Mix & Match

A Pen In Each Hand

By Beaver

  1. Go to random.org and use the Random Calendar Date Generator to pick five dates between January 2002 and the present (leave the Sunday box unchecked).
  2. Go to the Calendar and find the prompts that fell on the dates generated in step one.
  3. Use all 5 prompts in the same story.

Example (5 random dates and their corresponding prompts):

  1. February 5, 2002: Write about a surprise meeting.
  2. July 2, 2003: Write about a remedy.
  3. April 30, 2004: Write about magic.
  4. February 16, 2008: They had a way of walking together.
  5. December 23, 2015: “He lied about being a scientist!”

Excerpts from My Commonplace Book: On Doubt, Fear, and Failure

Absolute BlankBy Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

I prefaced the first article in this series by saying “By far the most popular article I’ve written for Toasted Cheese is ‘Keeping a Commonplace Book’ (see Top Posts Today in the sidebar for evidence; it’s always there!).” and it’s still true. When I get a Pinterest notification, nine times out of ten, it’s someone liking or repinning that article. (The other 10% consists mainly of people liking something I pinned as a joke, ha.)

For this month’s article, I chose the theme of “doubt, fear, and failure” because I think all writers have experienced feeling like they have no idea what they’re doing, like everyone around them is more talented, like they’re writing and writing and writing and getting nowhere. If you’re feeling like an imposter, rest assured, you’re not alone. Every writer has been there at some point. Remember, everyone has their gameface on, and what they allow you to see does not reflect their own internal struggles.

Background Image: Andrew Hall (CC-by-nc-sa)

Background Image: Andrew Hall (CC-by-nc-sa)

When you start out on a career in the arts you have no idea what you are doing. This is great. People who know what they are doing know the rules, and know what is possible and impossible. You do not. And you should not. The rules on what is possible and impossible in the arts were made by people who had not tested the bounds of the possible by going beyond them. And you can. If you don’t know it’s impossible it’s easier to do. And because nobody’s done it before, they haven’t made up rules to stop anyone doing that again, yet.Neil Gaiman {+}

What’s your advice to new writers? Don’t give a shit. Don’t care. Books, until recently, were dangerous: banned, burned, watched. Write something dangerous. Say something you shouldn’t. Blow something up. But well.Shalom Auslander {+}

Anyway, do we really want consistency in an artist? What does this pressure to please the market have to do with art? Originality involves risk, and risk implies the possibility of failure. That’s how greatness is born.Robert McCrum {+}

Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinions of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth. —Katherine Mansfield {+}

I often need to remind myself that I need to hear failure out, because by failing at doing an easy thing, a groupthink thing, a thing one has been taught to do for one’s career, one might be encouraged to make or do or be something more original and true. Because failing as an artist is a necessary thing, a thing I wish I could more easily accept.Rebecca Brown {+}

I do worry a little that the modern age has taken the failure stage out of the creative process. Now if you can’t get your manuscript published, it’s because the publishers are cowards, can’t see your genius, and you can self-publish it (and then send out slightly crazed emails to critics). There is a lack of humility, a failure to recognize that getting knocked on your ass is actually good for you.Jessa Crispin {+}

I was talking to my graduate class a bit … about how career writers—career anything, I suppose—are always having to list their shiny accomplishments, and how it would be such a great relief sometime to write up your Anti-Vita and let people see it. It would be such a moment of candor, of behind-the-curtain truth. All the awards you didn’t get, all the amazing journals your work wasn’t good enough to be published in, all the prizes you were nominated for but—oops!—didn’t actually win. Sigh. All the teaching innovations, trotted out with such high hopes, that failed miserably. And so on. How you sat at home on the sofa and muttered, “What’s the point?,” embarrassing yourself and boring your family members, who tiptoed quietly away. Revealing all the failures would be such a relief, such an exhale, such an “I’m nobody, who are you?” opportunity. —Joy Castro {+}

It’s painful to write. It’s painful to take a clear look at your finances, at your health, at your relationships. At least it’s painful when you have no confidence that you can actually improve in those areas. I would not speak for anyone else, but most of my distractions … are traceable to a deep-seated fear that I may not ultimately prevail.Ta-Nehisi Coates {+}

I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t

you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t writeW. S. Merwin {+}

“I think the single most defining characteristic of a writer”—I found myself saying to a friend the other day, when she asked my thoughts on the teaching of writing—“I mean the difference between a writer and someone who ‘wants to be a writer,’ is a high tolerance for uncertainty.” … It’s hard to write well. But it may be even harder to simply keep writing; which, by the way, is the only way to write better.Sonya Chung {+}

[M]y internal life as a writer has been a constant battle with the small, whispering voice (well, sometimes it shouts) that tells me I can’t do it. This time, the voice taunts me, you will fall flat on your face. Every single piece of writing I have ever completed — whether a novel, a memoir, an essay, short story or review — has begun as a wrestling match between hopelessness and something else, some other quality that all writers, if they are to keep going, must possess.Dani Shapiro {+}

“[T]hat kind of self doubt and low self-esteem you’re describing is just part of the creative process.” This was a revelation to me—that those terrible feelings actually signaled that I was IN the creative process and not that I was failing at it.Michelle Huneven {+}

