Writing in the Time of COVID

MUG Zoom Writing Retreat 2020 Ellickson

Stay home, write books! My writing group had grand plans for our retreat this year — cozy cabin in Colorado, writing & laughing & cooking for days, SNOWSHOEING! (I live in beachside California, so you have no idea what snowshoeing means to me). But, with the coronavirus pandemic, we had to scrap plans and get creative. In April, we jumped online and hosted mini-workshops for each other: the craft of writing emotions, world-building, drawings maps, delving into our blindspots in race and culture, plot bunnies. Sure, I would have much rather been cozy and writing in a cabin with my critique partners, but I’m ever grateful to have these hilarious and talented ladies in my writing group.

See, I’m trying to be positive.

Downright sunny.

But, to be honest, it wasn’t quite the same. Every year, I carefully budget and plan and scrounge vacation days to go to at least one writing retreat. Somewhere I can focus on my art, focus on learning craft, and find my “tribe” — which apparently are a bunch of weirdos who dream up imaginary stories and hammer them out on paper. It’s a break from my non-writing-related career and family obligations; it’s a time to dive into writing with reckless abandon and all the seriousness of a birder. It isn’t sitting in front of a laptop screen having yet another Zoom meeting after a long day of Zoom meetings. The MUG Zoom retreat was a makeshift answer in uncertain times.

Don’t get me wrong; I am grateful to be healthy, safe and employed. Truly, this isn’t a complaint. It’s gratitude. Gratitude for the simple in-person connection that we’ve taken for granted in our ever-increasingly digital world. Gratitude for our resilience during these pandemic times when we’re constantly plugged-in and overwhelmed and worried about the future. Gratitude for friends who make me laugh and inspire me to keep writing. Gratitude that one day we’ll meet again, in-person. Oh, watch out, all the stories we’ll tell.



The Secret to Writing

“The secret to writing is just to write. Write every day. Never stop writing. Write on every surface you see; write on people on the street. When the cops come to arrest you, write on the cops. Write on the police car. Write on the judge. I’m in jail forever now, and the prison cell walls are completely covered with my writing, and I keep writing on the writing I wrote. That’s my method.”

— Neil Gaiman

Photo Story: The Young Writers Program, Authors-to-be, and You

Another one of my photo stories written for the Office of Letters and Light and reblogged here to highlight the amazing young authors of the San Francisco Bay Area:

Photo Story: The Young Writers Program, Authors-to-be, and You


Eight daring YWP Wrimos picked up the microphone and shared their novels during the “Thank Goodness It’s Over” NaNoWriMo reading on February 10, 2013 at the Booksmith in San Francisco. The pictures below capture the faces of the bright young authors supported by NaNoWriMo, the Young Writers Program, and you. One day, maybe you’ll find their photos on the back jacket of their published novels. Until then, keep on writing, Junior Wrimos!

Here’s a shout out to our all-stars featured below:

North Oakland Community Charter School, Oakland, CA
Luca Campbell, Francesca Miller-Heller, Justice Petersen, Julian Rosenthal

Creative Arts Charter School, Oakland, CA
Marlowe Heier, Ronin Lanning

Clifford Elementary School, Redwood City, CA
Millen Quinn Alley, Leigh Danielle Alley





Photos by Ian Stevenson Photography.

Young writers, have you read your novels aloud to friends and family? Tell us about it!

— Andrea

Untold Stories from Elsewhere :: Middle East

My article reblogged from the Office of Letters and Light site:

Untold Stories from Elsewhere :: Middle East


During the month of November, we’ve discovered new friends and neighbors at write-ins in local coffee shops and libraries. We’ve memorized every valley, dive bar, and street sign in our fictional worlds. We’ve even sketched a map of the Tupazel World from Bearded Troll Mountain to Red Dragon Lair. But, we may have forgotten that there are Wrimos writing all over the world.

In the region of “Elsewhere :: Middle East,” 934 Wrimos join together from the 24 countries in the Middle East. Today, I’d like to introduce you to Lone Bendixen Goulani, an academic writing teacher at the University of Kurdistan-Hewler in Erbil, Iraq, who teaches 125 students. Eight have signed up with NaNoWriMo to tell their untold stories.

If Erbil, Iraq was the setting of a novel, how would you describe the area?

Kurdistan is a beautiful mountainous area in the Middle East that covers regions both in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Armenia. Kurdistan is a safe haven in Iraq. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the region has developed a lot. Erbil is the capital in Kurdistan region in Iraq, and the majority of people in Erbil are Kurds, but our pluralistic society also contains Arabs, Assyrians, Jezidis, Turkomans etc. The history of the Kurds is very bloody and sad, but there are so many untold stories waiting to be told.

