when the demons win…

Robin WilliamsA lot has already been written about Robin Williams. His exuberant talent and kindness – our grief and shock. And about our misperceptions about depression and suicide.

When I was in grad school, Marcos McPeek Villatoro gave an amazing lecture on mental illness and creativity that I wish had been recorded. He’s talked about his own diagnosis on NPR. The room filled and soon overflowed and that was the moment I discovered that most of the people around me either had a mental illness or a family member with it. Quiet, hard-working creative people coping with various storms in their brains or those of a parent, sibling, child, or partner. My mother suffered from depression and, while I was a teenager, Valium addiction. I grew up with her threats of suicide, was the one who attended the family support group at the “pain center” (back then, a euphemism for rehab) that my father would not. When my then-boyfriend’s mother asked how she was, he later chastised my honesty in answering her, for drifting away from euphemisms and mentioning Valium addiction. Shame is the real killer. My grad school mentor, Rob Roberge, has written a brilliant essay on that subject.

We owe much of the arts and sciences to the mentally ill. Sir Isaac Newton was bipolar and one of the most influential scientists ever in the fields of physics, math and philosophy and yet said of himself: “I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

It’s not news that people write stupid things in social media. “How could Robin Williams be sad with all that money and fame?” We need to be better than that. “I can’t imagine the pain…” Well, lucky you, but you have no excuse. William Styron and others have written about it. And please stop with the gloved blame – would you blame someone who had a stroke or heart attack? Just as either of those are not entirely a matter of diet and exercise (see Jim Fixx), Williams’ (apparent) suicide was not entirely an act of will – this was a storm of brain chemistry. This was not sadness, but an abyss. Williams stated repeatedly that he battled his demons in large part for the sake of his children. He fought for decades while maintaining a career in the public eye AND being uncommonly kind. He left us some 35 years of performances of astonishing range and did it with grace, courtesy, and humility. He treated people very well, no matter who they were. That is a rare and beautiful thing. He encouraged actors, comedians and improvisers – including friends of mine. He showed up at hospitals to visit patients without publicity. He entertained the troops in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan. And he could have said the very same words as Newton, that he was just playing at the shore, but we know they both plumbed the depths in their own very different ways. Very different!


as Dr. Sean Maguire

Creativity is often accompanied by some form of mental illness. There are valiant battles waged daily that we never hear about. Robin Williams’ ultimate gift, the reason he was so loved, is that he was willing to share the struggle, his vulnerability, his humanity. Watch Good Will Hunting again and look in his eyes – that’s not only the pain of a character who’s lost his wife. He let his own pain shine through and touch us.

If you struggle with depression, with a mental illness, with an addiction, please seek help. Know you are not alone. Know also that we value you and your creativity. We know it comes at a cost. And let’s do better by those who wander our streets – that should not be part of a compassionate society. There is enough challenge in treating and living with these illnesses without fighting shame as well. Fighting demons is hard enough. And sometimes, God help us all, they win.

I like this clip because it not only shows his talent, but his regard for the troops and at the very end, his kindness



Posted by on August 12, 2014 in Uncategorized


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a brief pause…

Thanks for your patience – been busy writing a eulogy for my brother (it was a great memorial celebration) and so on. Life should calm down and will be back with a new post soon. In the meantime, enjoy a graphic with the daily routines of creative people:


And the last 2 days of July, you can set your own price for my novel, WILLFUL IGNORANCE


Posted by on July 30, 2014 in Uncategorized


Guest Post from Grammarly: Are Style Guides Poisonous to Your Fiction Writing?

grammarly 2 This week’s guest post comes from Nikolas Baron of Grammarly. Thanks, Nick!

When I sit down to learn how writers write — their styles, preferences, and techniques — I fluctuate between feeling limited and focused. Most companies have official style guides to help writers communicate in a clear voice with tense, tone, vision, and style. Some writers find style guides constricting; but to become a published author, a writer needs to adhere to the guidelines of the magazine in which he or she wants to be published. Writers dream of being published in “The New Yorker” not only because of the prestige, talent, and luck they must have to make it between the pages, but also because they like the style of the magazine. Publishers have a distinct voice they want to resonate through the ink and text of their magazine. It is a good idea to look into what kind of material a magazine, newspaper or publishing company publishes before contacting the business with your work. Style guides help writers see the end of the tunnel and the path they should follow to a successful piece. Although they can be limiting, style guides are an important branch of the writing tree.

