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Tough Love Talk: Your Story (Probably) Isn’t Special

I know you’re settling in to read this, especially if you’re new or newish to writing, with some degree of resistance. Maybe you even thought about just not reading it at all. You believe–absolutely believe in your bones–that your story is special. That there’s nothing like it. That what happened to you, whether it was good or bad or in between, hasn’t happened to anyone else. That it needs to be written.

As a former editor, writing instructor, and a lifelong voracious reader of nearly every genre, I can assure you with almost complete certainty that your story is nothing special. Even the experience that seems utterly obscure has likely happened to someone else. What’s more, the world is littered with narratives about those experiences, and the majority of them are written poorly.

I know this is uncomfortable, but stay with me.

I was contacted recently by a young woman who wanted to know where she should pitch a story about falling in love with a man from Cuba. She had met him while she was on vacation, fell madly in love with him, and in short order, they started the paperwork that would lead to them getting married and bringing him to the United States. Because the story was unique within her circle, she was absolutely convinced that it was unique in the world. It wasn’t. I can count a full handful of women I know personally whose story is nearly the same. Sure, some particulars are different, but the broad strokes are nearly identical.

Because she was convinced it was unique, period, she was also convinced that pretty much any editor should be interested in a story about it. She didn’t say how she planned to tell her story, how the narrative would arc, distinct from the way you’d tell the story at a bar or over dinner with some good friends. She didn’t say who she thought the ideal audience would be. She was just so excited, so sure that this story, her story, was so good that it needed to be published.

This is just one example; I could come up with a dozen others, easily. When I was an editor, I received pitches on a daily basis from passionate writers who wanted to convince me that no one– no, really, no one–had ever written a story like theirs.

Only the thing was, I’d just received another pitch on exactly the same topic.

To say that your story (probably) isn’t special is tough love talk, I know. It chips away at the foundation holding in place some of the most cherished reasons why you write: to tell your truths. To make sense of them. To seek–and hopefully receive–catharsis, redemption, validation, identification, or some other psychological need of which you may not even be aware. To share this experience that feels (and is) so precious and particular.

There’s nothing wrong with any of that.

But what makes your story special is how you tell it, what details you bring to it, what observations. The struggles and the lessons and the unanswered questions. The doubts that niggle at you when you can’t sleep at night, or the ones that pester you when you’re writing. Don’t try to convince an editor that your STORY is unique because most likely, it’s not. It’s how that story reaches and affects a reader through your skillful telling of it: that’s where you need to be investing your energy and your skills of persuasion when you’re reaching out to an editor. Rather than insist upon the novelty of your story, push yourself harder to answer the question: How can I tell this in a new way, a way that no one has told this kind of story before?


Yes, you have to choose. But can’t you choose everything?

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
I am writing this on my iPhone in the backseat of a taxi.

I am coming home from a whirlwind research trip to Nicaragua and I have approximately 30 hours at home before my next flight.

Maybe I should have just stayed at the airport.
While I was in Nicaragua, my normally patient and always supportive husband was beginning to show some signs of wear and tear– the collateral damage of being a writer’s partner (especially one who travels so much)– during our nightly gchats. Having recently started a blog of his own in addition to his work as a photographer, he’s finding it tough to carve out uninterrupted time to write AND be a full-time stay-at-home dad, one who holds down the fort and keeps the home fire burning when I’m gone (and, truth be told, when I’m home, too).

“I haven’t had a minute to write since you left,” he typed. “Am exhausted.” The man with boundless energy had hit the wall and was feeling frustrated about it.

Over the past 3.5 years our roles have been reshaped to include the title of “parents” in our multi-hyphenated job descriptions. There is never enough time or energy to do everything we want to do. Writing and thinking are always interrupted. And yet, this is what we chose for ourselves– the vocation of parenthood– and we made the conscious decison to add another child to this romper room of a life we’ve made for ourselves.

People– mostly strangers I meet when traveling– keep asking me if I’m ready for this baby yet. “I keep telling him, ‘Just don’t come early because Ive got a lot to get done,'” I say. They laugh. I laugh.

I’m not joking.
When I started writing this post a few weeks ago, various writer friends and acquaintances were circulating “10 tips for aspiring journalists” that journalist Michael Hastings dispensed before his death in a car accident in mid-June. Most repostings of the tips were accompanied by commentary like “Solid advice for budding [ugh] writers.” I guess it was/is solid advice, but perhaps most of it just feels so obvious to me that it’s hard to remember what it was like to hear any of that for the first time.