One of my students is using a lot of his mother’s stories in his novel. One of my characters has a father that was killed during Saddam Hussein’s ethnic cleansing of the Kurds. Another character is watching a DVD where Baathists are executing people in different ways because this is what my taxi driver was doing on November 4th, and I put it in my story. There are green parks and modern shopping malls, and the killings have stopped, but people still watch the killings. They still cry over their lost ones.


How did your students react to the idea of writing a novel in one month?

To be honest, most of them looked blankly at me when I announced the event in the classroom, and since they quite often whine about the amount of words they have to write for my assignments (max 800 words this semester), most of them think they would never have the time to write this much. A few asked for more information and got hooked. We are only 8 Wrimos in Erbil as far as I know, and 6 of us are from the University of Kurdistan, but it’s a start. Pictured at the top is Kameran, a UKH student and one of the new Erbil WriMos in front of our NaNoWriMo bulletin board.

Have there been any cultural barriers for fiction writing?

Not really, not so far at least, but I suppose I’m taking the risk of getting into trouble if they write and upload something which is considered inappropriate around here (which is just about everything if you include the stories after they have been retold a few times).

What is the reading culture like in Erbil?

Poetry is quite popular, but there is not really a reading culture. I hardly ever see anybody reading a novel for pleasure, and it’s difficult to find any kind of literature. I go to a book fair once a year, exchange books with my expat colleagues and buy books whenever I’m abroad.

Had anyone heard of NaNoWriMo in your area? How did you first hear about NaNoWriMo?  

No, I had never heard about it until my American colleague told me about it a few months ago. She is taking a course in creative writing as part of her master’s program. She finished her first novel recently (she spent 60 days on it which is clearly cheating, but I’ve bullied her into writing a new one in November).

I’ve always written a lot, but never fiction, so I’m looking forward to taking writing less seriously and share a creative writing experience with my students, friends and colleagues.

How have you kept motivated throughout November?

I enjoyed bragging a lot about what I’m doing in November, so there wasn’t any turning back. How can I call myself a writing instructor if I haven’t written a novel in 30 days?

Also, there’s barely anything to do around here apart from breathing fresh mountain air, so writing a novel is really a perfect activity apart from the power short cuts (and my laptop battery is broken, so it is a serious matter really).

Lone, thanks for sharing your world with us. Wrimos, on this last day of November, let’s do a roll call! Where did you write from this month? How would you describe your home in one sentence?

— Andrea

Student Photo by Lone Bendixen Goulani

Landscape Photo by Flickr user Mustafa Khayat

The Office of Letters and Light Blog – Dare to Wear Pink

Check out my recent blog post at the OLL Blog by clicking this link: http://blog.lettersandlight.org/post/32460625515/dare-to-wear-pink

It’s an awesome pep talk for writers… and anyone who needs a few words of encouragement! It’s also re-posted below:

Did you know that Molly Ringwald, the iconic ’80s star of Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, and The Breakfast Club, is also a literary fiction writer?


Recently, I attended a reading of her new short story collection When It Happens to You. I’ll admit it—I mainly showed up because she was an icon of my teenage years. Because of her, I almost resorted to sewing my own prom dress. My mom had the good sense to convince me otherwise; I had neither a sewing machine nor fashion sense and the dress was starting to look like a belly dancer’s costume.

Flash forward to this year, when I found out that Molly Ringwald had recently published a collection of fiction stories, and my adolescent idol gained about another million degrees of coolness.

She read from “My Olivia,” her haunting story about a mother struggling with a transgender child. The audience was almost brought to tears by her words; not a screenwriter’s words, or a director’s words—her own words.

San Francisco Litquake’s Jane Ganahl grilled her with questions on topics ranging from her Brat Pack days to her book reviews to her gorgeous Greek husband sitting in the audience. But one answer really stuck with me:

“I’ve been writing for decades. It was singing, writing, and acting in that order, and once acting took over, I kept writing and never thought that it would be possible to ever be taken seriously as a fiction writer. That’s what kept me from [fiction writing & publishing] for so long. But in the end I feel like the writing speaks for itself.”

Molly Ringwald worries that people will not take her seriously as a writer.

It’s a worry that crosses my mind every time I tell someone that I am a fiction writer. I always expect the next question to be: well, what have you published? Or what kind of person spends their days transcribing the thoughts of imaginary people? Or did you know that a writing career doesn’t come with stock options?

I, uh, you know, it’s just…

Everyone faces the doubt of announcing themselves as “real” writers. Sometimes we hide our “writer” status for fear of ridicule or dismissal. Do you love to write? Yes. Do you put pen to paper in a magic string of ink straight from your heart? Yes. Then, stash the self-doubt, apply a little pink lipstick (this step is optional), and dazzle the world with your talent.