[I]n my view a writer is a writer not because she writes well and easily, because she has amazing talent, because everything she does is golden. In my view a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.Junot Díaz {+}

What many talented people lack is the ability to keep going when external rewards are minimal or non-existent. … Every writer gets rejected, sometimes over and over. But the ones who only have potential stop submitting (or just stop writing) somewhere along the way. They get discouraged and feel beat down. And then, before you know it, they’ve become someone who used to be a writer. Or someone who wanted to be a writer. —Chris Guillebeau {+}

[Writing a book is] very difficult. But so is losing 30 pounds or learning French or growing your own vegetables or training for a marathon … While it’s tempting to keep the idea of writing wrapped up in a glittery gauze of muse-directed creativity, it’s just another sort of work, one that requires dedication, commitment, time and the necessary tools.Mary McNamara {+}

I discovered that, by spending a long time on a short story, I could make it pretty good. But all around me, people were turning in truly terrific short stories and saying, “Oh, I wrote it the night before I turned it in.” There was so little talk of process back then, I really thought that I was the only writer there whose work went through an ugly stage. For years, I thought with deep shame that I was a fraud, up against the truly talented. It took me about twenty years to realize they were lying, and just armoring themselves for the criticism to come, and pretending not to be as invested in the work as they were. —Michelle Huneven {+}

“A novel is a work of a certain length that is somehow flawed,” a wise critic once said—and as I was told during the first few weeks of my MFA program. To write a novel, and see to it through from the first word to the 150,000th, you have to be willing to embrace the idea that every once in a while your prose is going to be, for lack of a better word, more prosaic than it would be otherwise. Why? Because to get a reader to make it through 150,000 words (the length of my last, and about the length of your average robust novel), you need this clunky, unattractive but very utilitarian thing called a plot. —Hector Tobar {+}

What’s in your head is seemingly infinitely richer than what you finally get down on the page. I think that’s why some people never actually get the writing done. They have a dream of a book in their head, and every attempt to write it down feels impoverished. The difference used to bother me until I thought about what the tradeoff was. The book in your head may be the platonically ideal book you could write, while the book you do write may seem a poor beast indeed, Caliban to your ideal book’s Prospero. But the book you write is real. And when you finish, you can hold it in your hands. —Richard Rhodes {+}

I worry about rejection, but not too much. The real fear isn’t rejection, but that there won’t be enough time in your life to write all the stories you have in you. So every time I put a new one in the mail, I know I’ve beaten death again. —Ray Bradbury {+}

“The peculiarity of being a writer,” [Joan] Didion says, “is that the entire enterprise involves the mortal humiliation of seeing one’s own words in print.” … Yet even worse than publication, she says, is the risk that something unfinished will be published.Adrienne LaFrance {+}

Draft Zero

A Pen In Each Hand

By Beaver

On paper, write about something you’ve never written about before—something you’ve hesitated to write about, something you’re scared to write about. No self-censoring! When you’re done… Burn it. Tear it up. Run it through a shredder. Tie it to a balloon and set it free. Put it in a bottle and toss it in the ocean. Fold it up and tuck it inside a library book. Leave it in a public place. Stick a stamp on it and mail it to Post Secret.

Now. Open a new document on your computer and begin again.

How to Write a Book Review (and How to Request One)

Absolute Blank

By Shelley Carpenter (Harpspeed)


I think one of the important components in writing a book review is mindset. One needs to be open minded to reading books that they may not typically read. Professional editors and writers may have the option of choosing the books they review with the added perk of a salary. At Toasted Cheese and many other literary journals the editors and writers review books for the joy of it and to support fellow writers. It is a labor of love.

Revving Up before Reading:

Another practice I follow is to learn about the author before reading his/her book. I visit blogs, social media, and websites. Knowing something about the author makes the reading a more personal experience and may help later when it is time to write the review and the short biography that follows. I also look in the Toasted Cheese archives to see if there are submissions and links to other writing. It is like taking a test drive before driving cross-country.


The task also requires mindfulness. Before I open a book that is slotted for review, I always ask: What makes this a good book? This is a great question particularly if one is reviewing a book that is outside of their writing or reading genre(s). Giving myself an assigned question truly helps to focus on the task. Within the context of the question there are three sub-parts that I consider: What is this book about? This relates to genre, character and plot, the general information that most reviews contain. What do I notice within the text? This refers to style, language, theme, vocabulary, etc. a.k.a. the writer’s toolbox. Lastly, what do I notice beyond the story? Does it relate to the real world in any way? Are there comparisons or contrasts that can be drawn?

Another name for this practice is active reading. Meanwhile, I’m annotating the copy—I’m circling, underlining, highlighting, and writing notes in the margins. I also attach sticky notes on the pages that answer my question(s). By the time I finish reading, there are usually a dozen or more colored notes sticking out of the copy.

I take my time with every book and collection of poetry and stories and when I’ve finished reading and annotating, I let the words simmer in my mind for days before my fingers touch the keyboard. This is how I begin.

