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7 Practices to Kickstart Your Writing, Part 3

Seven Practices to Kickstart Your Writing, Post 3, 2.5.17

This is the third and final post on practices that help you kickstart your writing. The first two are just below this.

5) Write a vomit draft
A vomit draft is just about what it sounds like. You don’t know exactly what you want to say. Or you have this beautiful vision in your head of how the scene should work or how you’ll lay out your argument but you don’t have a clue how to make it happen. Just start writing. It can be awful, clunky & full of lapses & notes to self like, ‘add stuff about 4th grade here.’ The important thing is you just keep going. Like Kent Haruf with the stocking cap over his head
And then—this is important—leave it alone for a day or two. Most of the time, when you come back to it, you find it’s not as awful as you thought it was. There’ll be plenty of room for improvement, but the important thing is that you’ve got something down, & now you have something to work with.

I expect you’re seeing that these two practices, start small and short from last week, and the vomit draft, are ways to get you off the sidelines and into the pool. One of the forces that keeps us from writing is the fear that we haven’t got it right & it’s going to be awful. Of course it’s going to be awful, and all that means is that it won’t be as good as that glowing vision in your head.

Don’t worry about that. Count on it. That first draft will never measure up to the vision in your head. The final draft won’t either. It comes with the territory. The goal is to get something started, because when you have something, you can improve on it. When you don’t have anything, you can’t make it better.

6) Spend your best material up front
Whatever you’re writing—fiction, memoir, nonfiction—you have some notes about scenes and events you want to include. You know the ones that are really powerful, the knockout stuff. Maybe you’ve worked out the structure of the piece and know what you want to put where. Here’s a recommendation. Spend your best stuff up front. Get it in there as soon as you can. There are several reasons to do this:
• An editor I know says, “Your reader is dying to put down your book.” What he means is that we all have so many distractions—the people in our lives, our jobs, all the electronic distractions, sleep, &tc. You need to give your reader compelling reasons not to turn her attention to those other claims. Give her your best stuff.
• You, the writer, will have more fun and be more engaged when you’re writing your best stuff.
• Don’t worry, there’s more. Your best material isn’t like money. Money, you spend it and it’s gone. With our best material, the work of writing it will very likely generate more. And showing up regularly and giving the work your full attention will very likely generate more.

7) Writing is messy and it’s extremely inefficient. Get in there and make a mess.
The good stuff does not flow fully formed from brain to paper. Sorting out an idea or the arc of a story or what your character is going to do next is very hard work.. It takes longer than you thought it would, and it may involve charging up several blind alleys. Mary Oliver says she figures on forty to fifty revisions for a poem. Grit and Hope, the book I published this year, took me 8 years. One of the hardest, messiest parts for me is what I call “the what goes where”: organizing a chapter, figuring out what information and backstory I need to include. When I’m doing that, I’ll have 3 or 4 browser windows open, with 6 or 8 tabs in each window, my desk will be littered with open folders and papers and notes. My mind is as clear as peanut butter. It can be nerve wracking to be working like this, because you don’t know the outcome, don’t know whether what you’re doing is going to get you where you want to go.

It’s a good idea to think about your tolerance for mess and disorder, both in your thinking and in your physical writing space. What kind of mess do you need for the good stuff to emerge? How long do you need to sit in the mess? Do you need to increase your tolerance?

I hope these posts have been helpful. I’d love to hear what you think. You can reach me at

Good luck with your work.

7 Practices to Kickstart Your Writing, Part 2

This is the second post on practices that help you kickstart your writing. The first one is just below this.

3) Find your way to get started You’ve kept your appointment. You’re at your desk. You need a way to shift gears, settle down and start. Different writers do it different ways. I’ll tell you a few I know, and I hope you’ll share yours.
• I need to get nagging tasks out of the way first: the email that needs an answer stat, making the dentist appointment, paying a bill. I can’t focus ‘til I get them off the table. Then I look at what I wrote the day before. I edit for word choice, flow, for how it fits with the structure of the whole piece/chapter/whatever. I like to do this kind of editing, because as I edit I can see improvement. After I’ve done that for 10 minutes or half an hour, I can feel myself slipping into the work groove and I’m willing to turn to the harder work of clawing out new ground.

• Arthur Salm, who used to be book editor for the San Diego Union Tribune and now writes young adult fiction, says he gives himself half an hour to screw around on the internet, then he’s willing to get to work.

• The novelist Kent Haruf, who wrote Plainsong and half a dozen other novels, described this unusual approach: He would pull a wool stocking cap down over his face so he couldn’t see, and then he’d write longhand, ideas, scenes, details, whateve came to him. He said, ‘It takes away the terror when you’re blind and you can’t go back and rewrite a sentence,” he said. ”It calls for storytelling, not polishing.”

