MFA Students in Creative Writing: Why You Should Never Make Your MFA Thesis Available Online

As an MFA candidate, you may think that the most important thing for you as a writer is “being read.” As someone who went down the MFA road in the nineties, and whose thesis formed the basis of my first book, I can tell you that longterm ownership of your creative work is far more important than the immediate satisfaction of being read.

It has come to my attention that some university libraries are requiring graduate students to make their theses available remotely “for educational purposes.” If your university has requested this, fight back and say no. The very purpose of MFA programs in creative writing is to prepare writers for a career in writing. During the course of the program, MFA candidates are expected to produce a “publishable book.” The moment you publish that book online for the benefit of your university library, you have taken away the motive for your future readers to purchase the book. Good luck finding representation with a literary agent, or sending out your book to publishers, or to first-book contests that seek “an unpublished work.”

If you’re an MFA student whose university has pressured you to make your book-length thesis available online, talk to your department head. Professors should be fighting on behalf of their students. I also encourage you to visit the Authors Guild for more information about copyright protection.

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Ocean Beach, San Francisco

5 Simple Everyday Habits to Increase Happiness

While no one can be happy every minute of every day, and while sadness has an important place in our emotional lives, we can cultivate happiness by creating a few simple habits and practicing them every day.

1. Make the beds every morning.

It’s difficult to maintain order in a house, especially if you have little ones. Even without children, the piles of papers, books, CDs, gadgetry, sports equipment, laundry–you name it–can be overwhelming. Which is why I make the beds every morning. It takes five minutes to make a bed, it gives you a small sense of accomplishment early in the day, and every time you walk into the bedroom, you are met with a small island of calm in the midst of the chaos. I prefer soft white bedding with pillowcases in a bright color or inviting pattern–all the more zen.

2. Read every evening.

I love reading alone, and I try to do it for a few minutes every evening while my husband and son are spending time together. But one of the great things about reading before bed is that it’s an easy ritual that can also be shared with children. When my son was small, after a long day I loved sitting in the bed with my son, the bed piled with books he had chosen. By the time we turned the last page on the last book, he’d be ready to have a glass of milk and go to bed. These days, he prefers to read to himself, but we still often read side by side in the evenings. There are so many things to distract from time spent with family, so many time constraints that can lead to stress and arguments; reading with my son is a way for us to be close to one another in an utterly contented, quiet way. It’s also when some of our best conversations happen, and when he asks some of his most endearing and surprising questions. As parents, most of us always feel that, in some way, we’re coming up short. But I feel happy knowing that my son loves reading, and that this is a pleasure he will likely carry with him through his life.

3. Wear something that makes you feel good.

It can be a pair of shoes, a favorite scarf, a beloved jacket from college–it really doesn’t matter. Just choose something that makes you feel good–better yet if it has some sentimental value. Even if your clothes feel a bit tight today and the lines around your eyes came as something as a shock in the mirror this morning, wearing one beloved item that you know looks good on you can give you confidence. I love to wear a gold chain with an emerald that my husband gave me for our fifth wedding anniversary; every time my fingers absently find the emerald, I remember the choice my husband and I made more than a decade ago to spend our lives together, and it makes me feel calm and happy. What’s your emerald necklace?

4. Say something kind to someone you love.

It’s easy to be polite to strangers. We all know to say please and thank you in public, to smile and open doors for others, to ask, “How are you?” Being nice is ingrained in American life; the balance of friendliness and formal politeness varies, of course, depending on region, upbringing, and personal style. But in the rush of daily activity, it’s easy to forget to extend the same courtesies to the people we love, the people we see each morning when we wake up and each night before we go to bed, the people with whom we share meals and bills and responsibility. My husband and I always take time for a kiss and a hug and a kind word in the morning before he leaves for work (it sounds very 1950s, I know, but as I work from home, and he wears a suit, I do send him off every morning, something like June Cleaver). I feel grateful to him for going to work week after week, year after year; and he feels grateful to me for packing lunches and getting our son dressed and getting him to school (and working); and we both like each other very much. If he looks good in that shirt, I tell him. If he made a particularly amazing batch of chocolate chip cookies (which he does pretty often), I let him know I appreciate it. He does the same for me, numerous times a day, in numerous different ways.

We both do the same for our son. Think of a typical day–how many times do you end up correcting your children, telling them to do this or don’t do that, explaining that if they don’t brush their teeth, the teeth will eventually fall out? It’s not bad parenting–it’s just the way of the world–there are a lot of things we have to tell our children. But how many times do you say, “That’s such a great idea,” or, “I love how imaginative you are,” or, “I had so much fun with you today,” or, my favorite, “You’re a great kid.” They need to hear it, and it’s easy to say. So, each day before you part with your family members in the morning, and again before you go to bed at night, be sure to say something kind. It will make them happy.

5. Go outside and breathe.

I need not wax lengthy or this one. Hot or cold, rain or shine, remember to look at a tree or a bird or some rocks or some wildflowers. The only time I found it hard to go outside and breathe was Beijing, circa 1998, because breathing the city air was like breathing soot. So I would take a cab to the Forbidden City, find a quiet spot, and do my sitting and breathing there. Now that it’s summer in Northern California, we have our meals outside as often as possible–on the deck, or down in the yard in a little tee-pee my sister made for my son. I love to step outside first thing it the morning, when the air is cool. There’s a sense of promise to the morning hours, a sense of the world waking up which we can easily forget if we run from house to car to work, without spending a moment in the outside world. My son likes to go down to the back yard (we live over a canyon, and getting to the back yard is something of a trek) and check to see if Rocky the Fast, his favorite chameleon, is scuttling around on the bottom step. It’s good to be reminded of a world that is bigger than we are, and creatures that are smaller than we are. Perspective breeds happiness.

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The failure of the “stranger danger” rule – Adrian Gonzalez, suspect in Madyson Middleton’s death was “a nice kid”

Update, July 29, 12:54 p.m. PST : The 15-year-old suspect accused of sexually assaulting and and killing Madyson Middleton has been identified as Adrian Jerry Gonzalez. Gonzalez will be charged as an adult. The charges include “one count of murder that includes special circumstances of lying in wait, kidnap and sexual assault, and other counts related to sexual offenses and kidnapping,” according to NBC Bay Area.

One of the main pieces of advice parents give children from a very early age is “Don’t talk to strangers.” We also tell them more specific things, like, “If a stranger asks you to help him find his puppy, run away,” or, “If a stranger picks you up, yell and scream.” The operative word, so often, is stranger, because it’s very clear and obvious to parents than any stranger who tries to lure your child away should be avoided at all costs.

It’s more difficult to explain to a child that even people you know and trust can pose a threat. In fact, it’s something many parents don’t say, because the idea is so reprehensible. We don’t want to believe that the nice kid next door or the nice check-out guy or the friendly camp counselor could be a predator. And, of course, we want our children to be happy, and we don’t want them to live in fear that someone they know might hurt them. But the arrest today of a suspect in Madyson Middleton’s death had nothing to do with strangers, or with any of the transients and drug addicts who are known to linger near the apartment complex where Maddy went missing.  The suspect, a 15 year old yo-yo enthusiast whom Madyson Middleton knew and, according to police, probably trusted, allegedly lured Maddy into his apartment, where he sexually assaulted and strangled her. The suspect’s identity is a stark reminder that danger to children doesn’t usually come from strangers. While those cases do of course exist, often with terrifying outcomes–as in the cases of Jaycee Dugard, Elizabeth Smart, and Michaela Joy Garecht–more often, when children are abducted, assaulted, or killed, the perpetrator is a friend or acquaintance.

Arrest of teenaged suspect in the murder of Madyson Middleton. Photo via KSBW News

The suspect lives in Madyson’s apartment complex, the Tannery Arts Center. The suspect’s own instagram feed is populated with photos and videos of him yo-yoing, joking around and skateboarding with his friends (including girls his own age), and a variety of nature and urban shots taken around Santa Cruz and Northern California. All in all, he seems like “a regular kid,” just as he was described in news articles by several friends and neighbors, including Kirby Scudder, a resident of the Arts Center who was dating the victim’s mother, Laura Jordan.

While his posts are sometimes melancholic, there is nothing in them that seems out of the ordinary for a teenager. Two days ago, he posted a video himself playing the piano, with the words, “The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had,” lyrics from the song Mad World.) Lyrics which wouldn’t be alarming, were it not for the fact that he posted them on Sunday, the day that Madyson was murdered. According to SFGate, who cites an unnamed source, “the boy told police that he had been contemplating suicide and that he had killed the girl to see how people would react.” The same source “said surveillance video showed the teenager placing Madyson’s body into the bin several minutes before her mother, Laura Jordan, called police at 6:08 p.m. Sunday.”

Even though he seemed like “a regular kid,” for adults paying attention, there might have been warning signs, such as this caption on an ordinary Instagram selfie (below) taken on a city street: “Wears all black to try and look powerful and hide the crippling anxiety. Towards the future and the constant worry that i’ll never find someone who loves me.”

Adrian Gonzalez

Gonzalez also recently posted a photo of Nid Vizzini’s semi-autobiographical YA book, “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” opened to Chapter 15. (Although the book’s title isn’t visible, a search of the opening lines of text led to an excerpt from Chapter 15 of It’s Kind of a Funny Story.

Adrian Gonzalez reading - It's Kind of a Funny Story

Vizzini committed suicide in 2013. ) The book is about a teen’s battle with depression. According to Today,

“It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” recounts how a 15-year-old landed in a mental facility after repeatedly attempting suicide.

In light of the horrific assault on Maddy, one has to wonder if Gonzalez was expecting his Instagram account to be studied after his arrest, and if he wanted to create a narrative about his depression as a kind of defense or rationalization of the act he was going to commit. Because, in the end, of course, he didn’t choose suicide. Instead, he chose to take the life of an 8-year-old girl. And he didn’t seem to attempt to evade arrest. He hid the body in his own apartment complex, and he hung around the dumpster while police were searching, repeatedly asking about the status of the search. Is it possible that he wanted to be caught? Part of the text that the book was open to in the Instagram photo reads as follows:

I’m young, but I’m already screwing up my life. I’m smart but not enough—just smart enough to have problems. Not smart enough to get good grades. Not smart enough to have a girlfriend. Girls think I’m weird. I don’t like to spend money. Every time I spend it, I feel as if I’m being raped.

In another photograph posted on Instagram just one week before Maddy’s murder, by an artist who was doing a demonstration for children at the center, the suspect poses for a demo on how to draw caricatures. One can’t help but wonder if Maddy was among the children watching the demonstration that day. (Note: I found this photo by doing an instagram search for Tannery Arts Center, and the boy in the photo looks very much like Instagram user AwkwardYoYoer. No one is identified in the photo, so while it looks like a clear match to me, I can’t be 100% certain).

While cases that garner the most media attention tend to be stranger abductions, and while those do, of course, happen, the vast majority of crimes against children are committed by people they know. In this case, telling Madison to stay away from the transients who lurk in the alley behind the Tannery Arts Center would have done no good. And while the mother was quickly called into question for not being with her at the time of her disappearance, and her judgment might certainly be lacking, it turns out that keeping a closer eye on the child may not have saved her in this case. Of course, if she were never alone, no one could have taken her. But this was a child who, according to police, willing went into the suspect’s apartment, where he raped and murdered her. Given the nature of the apartment complex and the sense of “community” that was apparently shared by many of the residents, if the suspect was intent on harming a child, he probably would have done so sooner or later. Tannery Arts Center, from the website and the photos and the ordinary instagram feeds of its ordinary residents, looks like a happy place. A place where kids paint and dance and skateboard and hang out together. A place where you know your neighbors. A place where, despite the seediness of the streets outside, a family can feel safe. In this photo from the center’s Instagram feed, you can see kids doing art. Other photos show folks dancing together, eating, having a good time, kids writing bad teenage poetry–just as teenagers are supposed to do. It looks pretty much idyllic.

A photo posted by Matt Bachtel (@doom_squirrel) on

So how do parents protect children from predators? What could have been done differently? A hard-and-fast rule, such as “NEVER go into anyone’s apartment without my permission,” might have helped. However, in a situation in which the child feels so comfortable, when the alleged perpetrator is a kid himself, someone she knows as a fun, nice kid who does yo-yo tricks, someone who is known and liked in her community–even that rule might have been disregarded by a child in a moment of weakness or forgetfulness.

Perhaps a buddy system could help. Even so, in a heartbreaking case like this, one thing we need to ask ourselves is how we are identifying troubled teens. How do we notice the ones who are capable of committing such a crime? What are the warning signs? If we can’t allow children to trust other, older kids in their own tight-knit community, how are we to make them feel safe?

Read the full reporting on the Madyson Middleton case in the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

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5 Writing Habits You Need to Cultivate Now

Develop these 5 Writing Habits for a More Productive Writing Life

Writing advice columns will often tell you to write every day, write a certain number of words a day, keep a journal, or find a writing group. While all of those practices are good, they may not work for you. During my 15 years as a professional writer (I count my years as a “professional” from the date of my first book publication), I’ve noticed a few writing habits that help me be productive and keep my writing practice fresh and lively. After all, when writing is your job, it can begin to feel like a job. That said, it feels like a job I’m very fortunate to have. Just like with any other job, though, I have good days and bad days, days when I can’t wait to get to work and days when I’d rather be hiking or sunning or running off to the movies.

On those days, good writing habits are key. (For an interesting look at habit formation on an individual, corporate, and cultural level, read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. For a more personal take on the importance of habits from a writer’s perspective, read Gretchen Rubin‘s Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives).

Click the play button below to listen to my five minute podcast on 5 Habits of Highly Productive Writers

For more podcasts like this and help for writers, visit Bay Area Book Doctor.

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Modern Standing Desks for the Minimalist

Beautiful and Functional Standing Desks for the Modern Minimalist Home Office

(and great standing desk options for short people)

Because I spend most of my working time on my computer, writing books and running a small press, I’ve been on the lookout for a standing desk that looks good, is simple, and isn’t too expensive. To complicate matters, I’m quite short, just 5’2″, and most of the standing desks seem to be better suited to taller people.

First, the not-so-pretty but functional hack

One popular standing desk hack, the Ikea Lack side table hack, seemed like a good option, because I already have an Ikea Lack table that’s just sitting in the storage closet. However, when I tried putting the Lack table on top of my desk, it felt as though I was looking up way too high, like when I go to a party filled with tall people and I’m not wearing serious heels. Also, there was no way I could type from that angle.

So instead, I put the Ikea Lack table on my coffee table, and it worked just fine. It’s the perfect height for typing, not difficult for viewing the monitor, and best of all, I can take in the canyon view outside my living room window. Also, this particular Ikea table seems to be made of cardboard or something, so it’s no heavier than a magazine. So, here’s my inexpensive standing desk for short people, using the Ikea Lack side table:


All you have to do is set your $20 table on top of your existing coffee table, and you’re good to go. Unfortunately, while this is a great solution for my laptop, which I use for writing, it doesn’t work for my big Mac desktop, which I use for publishing and web design.

However, did I mention? I’m a grownup, and I like grownup furniture. When it comes to my writing space, I like it to be not only functional, but also attractive.

You can find a number of standing desks online, but most of them are ugly metal things that look better suited to an afternoon with your gaming buddies from Best Buy (nothing against gaming or BestBuy, but I’d like something a bit more elegant). Which brings us to…

Elegant, minimalist, modern wooden standing desks for grownup people who like for things to look nice


The most attractive and adaptable standing desk that works for both desktops and laptops is Readydesk. According to creators Ben Larson and Joe Nafzier, who made a Kickstarter campaign to get the desk to market, “Readydesk is lightweight, strong, ergonomic and beautifully designed to setup without tools.” Readydesk consists of four interlocking pieces of plywood–two sides plus two shelves that can be arranged at various heights to fit your equipment and your stature.

Readydesk weighs about fifteen pounds, which means you can’t carry it around town but if you need to move it occasionally to different areas of your home or office, it’s not difficult. At $169, it’s more far more affordable than purchasing a new standalone desk, and, if you’re into the design of your office space/writing space, it allows you to stay modern and minimalist instead of adding ugly contraptions and changing the footprint of your floorspace. You can also purchase additional shelves.

Upstanding Desk

Very similar to the ReadyDesk, differing mainly in style, is the Upstanding desk. Whereas ReadyDesk is all curves, Upstanding is a right angle sort of thing. Also made of wood, also highly adjustable for short people and tall people alike, also really, really good-looking, and similarly priced at $199, and funded through Kickstarter, the Upstanding desk will suit folks who like the ReadyDesk but want something with a deeper lower shelf, as well as sides to keep things from falling off. A great feature of Upstanding is that it has grooves to hold your iPad and other devices. The Standard version of the Upstanding desk is 29″ wide, but you can also buy it in double wide, if that’s how you roll. The website warns customers that the boxes are heavy and shipping is expensive, “but it’s totally worth it.” If you’re good with a handsaw, you can order the Upstanding desk plans and build the whole thing yourself for $49, but that sort of seems like kind of a lot of trouble, right?


Another great option for laptop users is StandStand, which also was born on Kickstarter, and which, like ReadyDesk and Upstanding desk, is made of wood and sits atop your current desk. At under two pounds and foldable (it fits in your laptop case), StandStand is very portable and inexpensive. While not quite as versatile ergonomically as the previous two options, it does come in three sizes: 9″ (for short people like me), 12″ for regular folks, and 14″ for the giants among you. It’s $69 in Baltic Birch and $99 in Bamboo, and while the top is too small to hold your desktop, it can support a lot of weight (enough to sit on, if you want to). It’s also made in the US of sustainable woods. The StandStand blog, complete with images of happy hipsters building these babies in their woodshop, will make you fall in love with the product, and this video will make you fall in love with its dreamy creator, Luke Leafgren. In the video, Luke takes the StandStand to the cafe and elsewhere, because when you look like Luke Leafgren, you can get away with that sort of thing.

Even the StandStand packaging is fun. See the smiley face and the bright yellow, look-at-me accents? That design and marketing team has some smart people, for real.

If I only needed a desk for my laptop, I’d definitely buy the StandStand–and I may still purchase one. But since I spend half of my time on my desktop, I think I’ll just use the Lack for now for my laptop and get the ReadyDesk for my big Mac (the computer, not the sandwich). It’s really a close call between ReadyDesk and Upstanding, but ReadyDesk comes in at a slightly lower price point, and Upstanding’s “Wait! Our shipping is seriously expensive warning!” before you even add the product to your cart  might be scaring some people off.

I’ll post photographs and a review after my ReadyDesk arrives and let you know how it works out.



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