for Activist Librarians.” It was originally published in the collection, Libraries and the Reading Public in Twentieth Century America, and a pre-print version of the chapter is available on the CUNY Academic Works repository.

Reading this piece, Sellie inspired me to think more about the concept of balance. To me, librarianship is very concerned with balance: maintaining a balanced collection, balancing your views by considering other, different views, and balancing the needs of separate patrons when they come into conflict are only a few examples. This chapter challenges the reader to think about this concept via the lens of collection development, specifically collection of alternative texts like zines, underground pamphlets, and self-published newsletters.

Sellie focuses, among other things, on the dis-inclusion of certain materials because of inside censorship. Sellie writes,

Inside censorship occurs when a librarian avoids adding materials to their collection — not because of any policy, but because they fear that the material will be challenged, cause conflict, or because the items would be too difficult to acquire.

She continues, adding that:

Alternative periodicals have long fallen victim to inside censorship: beyond difficulties with acquisition, these publications come in nonstandard formats and offer content that is vastly different from what is presented in the mainstream (Sellie, 2012, p. 3-4).

By creating and publishing alternative literature, certain librarians attempt to do activism from the inside, encouraging their peers to take these publications seriously and to collect them as a way of balancing out mainstream publications and views in the main library collection. In doing so, they engage in meta-activism, or as Sellie puts it, “Meta-Radicalism:” using the medium for which one advocates as a tool of advocacy.

I understand the collection balance issue that she brings up in the following way:

A librarian balancing on point while holding a block in either hand.
Crayon drawing by Patrick Wohlmut. Public Domain.

When someone typically thinks about maintaining a balanced collection, it may be tempting to think in terms of opposing viewpoints: liberal/conservative, creationist/evolutionist, western medicine/eastern medicine, etc. It could be argued that large, popular publishers – not always, but there is precedent – focus on these opposing sets of issues by selecting, printing, and disseminating books that speak to those opposing sets, often because those values are very, very visible with big readerships. These sets tend to become more visible as they are supported by publishers, and that work influences more readers which also support them, which creates a higher demand for materials that speak to those dichotomies. Even in academic publishing, it can be difficult to break out of the mold of “Either/Or,” “On The One Hand/On The Other Hand,” “Chocolate/Peanut Butter,” and so on. Colleges and universities require their students to be exposed to multiple viewpoints, which makes a different kind of thinking about balance essential.

Most of the academic librarians I have worked with tend to look at cultivating a balanced collection more like this:

The same balancing librarian, seen from the top.
Crayon drawing by Patrick Wohlmut. Public Domain.

Seen from the top, our view of the librarian is very different. The “Either/Or” dichotomy only occupies maybe 20˚ or 30˚ of a 360˚ circle of balance. Focusing on one side or the other means that you can still fall backward, or on your face. When a librarian looks to collect around a certain viewpoint, they are not just looking at “Either/Or;” they are looking to include many viewpoints in an effort to support critical thinking and learning within a subject area. Sellie argues that if you don’t include alternative publications in this collection, you still miss a significant portion of this circle of balance: authors and works that aren’t represented by mainstream publishers, and whose voices are ignored, though important, in the overall conversation.

For me, this question of balance extends into other areas of librarianship. For example: when we teach students how to evaluate information, we teach them to look for bias. Sellie quotes librarian and activist Celeste West, who said,

“We can try to be fair but not unbiased. We either speak out and select or else keep quiet. Keeping quiet is just another way of supporting what is going on, which is a political stance” (Sellie, 2012, p. 5).

I’ll get to the second part of the quote later, but in the first part, West essentially states that everybody is biased. Everybody privileges a certain point of view. If we accept that, then teaching students about bias is not enough. We also have to teach them how to know when an author’s bias is justified and when it’s not, and when it needs to be. We need them to learn to notice when an author has sufficiently considered other viewpoints and when they haven’t, and to decide when an author is edging into the territory of confirmation bias (which is a fallacy distinct from the common experience of everyday bias) and when they aren’t. And, most importantly, we need them to be able to identify the contexts in which information is disseminated, because that also affects bias. In short: though identifying bias is important, being able to weigh the balance of bias within a context is equally if not more so.