• John McPhee, who’s written some of the best literary nonfiction in America, starts by
transcribing his notes. In an interview in The Paris Review he says, “First thing I do is transcribe my notes. This is not an altogether mindless process. You’re copying your notes, and you get ideas. You get ideas for structure. You get ideas for wording, phraseologies. As I’m typing, if something crosses my mind I flip it in there. When I’m done, certain ideas have accrued and have been added to it, like iron filings drawn to a magnet.”

A little later on in this interview he says, “It may sound like I’ve got some sort of formula by which I write. Hell, no! You’re out there completely on your own—all you’ve got to do is write. OK, it’s nine in the morning. All I’ve got to do is write. But I go hours before I’m able to write a word. I make tea. I mean, I used to make tea all day long. And exercise, I do that every other day. I sharpened pencils in the old days when pencils were sharpened. I just ran pencils down. Ten, eleven, twelve, one, two, three, four—this is every day. This is damn near every day. It’s four-thirty and I’m beginning to panic. It’s like a coiling spring. I’m really unhappy. I mean, you’re going to lose the day if you keep this up long enough. Five: I start to write. Seven: I go home. That happens over and over and over again. So why don’t I work at a bank and then come in at five pm and start writing? Because I need those seven hours of gonging around. I’m just not that disciplined. I don’t write in the morning—I just try to write.”

It’s not easy to get yourself started. But you have to do it, and whatever you find that works for you, work it. It’s always better once you’re started.

4) Start small and short This is an important practice whether the piece you’re writing a 150 word post, or a 600 page novel. That novel, or any other large project, can be broken down into sections, chapters, subheadings within chapters—whatever organizational structure you need to create in order to have a series of manageable tasks. I have a sign on the wall above my desk that says, “How do you eat an elephant?” The answer is a bite at a time.

It’s especially helpful to start small and short when you’re feeling scared or stuck or not up to the task. When I started work on my first book, I truly didn’t know whether I could write a book. I was pretty sure I could write one chapter. I figured I’d write a chapter and see how that went.

If you’re having trouble breaking a large project into manageable bites, it doesn’t mean you can’t write and it doesn’t mean the project is irredeemably flawed. It may just mean that you need some help figuring how to organize it. In a large project, the organization of the piece is something that you may change many, many times. When I was writing Grit and Hope I probably changed the order of the chapters fifteen times. Your first pass on organizing doesn’t have to be perfect. It just needs to be good enough to allow you to break your task down into bite-size, small and short pieces.

Exercise: Think about your current project, or the one you wish you could start, and write a few notes about what could be a short piece within it. Maybe the opening vignette for Chapter One, or the scene where your main character gets a piece of information that changes her understanding of another character. Could be a description of the house or the neighborhood where some important action takes place. Doesn’t matter what it is. What’s important is that it’s short, a few paragraphs, and that you can see it as a small, self contained piece. Then write that small piece.

Enough for today. Next week I’ll talk about the very important Vomit Draft.

Please add your comments and tell us your own practices for getting started and sticking with it.

All the best,


7 Practices to Kickstart Your Writing

These are notes for a class that I call “Seven Practices to Kickstart Your Writing.” The class is about some ideas and practices that I’ve found helpful for getting into a piece of work and staying with it. They’re practices that I’ve learned from other writers, some face to face, some from their books and some I’ve developed myself in the course of working with writers & doing my own work. They’re the ones I turn to on the days when I wonder what I’m doing and think about getting into some other line of work, like smoke jumping or mucking out stalls at the race track. Some of these may be helpful for you, some not so much. I’d be interested in your thoughts about these, and your own practices. Please feel free to comment; I’m hope this can become a conversation.

1) Show up Set a regular time to work. This time is an appointment with yourself, the most important appointment in your life. You need to keep this appointment. Here’s what poet Mary Oliver writes about this. She’s talking about poetry, but what she says applies to every kind of serious writing:

