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Tuesday, September 02, 2014

The Truth About Writing for Hire

I spent a few years working in the oil and gas business, and when people asked me what I did for a living, and I told them I was a landman, the reactions ranged from confusion to boredom. Or the always fun joke, “You mean, land-WOMAN?”

Now, when I tell people that I am a writer, inevitably the reaction is very positive. People get excited, ask questions, and tell me how lucky I am to be able to work from home. (And oh, they have a book they are going to write, and could I look at it?)

But the reality of the writer’s life, which first prompted me to change professions a few years ago, is that very rarely can the full-time writer support themselves writing just what they want to write. Friends are shocked when I tell them that article I wrote in blah magazine was not something I chose to write about. It was assigned to me, with a word count and often, specific editorial direction. And more often than not, isn’t what I would write if I had any say about it.

A few months ago I was assigned an article on getting back in shape after having a baby. I don’t have any children, so I decided to ask mothers who were friends of mine on social media to write about their experiences with post-baby fitness. The response was overwhelming, and I was struck by the unrealistic pressures many new mothers experience right after having a baby.

I then interviewed the owners of yoga studios and gyms around town and got some wonderful stories from them about their own struggles and realizations about post-partum fitness. Most of the stories focused on the mother’s need for emotional wholeness more than fitting back into their pre-pregnancy jeans in six weeks. And if anything, these women often resented the media pressure to “bounce back” like so many magazine celebrities immediately after giving birth.

I tell you all that to say this: I didn’t get to write about any of that. My editor wanted a 300-word article listing fitness centers around town that offered post-baby fitness classes. And that is what I gave her. And this story is the same story as so many other article assignments I’ve had over the years.

That is what writing for hire is like. All the stories I want to write remain mostly untold.

Years ago, when I got my first full-time job as a magazine editor, one of my jobs was to interview emerging artists for a short column. For most of the artists I interviewed, I had just 250 words to write about their art and career. I was still a newbie, so I would spend 30 minutes to an hour on the phone with every one of them collecting fascinating stories about why they became artists, what they love about their craft, career setbacks and often, many stories that were personal and that I knew were not meant for sharing.

I didn’t realize at the time how little of those interviews would actually make it into the final piece. Each month as I struggled to cut 750 words down to 250, I learned how to find the essential truth and wonder about every person’s story. It was a great but hard lesson. And I don’t think anyone I have ever interviewed will ever understand how painful it is for me, as the writer tasked with telling their story, to keep editing and cutting down the story far past what I wish I could share. Or worse, I don’t even get to share the story I want to tell at all.

This is the writer’s life. I spend most of day writing about things I don’t care about, or if I do care about them, I can’t write about them in the way I would like. And for this privilege, I am asked to charge less than what I am worth, wait months to be paid and sometimes not even get paid at all. Many times I don’t get any feedback: “Great piece.” “Nice work.” or even “That sucks, please try again.” And some days, like today, I find out something I wrote and am very proud of isn’t going to run at all because of an editorial goof.

So why do I write? Some days I don’t know. Maybe it is the naïve hope that one day, I will actually be able to support myself while writing what matter most to me. (And some days I wonder what it is that even matters most to me. What would I write about if I could write about anything?) For now, I take comfort in the little victories—the interview where I really connected with my subject, the chance to tell someone’s story that needs to be told, or the opportunity to eat good food and get paid to write about it.

Why do I write? I ask myself this question every morning.

I write to connect with people, to understand them, and have the privilege of sharing their stories. I write to connect with you, to understand you and to hopefully have the privilege of writing something meaningful that touches you.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

You Won’t Believe What This Blogger Did Next

It was then I realized I finally had hit rock bottom.

After years of ________________________ (favorite vice), I felt _________________________ (depressing adjective). I didn’t know what to do or where to go from here. I had lost _________________ (noun, person), my job as a _____________________ (noun, vocation) and even _______________ (noun, something else heartbreaking). I was overwhelmed with guilt over my ____________________ (noun, transgression) and what I had done to ________________ (noun, person). I knew something had to change.

Every morning I see multiple confessionals in my email and newsfeed—well-meaning blogs meant to inspire me, I suppose, by showing how other people have overcome their demons.

Initially, I found these posts interesting, though I’m not exactly sure why. Was it the shock value? Or the sad way we are drawn to the gory details of other people’s tragedies? Was it so I wouldn’t feel quite so bad about my own messes? Or was it simply an excuse to avoid my work for a few minutes?