Photo Credit: Horia Varlan/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Horia Varlan/Flickr (CC-by)

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Tips for Writing a Review for Toasted Cheese:

  • Keep in mind Candle-Ends is our way of connecting the TC community with the literary journal. We’re looking for positive/neutral reviews that support the writers in our community.
  • We’re ok with fluffy, but not with false praise. Be honest, but kind.
  • We know one of the reasons writers hesitate to write reviews is they’re unsure how to handle reviewing a book they didn’t love unequivocally. Here are some suggestions:
    • Describe the book. For a novel, tell readers about the key characters, the gist of the plot, the setting. For short stories or poetry, give readers an overview of the types of stories or poems they can anticipate. Write about the overall theme of the book. Describe the writer’s style.
    • Let the book speak for itself. Include representative quotes in your review so readers can see what to expect and judge for themselves.
    • Highlight the the book’s strengths.
    • Sandwich criticism between praise. If there is a weakness you think is important to mention, put it in the middle. Start with a positive and end with a positive.
  • A brief mention of why you personally related to the book is fine, but don’t digress too much. Keep the focus on the content of the book.
  • Provide a brief biography of the author as well as links to their website and/or social media accounts.
  • Please mention if you have a personal connection to the author.

Tips for Requesting a Review from Toasted Cheese:

  • Requests for reviews should be sent to our reviews editor at reviews@toasted-cheese.com
  • Be sure to mention the author’s connection to Toasted Cheese (please note: we only review books by writers with a pre-existing connection to TC).
  • Author or publisher must be able to provide a digital and/or print copy of the book to the reviewer.
  • Indicate your willingness to write a review. Not only is it good karma to reciprocate, but requesting authors who write a review will be moved to the front of the queue.

Being a Part of a Writing Community

A Pen In Each Hand

By Beaver

When we started Toasted Cheese, the critique forums were very popular. This was in large part because the editors put a lot of their own time into giving feedback. Our hope was that by leading by example, by showing writers how to give good feedback, they would eventually take over from us and become self-sufficient. Ultimately, our goal was for us to be dispensable at the forums. One day, we thought, our members won’t need us anymore because they’ll be able to rely on each other.

That’s not what happened. Instead, as the editors became busier, and weren’t able to spend as much time giving feedback, writers continued to post work and request feedback, but few gave it in return (those who did: we appreciate you so much!). The less feedback that was given, the fewer new requests that were made, until posting at the critique forums slowed to a trickle and died off.

We loved giving feedback—that’s how this whole thing started—but no one can give and give and give indefinitely without being refueled. Eventually, you burn out. Other things, things that do reward you for doing them, take priority. If you want someone to keep giving, you can’t just take take take, you have to give back.

I know some writers are reluctant to comment on others’ work because they don’t think they’re qualified. But if you write yourself, if you read, then yes, you’re qualified! It may take some time to figure out how to articulate your thoughts, but just like writing fiction or whatever your genre of choice is, the only way to get there is by practicing. The more you do it, the better you’ll get at it.

Others shy away from critiquing or reviewing because they don’t want to “waste” their limited writing time commenting on others’ work. But I will let you in on a writing secret: giving feedback is one of the best ways to improve your own writing. When you read your own work, you are blind to many of its flaws. When you read others’ work, those same flaws jump out at you. Feedback, critiques, reviews—all of these will give you insights that you can put into practice in your own writing. The time you spend on them will never be wasted.

Our reviews editor, Shelley, receives many review requests from writers with no connection to Toasted Cheese. An existing connection with TC is a stipulation because Candle-Ends is about supporting our writing community. You have to put something into it before you can get something back. If you’d like us to review your work, there are many ways you can establish a connection with TC—one of those, of course, is by writing a review of another writer’s work.

Toasted Cheese Writer Survey

Absolute BlankBy Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Thank you to everyone who took the time to answer our survey. Our goal was to get to know our readers better and we were very pleased with the number and range of responses.


How old are you?
30-49 (31)
18-29 (18)
50-69 (14)
13-17 (8)
70+ (1)

Where do you live?
North America (63)
Europe (7)
Asia (2)

Is English your first language?
Yes (68)
No (4)

It wasn’t surprising that the majority of our respondents were English-speakers from North America, but it was good to see some of our international readers represented as well. We have had submissions from most continents (not Antarctica, though that would be very cool—any research scientists at the South Pole reading this?) so we know we have a wide reach even if the majority of our readers are “local.”

It was interesting to see that all the age categories were represented. This is something we weren’t sure about but will definitely take into account when planning future articles. We should note we didn’t include the 12-and-under age category on the survey because of COPPA but we do know we have readers in that group as well (see next section).

Background Image: Farrukh/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Background Image: Farrukh/Flickr (CC-by-nc)


If you are a teacher who uses TC in your classes, what level do you teach?
College / University (2)
High School (1)
Adult Education (1)
“My teacher used it. Does that count?”

If you are a teacher, what subject(s) do you teach?
English (4)
Creative Writing (3)
Literature (1)

If you are a teacher, what section/part of TC do you use the most?
“Hard to say; pretty much the whole site.”
“Just refer students here in a general way.”

We’re not going to lie, we’d hoped more teachers would respond to the survey. From our site stats, specifically the number of incoming links from schools and teacher pages, we know that a lot of teachers use TC as a resource and refer students—including preteens who weren’t an age group we originally anticipated using the site—here, and we would love to know more about why you like TC and if there’s anything we could do that would improve the user experience for you. We’ll keep trying to connect.