Writing fiction novels is far different from writing a short story and hoping to publish it in a magazine, newspaper, or literary journal. When you write a novel, you can write however you want, for as long as you want, about whatever you want. When you are a writer for a fiction literary journal or hope to publish a piece in one, it’s important to remember that a style guide keeps the magazine going. Readers are buying and reading that magazine for a reason; they like the content and style of the material. Violating the style guide and writing something outside the material defeats the purpose of having a magazine devoted to that particular niche. When you’re looking for a place to publish your material, do your research. Spending the extra few hours finding a magazine that caters to your style, techniques, and genre will not only show the editors you understand their goals, but your material has a better chance at becoming published. Also, when you submit your work for publication, an online proofreader can be key. Proofreading your work will help to incorporate different stylistic elements you identified in their previously-published pieces.

Would you publish a Stephen King short story in a children’s literary magazine? Probably not. This is the same sort of idea that goes into professional writing. You wouldn’t want to send a query letter to a science fiction journal if you write romance stories. It’s unprofessional, shows that you blatantly don’t care about their journal, and that you’re too lazy to spend a few minutes looking into what they normally publish. Styles of journals, along with their style guides, are critical to keeping your favorite publications going. By ignoring them, you’re only putting your publishing career at a disadvantage.

When you book a writing job, you want to make sure that you fit in with their style; you could be writing in it for quite some time. Do style guides limit grammarly 3you? Perhaps in some ways, but if you have chosen the right place for you to write for, those limitations will most likely be small. When you begin proofreading your articles, it’s a lot easier to fix and incorporate pieces of the style guide. It’s also easier to find those mistakes when using an online resource like Grammarly. Grammarly has a great proofreading tool that will help you look at your writing in a mechanical sense and identify your most common errors. If it seems like a style guide is too limiting, it could be because your writing is mismatched with what the editors are looking for. Although some style guides are extremely specific, sticking to a style guide is what keeps writers employed, and magazines, newspapers, and literary journals afloat by being consistent with viewpoint and style.

By Nikolas Baron

Nick’s Bio:

Nikolas discovered his love for the written word in Elementary School, where he started spending his afternoons sprawled across the living room floor devouring one Marc Brown children’s novel after the other and writing short stories about daring pirate adventures. After acquiring some experience in various marketing, business development, and hiring roles at internet startups in a few different countries, he decided to re-unite his professional life with his childhood passions by joining Grammarly’s marketing team in San Francisco. He has the pleasure of being tasked with talking to writers, bloggers, teachers, and others about how they use Grammarly’s online proofreading application to improve their writing. His free time is spent biking, traveling, and reading.

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Posted by on July 3, 2014 in Uncategorized


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Guest Post: Aaron Gansky, Stephen McLain & Heather Luby on Flash Fiction

This week, I welcome back my sometime collaborator, Aaron Gansky (WRITE TO BE HEARD) who has a great post along with  Stephen McLain and their guest, Heather Luby discussing flash fiction, one of my favorite forms. In fact, I just wrote the screenplay adaptation for The Green Bench, which The Citron Review was kind enough to publish a few years back. Welcome back, Aaron, and thank you!

Heather-LubyWelcome Heather Luby, managing editor of The Citron Review, to take a look at a very popular form of storytelling: Flash Fiction. Because the form is so short (less than a thousand words), authors must be careful to craft the story in a very exact manner. Aaron, Steve and Heather take a look at some ways for you to master flash fiction. These tips and tricks can even help you improve your craft in the writing of your novel. As always, you can listen above or download the episode here. Remember, you can always find Steve and me on FacebookTwitteriTunes, and Stitcher.