Whether your day job is as a doctor, actress, lawyer, or waitress, tell the world, “Yes, I am a fiction writer.” And then take that one step further, “Yes, I am writing a novel in one month. Seriously.”

Have you ever been afraid that the world might not take you seriously as a writer? Have you ever let it stop you from writing? I’d love to hear your stories!

— Andrea

Photo by Flickr user Chris Mc Robert

via The Office of Letters and Light Blog – Dare to Wear Pink.

Holy Smokes, I’ve Arrived in NaNoLand!

This was my first week working with the Office of Letters and Light (OLL), an awesome nonprofit that puts on National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). It’s not like any office I’ve ever worked in. It must be all of those letters and light. The staff approaches every project with innovation, dedication, and most importantly humor. I feel completely at home. I’ve already had the pleasure of a wine and cheese happy hour, a gourmet cup of Blue Bottle Coffee, and numerous snack breaks at  Sweet Adeline Bakeshop (I think they might be collaborating to plump up my life). But most important of all, I wrote my first blog post to broadcast to NaNoLand!

Check it out on this link! What a warm welcome into the NaNoWriMo community! There will be many more OLL blog posts to come as we near the 50K monster of November’s National Novel Writing Month challenge. My goal as a new intern is to provide battle gear and inspiration for this upcoming adventure. Stay tuned for more posts.

Here’s a little more about NaNoWriMo in their own words:

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) challenges you to write a 50,000-word novel, from scratch, in the month of November. It’s a global, uproariously fun endeavor, where participants exchange advice and writing tips on the NaNoWriMo website and in real life, with group write-ins held in coffeeshops, living rooms, and libraries all around the world. In 2011, more than 250,000 people took part in National Novel Writing Month.

7 Sizzling Sundays of Summer Flash Fiction Contest

The flash of paparazzi cameras blind my eyes. The crowd is in silence, the silence of parachute doors and church pews. As I walk toward the podium, the plush red carpet makes my heels wobble. The award, gold and glowing, the award is mine. It’s… it’s a Writer Unboxed t-shirt and mug!

Sorry, was I day-dreaming? Not completely….

Writer Unboxed recently announced the winners of the “7 Sizzling Sundays of Summer Flash Fiction Contest” and my story won 2nd place! Writer Unboxed spotlights a plethora of published authors, agents, and editors who share their wisdom on the craft and business of writing. It’s a website that has been listed in Writer’s Digest as one of the “101 Best Websites for Writers” for the past six years in a row. It does a fantastic job of “unboxing” the writer’s life.

The contest went a little something like this: Each week for a total of seven weeks, contestants had 48 hours to write a 250 word piece of flash fiction that was inspired by a particular drawing by Debbie Ohi. A combination of judges’ discretion and weekly votes distilled winners from hundreds of fantastic stories. A total of 21 finalists made it to the last round. Mine was one of them, along with two other members of my MUG Writer’s Group – Taylor Ross and Anthony Lanni. It was an amazing experience to share this contest with my Mugsters. Cheering each other on and sharing in the praise, we realized how much our writing has grown over the years since our first meeting years ago. It made us realize how strong our group has become to be able to encourage each other even in a competition. Truly, that’s the best prize for me.

Here’s the winning story below (as well as linked here):

A monster lives in my bedroom and his name is Gary. My parents don’t believe me. Tonight, if I sit in the hallway, cold and shivering, then maybe they will believe me. Maybe they will believe that Gary has two dog heads and a scaly tail. Maybe they’ll believe that Gary reads me fairy tales like Beauty & the Beast and Snow White. He even has a different voice for each of the dwarves.

But, my dad doesn’t usually come upstairs until long after midnight. Sometimes he tumbles against the walls like a lumbering giant, and Gary perks his head up, ready to leap at the monster in the hall. My mother, she doesn’t ever leave her bedroom except to eat bowls of cold chicken soup. Every night, she slips two red pills into her mouth and disappears into silence. I bet she never dreams of fairy godmothers or flying on the back of a winged beast.

The hallway feels like an icy tunnel. Goosebumps rise on my arms and my eyes droop from the darkness. I just want my parents to believe that a monster lives in my room.

“Come back to bed,” Gary says, waving me over with his soft white paw.

I follow him back to my bedroom where he can protect me from empty hallways.

Barbed Wire and the Friendliest People You’ll Meet in Central America

When you  say ‘El Salvador ‘ most people think of violence and crime, civil war and murder, but what if I told you that I’ve met the friendliest people in all of Central America right here in El Salvador? That’s a broad generalization, but in the two months I’ve been traveling through Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, the locals have never been more helpful than in these poor city streets.