Tip 9 really rubbed me the wrong way, though:

“9) Mainly you really have to love writing and reporting. Like it’s more important to you than anything else in your life–family, friends, social life, whatever.”

It’s not the first part of tip 9 with which I take issue… obviously. If you don’t love reporting and you don’t love writing, why would you be in the business in the first place? The answer definitely isn’t “for the money,” and I genuinely can’t think of a single compelling answer why someone would devote herself or himself to writing or journalism if the inherent love for words and reporting wasn’t there.

It’s the second part of tip 9 with which I take issue: “Like it’s more important… than anything else in your life.” I hear this a lot. I have writer friends who defer having children or who are agonizing over whether they will decide to have children because they’re afraid that kids will intrude on their writing career and, especially, their neat trajectory toward the pinnacle of writing success… whatever that is.

Hastings’ advice makes me crazy because it reinforces the erroneous idea that writers have to be of the world yet never quite fully in it. That they don’t have to figure out how to make it all work because, well, writing’s just more important than anything: a healthy relationship, other hobbies and interests, and, possibly, the joys and, yes, the frustrations, of having kids.

It’s a false choice he proposed, in my opinion. Further, where does that leave writers and journalists who do have children or who believe that other parts of their lives are at least as important as writing and that, in fact, those parts of their lives give them tools and resources in their writing that they wouldn’t have otherwise?

It’s not that writers are free from the work of making choices. But I believe you can choose it all. I don’t believe that means anything will be easy. But I also believe that going it alone or that living life as if writing is more important than anything else– than everything else– is probably the hardest choice of all, and one that doesn’t actually serve a writer’s work as much as that bit of advice seems to imply.

Kevin Larimer on excuses

Kevin Larimer is the editor of Poets & Writers, a magazine published here in the US.

In his “Editor’s Note” in the July/August 2012 issue, he offers a novel analysis of an argument against the oft-trotted out advice “No excuses” that I think is worth sharing and discussing. I’ve excerpted a large chunk of the Note here; I recommend picking up the issue and reading the whole thing:

“I’ve read a good deal of writing advice, and I’ve tried to share the best of it with readers…. But in my opinion, there’s one nugget of wisdom that gets dug up in far too many essays on the writing life: ‘No excuses.’ It’s typically used to remind us how, when all is said and done, the writer must write, period. It’s a battle cry against procrastination, and I appreciate its efficacy…. But this prohibition on excuses strikes me as a mere headline, appealing to those who think riches await if only they can commit to a rigorous writing schedule. It’s an example of the five-easy-steps approach to literature that I vehemently resist….

…To which I cry out, “No excuses!” The truth is, if we’re doing good work there is no need to justify it. No matter how long it takes, no matter how many revisions have been scrapped or how many agents and editors have rejected us, we shouldn’t have to offer excuses for how we got here. Living a life… and writing a great poem or story or essay or book are not mutually exclusive. Quite the opposite. The writing life is messy, and there’s no secret to success. Instead, there are many paths leading to where you want to go….”

What are your thoughts about Larimer’s take on excuses?

The memoirist’s notebook

Last fall, I was asked by a prominent public figure if I would be interested in helping her write a memoir.

Though I don’t have experience writing memoirs, I didn’t hesitate to say yes.  The opportunity to sit alongside this strong, remarkable woman and be entrusted with the responsibility of hearing her stories and helping her find a way to shape them into a cohesive narrative that would be relevant and meaningful to a mass audience was impossible to decline. Plus, memoir is one of my favorite genres, so I felt I had a solid sense of the elements a powerful and marketable memoir requires. I reckoned I’d figure out the finer points of writing in this genre as I’ve figured out most things in life: by simply doing it.*


I enter her home, which is immaculately clean, for our first “formal” interview session. We have agreed we will meet as frequently as feasible in person and weekly by phone so that I can begin recording her history. Out of these early audio files and pages upon pages of written notes, including reminders about follow up questions and other sources I should contact, we will build the eventual book.

But even before I sit down to talk with her, I am distracted. Beyond all she will tell me over time, there will also, I am suddenly realizing, be all she won’t tell me. I am seized with wonder and worry; there’s more to attend to and consider than I initially thought. What is on the record and what is off? Will the books that are sitting on the coffee table–the books that cement an image of her as intellectual and worldly–eventually have some significance? Is she even reading them or are they her husband’s? I don’t know this now, of course,  but I make a note of them. Soon, my notebook is divided into two distinct sections- the notes about what she has said, and the notes about what she hasn’t: the objects in her environment; the places in her home that I’ll ask to see eventually but for which we haven’t yet developed enough rapport; the people whose contact information I’ll ask for months from now.