Another area of librarianship where we have to focus on balance is in our very mission as librarians. R. David Lankes has famously written that,

“The mission of a library is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in the community” (Lankes, 2012, p. 33).

One way to do that is to become knowledge and information creators ourselves. It could be argued that by publishing zines, by including maker spaces within the library, by teaching others, or (in my case) by creating podcasts and radio shows, we become both a generative force and a positive example in the communities in which we serve. Furthermore, by engaging in activism, librarians seek to directly impact their communities and workplaces and make them better, and to provide a model of what we want librarianship to be. However, this has to be balanced against the fact that there is also a place and a need for us to be information guides and mediators: the finger pointing the way. This requires us to step out of the way and let others lead and to find their own path. In this part of our mission, we don’t forge the way, we show all of the available paths and let the patron choose. This balance of Yin and Yang, of Passive and Active, of Introvert and Extrovert, and of many different ways of being a librarian, is more important than any one view of what we do, or what we should be doing. A living system is a changing, adaptable system. Negotiating those changes and approaches also requires balance, and appreciation and acceptance of diversity, and discerning openness.

One way in which Sellie’s writing challenged me is that it was hard for me to accept – at least on one reading – that dis-inclusion of alternative literature from library collections was completely due to inside censorship. Sellie herself admits that there are many limitations on collection development: staff size, budget, and institutional focus are just three. Providing direct evidence that censorship, definably a restrictive process, is happening within library collection development in this regard, and that it isn’t a matter of selection instead, is difficult. No librarian going to come right out and say, “We’re keeping zines out of the library because ‘x’.” It’s more likely to be framed in terms of choosing to select other materials, or a general ignorance about zines and what they offer, either individually or within the institution itself, or a lack of available collection budget or time in which to collect alternative materials, or not knowing what specific titles are out there and not having the time to research it. And these complaints may be not just sincere, but accurate. This leaves us trying to prove that it isn’t selection, and how do you prove that something is not?

Thus, Celeste West’s claim that silence in the collection indicates approval of dis-inclusion within it, as far as censorship in this instance goes, doesn’t appear to me to fit the complexity of what goes on in individual libraries. Aside from my going back and citation-chasing through Sellie’s article, and reading more of her work (as I will do, because if you couldn’t tell she makes my brain work in groovy ways), I would like to see a study that effectively looks at the reasons why zines are dis-included from library collections. I will continue to look for them, and if you, the reader, know of any, please cite them in the comments below.


Lankes, R. David. (2012). Expect more: Demanding better libraries for today’s complex world. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. Available to read for free at

Sellie, Alycia. (2012). “Meta-Radicalism: The alternative press by and for activist librarians.” From CUNY Academic Works: Faculty Works, Paper 14. Available at

A Set of Recollections on Confirmation Bias

I am of the nature to believe
that which is familiar and assumed
over that which is complex and unknown.
I have not gone beyond bias.

I am of the nature to believe
that the things on which I am biased
are truths, unassailable and invulnerable.
I have not gone beyond prejudice.

I am of the nature to believe
that if a thing corroborates my perspective,
then it is true, and all else is false.
I have not gone beyond misinformation.

I am of the nature to believe
that if an opposing thinker argues with me,
then it is down to their faulty position, not mine.
I have not gone beyond arrogance.

I am of the nature to believe
that when someone speaks words that I don’t understand
then they are confused, where I am clear.
I have not gone beyond error.

All of the things I think I know,
comforting and emboldening, will change;
it will all become strange to me.

I am the owner of my thinking.
I am the puppet of my thinking.
I am irresistibly chained to my thinking.
I exist because of my thinking.
Of my thinking I am created,
and through my thinking I will be undone,
every second of every day.
Whatever I think, for good or evil,
of that I am the heir.

–Based on the Buddhist text, “Five Subjects For Daily Recollection,” attributed to Siddhartha Gautama.

A Note On Intention: I do not intend for this set of recollections to be objectively descriptive, but to be personally prescriptive. I wrote it primarily for me. It is not meant to be used to identify and condemn confirmation bias in others; it is meant for me to identify, understand, confront, and treat confirmation bias in myself. If you find it useful, then by all means use it. If not, then feel free to discard it.