Arriving in the city of Santa Ana, we immediately were lost. We stepped off of the yellow chicken bus, and two men greeted us with massive rifles across their chests. That’s one thing you’ll have to get used to – guns, lots of them. Armed men stand in front of banks, bakeries, pharmacies, anywhere really. Most buildings are also surrounded by large metal gates, concrete walls with shards of glass on top, a huge dose of barbed wire, or all of the above.

On our way to find Casa Frolaz (a hostel and restaurant owned and operated by Salvadorians), locals generously guided us to our desired destination. In so many other countries I’ve visited, most people expect tips or commissions for any sort of ‘help,’ or even try to lure you into some sort of business deal. I know that sad fact has much to do with the tourism industry, so it was refreshing to find otherwise. People also seemed very open to starting conversations with foreigners. Maybe the fact that we are from California gave us a natural ice breaker. Almost everyone we talked to on the bus had either been to the United States or knew someone who had. A large part of El Salvador’s economy is based on family members sending money home while working in the States. Many of the men work hard in the States, and then return to El Salvador to support their families.

In the five days that I explored El Salvador  (Santa Ana, Lake Coatepeque, Tamukal Ruins, Juayua village), we must have only ran into two other tourists. That´s an immense difference from every other country we’ve traveled through. Two  Salvadorian brothers, Bruno and Francisco, gave us such insight into the culture. From our first taste of pupusas to the psychology of the local coffee industry  to their futbol obsession to the clash between the old generation and the new generation of El Salvadorians… I’ve had an interesting glimpse into their culture. If you’re ever in Santa Ana, check out their restaurant, Quattro Estaciones where you can get a strong cup of coffee grown in the mountains near Santa Ana. Strike up a conversation, you’ll be pleasantly surprised here.

Quarter Century Lives

This morning, on our walk to Laguna Apoyo to the sunshine and cervezas and sparkling water, to the heart-beating world, on this morning, he told me that Chelsea died. As we stopped at the street corner, I could feel chills running up and down my body despite the hot dry Granada air. Chelsea was 24 years old, only a year or two younger than us. A few months ago, she had finished her nursing program and had found a job in a hospital. Her warmth and humor were as contagious as the diseases in those hospital beds. She was a good friend to us both, and now a motorcycle crash had stolen her life away.

As we crossed the street filled with semi-trucks and horse carts and taxis and bicycles, all of which refuse to acknowledge stop signs, I thought of how easily it could have been me or you. A more silver-lined person might have said thank you Universe for forcing us to slow down and look around at our luck. For now, I forced the tears to stop at the corners of my eyes.

At one point, Ian said, “I feel like we are hearing more of these stories nowadays.” He means more and more stories of friends with lives too short and bittersweet. This feeling is new to us who have lived quarter century lives and can look forward to so much more. As we grow older, I know there will be more stories too short to want to repeat. Today, I will remember the good ones as we sit at this lake in Nicaragua, a lake so similar to Cayuga Lake, where Chelsea was once and forever our friend.

Freelance Travel Articles While Traveling

Although I have published plenty of articles in newspapers and magazines, I recently published a travel article while backpacking through Central America. It is no easy task writing on the road. First off, I did not pack my own personal laptop, which means I am at the mercy of outdated hostel computers with spotty internet (though my current hostel has iPads, a very rare exception). Secondly, most foreign keyboards have all the symbols in weird places that do not match the keys. For example, right now I would not be able to find the apostrophe key if my life depended on it. When I press the apostrophe key, a backslash appears like a stab in the back. But hey, who needs an apostrophe.

Beyond the technology troubles, it’s just plain hard to work while on vacation, especially when hostel computers are generally located in either the kitchen or living room. With friends waving ice cold beers in your face, it is hard to keep your fingers typing. It is even harder to keep working when say, a gecko falls on your head or a howler monkey calls out your window. It is a lesson in concentration to say the least.

Put all my traveler whining aside, this is a great biz. While staying at La Jungla in Panama, I was captivated by the place and the opportunities it provides to the local community. Every week, children from local schools and orphanages visit the center and basically play with the jungle creatures. They learn so much from the simple touch of feathers and fur. They begin to understand their own country’s diverse environment and how they are connected. After interviewing the owner, Dorothy Howes, I was more than happy to spread word about this hands-on wildlife rescue and education center.

The article, “La Jungla Wildlife Center in Boquete, Panama,” was published in the Central America Travel section on About.com, which is owned by The New York Times. Central America Travel receives approximately 500,000 page views every month. Not bad. Join the 500,000, and click here to read the article!