Mike Birbiglia Offers Life Lessons for Writers Too

dont-think-twiceLast Saturday, I saw a movie about comedy that inspired me as a writer. It was Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice, a sharply realistic yet sweet portrait of a New York improv group. Not-so-famous comedians who make people laugh by night but work by day to financially stay afloat. They are friends. They are smart and loving and sometimes selfish. They’ve performed in The Commune for years but when the manager of the theater announces the building’s been sold and the theater is closing, they are squeezed by change. Often, that squeezing is not pretty to watch.

There are six members in The Commune: Miles, Bill, Lindsay, Allison, Jack, and Samantha. Miles, the founder of the group, faces the challenge of finding another small, inexpensive performance space. As he fumbles for a plan, he meets an old high school flame whom he’s attracted to but is ultimately more grown up than he at 36. As their relationship deepens, he questions whether he wants to continue the hard task of doing improv for little money or give it up and be a father to his girlfriend’s coming child.

Meanwhile, Jack and Samantha, a couple, are noticed one night on stage and later invited to audition for Weekend Live, an SNL-type of show. That’s when we begin to see friendships strained and the anxieties of measuring up appear. While Jack, though nervous shows up for and performs at his audition, Samantha gets cold feet. She goes to the show’s building but blows off the audition. Later, Jack get the job on Weekend Live and Samantha continues to perform improv in obscurity. That Samantha was the one initially noticed by the scout and seemed more the target of recruitment makes her self-sabotage all the more heartbreaking. She passed on the biggest shot of her life, on purpose. As the story unfolds, we learn that she didn’t really want to be a rock star comedian. She was more comfortable out of the spotlight, or “in the well” as she jokes one night on stage.

Meanwhile, Allison, another Commune member, is a talented cartoonist who’s worked on a graphic novel for years. While she’s full of ideas and her drawings are quirky and adorable, she’s unable to complete her artistic project. It’s only later when the theater closes, Allison realizes she has nothing to lose and finally finishes her graphic novel before sending out the manuscript to a publisher who earlier expressed interest.

Lindsay, a copyeditor by day, applies for and gets a writing job on Weekend Live, a job which all of The Commune members had been invited to apply for. Some didn’t apply because the job was writing and not performing. Lindsay ends up hired by Weekend Live but is hesitant to share her success with her struggling friends. This situation nicely comes to a head late in the movie. In a great scene Miles criticizes Lindsay for having such an easy life. Lindsay comes from a wealthy family and her apartment and therapy sessions are paid for. As Miles resentfully asks why she gets to have all of the breaks, Lindsay smartly and strongly retorts, “Because I applied!” A wonderful lesson for any artist. She did, indeed, “apply” herself. She tried, meaning if you truly want to be successful, you have to seize an opportunity when you get one, even if it’s not the exact one you want.

And so, the movie ends with The Commune characters headed to different life destinations. Jack and Samantha split up, and Jack, on his way to being a famous comedian, realizes that he must now live in a more serious, hardworking world than his friends. Miles is content to let improv fade from his life and be a father. Bill, Samantha, and Allison find that continuing improv in Philadelphia via the gift of a theater space from Bill’s father is the extent of their comedic ambitions.

Even though some characters chose not to pursue greater success, the film’s messages of persistence and knowing yourself resonated with me. I write creatively for little to no money while I keep quietly knocking on doors and showing people what I have to offer. Occasionally the doors to smaller houses open and I’m greeted warmly. Most of the time the people in the larger houses open the door, check out my material, and politely say, “No, thank you.” That’s okay. Because in this journey of becoming a more established artist, the key is to keep believing in your talent until others finally (and often arbitrarily) agree that you have something worthwhile to contribute. It’s all about continuing to do what you love, creating more work, getting your work out there, and being patient. Very very patient. Don’t Think Twice teaches us that lesson well.

People Don’t Understand: 2016 WAS the Good Year

ChampagneSince November 13th, when John Oliver christened 2016 as a rotten year, so many in the press and on social media have been following suit, calling the year “the worst” and happy to kick it in the pants as it leaves our lives. I have little idea why this trend began. Yes, Trump was elected, which is horrifying, and we endured terror attacks, which are more horrifying, and we lost beloved celebrities. Also, people of color suffered at the hands of police, but this gave rise to the BLM movement. Overall, these types of events are not so different from those that have unfolded in years before 2016.

