Writing As: An Introduction

A young Tori fresh out of college, considering a career as an oil painter.

A young Tori, fresh out of college and considering a career as an oil painter.

I’ve tried to update this blog—this PORTFOLIO, sorry, this portfolio—a million times this summer and fall, but I’ve been wracked with that weird form of writer’s block that comes from having too much to say and too much money to be bothered to write it down and too many conflicting celebrity birthday party invitations to attend them all which has resulted in a lot of very hurt, very famous feelings, as you can imagine.

The past twelve months have been full of so many changes. For example, I lost some skin cells and grew new ones. I also started washing my hair with yarrow root and researched video games. Exciting statistic: I’ve officially been a full-time freelance writer for a year! Yeah, it was right around the start of football season that I quit my hilariously lucrative, moonshine-soaked waitressing job so that I could write full-time, and by “write full-time” I mean “write fashion news blurbs for almost no money full-time.” But the journey of a thousand miles starts with one underpaid gig, compatriots.

So it’s been a year of thinking about writing in a much more tangible, practical way than I ever thought about writing before. It’s not so much, “Ooh I like writing OOH HERE’S A GOOD TITLE FOR A POEM: EARL GREY RAINWATER,” it’s much more, “What do I want to write? What am I good at writing? What role do I want writing to play in my life? How do I want to write? Is there a void in the world that only my writing can fill?” (Yes there is, and it’s called TARANTINO’S GHOSTWRITER.)

In short, it’s been a year of thinking about my calling, which is sensitive term that I used once in an awkward meeting with an Indiana University administrator. I told him I didn’t want to be a teacher because being a teacher wasn’t “my calling.” He actually laughed at me.

“You believe in callings?” he asked. I didn’t say anything, but what I should have told that sad, incredulous man is, “How can you not?”

So I’ve decided to write down my thoughts on the subject of writing like a bored housewife keeping a diary on the back of her grocery receipts during the awful summer heat of Arizona, 1964. I’ll make it a series: writing as all sorts of different things. I’m sure you’ll disagree with some of them, but this is what writing means to me at this moment in time as I sit in my air-conditioned mansion and count my millions and, well, I could write about it all day.

Busy Creatures

HELLO, COUNTRYMEN. The last time I posted something here, I was in Spain, but the second I got home from Europe, normal life swallowed me whole—except you can’t un-see “Guernica” and you can’t undo moments spent alone in Istanbul’s Basilica Cistern and thank God for that. I do have big plans for this little blog, I do—odd series and introspective think pieces and enough Charlie’s Opinions to keep you stressed out for weeks. But I’ve just been so busy trying to become a tiny bit legit that I haven’t had the time to write anything that doesn’t immediately pay ten million dollars.

Here’s what I’ve been up to for the past few months. I currently have a terrible head cold, so I’m busy feeling sorry for myself, but in the grand scheme of things, I am so, so grateful.

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1. I scrambled around Paris/Spain/Portugual/Turkey on a writer’s budget, with a writer’s slightly cracked camera.

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2. I flew to LA to see my amazing baby sister play Jo from Little Women. She was TRULY GREAT.

3. I published some fiction: a story about Marilyn Monroe and a story about the apocalypse.

DAKOTA4. I wrote and directed a play.

5. I interviewed someone who interviewed Tom Robbins.

6. I reviewed Michael Cunningham’s latest novel.

IMG_64767. I dreamed and dreamed about abandoned motels.

8. I wrote a list of the 13 most annoying writers you’ll ever meet. It sorta went viral. The Pen/Faulkner award mentioned it on Facebook.

IMG_6589 IMG_66069. I went to the family farm(s).

IMG_649810. I was gone most weekends.

11. I started my greatest writing project to date, a series called Lady Killers on the Hairpin about…female serial killers. It was featured on Longform twice.

12. I interviewed the Editor-in-Chief of Guernica (the magazine, not the painting, bro). The interview isn’t up yet but you’ll definitely hear about it when it is.