My Life Without Facebook: The First Week

Here are the first six things I did on the morning of December 30th, 2013:

  • Woke up
  • Went to the bathroom
  • Shuffled into the kitchen
  • Made coffee
  • Shuffled to the computer
  • Logged into Facebook

After logging into Facebook, I made breakfast, I took a shower, got dressed, did chores, played with the kids… And checked Facebook every fifteen minutes. It was just part of my routine. It didn’t make me any happier, it didn’t make me any smarter or wiser or more informed, and it didn’t add value to anything else that was going on. I did it just to have something to read. Facebook had become my favorite novel, and every minute it was coming out in a new edition. Understand me: it was always the same novel, but every edition used slightly different words. I kept scanning the changes in the language to see if it changed the story, and though the moments changed and different things happened to different people at different time, the overall plot structure was the same.

Okay, I’m sure that’s not objectively true, but that’s how it felt. Think about Hostess Cupcakes for a second: chocolatey, covered with frosting, with that soft creme filling in the center. Now imagine that Hostess Cupcakes is all you want to eat, and it’s all you do eat. All day. Eventually you would come to hate Hostess Cupcakes. Now imagine that you couldn’t stop eating them. That’s what Facebook was to me, after a while. Smart or funny posts made me happy, stupid posts made me angry, and all of it kept me tied to the damn thing because I got to feel things about words without tying them to any living person. It was like all the posts were coming from fictional characters, not my friends and family. And I couldn’t put the ‘Book down.

I’m not sure what it was about December 30th that was different, but I realized that was what I was doing, and I realized it was making me miserable. I realized it was making me miss my life. So I quit. I let people know I was going, I gave them other means to contact me, and at the end of January, I deleted my account.

Immediately, panic set in. Had I made a mistake? What would I do without Facebook? What would Facebook do without me? I’ve calmed down since then. Actually, now that I’ve put a little bit of distance between me and Facebook, there are things that I miss, and things that I don’t.

Five Things I Don’t Miss About Facebook

  1. Getting pissed off by other peoples’ posts. One of the things I despise about Facebook is how people just post things that they don’t fact-check, things that are often biased, or polarizing, or just plain wrong, and those things get sprayed all over the timelines of their friends. Factor in the cute kitten photos, the memes, and whatever George Takei is posting at the time, and it’s crazy-making. Other platforms are the same way. Not having to look at them all the time is a relief.
  2. Having to be funny all the time. One of the cardinal rules of social media appears to be to create value for the people following you. For me, that involved making people laugh every time I posted. That’s not the only way I made value for others on Facebook; per point #1 above, posting reasonably informed things is also value-making. But being “on” all the time is exhausting. And I was on Facebook all the time.
  3. Being glued to my phone. Seriously, I was pulling that thing out of my pocket all the time and checking it. The peril of having a portable computer. Out to dinner? Check the phone. Free moment? Check the phone. Waiting for water to boil? Check the phone. Sitting on the can? Check the phone. I feel like one of the tethers that reinforced that behavior is now gone, and it feels good.
  4. Chronicling every emotion, thought, or moment. I’m starting to believe that without privacy, there is no self. The self is that which is distinct from everything else. That’s not to say that by sharing what I feel, what I think, and what I do, that I’m denying my self. I don’t think that. Done in conscious ways it affirms the self. But there is such a thing as giving yourself away, and by sharing compulsively, that’s what I was doing.
  5. Vaguebooking. This one really got to me, because I don’t think people can actually share anything really personal via Facebook. Maybe some people can, but I know that for me, I didn’t want to be accused of oversharing. Facebook is like a giant party, and everybody’s at it. If I was pissed at somebody, if I was sad about something, I had to be very careful how I worded things for fear that someone might misinterpret my words, or second-guess whether I “should” feel what I was feeling, or send me a dreaded barrage of comments that say, merely,