2016 was the first year whose progress I consciously decided to track in my life. I wrote a post about it last January, calling it The Year of Why Not You, an ode to Russell Wilson’s father encouraging him to go for great achievements, even if he was a nobody in the football world. And so that’s how I approached the months that followed. I worked my behind off writing and submitting, I worked for clients designing and maintaining their yards. Spring was warm, summer was hot, fall was cool. During those months, I had hits and misses with writing. I was rejected by about 20 agents, looked closely at by a few, placed well in a novel competition, and had a few short pieces published. Meanwhile, I gained new gardening clients. I failed in keeping up with two blogs, but hey, I did devote some time to my kids. We went to the beach and playgrounds and took a trip to Chicago. I even managed to have a few date nights with my husband and friends. Meanwhile, the Cubs had a banner season and won the World Series.

During this time, Obama was still our president. I was under the impression we’d break the glass ceiling with Clinton. I felt overjoyed at the gains in renewable energy. The Paris Agreement had been solidified. Yes, there was trouble with ISIL, but they were weakening and that was cause for more celebration than the press gave it. Instead, the news focused on the injustices and misfortunes of the world, which it always does. And of which there are plenty. But I took hope in that millenials, more than any other generation, are finding little tolerance for those old-fashioned, unthoughtful ways of behaving. Our generation will be replaced by more considerate, tolerant, peace-loving people in coming decades and centuries.

And yet, we talk of this year like it was an alcoholic, homeless cousin that showed up and trampled over our homes and well beings. It wasn’t. The sun shone — a lot. Americans woke up in a non-warring country every day, even if we did have to drag ourselves to stressful jobs that we hated. Very few people were shot at or murdered (in comparison to the larger population). So, why are we treating this year like it was so terrible? It was a typical year with a fair share of heartbreaks and losses and most of all, a dismal electoral outcome.

And that’s the rub. It seems to me, that’s all, at least progressive types, remember. People don’t realize the terrible year hasn’t even started yet. It starts when Trump takes office. He IS that alcoholic, homeless cousin who moves in and tramples over people’s lives. He does whatever he wants and rarely suffers the consequences. With that in mind, I will remember 2016 with great fondness because 2017, ultimately, is when the true hardships begin.

Lab Girl: My Favorite Christmas Gift to Give

Lab GirlWe were in the car.

“Plants are the only living beings in the world that can make their own food,” I said.

My daughter sat in silence. Stared out the window. “But people grow their own food,” she said.

Good answer. “Yeah, but literally, like with my body. I can’t hold out my hand, let rain hit it, and then turn the rain into hummus or something I can eat.”

She thought about that. Silence. “Huh.”

She was mildly interested at best. Such is life with kids, but also such is life with an inarticulate horticulturalist. I should be able to explain photosynthesis better, I mean, downright inspire my kids to be as in awe and wonder of plants as I am. And though I’ve had scattered success over the years, I’ve found that their elementary school teachers sometime inspire them more than I do. Months later, my daughter would come home and recite that very fact with bold excitement to me. I shrugged. Because the fact didn’t come from me, it was more precious. Go figure.

When I read Hope Jahren’s “Lab Girl” this summer, I realized I’d found that inspiring teacher in a book. She talks about plants with a scientist’s eye but a poet’s heart, making for a magnetic memoir. As she says, she wanted to know what “it’s like to be a plant,” a curiosity that led to over 20 years of work in environmental sciences, telling stories of her first job “shooting bags” of medicine and later more rewarding endeavors as a university researcher, investigating whether trees have memories, how roots communicate, and other cool, green behaviors.

Though Jahren has vast experience in science, it’s her personal stories that really shine in the book. She honestly speaks of her emotionally distant, Scandinavian family and her mother’s harshness. She describes manic-depressive episodes in details that will make your nerves tingle. Less wild but even richer are the tales of her excursions, both physical and psychological, into her experiments with longtime lab assistant, Bill Hagopian. They’ve worked together since the mid-1990s when the eccentric showed up to her class, essentially homeless, and through his insights on soil, convinced Jahren he was brilliant in a way other students weren’t. Bill’s bold-talking, day-old-pizza-eating, smart-as-a-whip personality offers a humble, funny foil to Jahren’s straightforward ambition and steadiness that I couldn’t get enough of.