You’ll also notice that the book links below point you to Better World Books. For every book purchased on Better World Books, the company donates a book to someone in need. Great little program (and founded by Notre Dame grads – go Irish!) Now, on to the show notes:

Flash Fiction has several definitions, but the one we use at The Citron Review is a story of less than 1,000 words, which works out to be about three pages. While the form isn’t new, the popularity of it has risen dramatically with the proliferation of online journals. And because the form is so demanding, there are several things you should keep in mind as you write:


  • When you set out to write, don’t think, “I’m going to write some flash fiction!” If you do, you’ll probably write a story that’s uninspired, or too brief, or not completely realized. Instead, simply write your story. When you are done, if it’s come out as flash fiction, that’s probably what it wants to be. If, instead, it comes out longer, you’ll probably want to keep it at that length. Let the story determine whether it’s flash fiction or not.
  • Respect the adage “late in, early out.” You don’t have time to give us long, complicated background information. Start in the middle. Your readers are smart enough to pick up the pieces and put them where they go. Also, resist the urge to over explain at the end. The most common advice I give is, “cut the last two lines.” Your sweet spot is usually earlier than you realize. (More on endings later).
  • Create immediacy. Hit hard and fast. The power of a flash story is in its brevity, in providing enough details to create an emotional resonance that will impact the reader. This, more than anything, is at the heart of flash fiction.
  • Flash fiction puts a premium on words. Love language. Love imagery. Often, these stories are a type of prose poetry. They carry the same attention to detail, use imagery as symbolism, and, most of all, create a lyrical voice to tell an emotionally resonant story. Often, what happens is not as important as the telling of the events. The moral, the theme, is little more than the emotional impact it carries. Make us feel.
  • Try to keep the number of characters down. Too many can clutter your story. We only need one or two. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but the best stories seldom have more than two characters.


  • The ending should present a moment of closure. It shouldn’t be abrupt (as if the flash is an excerpt from a larger work). While most flash stories have open resolves, they often point toward a final outcome. The ending is inevitable, but the inevitable is not shown.
  • Because flash is so imagery-driven, poignant images can often serve as a resolve.
  • The goal is to find the “truth” not the “twist.” The ending should be inevitable, unavoidable, but can be surprising. Consider the advice, “a great ending is one you never saw coming, but once you’ve read it, it seems as if no other ending would make sense.” This is what Flannery O’Connor referred to as the unexpected but inevitable ending. Poe says the final line of a short story should be like a flashlight that, once read, will shed light on the rest of the story, and illuminate the reader’s understanding in a new way. It’s a tall order, sure, but so is writing great flash fiction.
  • Some of our favorite flash fiction selections come from a book called Flash Fiction Forward. Namely, Hannah Bottomy’s Currents, which is a story written in reverse order. Each paragraph begins with the words “before that.” Because we being with the end, the end (which is actually the beginning) becomes especially powerful, and hits like a fist of bricks.
  • A note on “backward stories” and “stories in the form of book indexes” and other gimmicks: Try to avoid them. If you set out to write a gimmicky story, you’ll likely fail. Instead, write the story as the story wants to be told. If, after you have written it, you decide it’s more emotionally resonant to tell backward, say, or in the form of a book index, then go for it. But let the unique telling serve the story, rather than the story serving the gimmick.
  • Another great flash story is Popular Mechanics by Raymond Carver, which you can find in his collection of short stories called What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Though it features an nontraditional ending, it is a story that stays with you for the rest of your life.
  • Some outstanding examples from The Citron Review: Jon Pearson’s Invisible as God is a fantastic example of a lyrical story-telling, a kind of prose poem, that elevates imagery and detail into the realm of the emotionally resonant. Also, Alan Stewart Carl’s Remaining, which is a more traditional type of story, but one that is very well executed in terms of precise language and detail.


  • Be sure to submit regularly. The process of submission (and the subsequent rejections and acceptances) will tell you much about what you’re doing right and wrong. Never be afraid to put your work out in the world. It’s the only way to see if your story’s wings are strong enough to fly.
  • Love language. Read a lot of poetry.
  • Invest in Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction by Rose Metal Press. It’s full of incredible tips and tricks from all the experts.

Please leave your comments below. You can e-mail Aaron & Steve at


Posted by on June 26, 2014 in Uncategorized


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Dead Weight


Get yours now!

Why do we write certain stories? There are probably as many answers as there are writers. Growing up, I wanted to write a novel – I finally realized it was a question of when. I had to start or it was never going to happen. At the time, I was enamored of scuba diving and wanted to explore that on the page. Daydreams, what ifs, fragments of overheard conversations, curiosity and a few unknowns go into the mix when I’m writing (more of a pantster than a plotter).