IMG_7075IMG_694613. I went on a press trip to Bermuda, confirming my long-held suspicion that being a writer—no matter how humble your gigs—is the greatest job of all time, second only to being a poet.

This may be the most self-aggrandizing post of all time, but if I think it’s cool to be a little bit proud of your achievements, isn’t it? Especially when everyone says the thing you want to do for a living isn’t anything you could do, you know, in real life, and you’re like, Just let me try for two seconds?

Everything

I don’t even know where to begin. Here’s how I’ve been feeling lately: ecstatic, dopamine-fueled, like everything is happening at once, and full of that subtle but deep underlying sadness that I don’t think any thinking woman will ever be able to shake. Example: today, I saw Picasso’s “Guernica” in person. I started crying. I stood close to it for ten minutes. I stopped myself from even thinking about taking a picture. My vision was blurry. I’d had so much coffee, and so little food. I felt: so moved to be in the presence of legend, so moved to be in the presence of great art, so envious of every artist and ex-pat who’s ever lived in Europe among this deep deep artistic history that we will never be able to approximate in the US, so sad about the bombing of Guernica, so intimidated by how perfectly Picasso channeled real human suffering into art, so restless about the fact that I don’t live in a city with Guernica in it, so dreamy at the thought that I was standing in an art museum by myself in Madrid, so confused.

I walked back, buzzing with caffeine and Guernica and work, listening to something just as blood-pumping and confusing as anything: a song that my brother recommended to me for a road trip with my sister but that has come to represent, for me, my first solo trip to Europe. Buzzing is the best word for what I’ve been feeling lately. Sometimes it’s literal (wayyyyy too many gin and tonics in Portugal), sometimes it’s because I’m listening to a great song and walking extra fast, sometimes it’s because I’m angry (I recently got an EMAIL criticizing one of my articles for having a TYPO), sometimes it’s because I’m thrilled, sometimes it’s because I’m making eyes at everyone on the street and I can’t stop. I’m too obsessed with burning imagery, stigmata, flash fiction. I just stopped writing and reached for the screen. See—the big gesture of my life right now is me holding my hands out in front of me and shaking, fingers poised in a gesture that’s half-claws, half-reaching. With joy? With fear? Even I, the trembling mind inside my only body, couldn’t tell you.

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13 Nightmares

A strange thing I was working on last year. What is it? Visual nonfiction? All dreams are technically nonfiction, aren’t they?

I wasn’t going to do anything with it, but recently I’ve been extra inspired by Andy Warhol’s idea of just cranking stuff out, letting the world deal with it as they will, and getting along to the next project. I really want to be some sort of Warhol-Zelda Fitzgerald hybrid rather than, say, a Flaubert in search of le mot juste. A fabulous hack with a quick wit.

Unconventional Soulmates

This is a transcript of a real-life chat conversation between friends. Names have not been changed. Liberties have not been taken. Well, the scotch is a bit fictional. But isn’t it always?

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ZALMAN: Meri, I have literally zero experience in romantic love, but, can I describe my current fantasy for a life partner?

MERIWETHER: Yes.

ZALMAN: We meet and fall in love. In a few years we get married. A few years after we get divorced. No one gets hurt. We just decide we need to move on

MERIWETHER: How do you not at all get hurt in a divorce?

ZALMAN: STOP I’M NOT DONE.

MERIWETHER: Okay, sorry.

Meriwether returns to cutting out paper doll figurines for her Burn Book as Zalman types rapidly.

ZALMAN: I mean no one gets their heart broken. It’s mildly painful, but we move on. We stay good friends, if not best friends. We go have our own lives. Our romances. We do separate things but stay friends. Then, around age 65, we realize that all along the other person was really the one we cared about the most, and we live happily ever after.

A poignant pause.

ZALMAN: Is that weird?

MERIWETHER: No, I like it. But then what happens when one of you dies first?

ZALMAN: Happens to most couples. Anyway, possible models: 1. Siegfried and Roy. 2. Cathy Barbarian and Luciano Berio.