“Hugs :-(“

Five Things That Make Me Wish I’d Never Left

  1. Twitter. Don’t get me wrong: there’s a lot that I love about Twitter. The ability to communicate with other people across the country, to receive channels of information from people in the library field… But if Facebook was my heroin, then Twitter is quickly becoming my methadone. They say never to drink coffee while quitting cigarettes… Monitoring my Twitter-time is difficult, and limiting it is uncomfortable.
  2. Community S.O.S.’s. During this recent snowstorm, my family and I got caught on a steep, icy hill in our car. We couldn’t go up because of the ice, and we couldn’t go back because of traffic coming up the hill. My wife sent out a distress signal on FB. I could do nothing, because I had already deleted my account. We made it off of the hill, but it would have been nice to have the extra communication channel.
  3. Contact. Facebook was my one way of getting in touch with a lot of people. Now that it’s gone, my world has gotten that much smaller. One of the communication channels I gave up when leaving was with the other hosts of Let’s All Really Geek Out, a podcast I collaborate on. Another one is with my cohort from grad school.
  4. Fun videos. Because let’s face it: if Buzzfeed is evil, then it’s evil covered in butterscotch icing with maraschino cherries on top. Facebook really is better than cable TV sometimes.
  5. Getting pissed off by other peoples’ posts. Outrage really is like a can of Pringles. Once you pop, you can’t stop. Righteous anger is intoxicating, and as bad as it is for me, I still miss the opportunity to engage in it whenever I want.

So that’s me right now, without Facebook. I’m trying to spend more time in real life. Sometimes I succeed, and sometimes I don’t. I hope that as I learn to use social media more consciously and healthily that I’ll become a happier and more balanced person. I can already feel it starting, bit by bit. In the meantime, however, I’m trying to do better.

Now, I wonder what @scalzi is doing right now…

Dad-Splaining: The Problem With Ebooks.


One of these things is not like the other...
One of these things is not like the other…

This is the first installment of what I hope will be a recurring segment on this blog: Dad-Splaining. “Dad-Splaining,” in this case, is not like Mansplaining. It’s an attempt for me to figure out how to explain things in an accurate and succinct way, on a number of subjects, to my dad. Dad is one of the most intelligent people I know, and he is regularly able to find the gaps in an argument, or your thinking or knowledge, or an explanation and cut to the heart of things. And I typically have a lot of gaps in my argument. At least when I’m talking to him. Because dads and sons, y’all.

I’ve been trying to figure out a way to explain to my dad about some of the problems libraries run into when dealing with ebooks. We talked about Penguin removing their books from Overdrive, and I tried to get into issues of Digital Rights Management (DRM) and the ways that can muck with libraries serving their communities, when Dad brought up the point that inevitably gets brought up: that controlling who buys a book and under what circumstances is stupid. If I he wanted to buy a print book, all he would have to do is to walk into a bookstore or a garage sale and get it. He wouldn’t have to worry about it disappearing under his nose, and he certainly wouldn’t have to worry about which bookstore to shop at for fear that they had been found guilty of price-fixing.

“If I buy a book, it’s mine,” Dad said. “Why should an ebook be any different?” He has a fair point. Telling somebody that they can’t buy a book, they can only license it, is not just counter-intuitive. It feels plain wrong.

The problem lies in what we think we’re buying when we buy a book. Let’s say I want to pick up the latest novel by, say, Joe Hill. I go to Powell’s Books, or Barnes & Noble, or another bookstore, I grab the book off of the shelf, I take it to the cashier, give them my gigantic wad of disposable cash modest spending money for the week, and it’s mine to take home. But what am I actually buying? I’m not buying the story. The story is an idea. It has no physical substance. If it doesn’t have physical substance, then it can’t be bought or sold. The idea, however, is embodied by words in a work of authorship. Once that idea is cemented in an authored work, that work becomes the property of the author. This applies as soon as the words are set down by a writer. This concept is codified in U. S. Copyright Law.

So are we buying the words, or the work? Clearly not. That belongs to the author: in this case Joe Hill, or any other author whose novel we care to buy. When a person plagiarizes, what they’re really doing is committing an act of theft. They are taking the words that belong to someone else and using and presenting them as their own for profit, monetary or otherwise. One might then ask, “Well if that’s so, then how can a publisher print so many books with words that aren’t theirs?” They can do it, because the author grants them a license to do it in a contract that typically includes an up-front price for the license, royalties from future sales, and an advance on those royalties. The ownership of the work resides with the author, and the author grants permission to the publisher to reproduce the work in a partnership that hopefully benefits both parties. This is how authors can make a living doing what they do.