Which of the following apply to you?
I have a job that’s not writing-related. (29)
I’m a student. (19)
I have a writing-related job. (15)
I’m a stay-at-home parent. (7)
I’m retired. (6)
Other answers: I am self employed. | Teacher/author/reviewer | I write | Former college professor | I write short fiction | My job is writing-intensive, but not writing-related. | Recent college grad, living with parents. | Unemployed.

How much time do you spend writing weekly?
0-10 hours. (31)
10-20 hours. (23)
Less than 40 hours but more than 20. (11)
It’s my full-time job. (5)
Other answers: More than 40 but I write a lot for work. It’s skill practice, but not quite the same as creative fiction. | Binge poetry fiction/creative non.

What genres do you write?
General Fiction (literary, mainstream, etc.) (56)
Supernatural Fiction (scifi, fantasy, horror, etc.) (36)
Flash (31)
Poetry (29)
Creative Nonfiction (20)
Other Nonfiction (essays, articles, etc.) (17)
Mystery (16)
Fan Fiction (9)
Other answers: Historical fiction | Romantic Comedy | Speculative / Borderline | small one or two line pieces to go with a photo series. | Anything TC contests require.

We see that TC has a broad audience, that no single category dominates. We have those who write on their own time to those who write for a living, those who write a little to those who write a lot, and all genres well-represented. On the one hand, that’s really cool; on the other, that doesn’t really help us to narrow down what type of content to focus on! We suppose it’s a sign we should continue what we’re doing, but perhaps add some more niche articles that would appeal to different groups.


Do you write with the intent of publishing your work?
Sometimes (43)
Always (26)
Never (3)

Have you submitted for publication?
Yes, in the last month. (20)
Yes, but not recently. (19)
Yes, in the last year. (15)
No, not yet (but I plan to). (13)
No, I write for myself only. (3)
No, I prefer to self-publish. (2)

How many times do you edit a piece before submitting?
More than 3 but less than 10. (37)
2-3 times. (24)
10+ times. (9)
Once. (2)

Have you had work published?
Yes, a few times. (29)
Not yet. (27)
Yes, many times. (9)
I have self-published. (4)
Other answers: First one in November | Once, but not paid | Poetry Anthologies | I submitted my work to a TC contest. Does that count?

What do you do with your rejection letters?
Keep / save / file / archive them. (29)

“…for motivation to try harder”

“…for reference”

“…to learn from them”

“…as motivation to continue trying”

“…to review them occasionally”

“…in hopes of laughing at them someday!”

“I make notes on things to change, then put them somewhere I cannot find them.”

Throw them away / delete them / ignore them / nothing. (20)

“I make note of reflections in a log, then delete/toss them.”

I have not received any yet. (14)

Depends on contents. (5)

“I collate both good and bad criticisms if written down. If it’s an automatic rejection, I simply delete it from my inbox.”

“I ignore them unless the editor offers constructive comments.”

“It would depend on the contents: save-trash”

“I’ve been ridiculously lucky and haven’t gotten any yet. When I do, I’ll keep them in a file to refer to a) when I’m looking for ways to improve my writing and b) to remind myself that I’m actively trying, putting stuff out there.”

“Read and recycle unless they are particularly encouraging. Then I save them.”

Use as motivation. (4)

“Turn them into motivational posters.”

“Post them on my board next to the positives.”

“Frame them. If I get a personal note.”

“When I receive one, I’ll be happy to frame it.”


We’re thrilled to see how many of our readers are submitting their work and having success at publishing, but don’t worry, we’ll never forget those of you who are just starting out. It also warms our cold editor hearts to see the number of times most of you revise your work before submitting.

It looks like rejection letters could be the subject of its own article—kudos to those of you who find creative ways to turn rejection into motivation. Group hug!


Do you have an email address just for writing-related business?
No, I use my primary email. (51)
Yes. (19)
Other answers: I use my University email. | No.

We’re disappointed no one admitted to using someone else’s email and/or an email with a random name on it, because this happens on a regular basis and we’re so curious as to why! Get your own email people who do this. Everyone else, carry on.

Do you have an online portfolio or writing-related website?
No. (35)
Yes, I have a writing-focused blog. (21)
Yes, I promote my work via social media. (18)
Yes, I have my own website. (13)
Other answers: I also referred people to my publisher to read blurbs on my books | Online writing websites | Kind of. I write on it, about books. | Under construction.

This question had a definite divide. We found it somewhat surprising that nearly half our respondents had no online space for their writing at all, while the other half in most cases had more than one space to share their writing. This could potentially be the subject of a future article.

How do you research markets?
(for submissions) I do my own research by reading a variety of publications. (47)
I use a website (like WritersMarket.com). (25)
I use a resource book (like Writer’s Market). (21)
(for queries) I do my own research by visiting agent and publisher websites. (20)
I’ll worry about that later. “First I must learn to write!” (10)
Word of mouth (5)

“ask friends and colleagues”

“I know several authors and editors well enough to ask them for advice.”

“people’s bios”

“Talk to readers about what they are reading, what they like and don’t like etc.”