MERIWETHER: Do you want to hear mine?

ZALMAN: Okay, go.

MERIWETHER: So I continue my life as it is, constantly being hit on by disgusting men, rejecting them all. Only having occasional and mild interest in peers and colleagues, all of whom end up being too insecure in their own personhood and masculinity to fully deserve me. As a result of the continued anger, frustration, sense of doom, etc. I feel toward almost all bachelors who come my way, coupled with my very real desire to have a child of my own and raise it and love it, I decide to become a single mother and either hit up one of my friends (YOU) for a sperm donation, or go to a sperm bank.

Zalman chuckles, swirling a glass of Scotch on one finger. 

MERIWETHER: Several years later, I am a thriving single parent. Whatever I’m doing to make money is going well. Writing couldn’t be better. My child is blossoming into a beautiful little person I love taking care of. And then SUDDENLY an older and distinguished gentleman comes into my life—details TBD. With his maturity of intellect and emotion he is able to grasp both my inherent positive traits and the struggle I have overcome as a single parent. We fall in love and get married. I am probably 40-45, he is no older than mid 50s. We live happily ever after. The end. Also, travel a lot. And hopefully he’s rich.

ZALMAN: We have the best unconventional fantasies ever!

A Visual Guide to Writers’ Notebooks

HI FRIENDS, I’M BACK! *runs around hugging everyone* Wait, you didn’t know I was gone? Well, I was. I was in Panama. I spoke some Spanish. I went on a zip-line. I made some jokes. I saw some sights. Me me me me me.

While I was on the plane back to this great country we call the US of A (I’ll be honest with you, my heart swelled a little when the kind, buff customs officer said, “Welcome back,” but that’s mainly because I’d been mentally playing out an terrible fantasy wherein I get detained for unclear reasons and spend the rest of my life pacing the floors of the O’Hare airport), I couldn’t sleep, so I drew you a useful chart instead. I hope it helps you understand why you should NEVER USE MY BLACK SPIRAL NOTEBOOK FOR YOUR TO-DO LISTS, CHARLIE. I WAS GOING TO WRITE IN IT SOMEDAY.

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13 Things I Loved in 2013

Peeps, I am PSYCHED for 2014. I think it’s going to be a fantastic year for all of us. Shout-out to my little sister who’ll be graduating high school and starting college, everyone from IU who’s going to be graduating with an MFA, and all others undergoing life changes big and small. Oh, and an extra-meaningful shout-out to anyone who’s about to come into a lot of money. These thrifted cardigans don’t pay for themselves!

In an effort to remain optimistic and grateful instead of defaulting into my usual mental state (fatalistic and consumed with a senseless desire for revenge), I’m taking a look back on the highlights of 2013–a strange and frightening year for young Tori if there ever was one. There were lows, there were ant infestations, there were terrified moments spent deep under the covers wondering if the apocalypse was nigh, there were creepy men on street corners talking to figures I couldn’t see, but there were also highs, and kindred spirits, and candles, and champagne, and paycheck after paycheck with more than 6 figures on it.

Here are some of the things I loved.

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2013-121. Hanging out with my guy. He cooks delicious egg sandwiches, he cracks me up, he lets me take hilarious photos of him when he’s carrying his bass over potholes, we’re in a top-secret band together, he’s not too grumpy, he’s the most supportive person of my writing by a long shot, he took me to a champagne salon on my birthday, and he is far too precious to be elaborated on via the Internet. screenplaygurrrrl

2. Writing a screenplay. Aside from some novellas in college (what up Northwestern CW Honors Program ’09), this was my first real foray into long-form writing, and gee willikers was it hard. But my seemingly senseless toil earned me the ultimate prize: having my name appear…in a list…ON THE INTERNET…beneath the name of someone who doesn’t use the Oxford comma!