This is obviously a big generalization about how things like this work. The point of it is that when you buy a book, you’re not buying the content inside of it. Text is different from content. You can, and do, buy tracts of text all the time. Content is not so easily bought or sold, and as this new age of access has taught us, information is slippery. Once it’s free in the world, it goes wherever there are people to consume it. What you’re buying is the package: the cover, the pages, the printed text, and that nice dust cover with the pretty illustrations on it.

Making sure authors get paid for their work demands that the law create a set of rules that recognize rights of authorship. It is precisely these rules that protect content rights-holders, whether they be authors or the companies they might sell their rights over to (yes, you can do that), as well as the slippery nature of content and information, that make ebooks so tricky to deal with for everybody. If, when you buy a book, what you’re buying is the package, then what happens when the package is itself a piece of writing?

That’s right: the package that holds an ebook is not physical. It’s not your Kindle, or your Kobe, or your Nook or even your iPad; it’s the programming code that holds the content together as a coherent piece. And code has to be authored by somebody. Therefore, when you pay for an ebook, you still pay for an information package, but that package is, itself, an authored work, and in order to use it, you can’t buy it. You have to license it.

This places the control of how you use it in the hands of the rights-holders of the information package, which is, in the case of ebooks, a company. Companies and corporations are not people, but they do act like living things in certain ways. One of those ways is in their purpose: to survive, to thrive, and to make sure they continue to do so. One major way companies do this is through the movement of money. When a company asserts its digital rights by restricting and curtailing access to ebooks, whether to individual consumers or to larger entities like libraries, what they’re doing is protecting their vital interests, and their main interest is money, because that’s how companies maintain their survival and grow. And that isn’t going to change anytime soon. And, fortunately or unfortunately, they have a right to protect their interests, because their interests are those of the people who run them and, hopefully, also of the people work for them; though in certain cases, that second claim is doubtful.

None of which makes it right for companies to restrict access to information. All it means is that they are protected by law, and that their reasons for doing what they do are understandable, regardless of whether they stifle innovation and prevent people from accessing information in the formats they need and want. This makes the whole issue, in a word, thorny.

My dad didn’t quite see the complexity of it, because I wasn’t so great at explaining it to him. His response is to say, “They should just make it so that if you buy a book, you buy it. That would simplify everything for everybody.” And he’s right. It would. One might argue that by simplifying matters, you could still assure a profit for companies and give people what they want – though I’m not confident enough to argue that point. But under current U. S. law, that can’t happen, because as far as I can tell, there’s nothing differentiating a coded software application from a novel in terms of authorship and rights-holding. And in my opinion, as long as that’s the case, we can’t even begin to untangle this mess.

So, how did I do Dad-Splaining this issue? Did I get it right? Wrong? Did I miss anything? Please leave a comment below and let me know.

Coming Up: February 14th, 2014

In its second year, Teen West Project brings SouthWest StageWorks and Playwrights West together to premiere a riveting teen drama... The Waves.
In its second year, Teen West Project brings SouthWest StageWorks and Playwrights West together to premiere a riveting teen drama… The Waves.

Playwrights West and SouthWest StageWorks present:
The Waves, by Patrick Wohlmut
Directed by Matthew B. Zrebski

Cosgrove Auditorium at Wilson High School
1151 SW Vermont St
Portland, OR 97219

Preview February 14, and performances February 15, 19, 20, 21, and 22 at 7:00p

February 16 at 2:00p

$15 General Admission
$10 Students and Educators
Advance tickets at:
Limited Seating! Advance purchases advised!


When Gemma transferred to Athens High School, other students were drawn to her intelligence, her unconventional beliefs, and her courage in standing up for those in trouble. But when she creates a system by which students can put each other on trial – a system that was meant to defeat Athens High’s biggest tyrant – she inadvertently threatens to create a whole new generation of bullies. Now on trial herself and defending against allegations that she indirectly caused the death of another teenager, Gemma must try and stop the trials before they consume everybody in the school.