If you use a book or website to research markets, which one?
Writer’s Market (19)
Duotrope (7)
Poets and Writers (3)
WritersMarket.com (3)
Poet’s Market (2)
Newpages.com (2)
Other books/sites: Novel and Short Story’s Writer’s Market, Cozy-Mystery.com, The Submission Grinder, freelancewriting.com, Mslexia, querytracker.net, The Writer magazine, thereviewreview.net, Writer’s Chronicle, Writer’s Digest, Ralan, Dark Markets, www.writing.ie

Google / the internet generally (7)

“I just surf the net for contemporary poets and check out where they’ve already published.”

“I mostly use writer blogs and websites”

Many / Various (6)

“Multiple genre-related sites”

“Depends on the piece”

“Not a specific one…”

None / “What is a market?” (18)

There were so many different responses to these questions. We liked the word-of-mouth responses—we neglected to include that in our options, and obviously connections are an important resource. As well, some of the market resources you use were new to us. We had a couple respondents ask “what is a market?” so it looks likely that markets/market resources will be the subject of a future article.

Props to those of you who are taking the time to focus on developing your writing craft before worrying about submitting.That phase of the writing life is too often undervalued.


Do you participate in writing challenges?
No, challenges aren’t for me. (32)
Yes, NaNoWriMo. (18)
Yes, other writing challenges. (22)

If you answered “other writing challenges” in the question above, which one(s)?
TC contests / Mini-Nano (7)
Other contests/competitions (not specified) (8)
Other: Liberty Hall, On the Premises, StoryADay, WriteChain Challenge, monthly poetry challenges available on Facebook, mostly blogging challenges, school writing challenge, weekly prompt challenges, writers group.

Other responses:

“goals I set for myself”

“I don’t do challenges other than ones I set for myself”

“I don’t understand the question. writing is a challenge.”

“I have done NaNo and some other challenges, which is how I learned they aren’t for me.”

We weren’t surprised to see a divide on the responses to these questions. About half the respondents aren’t interested in writing challenges, while others had many/varied responses. This mirrors the divide we’ve always observed between contest entries and regular submissions, i.e. there is next to no overlap between these two groups of writers. We think it would be fascinating to interview writers on both sides and dig deeper into the differences.


What types of writing articles do you like to read?
Elements of fiction (character, plot, setting, etc.) (53)
Inspiration / Creativity (50)
Business of writing (submitting, querying, etc.) (41)
Author interviews (41)
Anything really / Everything (2)
Other answers: Articles about writer’s spaces and time management. | book reviews | grammar/weak words/transition words and phrases | how to make 3D characters | I don’t.

Apparently you like a bit of everything (except for the person who doesn’t like reading articles about writing at all, lol). Which we guess tells us to continue what we’re doing. And for the person who mentioned book reviews, that article is coming very soon!

Any comments or questions?

How does your payment system work regarding the authors’ work you accept for publication? Is there revenue sharing? Is your magazine distributed in the form of hard copy, digital, or through online publication? —um.

I love the monthly writing prompts and playing with the contest themes. Also, I enjoy messing around in the forums when I have the time and inclination even though I have yet to coax myself into posting something myself. All-in-all, I love your site!! —thank you!

I rarely do surveys, but this was fun! Served to also make me think about where I am writing-wise and what I’m looking for out of writing resources and support materials. Many thanks! —thank you!

I really really appreciate your Twitter presence. Your writing prompts are pretty sweet! —thank you!

I’m at a point where I’m focusing on learning what I think are intermediate skills: how do I approach revising large works (novella, novel), what are the steps to querying agents, when do I get an editor involved, what is the editorial relationship like, and how can I maximize my learning throughout this process? Things like that. I like TC’s writing prompts and fiction contests, and find these useful for practicing the craft. —thank you, and thanks for the suggestions!

Love your site —thank you!

More power to Toasted Cheese this 2015! 🙂 —thank you!

No questions. I just love your site. You guys do great work, and you do it consistently. —thank you!

No success locating an agent. —so… an article on finding an agent perhaps?

Spork. —scuppernong.

This is an unusual quiz, don’t forget about the new authors. —ok!

What the heck is a market? Also, when will you be revealing the DoW 2014 winners? —article on markets, gotcha. Dead of Winter winners are announced January 31; this is in the contest guidelines, ffr.

Thanks again for participating and be sure to check out the A Pen In Each Hand exercise.


A Pen In Each Hand

By Beaver

community:  a group of people who have the same interests

We love that you love visiting and reading TC (yes, we see you—hi!), but we’d love it even more if you interacted with us, too. So in this exercise we challenge you to speak up. Comment on a post or article. Talk to us on Twitter or Facebook. Start a thread at the forums. Do something to give us an opportunity to get to know you better.

If you appreciate TC, speaking up is the easiest way to give back. We know it can be scary to delurk, but you can do it! Help put the community back in writing community. We can’t do it without you.

The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud. Coco Chanel (1883-1971)

I write for those women who do not speak, for those who do not have a voice because they were so terrified, because we are taught to respect fear more than ourselves. We’ve been taught that silence would save us, but it won’t. Audre Lorde (1934-1992)

I think most of us fear reaching the end of our life and looking back regretting the moments we didn’t speak up. … there’s a time for silence, and there’s a time for waiting your turn. But if you know how you feel, and you so clearly know what you need to say, you’ll know it. I don’t think you should wait. I think you should speak now. Taylor Swift (1989- )

Excerpts From My Commonplace Book: On Not Writing

Absolute BlankBy Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

By far the most popular article I’ve written for Toasted Cheese is “Keeping a Commonplace Book” (see Top Posts Today in the sidebar for evidence; it’s always there!). As I mentioned in that article, for several years now, I’ve been collecting quotes on my blog and many of those quotes are writing-related. So when casting about for a topic for this month’s article, it occurred to me that the same people who are interested in the how-tos of commonplacing might also be interested in some of the content I put in mine.