What also amazes me about this book is Jahren’s ability to articulate complex scientific concepts in simple ways. Note her comparison of baby leaflets to the “small and insufficient” spare tire that only gets you to the nearest gas station. She makes science sound exciting and useful, which, of course, any scientist would tell you, it is, but it’s Jahren’s ease with profundity that makes this book stand out. She waxes on about the struggle of a seed or pollinating wasps, biological processes that often must be overlooked by mainstream gardening experts. Finally, her eloquence spills in a most touching way into her relationships with her husband and son. That she brought home a “potion” for her son to drink so he can transform into a tiger before explaining the slow evolution of a tiger makes me think she’s just showing off. What “a brain.” And I mean that as a compliment.

My daughter is still a bit young to read “Lab Girl,” but it surely would entertain any adult out there like me. Not necessarily ornamental horticulturalists but simply people who respect science and love plants. All we gardeners do in dormant winter is dream about plants anyway. Reading “Lab Girl” is an excellent way to dream.

Curbing my Child’s Election Anxiety

Alec Baldwin My impression of Alec Baldwin doing Trump wasn’t spot on but enough to make my daughter laugh. She knew that Trump had blamed a broken microphone for his poor debate performance. I’d squint my eyes, puff up my mouth, and point a finger at her. “My microphone is broken. She broke it. She and Obama took my microphone to Kenya and broke it. And now my microphone is broken.” She’d giggle with glee as I’d tuck her into bed, then insist I do it again. We’d let her and her siblings watch that first parody on Saturday Night Live. It lessened their anxiety about Trump. That crazy, bully man wasn’t so scary after all. He was just silly. Not powerful.

Earlier this last fall, my daughter roamed in and out of the TV room as I watched the debates. She and her sister noticed Trump interrupting Hillary Clinton, they noticed the strange way he frowned, they noticed how mean he was. We talked about why their dad and I were voting for Clinton. How we believed in helping all people, not just the rich, helping the planet’s environment, having a peaceful talk with other countries and not going to war. They were always reassured but then news would come out weekly about some horrific way Trump had treated someone: the disabled reporter, Latinos, African-Americans, women, etc. And each time, my younger daughter would go into processing mode: either asking me a slew of questions about why this was happening or play-acting a scenario.

Sometimes I’d walk in the kitchen and hear her say to an imaginary friend, “Why are you voting for Trump? He makes fun of people.”

That processing continued for weeks as the election dragged on and became darker and darker. In her bedroom, I’d pass by a “speech” to an imaginary audience about why they should all vote for Hillary Clinton. On other days, we’d be at dinner and she’d ask a series of questions. Where were Trump’s parents and why didn’t they tell him to be nice? Why did he want to grab a lady by her private part? If Trump won, would Daddy still have a job? Would we still have money? Would there be soldiers in our neighborhood?

After the questioning went on awhile and I worried it was descending into obsession, I’d lean forward and squish up my face. “My microphone is broken. She broke it. She and Obama took it…”

Uncontrollable laughter.

Later, she’d recite the bit verbatim to me.

When election day came, I told her that the reasonable, thoughtful people in America would prevail. We didn’t know for sure, but the people who called voters and asked them questions said Clinton would probably win. Then I kissed her and put her on the bus.

I walked away thinking that the truth was that there were a lot of angry, white, bully voters, but not enough compared to all of the brown people and women and millenials whose values didn’t match Trump’s corrupt, aggressive ones. They would vote and Clinton would be elected.

Well, last night I discovered not enough of those groups came out to vote. They were complacent, or busy, or cynical, who knows. Now, Trump’s about to take power. This morning when my daughter asked me who won, I brushed off Trump’s win, saying we’d have to wait to see what he did. He might not be as mean as he promised.

“Are we going to move?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “We’ll stick it out. Wait and see.”

As more questions came, I answered them as honestly as I could without creating a panic, even though, of course, I’m panicking inside. I’m privately processing how many ugly, bigoted people there are in America. More than I predicted. People who don’t care about civil rights or women’s issues or the world economy or really just facts. I also realized that I couldn’t use my Alec Baldwin impersonation to diffuse the worry anymore, because the worry is now reality.

During these next years, I’m hoping Baldwin will spoof Trump over and over. Point out his hypocrisies. Make light of his awful character. That would be a welcomed balm, until Trump of course pinches free speech and forces Saturday Night Live off the air. If that happens, I won’t be surprised — by that or much of anything else after last night. My job now is to take care of my family and make my daughter laugh in some other silly way.