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3. Going on a whirlwind trip to Colombia, aka “Colombia the country,” with these kindreds. When my friend Joe called me for a little commiseration about his “failed” trip to Colombia, neither of us had any idea that in about forty-eight hours, we’d both be on a plane to Bogotá. Our spur-of-the-moment trip taught me so much about how I want to live my life. I finally understood, viscerally, that no action comes out of inaction. There’s never going to be a perfect time, you’ll never have enough money (what up Indiana University graduate student “salary”), and you will always have to shuffle your life and budget around like a professional juggler. But if you bring yo’ passport and pack super light and are okay with not washing your hair for a while, it’s going to be amazing.

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4. Waitressing the night the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup. It was basically like going to a huge party where ecstatic strangers buy you drinks and you walk away with $300 cash. Hanging out with Toews and the Stanley Cup was pretty awesome too, but as you can see, I was in a bad mood that day for no good reason. Women, right?!

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5. Actually, waitressing in general. I spent the summer waitressing and freelance writing, and it was just the funnest, most laid-back summer ever. After a while, I couldn’t keep up with the late nights/Jameson shots + early mornings article deadlines, but waitressing and writing are the perfect combination of extroversion/introversion, human interest/dreaming.

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6. Travels. Despite the fact that I’ve become terrified of flying after entering into an alternate reality via airplane in the spring of 2012 (long story), there is little I love better than going to a new city/town/country/bullfighting festival/party in West Egg/Yoknapatawpha county/WHAT?!

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7. Writing flash fiction, the world’s most enjoyable art form. This is probably my favorite thing I’ve written this year, if yer interested.

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8. Making tiny videos. I got no technical/financial/practical reason to do so, it’s just SO MUCH FUN. And is there a better reason for doing anything? (Funny. KitschySad.)

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9. Embracing the art of the terrifying decision. 2013 was the year I left three different jobs. No wait–four jobs. No, wait, five jobs–geez, #likearollingstone, am I right?! Because I’ve learned that what you don’t do often defines you just as much as what you do.

2013-52013-1010. Bloomington farewells, Bloomington reunions. Proof that just like Snow White and Prince Charming in “Once Upon a Time” (obscure art world reference, don’t worry about it), writers will always find each other.

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11. Meriwether reunion. We may not be any closer to world domination and we may have forgotten to create our famous podcast, “Insanity,” but we’re still the queens of the comedy hour. The question remains: is it all in our heads?!

photo-40 photo-41 photo-4212. SISTER reunion. We’re probably going to be roommates when she’s in college, because that’s what normal people do. And she gon’ be my best friiiiiiiiieeeend.

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13. All things family. Is this me ending with a sentimental cliche? No, this is me ending with a Marilynne Robinson quote:

There’s so much to be grateful for, words are poor things.

Everything I Know About Narrative Realist Fiction I Learned From “The Call” by the Backstreet Boys

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I’ve been studying creative writing since I was a kid, but I never learned much from “books on craft” (ugh) or discussions about whether or not creative nonfiction needs to stick religiously to the truth (yawn). As a matter of fact, it was a single song from the turn of the millennium that — despite its humble length and heavy reliance on “club” sound effects — taught me everything I know about good fiction. It begins with a simple phone call; it ends with universal heartbreak. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll question everything you knew about high art.

1. If you do nothing else, at least begin in media res.

Before the Backstreet Boys, pop music was heavily reliant on archetypal openings like a “sick beat” or a few pounding guitar chords. “The Call” ignores all that musty traditionalism in favor of something as intriguing as it is simple: the ringing of a phone. Why ease into the (narrative) pool when you can perform a (literary) cannonball instead?

2. You have approximately two seconds to establish tension.

Without tension, your story falls immediately — I have to say it — flaccid. Never ones to risk losing their underage audience, the Backstreet Boys hook us mere seconds into the song. A sleepy-sounding woman picks up the phone. “Hello?” A man’s cigarette-roughened voice begins, “I’m sorry, listen, I’m going to be late tonight…”

Dun dun dun. It’s not a new juxtaposition — innocent girl at home, hard-partying man anywhere but — but it sure is an effective one.