About Teen West Project

The goal of Teen West Project is to develop and eventually publish new theatrical works where aspects of the teen experience are explored and expressed through bold and innovative story telling. Playwrights West has partnered with the Wilson High School Drama Department, known as SouthWest StageWorks. Playwrights West members engage with the students every fall through interviews and discussions – and then set out to pen a new play(s) for full production in the winter. These plays must have all teenaged characters. In this way, young performers are able to fully connect with the text and authentically portray the roles. This year, writer Patrick Wohlmut has written the 20 actor drama, The Waves, inspired by the secret culture of bullying and power dynamics many of the students discussed. Directed by Playwrights West member Matthew B. Zrebski, this intense and moving piece has already proven to be a remarkable experience for the students as they grapple with the play’s myriad, relevant concepts.

UPDATE, 2/12/14: Due to the recent inclement weather and its effect on the rehearsal process, the Friday, February 14th performance is now considered a Preview, with Saturday, February 15th now standing as the official opening. Accordingly, a performance has been added on Wednesday, February 19th. The performance information has been changed above to reflect this.

Advice For Being (A Writer)

This is where the magic happens, baby!
This is where the magic happens, baby!

I was talking with a young screenwriter recently, and the conversation turned to how to continue being a writer. It struck me as odd. If one is a thing, then one doesn’t put much thought into continuing to be that thing. Existence fallibly entails continuation.

Writing is different, though. Being a writer is contingent upon making writing your practice. That means that after you make the choice to be a writer, in the beginning stages of your writing life, being a writer requires effort. There are things you have to do from the outset to make room in your life for this new way of being. If you’ve done these things from childhood, then you don’t even think about it. But if you’re creeping into your adult life and you’ve just decided that the writing life is one that fulfills you and that you want to pursue, then it takes work, even if you love it.

In Buddhism, there’s a concept known as the Three Refuges. These are the foundation that every Buddhist (or almost every Buddhist) accepts as the core of their practice. They are Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha: teacher, knowledge and action, and community. It’s a recipe for how to grow and develop your Buddhist practice, now and into the future. It’s instruction in how to make room in your life to be a Buddhist, in how to continue.

So I based my advice on the Three Refuges, and I am repeating it below, with some revision. Five steps to continue being, and to continue being a writer, for those starting on the writing path, with supplementary quotes. This advice should look familiar, because it’s been repeated over and over again by many many writers. To my memory, however, I’ve never seen these points iterated as an integrated system before.

1) Find a teacher. William Faulkner reportedly said in an interview in the Paris Review,

“Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique. There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error. The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity. No matter how much he admires the old writer, he wants to beat him.”

I agree with the idea that there are no shortcuts to writing. But in terms of doing it all on one’s own, this advice is quatsch. Nonsense. Bull-puckey. Some writers can learn solely through trial and error, but most of us cannot. Having somebody there to share their experience, help you avoid pitfalls, guide you through the vagaries of structure, sensitize you to the different uses of language, and a hundred lessons else is an invaluable tool for not only continuing to be writer but excelling at it. If nothing else, having that knowledgeable support there, placing a gentle hand in the small of your back, will keep you writing when you would have otherwise given up.

2.) Read. This point can actually be divided into two sub-points: read narrowly, and read widely. Reading narrowly means reading within your field. As a playwright, I need to be reading plays, books by playwrights on writing, books by other theater makers on making theater, listening to theater podcasts, and so on if I want to stay good and/or get better. I hope I don’t need to outline the importance of that. However, I also need to be reading widely. Anything I can get my hands on. This is the practice that stokes the fires of the imagination, inspires us, increases our overall knowledge of the world, and expands our vocabularies and our vision, and lets us see what it is possible to do with the written word, no matter the genre.  One quote attributed to Stephen King, from his book On Writing, says:

“I am always chilled and astonished by the would-be writers who ask me for advice and admit, quite blithely, that they ‘don’t have time to read.’ This is like a guy starting up Mount Everest saying that he didn’t have time to buy any rope or pitons.”

3.) Write. Gail Sher notes in her book, One Continuous Mistake:

“Writers Write.”