I remember the chlorine-scented moment at our first pool-side scuba class when I realized I was really going to have to do it myself. That moment of whoa! helped me write the novel. No one was going to put my tank on for me, no one else could breathe for me or take that giant step off the deck or monitor my gauges. I was responsible for my survival. Yes, you dive with at least one other person and yes, you learn what you are doing before you enter the ocean, but in large part, as under the sea, so in front of the screen. Taking a leap into the ocean helped me to start and keep putting words on the page until I had a book. And with both, once I was into it, the fun took over.

Diving the giant kelp forest off Catalina Island feels like flying. It’s so beautiful. Seals came up and blew bubbles inds scuba diving001 imitation of those from our tanks. Shafts of sunlight danced through giant stalks of swaying green as bright orange Garibaldi darted in and out. It’s a magical experience and I wanted to give that to readers, plus a “what if” experience of things going to extremes.

What dead weight have I shed? The dead weight of awful generational patterns and anger at my damaged and capriciously cruel mother; certainly of relationships that did not work out. I shed the dead weight of behaving as if my time here is unlimited.

For the month of June, I’m offering my first novel, DEAD WEIGHT, for 99 cents via Smashwords. Please buy it! Thank you.

Now, what about you? Please share your own “dead weight” experience in the comments (play nice).

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Posted by on June 1, 2014 in Uncategorized


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What is Home?


“You’ve always had the power…”

Okay, this isn’t the post I’d planned, but that happens a lot in writing, film, life….

The most powerful and enduring stories are about going home. When we are too long away from home, we describe ourselves as sick with the longing for it. Dorothy to Odysseus, quests and walkabouts; Shakespeare notes it in Henry V, act 4, sc. 8: “…to England then: Where ne’er from France arrived more happy men…”

What is home? It can be a residence, a family group or a birth place. Home is charged with all kinds of meanings, usually positive, but if you or your character grew up in an abusive home, those associations might repel you or them from the very concept of home. You see how stories can spin out very differently if you look at how you and how your characters relate to “home”? Just writing this, I’ve noticed I quit breathing. The town I grew up in has fond memories; the house does not. Home sweet home was the one I created later in life. What is your relation to home? How does it inform your writing or acting? How do your characters relate to home? It’s worth exploring, especially if you get stuck because it is such a rich vein. As Maya Angelou said: “The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”

Never did find my notes on Dorothy Allison’s lecture on Home she gave at Antioch, L.A., and had to go out of town longer than expected. Ms. Allison may well have told us to put away our notebooks and just be there. In any case, I did find this quote from her:

Write the story that you were always afraid to tell. I swear to you that there is magic in it, and if you show yourself naked for me, I’ll be naked for you. It will be our covenant.             

and this nearly hour long video on the writer’s voice (the sound improves about 7 minutes in). Enjoy.


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Posted by on May 24, 2014 in Uncategorized


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faith & art

arch of titus

Arch of Titus, Rome

“Back of every creation, supporting it like an arch, is faith. Enthusiasm is nothing: it comes and goes. But if one believes, then miracles occur.” ~ Henry Miller

What does that quote mean to you? Do you have faith in being an artist, a storyteller? The best people in film, TV, improv and comedy, regardless of their daily task whether behind or in front of the camera, above or below the line, are part of the storytelling tradition. Writers write for many reasons and the best ones keep writing, regardless of its reception. Artists keep going.

Our Level 7 improv teacher at iO West gave us the on-going homework of writing out a list of things we love every day. I like it because it goes a step beyond gratitude (or it can). If you’ve been doing a gratitude journal for awhile and are in the habit, try making lists of things you love. I’ve done these assigned “love lists” using the alphabet, 5 senses, 25 things, 10 things… whatever method strikes me on any given day. It’s the spirit of “Yes, And…” which, as you advance in improv, takes on a spiritual component. Yes to life, yes to moving forward, yes to uncertainty, yes to the next thing. It is the essence of the life of the artist. In a lifestyle filled with uncertainty, rejection, isolation, and so on, it’s focusing on the yes, on the love of creating that can keep you going. Because no matter who you are, at some point, the going always gets hard.

Arc de Triomphe, Paris

Arc de Triomphe, Paris

And yes, I will find my notes on Dorothy Allison’s lecture!

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Posted by on May 5, 2014 in Uncategorized


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