But after I while, I became bored with reading about everyone’s drug habit/binge drinking/eating disorder/career crisis. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be gaining by reading these stories, but it was clear it wasn’t empathy anymore…it was impatience.

They all started sounding like the same self-indulgent story.

Maybe they are all the same story, if you just swap out a couple of details: an abusive father switches to an abusive boyfriend, a drug habit becomes a porn addiction. But my irritation over these stories piqued my curiosity. Why exactly do they bother me?

After all, I am a fan of confessional memoirs like Chelsea Handler’s Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea or even darker reads, such as Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors. Maybe humor is part of it. But I also enjoy more serious memoirs like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly or my new personal favorite, Three Little Words by Ashley Rhodes-Courter.

What makes these books better than the average blogosphere offering? Is it the author’s time commitment, the careful crafting and editing, or just plain talent?

I think it is something far simpler. Audience.

Is the writer writing for only themselves or are they writing to communicate with others? Is the writer even aware of their audience at all? When a blogger treats their posts as a personal journal entry, they tend to be far more egocentric. There is little or no awareness of an audience, and what might be of interest to them. It is just another generic self-involved entry in an already overfilled anthology of narcissism and egomania.

I don’t think it’s the confessional nature of the subject matter in and of itself that’s the problem. It’s the intention. As a reader, what am I supposed to do with it? Why should I care? Are you even aware I’m here?

Your story is yours alone, but it isn’t that unique. As the Ani Difranco lyric says, “Like the rest of the human race, you are one of a kind.”

We all have these stories. I won’t read your story just because it happened. Too much of our social media life is just about shouting our own story and trying to be heard rather than actually having a conversation. We aren’t sharing our lives in order to honestly connect.

Telling my story for me is easy. Telling my story in a way that makes you see your own story differently is a completely different matter. That’s where the magic is.

“Writing is an extreme privilege, but it’s also a gift. It’s a gift to yourself and it’s a gift of giving a story to someone.” – Amy Tan

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Runner's Corner: Identity Crisis - How Do I Know I Am Still a Runner?

"I am taking a break from marathoning," I told my husband a little over a month ago. 

"Really?" he said, incredulous. "Are you sure?"

"Oh yeah. I think I need a break. I'm just going to work on my short runs, run a few 5Ks and get my groove back again," I said.

You see, for several months, I have been a mentor with Team in Training. It was a wonderful experience, especially when you see new runners realize they can run a marathon, and you witness the sense of accomplishment that comes when they cross that finish line. But, if you have been following my running posts at all, you know I have an on-again, off-again relationship with running.

A few weeks ago, over enchiladas at Joe T's, I met a lady from Louisiana. After bonding over all of the usual why-we-love-NOLA things, somehow we got on the topic of running.

"Are you a runner?" she asked. 

Now, looking at her, I assumed she was a runner because she has far more of the stereotypical runner's body than I do. In fact, my body doesn't resemble a runner's body at all. It's just that when you see my body running, you have to admit that I am in fact running, and this is my body. 

I guessed she was a runner, and so I was ashamed to admit that at that moment, I hadn't run in almost two months. I paused, then started to say no.

"Yes. Yes she is," my husband interrupted. "She just ran a half marathon in November."

"Oh, yes you definitely are a runner!" she agreed. "I can't run a mile to save my life."

But I wasn't so sure any more. Once the TNT season ended, so did my running motivation. If I was going to keep running, I needed a goal.

When I told my husband I signed up for El Scorcho again, a 25/50K midnight race that happens every July in the hottest part of Fort Worth summer, he just shook his head. Soon, I convinced my uncle--who ran the 180-mile Grand Teton Relay with me last summer--to sign up to run the Big Sur Half Marathon in Monterey Bay this November.

And today I started the Bad to the Bone Virtual 50K that an acquaintance of mine created as a fundraiser for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Everyone who runs 31.1 miles in the month of May gets a medal and t-shirt with this awesome design:

You can still sign up through May 3 here:  

A couple of days ago, an envelope arrived containing my Big Sur Half Marathon training shirt. I excitedly opened the package and held the shirt up for my husband to see.

"Not running any more half marathons?" he asked. "I better not hear you tell anyone you aren't a runner."