If Romeo and Juliet had made their appointments to meet, in the moonlight-swept orchard, in all the peril and sweetness of conspiracy, and then more often than not failed to meet — one or the other lagging, or afraid, or busy elsewhere — there would have been no romance, no passion, none of the drama for which we remember and celebrate them. Writing a poem is not so different—it is a kind of possible love affair between something like the heart (that courageous but also shy factory of emotion) and the learned skills of the conscious mind. They make appointments with each other, and keep them, and something begins to happen. Or, they make appointments with each other but are casual and often fail to keep them: count on it, nothing happens.
The part of the psyche that works in concert with consciousness and supplies a necessary part of the poem — the heart of the star as opposed to the shape of a star, let us say — exists in a mysterious, unmapped zone: not unconscious, not subconscious, but cautious. It learns quickly what sort of courtship it is going to be. Say you promise to be at your desk in the evenings, from seven to nine. It waits, it watches. If you are reliably there, it begins to show itself — soon it begins to arrive when you do. But if you are only there sometimes and are frequently late or inattentive, it will appear fleetingly, or it will not appear at all.
Why should it? It can wait. It can stay silent a lifetime. Who knows anyway what it is, that wild, silky part of ourselves without which no poem can live? But we do know this: if it is going to enter into a passionate relationship and speak what is in its own portion of your mind, the other responsible and purposeful part of you had better be a Romeo. It doesn’t matter if risk is somewhere close by — risk is always hovering somewhere. But it won’t involve itself with anything less than a perfect seriousness.
For the would-be writer of poems, this is the first and most essential thing to understand. It comes before everything, even technique.

Mary Oliver, A Poetry Handbook
Harcourt Brace, 1994

Grit & Hope Launches!

Grit & Hope officially came into the world at a book launch at First UU Church in San Diego . More than fifty people came to hear Chris Yanov speak about Reality Changers, hear a panel of four first gen college graduates talk candidly about their experience, & hear me read from the book. My deepest gratitude to all who helped make this event happen, with a special shout out to the Immigrant & Racial Justice Action Group! Also thanks to all of you who bought copies.



Grit & Hope’s Book Launch!

Flier for website

Book Launch for Grit and Hope!

Grit & Hope is finally coming into the world! Publication date, the day it’s actually available in bookstores & on Amazon, is June 10.

On Saturday June 11, 2-4pm at we’re having a book launch at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in San Diego. The Immigrant and Racial Justice Action Group is sponsoring a program, Being First Gen: First Generation College Graduates Reflect on Their Experience.

I’ll read from Grit & Hope, Chris Yanov, founder & CEO of Reality Changers,will speak, and a panel of four first gen college graduates, 2 from Reality Changers & 2 from the church will talk about the realities of being the first in their family to go to college.Grit & Hope

Grit & Hope will be for sale, & all proceeds will go to the Immigrant & Racial Justice Action Group.

Free parking Refreshments Child Care*
*Please call the church office 619.298-9978 by June 3rd if you will need child care.

The church is at 4190 Front Street in Hillcrest, across the street from UCSD Hospital. If you’re using GPS, enter 298 West Arbor Drive, San Diego 92103

Everyone’s invited. I hope you all can come!

Nearly 100,000 Cal State Students Go Hungry

A report from the California State University Office of the Chancellor estimates that 21 percent of CSU students, are food insecure: they do not have regular, reliable access to nutritious meals. That’s 96,400 students! Twelve percent, 55,200 students, are housing insecure: they are displaced, or homeless and do not have a place to stay that they can count on. The data come from a survey of all 23 campuses, the first time the system has studied shortfalls in its students’ food and shelter needs. The numbers are estimates, because neither the system nor any campus has previously tracked food or housing instability among its students.

Helping out at a San Diego food bank

The findings reflect the demographic shifts in the college student population, not just in the Cal State system, but nationally. Where the typical college student used to be 18-22 years old, attending full time with support from parents, there are now, especially on large urban campuses, a growing number of non-traditional students, such as foster youth who’ve aged out of the foster care system, returning veterans, and students who are working, many of them full time and supporting a family while they go to college. Many first gen students send part of their scholarship funds home to support parents or other family. All of these students may be operating on a very tight budget, with no savings and no emergency fund. An unexpected bill or smaller than usual pay check may be all it takes to tumble into food insecurity or get behind on the rent.

Campus responses vary widely, from those who do little more than refer students to off-campus social services to those which have mounted proactive, student-led services. Chico State and Long Beach have built two of the best programs.

At Chico State, where an astounding 41 percent of students face food insecurity, the campus offers the Hungry Wildcat food pantry, funded by faculty and staff donations. Pantry volunteers have also organized the Veggie Buck program, which provides vouchers for the University Farm’s weekly on campus organic market. The university’s Center for Healthy Communities has enrolled 900 students in CalFresh, a federally funded program that provides money and tokens to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. The Center’s interns conduct a proactive outreach program, with class presentations, a CalFresh Day, and staff a drop-in office where they help students fill out the Cal Fresh application. Path Scholars offers support for homeless students, and current and former foster youth, providing emergency loans and campus housing between terms and during campus breaks.