I decided to take a ‘quotes on a theme’ approach and pull quotes that relate to a specific topic. It turns out I’ve collected a lot of writing quotes, so there will likely be future articles on other themes, but for this month’s article, I chose the theme of “not writing”—a subject that seems to be of universal concern to writers. If you wrote fewer words in 2014 than you intended to—this one’s for you. Take heart. Not-writing is as much a part of the writing process as placing words on the page. If you’re in writing drought right now, remember the writing life is a cycle. One day the words will begin to flow again. Trust.

Background image: Mitchell Joyce/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Background image: Mitchell Joyce/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Writing is hard—writers say this all the time, and I think probably only other writers believe it. But it’s not nearly as hard, in my experience, as not writing. During my should-be-writing years, I thought about my novel all the time. Increasingly, these were not happy or satisfying thoughts. … I woke one night in the midst of a minor panic attack. It wasn’t unusual for me wake in the night, anxious and scared—and I always knew the source of the panic right away. But it was rare for my heavy-sleeping husband to wake at the same time. And instead of reassuring him and letting him get back to sleep, I told him the naked, humbling truth. I told him that if I didn’t finish my novel, I thought my future happiness might be at risk. He wiped his eyes and yawned and said, “OK. Let’s figure out how to make this happen.” It didn’t happen overnight, but the tide of my life shifted. —Susanna Daniel {+}

Studies on the nature of creativity have shown that people who consistently come up with more inventive and creative ideas are not necessarily innately gifted, nor are they necessarily more intelligent than other people. They are however capable of tolerating a certain level of mental discomfort. It works something like this: When our brains are presented with a problem—any problem—we feel slightly anxious. When we solve a problem, our brains release endorphins that make us feel good. So, we have a problem to solve, we often run with the first answer we come up with because it feels good (literally) to find a solution! But people who are willing to see that first solution, and then set it aside—delaying that endorphin high—while they continue to search for another answer, and another, and another… until they have compared all possible solutions and then chose the best option—and run with it—consistently come up with much more interesting, creative solutions.Molly Idle {+}

Not writing is important: it’s restorative. Taking a break from the work is also a part the work. Nobody really talks about that part of being a writer, and I know why they don’t. It’s scary. When I’m writing, I feel plugged in and energized and in sync. But when I’m not writing, I feel out of it. I have the very real fear that I’ll never be able to write anything ever again. When you look at the stiff, dark branches of trees in the winter, isn’t it hard to imagine those same trees all lush and full of leaves? But winter happens. Then spring comes. —Sarah Selecky {+}

Postal submissions taught writers that this vocation is not a sprint. Writing is a series of marathons separated by long respites, where we regain breath and build strength. It is time for writers to slow down again, so that our performance in the next race can be better, more meaningful, and if we are lucky, closer to the eternal, mysterious rewards of art. —Nick Ripatrazone {+}

Many of the successful published writers I hear talk on panels at conferences make it sound as if they are writing machines, as if they haven’t taken a day off from writing in years. Part of my success as a writer was not writing. If I hadn’t spent all those years teaching and reading and editing the work of other writers, I am certain I wouldn’t be the writer, and person, I am today. There are infinite ways to be a writer with a capital W, just as there are infinite ways to tell a story. —Julia Fierro {+}

There are a number of mysteries in [Penelope Fitzgerald’s] life, areas of silence and obscurity. One of these has to do with “lateness”. How much of a late starter, really, was she? She always said in interviews that she started writing her first novel (The Golden Child) to entertain her husband, Desmond Fitzgerald, when he was ill. But, like many of the things she told interviewers, there is something a little too simple about this. … There is a poignant note inside the back cover of her teaching notebook for 1969, a long time before she started to publish: “I’ve come to see art as the most important thing but not to regret I haven’t spent my life on it.” Yet the conversations she was having with writers in her teaching books show that she was always thinking about art and writing: they show how the deep river was running on powerfully, preparing itself to burst out.Hermione Lee {+}

I think that there is a case for saying that you have a bit more to say as you go through life. I mean, obviously there are people who write wonderful books in their early 20s. … But I think those people are the exception. Most of the time, I think one should just let these things mature. It’s no bad thing to start a writing career after you’ve experienced a bit of life.Alexander McCall Smith {+}

I have a blog, but I don’t do it properly. Months go by, years even, without me writing. Then suddenly I write a lot. Other people … other people blog properly. … The reason I don’t blog every day is because I am slow. … [U]ntil I’ve figured things out, I’m lost. Life for me is leaves blowing backwards. If I try to blog about it, I’m just snatching from the air. I have to wait until I’m clear of the leaves. Then I can look back and see what pattern they’ve been making, and their colours, and the fineness of their outlines. Other people are not lost at all. The precision of people who can blog all the time. It startles me, that clarity of leaves. —Jaclyn Moriarty {+}