This is the very definition of a writer. It makes no difference if you’ve never been published, never made a sale, never seen production: if you are a writer, then writing is your practice. It’s a part of you. The only way to fail at being a writer, then, is not to write. You can feel this for yourself. If you don’t write for a while, it feels wrong. It feels like your insides don’t fit inside your outsides. And when you start again, you’re rusty. You start making old mistakes, and have to remind yourself not to do that, even though you already know. That’s frustrating. Continuing to write, every day, keeps you fresh and on your game, even if nobody ever sees what you do…

4a.) Make something: The oogy version. …but people should see what you do. Why should they? I had a singing teacher who once told me that singing is part of being human. We have voices and we have words, and singing is really just lengthened speech that makes full use of our vocal apparatus. Therefore, singing is our birthright. If that’s so, then storytelling is also our birthright. Informing, entertaining, speaking truth, lying, and weaving a good yarn are all our birthrights. That means that novels are our birthright. Poems and essays are our birthright. Theater is absolutely a birthright of ours.  And if these things are inside of you, then you do yourself and others an injustice when you keep them to yourself. It’s a kind of stinginess, of greed. Good writers are generous with their audience. Practice generosity; make something, and share it with others.

4b.) Make something: the non-oogy version. Look, writing a play is a different ball of wax than writing in your journal. It requires structure, characters, often several plots, setting, style, and theme. It requires you to juggle these things until the words, “END OF PLAY,” roll across the page at the end.  Do you think that jugglers learn how to toss chainsaws in the air by sitting around and watching other jugglers do it? No. They learn by doing it.  They get better, more confident, more discerning by doing it. Suzuki Roshi says:

“After you have practiced for a while, you will realize that it is not possible to make rapid, extraordinary progress. Even though you try very hard, the progress you make is always little by little. It is not like going out in a shower in which you know when you get wet. In a fog, you do not know you are getting wet, but as you keep walking you get wet little by little. If your mind has ideas of progress, you may say, ‘Oh, this pace is terrible!’ But actually it is not. When you get wet in a fog it is very difficult to dry yourself. So there is no need to worry about progress.”

Sharing your writing with others also creates accountability. Many of us, perhaps even most of us, are afraid to share what we write with others because we have this built-in audio track in our heads that chuckles on repeat: “They’re all going to laugh at you! they’re all going to laugh at you!” Instead of being intimidated by that voice, use it to your advantage. Let it drive you to make the best possible play/story/poem/novel/essay you can before you share it with others.

5.) Find a community. There is a common, historical fallacy which states that writing is, in the end, a lonely process. Nothing could be further from the truth. One of the best things that ever happened to me, in terms of my writing and my personal life, was to be invited to join a playwrights’ circle called Playgroup. Playgroup was home to some of Portland’s finest writers for the stage, and I got to be one of them. We not only shared our work with each other, we provided each other with professional and artistic advice and support. Our individual styles went on to inform the writing of others in the group, and we developed friendships and working relationships that last to this day. It was a creative and artistic incubator that significantly directed the course of my writing, my career, and the way I think about theater.

The great thing about joining a community of writers is this: you don’t have to wait to be invited. You can seek them out, or you can create them. They can be as informal or as formal as you like. The point is that you gather and share with a group of people who are of like mind and purpose, who hold each other up and show each other how to walk the path with greater power, ease, and grace. Author Jane Smiley is quoted thus in the book We Wanted To Be Writers:

“If you look back at the history of the novel, nearly everyone who succeeded was part of some sort of literary group. There is hardly anyone who thrives on being solitary. Think of Virginia Woolf and her circle; they supported one another and talked to one another and talked about literature. Thackeray and his friends, the same.”

So there you go: Five Refuges for Writers. A way to continue. Do you have anything to add to the above list? Please comment below. And, as Brandon Sanderson says every week on the podcast Writing Excuses, “You’re out of excuses. Now go write.”

Fish Chowder

So thick you can stand a spoon up in it.
So thick you can stand a spoon up in it.