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Noteworthy Nosh: Grilled Pork Vermicelli @ Noodles at Boba Tea House

For this week’s nosh, we head to north Fort Worth outside Loop 820. Noodles at Boba Tea House, a Vietnamese fusion eatery at the intersection of Basswood Blvd. and Beach St., is a frequent haunt of mine. In fact, I have been known to visit once a week for lunch when I have an insatiable craving for pho or bun. And I never fail to find a packed dining room during lunch hours.

In addition to the namesake boba “bubble” tea, the restaurant offers several classic Vietnamese dishes, including pho, bun and spring rolls, as well as decent sushi selection. I have yet to try the sushi, but the chicken pho and classic spring rolls with peanut sauce are always a good choice.

However, their best dish in my opinion, and one I have had more than a dozen times, is the bun thit nuong, or Vietnamese grilled pork with vermicelli. Thin slices of tender marinated pork are served warm over chilled vermicelli rice noodles with a sprinkling of crushed peanuts. Fresh mint leaves, bean sprouts, matchstick cucumber, shredded carrots and lettuce, as well as a savory and delicious fish sauce, accompany the dish.

Mint, sprouts and sauce are added at the user’s discretion, but I never fail to add them all. The combination of hot and cold, the crunch of the fresh vegetables with silky noodles, the pop of mint, and the tender and garlicky chunks of pork make this dish unforgettable.

For over-the-top deliciousness, add the BTH egg roll to your bowl. I always let the egg rolls sit long enough to soak up the goodness at the bottom of the bowl before eating and save one eggroll for my last bite.

Noodles at Boba House may be a little out of the way for some, but worth a visit if you happen to find yourself on the north side of town. They offer classic dishes and consistently good quality. And if you’re not a boba tea fan, like me, don’t pass up their classic Jasmine tea served with a small pitcher of simple syrup.

Noodles at Boba Tea House (, 7355 N Beach St., Sun-Thurs 10:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., Fri-Sat 10:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.

Do you have a favorite pho or bun place in the DFW area? Please feel free to share.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

On the Road: Making Friends for the Moment

Last November, I ran 8 miles of the Big Sur half marathon with a fellow runner whose name I don’t remember, but I can tell you why she started running, how long ago, and how much she loves racing with her daughter.

On any given trip, dozens of chances arise to connect with someone new. The stranger in line ahead of you at the pastry shop, the guy sitting next to you on the street car, or the server at that little seafood place the guy on the street car told you about. Often these chance meetings are interesting, sometimes useful, and other times, just plain bizarre.

But every once in a while you connect with someone, and it’s almost magical. These are the moments that make a trip uniquely yours. And these are the moments you remember years later.

I’ve bonded with a front desk clerk over riding motorcycles in a rainstorm, shared dinner stories with the couple at the next table because they’re also from Texas, and discovered why a scuba diving instructor in Cambodia decided to sail yachts in BVI.

When I was younger, I felt the need to get names, exchange contact information and promise to stay in touch with everyone I met on one of my adventures. Now I take these meetings on their own merits, and realize (with only a twinge of regret) that our paths will probably not cross again.

One of my favorite chance meetings happened in St. John. I never got his name, but he singlehandedly made the rented condo in Cruz Bay feel more like home. He just appeared on my second story balcony the first morning of our stay, and hopped in my lap.

Then he came back each morning and evening thereafter. After a few days, we bought a couple of cans of food and fed him on our patio, but mostly, we would just sit on the balcony together and watch the sun peak up over the bay.
The couple across the way from us told us they have visited St. John every year since their honeymoon (except the year they sent their first kid to college). They  said the feline was actually the condo cat.
It turns out, the feline population in Saint John outnumbers human residents, and more than half of them are homeless. Thanks to a trap-neuter-return program, the island has helped spay and neuter strays and kept the homeless kitty population from spiraling out of control.

It was hard to part ways with my friend at the end of our journey, but I like to think that every morning he is sitting with a new companion watching the sunrise over Cruz Bay and helping them fall in love with St. John like I did.

Do you have a story to share about meeting someone on a trip that you have never forgotten? Please feel free to share.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Chef's Apprentice Files: What Else Can I Do With Infused Olive Oil?

If you have dined out at an Italian restaurant any time in the last decade, you probably have had the pleasure of dipping a loaf of warm bread into a bowl of seasoned olive oil and Balsamic vinegar. What you may not know is that infusing olive oil is an easy way to garnish and give depth to a number of dishes.