3. The truth is ambiguous. Play around with it.

What one character knows to be true might not necessarily be the truth of the story world. What the narrator insists is true might not necessarily carry weight in the real world. It’s called narrative unreliability (I think), and it’s one of the most interesting techniques a writer can play around with.

Forget Humbert Humbert and Holden Caulfield — “The Call” doesn’t get nearly enough credit for featuring one of the most famously unreliable narrators of all time. Before the song even starts, we hear the protagonist hanging up on his girlfriend without answering any of her worried questions, insisting, “My battery must be low.” As readers, we’re privy to the fateful night that follows, so when we look back on that “call that changed [the protagonist's] destiny,” we realize that he was totally lying about the battery! What else has he been lying to us about? Is the girl at the club even real? Are you on drugs?

4. Down with the fourth wall! DOWWWWWWWNNNNNN!

Many of the world’s greatest stories have a narrator who introduces him or herself to the reader. Forget about that whole “Call me Ishmael” shtick. The narrator of “The Call” doesn’t even need a name:

Let me tell you a story ’bout the call that changed my destiny.

Suddenly we’re just a bunch of cavemen, sitting around the world’s first fire, listening to that most universal of entertainments — the story.

5. Please, please, please, please, don’t spend time describing the club.

Or the bar, or the coffee shop, or the restaurant. Nobody cares that the music at the club was “hot, sweaty, and sensuous, with a beat like the ragged breathing of a panther.” We understand that coffee shops are full of “scruffy men writing the next Great American Novel in ratty notebooks, wondering if anyone is watching.” And we definitely know that bar floors can be sticky. Don’t bore us with your unnecessary descriptors. The main action of “The Call” takes place in a club, but the Backstreet Boys give us only this:

Me and my boys went out, just to end up in misery.

Our imaginations quickly sketch in the rest of the scene, and no one needed to hear about “the yellowing lime rattling around in her gin-and-tonic.”

6. Let your protagonist second-guess themselves.

Guilt. Regret. Indecision. Terrible emotions to experience in the real world, but they make for some of the richest characterization in literature (HIYA, PRUFROCK). Though the narrator of “The Call” quickly establishes himself as a sleezebag, the Backstreet Boys save him from becoming a stereotype by allowing him to express doubt and self-loathing, transforming him from a one-dimensional club bro into a nuanced, near-sympathetic protagonist:

I should have said no. … It eats me up inside/that she’s not by my side/just because I made that call to lie.

7. The most interesting moments often take place during the denouement. 

While the climax of a story may be the most exciting part, it’s often fairly one-dimensional — sometimes the real story lies in what happens afterward. Sure, “The Call” is about a man who cheats on his woman, but the story doesn’t end at the cheating itself, since that’s not the interesting part (BSB tantalizes, without cheapening the moment, by a simple “I’ve got a little place nearby — wanna go?”).

The emotional heart of the story lies in the narrator’s regret after he’s cheated on his girlfriend, especially once “one of her friends found out that she wasn’t my only one.” The regret is so poignant, in fact, that it can only truly be expressed by singing the chorus over and over again. In this way, we understand the dull inescapability of his pain.

8. There is real magic in repetition.

Writers have this irritating obsession with finding the newest, the most original ways of expressing things (“ocean” becomes “a glittering mirrorball wherein my future lies unformed, pulsing like a white dwarf” and the rest of the world mutually agrees to jump off a cliff). But seasoned narrators understand that sometimes the most powerful thing you can do is repeat a single word or phrase (see the now-legendary ending of Oscar Wao: “The beauty, the beauty!”).

Instead of telling us what happens post-breakup, the Backstreet Boys imply the empty future of the protagonist with a haunting repetition of the opening word: “Hello? Hello? Hello? Hello?” This time, it’s not the sleepy inquiry of an innocent girlfriend left drowsing at home. It’s a vengeful ghost, whispering in the ear of a man who will never know true peace again.

9. When all else fails, sing the chorus again in a different key. 

Aaaaand modulate up a full step. Feels so good!