At Cal State Long Beach, the Office of the President and the Division of Student Affairs supports a comprehensive set of services to help the most at-risk students. The CSULB Student Emergency Intervention Program provides meals, short term temporary housing and emergency funds to cover unexpected expenses that threaten to derail a student’s academic standing. The program’s advisory board includes students, faculty and representatives from Counseling & Psychological Services, Disabled Student Services, School of Social Work, Office of Financial Aid, 49er Shops, Housing & Residential Life, Educational Opportunity Program, Student Financial Services, Interfaith Center, Associate Students Inc., Women &Gender Equity Office and Student Health Services. Involvement from so many support services shows how well integrated the program is at CSU Long Beach.

The report offered a set of recommendations for all campuses, including:

  • Provide access to food and housing for students who are food insecure.
  • Develop a single point of contact to facilitate connections to services on campus and off campus
  • Include financial aid administrators and housing staff and administrators as critical partners to student affairs collaborative work.
  • Linkages with Associated Students and academic programs.
  • Social supports for students with similar experiences for shared resources and social solidarity.

The Chancellor’s office plans to broaden its research to enlarge its understanding of at risk students, examine what interventions are most successful, and study retention and graduation rates. The work is seen as a necessary and essential part of promoting student success.




First Gen Students: Take a Hard Look at Colleges’ Support Services

It’s an awful statistic: only 11 percent of low-income college students earn a degree within six years. A lot of factors contribute to this, like entering college without adequate academic preparation, not having parents who’ve been to college and can offer advice and help, carrying a higher load of debt, and students’ own gnawing doubts about whether they belong in college.Blog 3.1.16

One especially concerning factor is that many colleges haven’t recognized the unique needs and challenges low-income and first-gen students face. They recruit first-gen students, yet they’ve failed to build the on-campus supports that can make the difference between a student’s succeeding academically and being overwhelmed and giving up. Supports that make a critical difference include summer orientation programs specifically for low income and first gen students that connect them with their peers and foster supportive friendships; proactive advisors who anticipate the kinds of difficulties that first-gen freshmen experience and reach out to them; individual and group peer counseling with first gen and low-income upperclassmen who can listen and help from their own experience.

The difference programs like these make in graduation rates is dramatic. The City University of New York provides a cohort of low income and first generation students at its community colleges a package of supports, including free textbooks, intensive advising and tutoring, priority in getting into impacted courses, a free pass for city buses and subways, and additional assistance if their financial aid package didn’t cover their tuition and fees. In three years the graduation rate for these students jumped from 22 percent to 40 percent. Chicago’s DePaul University, which offers substantial support to its first-gen students, reports a six-year graduation rate among them of 82 percent. Harvard University commits to supporting its first gen students not only with financial aid but with tutoring and advising, and its a six-year graduation rate for first-gen students is 98 percent.

Colleges need to understand that first-gen and low income students arrive with a distinctive blend of needs and pressures. If they’re serious about wanting these determined, capable students, colleges must provide the supports that they need. Students should be sure to ask colleges what supports they offer.

Making the Difference for His First-Gen Students

Angel Chavarin knew that he and the other two counselors at Mission Vista High School in Vista, needed help. Chavarin and his colleagues each carried a caseload of nearly 450 students, well above the recommended load of 250, and they didn’t even have a secretary. Many of his students were first generation, immigrants or the children of immigrants. They wanted to go to college, but they didn’t know what they needed to do to get there. Chavarin, a first-generation college graduate himself, wanted to provide them with the information, the structure, and the one-on-one support they needed to navigate the complicated uphill path to college admission.

He called his friend Rachael Lemkau at College Apps Academy, the San Diego program that offers high school juniors and seniors a structured path through the admissions process. Chavarin and his principal negotiated with College Apps to offer its program at Mission Vista. It would be fee-based for students whose families could pay, and free for students eligible for subsidized lunches. In the spring of 2014, the College Apps staff held their first meeting with 22 juniors, eighteen of them free-lunch eligible, the first in their families to go to college. Chavarin was there.

Then Chavarin really went to work. In the fall when the students, now seniors, were in the thick of their applications, he came to every College Apps meeting. He let students know that he and Lemkau, College Apps’ point person for Mission Vista, talked regularly, and that College Apps and the guidance department were working together as a team to help them get to college. He followed up with every student who missed a meeting: what happened that you missed, how’s the program going for you, let’s get you back on track.