Restaurant chefs often have more than one squeeze bottle of chili or herb-infused oil on hand to add color to a dish. A swirl or dots of red or green on a finished plate requires no cooking school training and is an easy way to impress dinner guests. 

What home cooks may not know is that replacing plain olive oil with a home-infused oil can add layers of flavor to otherwise ordinary recipes or take a dish from good to great.

Here are some simple swap-out ideas:

1. Spoon a little over a fresh vegetable soup and add a dollop of goat cheese.
2. Add to cooked pasta along with fresh grated Parmesan cheese, grated citrus and a chiffonade of fresh herbs for a simple pasta sauce.
3. Use instead of plain olive oil when making vinaigrette.
4. Toss with grilled vegetables and add a squeeze of lemon.
5. Brush on slices of French bread before broiling.
6. Add to a bowl of cooked white beans or chicken chili for a colorful and flavorful garnish.
7. Drizzle over pizza right out of the oven.
8. Use to baste chicken for roasting or grilling.
9. Finish your next stir-fry or fried rice with a swirl of homemade chili oil.
10. Paint on sandwich bread for your next grilled sandwich.

Basic Herb-Infused Oil

1 bunch of fresh herbs, such as sage, thyme, rosemary and/or basil
3 cups of extra virgin olive oil

Remove the leaves from the stems, discarding stems. Place the leaves in a mortar and pestle and bruise the leaves to release some of the oil. Add leaves and olive oil to a heavy-bottomed pot and warm through for about 30 minutes over very low heat. This will release more of the flavors in the herbs. Then remove from heat and allow to cool completely before placing in a clean, quart-size jar.

You can also place warmed olive oil and bruised herbs in a jar and leave in a sunny window for a couple of weeks instead of heating on the stove.

Store the jar in a cool, dry and dark place for a few days. Once the flavor profile is right, the leaves can be strained out. The bottle can be stored in the fridge. The oil will last about 2 or 3 months.

Note: A simple chili oil can be made by heating 2 cups of olive oil over low heat with about 4 teaspoons of crushed red chili flakes. Heat gently for about 5 minutes. Or alternatively, gently sauté fresh chopped chilies in oil for about 10 minutes. Allow to cool completely and then store in a glass jar with lid in the fridge for up to one month. 

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

The Noteworthy Nosh: Coconut Kale Enchiladas @ Be Raw Food and Juice

This week’s noteworthy nosh comes from Dallas. I don’t get the chance to make it over to The Big D all that often, and I am totally fine with that. But this meal was definitely worth the trip.

If you find yourself in the University Park area and are an adventurous soul, you must try Dallas’ only raw vegan eatery. The menu is extensive, with several juice and smoothie options, but also soups, salads, sandwiches, wraps, noodle bowls, pizzas, and desserts. The entrée selections include a raw lasagna, “bliss burger” and even a raw take on spaghetti and “meatballs.”

A friend and I stopped in recently for a leisurely lunch. The atmosphere was relaxed and not overly crowded (though parking is interesting), the waitstaff is friendly and eager to answer questions about the menu, and Chef Cesar Vallejo was more than happy to talk about customer’s favorite dishes and how they are made. I am not vegan, so I had plenty of questions.

In addition to trying a fresh juice blend and cup of pineapple cucumber gazpacho, I tried one of Be Raw’s most popular dishes, the coconut kale enchiladas. The tortillas are made from coconut, red bell peppers, dates and agave that are dehydrated into rollable shells. They are stuffed with marinated kale, and topped with pico, "nacho cheese" and a cashew “sour cream,” then served with red and green salsas on the side.

I was pleasantly surprised first by the cheesy flavor of the enchiladas. The shells had a slightly sweet flavor that was unexpected but not unpleasant. At first, the texture of the shells vaguely reminded of fruit rollups I ate as a child, but the spicy heat of the dish kept the sweetness from being at all cloying. Perhaps most impressive was the marinated kale filling, which was delicate but flavorful, and it didn’t have that stereotypically unpleasant texture that sometimes makes raw kale difficult to eat.

Although the difference between traditional enchiladas and raw enchiladas is vast, I think taken on its own merits, the dish is successful—offering traditionally Hispanic flavors of chilies and cheese, light but filling and a uniquely fun variation on the norm.

Be Raw Food and Juice (, 6005 Berkshire Lane in Preston Center, M-Sat 11:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., Sun 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.