After this first session, which was nearly three hours, I sit down and review my notes. Five pages of what she has told me and my parenthetical notes. Everything seems important, even the details that probably aren’t, like what time we met and where, and what she was wearing. I type the notes and save them in a file and allow myself the little luxury of imagining that someday, these may be part of some university’s or institution’s archives.

Then, I shut the notebook and make an entry on my calendar about next week’s meeting.

*or, as they say in Spanish, “aprender caminando,” or “learn while walking.”

How do you decide when to take on a passion project?

Much of the work I do has a “passion project” element to it. 

What that means is that it’s something I’m passionate about… and it’s something the people I’m working with are passionate about, too, but the project pays below market rate, if it pays at all.

As part of my annual end-of-one-year-beginning-of-another analysis of my work and lifestyle choices, I’ve been thinking a lot about passion projects, and though it may sound Scrooge-y to say so, I’ve come to the conclusion that I have to be much more discerning about the work and projects I’ll take on that don’t involve (fair) compensation in 2012.

I’ve always been a hard worker and I’ve always given my all to support projects I felt were worthy of my time and energy, even if there was nothing but good feeling in it for me. But as a mom and a wife who wants to be present to her family, and as a person who has many interests she doesn’t have time to explore as much as she’d like, it’s time to prioritize and get selective. I won’t be taking on work–writing or otherwise–that pays below market rate, and the “feel-good” projects to which I lend my time have to pass a “major impact” test (as in: Will they have a major impact? For who? How?).

Sure, the world economy (still) sucks. No, writing has never paid exceptionally well. But unless we each set down a quantitative and a qualitative accounting of what we believe our worth is, no one is going to step up to change either of those conditions.

How do you decide when (or if) to take on a passion project? Have a specific example you care to share? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

2010 in review

The stats helper monkeys at mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

The average container ship can carry about 4,500 containers. This blog was viewed about 17,000 times in 2010. If each view were a shipping container, your blog would have filled about 4 fully loaded ships.


In 2010, there were 82 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 129 posts. There were 26 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 36mb. That’s about 2 pictures per month.

The busiest day of the year was March 12th with 363 views. The most popular post that day was 4 Places to Write in Peace in NYC.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were,,,, and

Some visitors came searching, mostly for clever bios, cuaderno inedito, best places to write in nyc, places to write in nyc, and clever twitter bios.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.


4 Places to Write in Peace in NYC March 2010


About August 2009


Indistinguishable Places: Some Notes on Adjectives in Travel Writing May 2010


How to look for untold stories July 2010
33 comments and 2 Likes on


Is travel blogging a closed circle? September 2010

Notes on (almost) giving up on Puerto Rico

[Note: It’s been quiet around here, I know. I was away for a week in Mexico City working on an assignment for Sherman’s Travel; five days in South Carolina to celebrate Mariel’s birthday and continue researching an essay I’m working on about the redevelopment of Southern towns; five days in Puerto Rico, working on features about Puerto Rico’s “culinary scene” and about conservation, and, finally (hopefully)… the conclusion of the iPhone app project.]

The annoyance is rising up before we’re even out of the terminal. I feel it in my right shoulder, in my stomach, behind my eyes. It’s familiar; it’s the same feeling I had every time we landed when we lived here. The 30 minutes to get out of the plane because of overstuffed bins. The interminably slow delivery of bags. The unannounced change of carousel where the bags eventually make their appearance. The inevitable search for baggage tickets, which are always, always, matched to luggage tags in a spectacularly useless display of authority.

By the time Francisco has strapped the baby’s seat into the rental car, I’m full on furious. In addition to the expected surcharge for using a debit card, there’s a host of new fees I didn’t figure into our budget. Some are optional, some aren’t, but I haven’t heard of these anywhere else, not even in New York City, where we rent a car at least once a month. Francisco documents all the car’s scratches. We know from experience that missing a scratch here will cost us a lot of money. I look at all the flattened Heineken and Medalla bottle caps on the parking lot and wonder how and why they’re here. I’m muttering to myself about the tourism board’s lack of helpfulness and wondering where we’re going to stay as I strap Mariel in.

We’ve been on the ground for an hour. Mariel is out of milk, so we stop at two grocery stores; neither carries organic. “What should I get, then?” Francisco asks me, calling on the cell phone as I drive around the parking lot and marvel, as always, that people just leave shopping carts wherever they finish unloading them, that they block handicapped spaces so they can idle their cars as close as possible to the store entrance. I flip through the catalog of phenomena that annoyed me when we lived here.