He made it easy for student to get transcripts. “It sounds like a little thing,” says Lemkau, “but at most high schools, getting a transcript can be a huge hassle, a long bad trip through the school bureaucracy. When students are applying to college, the smallest stressor, like a problem getting a transcript can put them over the edge. I’d just ask Angel, and he’d say sure, and print out the transcript right away. He did so much to make things easier for students.”

 Chavarin made things easier for the College Apps staff as well, talking with them multiple times a week, keeping them in the loop about what was going on with students and around the school, making sure that information flowed smoothly between College Apps, the other guidance counselors, the administration. He made sure the guidance office was open and responsive to all students

Supporting College Apps in all these ways isn’t in his job description it’s not high profile or glamorous, and it’s meant more overtime hours than he can calculate. He does it, he says, because “it’s the right thing to do for my students and my school. It’s the kind of work that makes the difference between a program’s succeeding or stumbling.

Three years on, College Apps at Mission Vista is soaring. Every slot in the program is filled. College Apps students talk about it on social media, and call it a godsend. They labor over their applications, go to workshops for college essays, and most important, they get into college. In three years College Apps at Mission Vista has produced two Gates Millennium Scholars. Chavarin wanted to help first-generation students, and in doing it he’s built a model and a legacy.

If you like this post & want to be notified about new posts, go to Contact & send me an email. I’ll put you on the notifications email list. BD


Building First Generation College Students: Community Service

What experiences help first generation students believe they can go to college, do the hard work of preparation, and thrive when they get there? I’ll be blogging about the elements that support first generation students on their path. Here’s my conversation with Angela Yen, herself first-gen, a graduate of UCSD, and Director of Communications at San Diego’s Reality Changers. She runs their community service program, and she believes that community service is an important piece of helping students become successful in college.IMG_0008

What does Reality Changers require of its students for community service? We expect all students to give 50 hours a year of
community service. Some students find opportunities themselves, and I keep a database of events that need volunteers, like staffing water stations at the Rock and Roll Marathon and some other races, fundraising events for breast cancer, serving meals at Feeding America, and at Ronald McDonald House, making cookies for the families who are staying there.

 How does community service help students become successful college students?A really important thing is that when students work in our service projects they get to be givers and helpers. Our students come from low-income families, and it’s very valuable for them to see that you don’t have to have a lot of money to be able to help people. Like when we go to Ronald McDonald House they learn that it supports families whose children have severe medical problems, and they see that the cookies they’ve made really matter to those families.They go to parts of their community that they may not have seen before. They learn about service organizations—who they serve, how they work.

 Our service projects are usually on the weekends, and things like marathons or Feeding America involve lots of students, so they get to work with their friends. The settings are different from regular Reality Changers meetings, which are very structured, with the focus is on academics. The service experience builds friendships among students, and strengthens their bonds with Reality Changers. We encourage our volunteer tutors to come to community service projects. Students love seeing their tutors in a different setting. Some parents drive too, and end up helping with our projects, so students have an experience of their family giving service together.

 I think it’s really important for students to be involved in their community, to learn about it, and give back. . It’s exciting to see when students start to volunteer because they really are passionate about something, not because it will look good on their college applications. Our projects expose them to new and unfamiliar situations, and that also helps them grow. A lot of students say that their service has given them ideas about what they might want to study and what work they want to do.

Service projects might not be an easy fit for all students. Some students love the idea and take to it right away. For others, it’s a reach. We had a student a few years ago who hated the whole idea and resisted all our efforts to get him to sign up for an event. He finally agreed to go to a Feeding America project, sorting and packaging food. He was so sure he’d hate it that his tutor said, “look, give it 30 minutes. If you still hate it, I’ll drive you home.” He started working, and got into it, and stayed the whole day. Later he said he was glad he did it.

 One project really surprised me. In 2014 we worked with Get Out the Vote. It was neighborhood canvassing: knocking on doors, talking people, encouraging them to register and to vote. I thought that our students wouldn’t like it. A lot of them are shy, and I thought they wouldn’t like the idea of talking to people. They came back from canvassing really excited. They enjoyed talking to people, and they learned about the consequences of not voting.

 Are there ways you’ d like to expand the Community Service program ?

I really want to help students who have a particular interest, something they’re passionate about. I keep a database, and I’m always searching nonprofits’ websites, looking for volunteer opportunities. When I find something that I think would fit a particular student’s interest, I get the information to that student. My goal is to do more coaching, teaching students how to look for opportunities themselves, and how to present themselves to the organization.

I’ll be blogging about what I’ve learned from talking to Reality Changers’ students and staff about building first gen students  as I was writing Grit and Hope. A lot of you are experts on this question, and I’d love to hear from you, either in comments, or an email at