Vertical writing … values depth over breadth. Stories are written when they are ready to be written; they are not forced into existence by planning or excessive drafting. … vertical writing seeks to dig into the page, to value the building of character and authenticity over the telegraphing of plot. … Vertical writing is no less work, but it is better work, work at the right time. It requires patience in the willingness to wait for a story to feel ready to be written, as well as the attention and focus necessary to inhabit the story once gestated.Nick Ripatrazone {+}

By and large really great writing from all wars comes a good time afterwards, when a person has had the time to let material develop and form itself, so that it’s not rhetorical. So that it’s not so heavily autobiographical. … It’s a bit like writing about cancer; there needs to be time. You need to find a way to transcend the tendency to put in every little detail. Just because it felt so important, it may not be important to the reader. And time is needed for imagination to come into play and to work with the material, to shape a story that may not be wholly in the real world, but only partly. —Tim O’Brien {+}

Nancy Slonim Aronie writes “great work comes after good work which comes after lousy work which comes after no work. remember that order.” please do. —Irene Nam {+}

What I forget, though, and what I am trying here to remember, is that the work does get done. Not every day, like the writing teachers recommend. Not even every week. But invariably, wherever I go, I write, just as inevitably I forget about having written, and subsequently worry. —Alex Gallo-Brown {+}

The time we have alone, the time we have in walking, the time we have in riding a bicycle, is the most important time for a writer. Escaping from the typewriter is part of the creative process. You have to give a subconscious time to think. Real thinking always occurs on the subconscious level. —Ray Bradbury {+}

Some of our most creative work gets done in downtime–waking from a nap, taking a walk, daydreaming in the shower. (Writers are particularly clean.) Downtime is when breakthrough ideas are delivered to us, unsummoned, when yesterday’s blockages somehow come unblocked. That’s because we treated ourselves to a little boredom and cleared our brains of the sludge of information. Try it. —William Zinsser {+}

I used to think that I needed wide open days and uncluttered hours to get important creative work done. Sometimes that’s true. But I’ve also learned that perhaps more important than what happens when I’m staring at the page is what happens when I’m not. How I chew on the idea in my downtime. My subconscious must know about the deadline—needs it, even—and works feverishly to pull it all together. Perhaps it’s even a pipe dream to imagine having something done early enough to bask in its finished glory with a glass of wine. And maybe that’s not even the point—writing is work and the furious finish is part of the process. —S. Hope Mills {+}

So You’re in a Writing Drought

A Pen In Each Hand

By Beaver

What to do until the words return? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Go for a walk (or something else that’ll get you outside). Writers spend far too much time indoors hunched over a keyboard. If you think about your writing, great. If not, that’s ok, too. The fresh air will be good for your brain regardless.
  2. Read! Instead of beating yourself up over not-writing frustration, put it aside and pick up a book. If it’s a good book, it’ll inspire you. If it’s a bad book, well, rage is a powerful motivator. 😉 If you’re in a long-term writing drought, create a reading project (a book a week, an author from each letter of the alphabet, bestsellers from the year you were born…) to keep yourself occupied.
  3. Stop pinning ‘how to create a commonplace book’ articles on your Pinterest and start your own commonplace book already! It can be as simple as starting a fresh board and pinning a few writing quotes on it. Here’s a search to get you started.

What We Were Reading in 2014: Recommended by the Editors

Absolute BlankBy Stephanie Lenz (Baker) & Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

The real writer is one who really writes (thanks Marge Piercy), but writers need to read, too. As Stephen King says, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” But with so much to choose from sometimes it’s hard to decide what to read next. So we asked the editors what they read this year and what they’d recommend to TC readers and here is what they had to say.

What We Were Reading In 2014

Background Image: Paul Bence/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Baker recommends:

Carsick by John Waters. Equal parts fiction and memoir, even more fun with the author-read audio book. Not to everyone’s taste but if it’s to your taste, we should get together for lunch.

Captain Marvel (ongoing series). Sometimes the “as you know Bob” element of comics deters me from reading but I am absolutely captured by the new Captain Marvel. The visuals are lush; the story and dialogue are well ahead of standard comics. Captain Marvel will be looked back on as a turning point in what comics can be.

Closing Time by Joe Queenan. While reading on my Kindle, I wanted to reach through the screen. Sometimes to comfort Queenan and sometimes to fingerpoke him in the shoulder. Long in my “to read” pile, I finally got around to it and hated putting it down, even when Queenan frustrated me with his word choice or double standards.

Tina DuPuy (blog, columns, articles, Twitter). DuPuy’s voice is clear and unapologetic, with humor and more than an occasional dose of snark. She writes from a progressive viewpoint on topics that are always ahead of the mainstream. Reading her prepares me to talk about the next big thing when it turns up on everyone’s lips.

The Shame of Poor Teeth in a Rich World” by Sarah Smarsh (Aeon Magazine). I think that Americans don’t talk often enough or realistically enough about poverty and its effect on generation after generation, not just in big ways but in small. John Cheese has written on the topic for Cracked (+ and +), combining truth and dark humor. Smarsh’s piece came to my attention through social media. I shared it liberally but it didn’t catch on the way I think it should have. I can only imagine that it’s because of its specificity and that specificity is why this simple 3,500 word essay still crosses my mind often nearly a month after I read it. My husband and I discussed our personal experiences relevant to the article over dinner and in the car and while brushing our teeth before bed. Even if you don’t share the experience, Smarsh’s writing draws in the reader and paints an unpretty picture I think more Americans should see.