Nothing has changed.

“Dammit, just get regular milk then,” I tell him, hanging up so I can call the hotel where we intended to stay. “Nope, sorry, reservations is closed. We’re sold out.” I don’t know why I’m surprised that the arrangements I’d made–a media rate, not a comp–have fallen through. Here, I’ve always got to have a Plan B. Or C.

Francisco hustles back to the car, a 1/2 gallon of milk in hand. He looks a little defeated. I choose a cheap hotel in Miramar. The desk agent is slow and he’s the only person on duty. In addition to check-ins, he’s also, apparently, the valet parking attendant. Forty minutes later, the car is parked, we’re in our room, and we’re hungry. We’re also late for an appointment I’d made with a chef, who is waiting for us. Back in the car, we’re sitting in standstill traffic. Mariel starts howling. She hates restraints and she’s hit the wall. “Just go back to the hotel,” I tell Francisco. “I’ll reschedule.” I do–twice–but we never make the appointment.

“We’ll get a cream of corn soup and some water and everything’ll be cool.” I go into trip manager mode because travel–the logistics part, in particular–makes Francisco anxious. As soon as he stops the car, I bound into the hotel’s restaurant to place our order. “Um, we’re closed,” says the girl behind the bar. “But hey, you can order drinks!” I want to say “Look at me. Are you fucking kidding?” But I don’t. I don’t say thank you or good night. I scoop up Mariel and go upstairs. Francisco goes to a Chinese joint and brings back some shitty noodles, which we eat as we watch a show on Discovery about prisons.

It all feels metaphoric.


There’s a lot to get done in five days. Too much. Photos of at least 100 places. Meetings with chefs and hotel managers and conservation people and art collectors and artists. I need to maximize this trip, need to advance or finish multiple projects while I’m here. I need, for once, to not go home in overdraft.

Another frustration pops up, and then another, and it shouldn’t break my stride, really, because I’m so accustomed to this here, but I hear myself as I get close to my breaking point. “Why do I keep trying?” I say to Francisco. “Why do I keep working on Puerto Rico?” He is patient as ever as I complain about all the annoyances that he already knows about. “Honest to God, I’m so over this place.”

I go quiet, thinking about why I keep coming back: because I think there’s something worthy here even if it’s really, really hard to see. Because I keep learning more that helps me understand why everything here is so very often so very, very fucked up. Because for some crazy reason, I actually do care and there’s nothing I like more than the challenge of helping lost causes.

But still.

It would be easier to give up.


There are three things that convince me not to give up on Puerto Rico:

1. Francisco has gone out to Guaynabo to meet up with Curacao’s baseball team, which is in town for the pre-mundiales. I’m determined not to be late for a meeting and dinner with Chef Wilo Benet, so I pack Mariel up and walk to the bus stop. I’m resigned to this particular annoyance- the exact change, the inexact schedule, the guaranteed wait, the traffic as we crawl along to Condado. There’s no use in getting worked up about it. Mariel is tired and cries as we wait for the bus. I’m tired, too; we’re not getting nearly as much done as I’d hoped. I hold her and try to soothe her, but I probably have one of those vacant mom stares that can scare a person. An older woman walks by and then turns around “Quieres un pon, mija?” she asks me. I’m startled by her kindness, as well as the state I must look like I’m in to warrant her offer of a ride. “No, gracias,” I tell her, not wanting to put her through the inconvenience of a drive to Condado at this hour. But I think about her all afternoon with a gratitude I can’t quite explain and don’t tell anyone about.

2. We’re talking with Wilo over dinner at Pikayo. The conversation is in Spanish and English and it’s honest and it’s easy and it’s interesting. Wilo says something that explains everything: “Puerto Ricans are the nicest, most helpful people in the world. Until money gets involved.” It’s a simple statement, an obvious one, a thought that’s almost cliched and feels that way as I write it. But it’s not and as the thought rests in the space between us, I try to think about how I might explain this to someone else.

3. We drive west out of San Juan to visit Hacienda La Esperanza, an old sugar plantation now under the auspices of Fideicomiso. The trip is part of my research for an article about the state of the environment in Puerto Rico. We’re far enough from the highway that we can’t see it at all; we’re surrounded by sugar cane and tall grasses that will become heno. The light is strange and beautiful, the way it meets the land and I feel sad and hopeful and angry, but committed. To help save this place and share it is part of my work.