7 Things I Learned From NaNoWriMo, 2014


A couple of years ago, I decided to participate in National Novel Writing Month. With a shrug and then focused vigor, I dove into writing a 50,000-word story. It was an intense, frustrating, and ultimately, rewarding journey. I got to swim in the dream of my story. Set in Paris, about a cool botanist, secretive and suspenseful, with plants at the book’s heart, I wrote the tale I wanted to read. But it wasn’t easy, and there were several things I could have done differently. Here’s what I learned about the process.


1. I could indeed write a novel in 30 days!

Before 2014, I’d dismissed National Novel Writing Month because I didn’t think any literary work of high quality could be produced in 30 days. And the truth is, it can’t. But a rough, rough draft can, and that’s what you need to get to the next step: the revision process, which can take as many months as you prefer it to.

2. You have to lower your standards.

In NaNoWriMo, there’s no time for perfection. There’s no time for procrastination because you want everything to be “just so.” As I wrote my 2014 novel, I kept thinking, “This is crap, this is crap. Oh, my goodness, this is crap.” Well, it was but if you just allow your sentences to be rough, you will get into a “flow” state and put them on paper. If your inner critic leads you, you will never string words together and finish the story. That’s a worse offense than producing a work of poor quality.

3. The most time-consuming part is not knowing what to write.

If you don’t know your various characters or where your plot’s going, you may stop and ponder. Pondering takes time. I always get indecisive and indecision paralyzes. That thought time could be used to throw words onto a screen (or paper). I recommend working out at least the story arc in October.

4. Having a detailed outline helps tremendously.

In 2014, I had completed a worksheet of 20 questions I’d been given by a professor in my MFA program (at Goddard College). This was one of the best writing tools I ever received and a resource I still use today. (It’s a list that most how-to books about how to write a novel will cover.) It helped me decide everything from where the story takes place and why to what inner conflict the protagonist must overcome as they overcome their external conflict. Heavy but useful stuff.
This year, I not only answered all of the questions on that worksheet (even if I knew they were weak answers I’d change later), I also wrote a scene by scene outline. My novel ended up being about 15 chapters with 3-4 scenes in each. I’m worried it may not add up to 50,000 words but my aim is to at least write that scene skeleton before fleshing it out later. This has given me a clear direction in which to sail every day. I look at my outline and set my course.

5. You need to use every small block of time you have.

It would be dreamy if we all were independently wealthy and had all day every day in which to write. But most writers aren’t in this situation. I have flexibility in that I can set aside writing time and then schedule work time, but I still have kids and pets and a life with non-writing responsibilities.
Therefore, in November, 2014, when my kids were watching TV before bed and my husband was catching up on work, I would open my laptop and write for 15, 30 or 45 minutes. No excuses for not being inspired or not knowing what to write. If you have that scene outline, you will add to your word count. And sometimes you’ll surprise yourself with how many words you can stack up in just a half-hour.

6. You’ll gain weight if you’re not careful.

Writing is a sedentary act. This is the one thing I dislike about it. I get slothy. I get cold. My muscles turn to mush. After sitting for a couple of hours, I can feel my rear side widening at the lack of movement. So when I’m blessed with a three or four hours of solitary writing time, I have to purposefully eat low-carb and light. I have to make a point to get out and take a vigorous walk or ride my stationary bike in the basement. Exercise helps recharge the brain anyway.

7. The community is incredibly supportive.

One thing I got hooked on in 2014 was the super sweet, super energetic community that is NaNoWriMo. I went to Seattle meet ups where 5 or 6 writers would chat, get to know each other, and then sit around and write for awhile. It wasn’t as productive as if I’d stayed at home but meeting those other writers inspired me and kept me sane. I knew I wasn’t alone in this weird ambition to make up a story and tell it to others.

This year, I’m excited about the novel I’m creating. Last year, my novel, after much polishing, placed in a contest and was nearly published (it’s still under review). This year, my story’s even more thought out. It features compelling characters and a dangerous, thrilling plot. And because I’m enjoying the NaNoWriMo process more, I’m inclined to think this November will be even better than 2014’s!

Good luck, everyone. If you’ve done NaNoWriMo before, tell me what you learned from the process.