When I was a kid, my family used to drive out to Lake Oswego once or twice a year to a restaurant called “The Sea Galley.” The inside was decked out in dark wood that had been treated to look like it was sea-worn, weathered brass portholes, random fishing nets, and orange buoys. The lighting was dim, the thin carpet a uniform scarlet. It was supposed to look authentic, and to a nine-year-old it did. I could imagine being a cabin boy in there, or a sailor in a galleon treading the waves. It was also the first place I ever remember eating clam chowder.

Many bowls of the stuff later (the recipe for which, I am fairly certain, is a divine gift from the sea god Himself) and I now know that what I was eating there wasn’t chowder at all but a thin potato soup, barely seasoned with paprika, with a few nubbly, rubbery chunks of clam perhaps floating in my bowl if I was really lucky. Even so, the savory undercurrent of real clam chowder was present in this weak imitation. My young palate was hooked from the get-go.

No, I didn’t plan that pun. They just come out of me. It’s a gift.

By that point in my life, I had already learned to love seafood. My parents introduced me to sushi at age two or three; my favorite was the octopus. At a buffet or potluck I went straight for the cocktail shrimp. Don’t even get me started on crab legs. Fish and chips. Salmon. I still ask for the skin off of the salmon, and have not been invited back to at least one friend’s house for dinner on account of it. I believe the word they used to describe me as I rolled it up and tucked right in was, “barbarian.”

I’ve been working hard on revising a play over the winter break, and I needed a little bit of comfort food tonight. It being winter, either a soup or a stew seemed perfect. My wife got me a great cookbook for Christmas: Dungeness Crabs & Blackberry Cobblers: The Northwest Heritage Cookbook, by Janie Hibler. I checked there and found recipes for both stew and chowder, both of which look a-ma-ha-hazing. I plan to try them soon. However, instead of going that direction tonight, I went instead with a cookbook that’s more of a go-to in my house: Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom: Essential Techniques and Recipes from a Lifetime of Cooking, by Julia Child. Wacky Aunt Julia (as I am fond of referring to Ms. Child, rest her soul) has rarely steered me wrong, and her recipe for chowder was, for a change, not as complex as others. She gives a base recipe for the chowder base, and then directions for adding other ingredients (clams, fish, corn, or vegetables) as one sees fit.

I made my chowder with cod, and let me tell you, it ended up very close to a fish stew. Slices of onion, lots of yukon gold potatoes, and thick pieces of fish made for a very hearty soup. It’s the sort of thing you’d want to eat after spending two weeks on a fishing trawler. Or digging ditches. Or performing rewrites on a play, eight hours a day, for the last three days. Or cowering under your covers in the fetal position due to a monstrous attack of depression. You get the idea. This is a soup that lets you go on.

Here, then, is the recipe, courtesy of Wacky Aunt Julia. She would probably tsk-tsk me for using Matzo Meal instead of crushed crackers, bacon instead of pork belly or lardon, and (gasp!) canned corn. Oh well.

Fish Chowder

  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 2 slices of bacon, cut into matchsticks.
  • 2 onions, sliced (about 1 pound).
  • 1 bay leaf.
  • 3/4 cup Matzo Meal.
  • 4 cups chicken stock.
  • 2 cups milk.
  • 2 large potatoes, or 3 medium, diced (about 1 pound).
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt (or so).
  • 1/2 teaspoon white pepper (or so).
  • 2 pounds cod.
  • 1 can corn kernels.
  1. Combine your stock and milk and heat just below the simmer.
  2. Melt the butter in your soup pot, and sauté the bacon pieces on medium until brown. Add the onions and the bay leaf and stir, coating them with the fat. Cover, reduce heat to low, and cook the onions for ten minutes.
  3. Add the Matzo Meal to your onions and stir, coating the onions and bacon. Add your hot liquid and potatoes, cover loosely, and raise heat to medium-low. Cook for twenty minutes.
  4. While the soup is cooking, drain your corn, debone your cod (that is NOT a euphemism), and cut it into two-inch chunks.
  5. At the end of twenty minutes, season your soup base with the salt and white pepper. Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary. Increase the heat to below simmer and add your cod and corn. Cook for five minutes. The cod should be completely white and opaque; take a piece out and double check, otherwise it’s not done.

That’s it. Happy eating!