Recommendations from TC’s archives:


Billiard recommends:

Saga by Brian K. Vaughn, art by Fiona Staples. Saga is an ongoing comic series, but it’s one that I read when the collected volumes are published. It’s fantasy/SF, and the plot is…difficult to explain. It’s about war, and love, and literature, and it is one of the most compelling things I’ve read in quite some time. Volume 3 was published in March of this year, but you’ll probably want to start with Volume 1.

Rat Queens by Kurtis J. Weibe. Like Saga, Rat Queens is an ongoing comic series. Volume 1 was published in April. This book has a female-led cast, and is a tremendous amount of fun. It’s also difficult to explain, so allow me to borrow from Amazon’s description: “…a violent monster-killing epic that is like Buffy meets Tank Girl in a Lord of the Rings world on crack!” Reading Rat Queens is some of the most fun I’ve had this year.

The Winter Long by Seanan McGuire. This is the eighth volume in Seanan’s October Daye series. Upon completing The Winter Long, I went back to the beginning and re-read the entire series. I never do this.

Seanan also has a blog, and while she mostly posts work and travel updates these days, sometimes she posts things like this. (Be aware that the linked post deals with depression and suicide.) Earlier this year, she published a collection of blog posts/essays called Letters to the Pumpkin King. Seanan’s nonfiction writing is witty, insightful, often hilarious, and occasionally heartbreaking. I love it; I hope you do, too.

I first encountered Lindy West last year on an episode of (the sadly canceled) Totally Biased where she appeared opposite comedian Jim Norton to discuss rape jokes. I found her to be funny and eloquent and started following her immediately. She writes about pop culture and feminism and body acceptance, formerly for Jezebel, but she’s very recently moved to GQ. Here’s a post from this year about liking Chris Pratt before it was cool.


Broker recommends:

Amanda Palmer, The Art of Asking. What it says on the box.

Anne Lamott, who has a wonderful blog and is just out with a new book, Small Victories. She has a way of shucking right down to the cob, saying simple-sounding things that are also very profound.

What-If by Randall Munroe. His comic is always worth reading, and he has a weekly answering the mail questions thing that’s gathered in the book. The rollover text on the comics is part of the fun.

Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the end of the Lane is seriously wonderful: magical realism and childhood nightmare all in one.

To round things out, this article from The Atlantic (not for the squeamish; it features parasites): How Your Cat Is Making You Crazy” by Kathleen McAuliffe on work by Jaroslav Flegr.


Harpspeed recommends:

I Remember You by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir. This mystery novel from an Icelandic writer is also part ghost story—Sigurdardóttir creates a fabulously atmospheric setting that make the word “creepy” obsolete.

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. I liked the juxtaposition of the two historical characters, deeply dimensional and rich.

This is a Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Pachett. I am curiously drawn to writers’ personal stories and liked reading Pachett’s memoir because she also fills her pages with good advice for writers.

The Last Walk: Reflections on our Pets at the End of Their Lives by Jessica Pierce. This story is part biography, memoir, ethical philosophy, and science journal in its examination of the author’s beloved dog’s descent into old age and the author, herself, who explores the many facets of the human-animal bond.

Chicken Soup for the Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injury by Amy Newmark and Carolyn Roy Bornstein. Disclosure: My friend, Carolyn, is one of the editors of this collection and recently gave me a signed copy knowing how interested I am in her work on the subject of writing and TBI, and that I enjoy reading personal essays; this collection is a great introduction to the power of the personal essay and the growing concern that is currently trending across America’s landscape.

Recommendations from TC’s archives:


Beaver recommends:

Proof of Loss” by Emily Rapp (The Rumpus). Emily Rapp writes unsentimentally about continuing to live after the inevitable death of her son Ronan from Tay-Sachs disease: “In those final days of my son’s life, I thought I would die, but knew I would not, which made me want to die even more ardently. Still, I lived. How? Perhaps I didn’t live at all but existed, half-alive, half-dead, in some liminal space.”

Vivian Maier and the Problem of Difficult Women” by Rose Lichter-Marck (The New Yorker). I am fascinated by this story about creating and not-sharing and unasked-for posthumous fame. If you have a hard drive full of unpublished stories, you might be, too.

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay. An Untamed State grew out of a short story called “Things I Know About Fairy Tales.” The novel starts where happily ever after leaves off, playing off both the sunny Disney versions of fairy tales we’re all familiar with and the dark, twisted original stories that didn’t hesitate to make readers uncomfortable.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay. You should read it because it’s on every* best nonfiction book list of 2014. You should also follow Roxane on Twitter because she’s smart and hilarious and gives a lesson on how to deal with haters on a daily basis. (*possibly a slight exaggeration but not much)

One Long Country Song: What Friday Night Lights Taught Me About Storytelling”  by Hannah Gerson (The Millions). Hannah Gerson, on writing about that small town background she’d been avoiding and how watching TV “to relax” got her there. (Writers are always writing. Even when they’re not.)

Recommendations from TC’s archives: