What I’m writing: April 2015

You may have noticed that my “what I’m writing” posts have dropped off. I’m not going to catch you up on everything I’ve written since (although I’ll offer a few highlights), but there has been a lot happening since my last such post in November.

Birmingham Beer title pageFirst, I wrote another book. “Birmingham Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in the Magic City” releases July 27. Although it’s available for pre-order via Amazon and I always appreciate your support, I’d love for you to wait and buy it from your (or my!) local bookstore. Keep more of your money in your local community. I’ll certainly update as the publication date draws near.

But more importantly, I changed jobs. After eight years at Birmingham magazine, I was ready for a new challenge. So I said my farewells, packed up my boxes and moved … across the hall.

Since late February, I’ve been a features reporter for The Birmingham News and AL.com, two of the magazine’s sister publications at Alabama Media Group. That’s probably the biggest reason I won’t link you to everything I’ve published since we last spoke–there’s simply too much of it! I’ve gone from planning, managing and editing a talented team of freelancers to chasing down stories of my own, and I couldn’t be happier.

Bottletree Cafe (art by Greg Smith, #Bham52)This return to reporting has allowed me to follow up on a Reddit post that led me to an Alabaster resident’s weekly depiction of Birmingham and write a thank-you letter to one of Birmingham’s beloved music venues. When we received a press release about an architecture art exhibit, it sparked a trip down memory lane to Birmingham’s Terminal StationI’ met the youngest musician in the Alabama Symphony Orchestra and learned how the organization is working to attract millennial patrons.

I also expect the future to include many stories in Birmingham magazine, where I most recently wrote the January cover story.

The Promise of the $20,000 HouseOf course, I continue to freelance a bit, which always results in something worth talking about. January’s Paste magazine story allowed me a mental field trip to Seattle, where I’ve enjoyed the city’s many delicious breweries, and Boston, which is high on my to-visit list. BookPage offered me the chance to interview Judith Claire Mitchell, author of the hilariously dark “A Reunion of Ghosts.”

And February brought my most popular article ever, “The Promise of the $20,000 house” for The Atlantic’s CityLab.

Y’all, I’m living the dream. And I suspect there’s still more to come.

Want more? I try to keep my “What I’m Writing” Pinterest board up to date even when I’m not sharing it here. 

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If I knew then what I know now

It’s possible I’m too honest with my students.

Before I handed back graded assignments tonight, I addressed a common error throughout. But even as I explained why it’s so important to keep an eye out for this issue, I offered a confession: “I suspect some of this is a result of end-of-the-semester busyness or laziness. I get that. I would do the same.”

The truth is, I was a mediocre college student. My grades weren’t bad–I was an A/B student and would have lost my scholarship if my GPA dropped too low. But I wasn’t particularly concerned about my grades, I skipped as many classes as possible without academic retribution and I often thought I knew more than my professors. (Oh, the ego.)

So I can understand where my students are coming from when they get a little lax with AP style. But if I had it to do over again, I’d try to be more like the kids I teach:

I’d show up to every class and ask tons of questions.

I’d stick around after class to show the teacher my resume and ask how I could improve it.

I’d ask professors with experience in my field about how they built their careers.

I’d figure out whose career path looked most like what I wanted, and I’d study his or her work.

I’d use my class assignments as opportunities to further those end goals.

I figured a lot of that out by the time I entered grad school (and the fact that I was bankrolling that degree didn’t hurt). But the kids I work with are several years younger, and they consistently impress me. They’ve got their strengths and weaknesses, sure, and not everyone is taking each of these steps. (Then again, not everyone wants to follow my career path.) My goal as a teacher is not only to impart knowledge according to the class syllabus, but also to encourage my students to get as much as they can out of their college careers.

But if I had it to do again, there’s at least one thing I surely wouldn’t change: I’d still prioritize life experience over grades. After all, no one cares now about my GPA.*

 

*If you’re wondering, I finished my bachelor’s with something like a 3.4, and my master’s with a 3.6. But if I, the girl who can still rattle off her SAT and ACT scores and takes pride in her GRE logic score, am not confident in those numbers, it probably says something about how much your GPA matters down the road.

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Contemplating “The Geography of You and Me”

Nearly three years ago, I responded to a post in a Facebook group from a woman seeking a copy editor for her memoir. Although I didn’t yet know this woman, I knew of her; Amy Bickers and I had several friends in common and I read her riotously funny blog, Vodka Cranberry Clooney. I jumped at the chance to edit her book, largely because I badly wanted to read it.

I knew it wouldn’t be an easy story. Amy’s memoir is an account of witnessing her ex-husband’s suicide and how she processed the darkness that followed. She writes beautifully, powerfully about mental illness, addiction and the sorrow of those left behind. Although the subject matter is dark, the book is ultimately hopeful.

Since she entrusted me with her words, I’ve been convinced that Amy must share her story with the world. Many agents said kind things, but ultimately passed on it because they believed the subject matter would be hard to sell.

At last, Amy has taken matters into her own hands.

Today she launched a Kickstarter to fund “The Geography of You and Me,” which was the best book I read in 2012. In fewer than 24 hours, Amy is $246 from her funding goal.

Let’s push her over the top. (Hey, wouldn’t it be cool to see this project funded in less than a day?)

Amy has written beautifully on the campaign page about what you’ll find in the book and why it matters. I encourage you to spend some time with her words. But I also urge you to consider this: Reading someone else’s story helps us better understand the world. That’s why I believe “The Geography of You and Me” must be published. Regardless of whether you see yourself or someone you know in this story, I believe it offers valuable insight into an all-too-common struggle. Understanding one another helps us embrace our humanity.

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Abandon perfection

Fallen star and the first amendment, just for funsies

Fallen star and the first amendment, just for funsies

As I wound my way through rows of bodies bending and waving through a non-pose called ninja lunges, I reminded 16 yoga students that this shape wasn’t supposed to look like anything in particular. “Perfection is a myth,” I told them. “Seek the stretch and benefit your body craves today.

That’s the deeper truth that calls me back to my yoga mat, day after day. When I’m moving through the postures, I’m acutely aware that today’s crescent lunge isn’t as deep as yesterday’s, or that my tree may not be as stable tomorrow. Yoga stretches my expectations and pulls me away from my normal OCD, to-do list mentality.

And then I quickly return to my type-A, follow-the-rules career. Journalism appealed to me over fiction because the rules are well established and the stories are there for the asking. I love the blend of science (the rules) and art (the telling).

I often let the rules–or a fear of not following them to a T–keep me from taking challenges with the art. Please don’t mistake me, guidelines help us refine and focus. But a story without heart isn’t much of a story at all.

I invite my yoga students into the release of perfection I’ve found. My journalism students, however, need the same freedom.

“Both require a commitment to practice rather than perfection; reward risk-taking rather than hesitation; flourish with timely but limited suggestions that encourage rather than frustrate; are active all-at-once activities that are learned by doing; and remain difficult no matter how long you’ve been doing them.” –Megan Fulwiler, “On Yoga and Teaching Writing,” published in The Chronicle of Higher Education 

It’s not as though I can abandon grading rubrics and expectations, deadlines and AP Style quizzes. Those are requirements of the job for which I’m preparing them, and this is a college class, after all. But as I’ve spent more time practicing yoga, my desire to share its benefits with other writers has grown. These aspiring journalists, especially, crave encouragement and guidance. Even while I cover their work with red ink, I hope I can bring some of my yoga practice to the page.

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The perks of small-space living

Furniture that doesn't take up much space, such as a coffee table with thin legs and a glass-topped, neutral-colored entry table, help make my tiny living room appear more spacious.

Furniture that doesn’t take up much space, such as a coffee table with thin legs and a glass-topped, neutral-colored entry table, help make my tiny living room appear more spacious.

I share 780 square feet with a roommate and two cats–and this isn’t the smallest place I’ve lived. But like that smaller space (a one-bedroom garage apartment), it’s one of my favorite dwelling places.

The tiny dimensions come in handy when I tackle projects like Apartment Therapy’s January Cure. I love this site’s periodic organization and cleaning challenges, even though I tend to be a hair obsessive about order on my own. And my roommate already loves it because the first assignment resulted in me cleaning all of the floors in the house.

My friend Carrie has written at some length about her affection for New Year’s resolutions (she tends to turn them into blogging challenges), but the truth is, I have a number of projects on my plate already. I’ve got several exciting writing assignments ahead, additional yoga training later this month and a book due in March. So I kept my official resolutions simple: floss every day (so far, so good!) and work on the aforementioned manuscript daily (until it’s due, of course, so that’s kind of a cheat of a resolution).

Even so, I can always make time for a more orderly, tidy life–especially since I have so little space to clean. When I exist in a calm space, I feel better equipped to deal with the chaos of daily life.

My small-space living tip is keeping on top of things so you don’t feel like the walls are closing in on you. How do you make the most of your space?

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Twelve Tips for Pitching a Freelance Story

Picture this: You’re an assigning editor at a magazine, and your inbox regularly overflows with pitches from freelance writers. Because freelancers write the bulk of the magazine, a good story idea is like gold. But when you’ve got 50-plus pitches to sift through, it’s hard for that gem to shine.

That’s the challenge I’ve faced in five years as an assigning editor at a monthly magazine. But here’s the good news: Using these easy tips, your idea will stand out from the rest.

Tip No. 1: Pitch!

It’s fine to ask editors how they prefer to assign, and if they’d rather you pitch or if they prefer to assign. But “let me know if you need anything” comes across as asking for a handout.

I receive so many pitches that I can’t possibly fit them all into the magazine. If someone’s pitching great ideas, they’re way more likely to get an assignment than the person who is waiting around.

Tip No. 2: Follow websites such as “Who Pays Freelance Writers?

It’s a great resource and will also help you identify possible outlets for your work.

Tip No. 3: Every time you’re reading a publication and think, “Man! I’d like to write for them!,” find their writers guidelines online. If you can’t find them, email an editor there and ask. (Associate level or higher will often be your best bet, as they’re more likely to be assigning editors, but editorial assistants may also have that info.)

Tip No. 4: Get your website up already! Make it easy for potential clients to find you. This is also a benefit because you can showcase your best work without jamming their inboxes with unsolicited clips.

Tip No. 5: Never send large, unsolicited files. If you’re attaching clips, fine, but make sure they’re not 5 megabytes plus. Here’s a hint: If the files are too large and you have to resend them attached to several separate emails, you’re clogging the editor’s inbox.

Tip No. 6: Read, read, read, read. Know the publication and its voice before you pitch. But don’t obsess to the point where you don’t actually pitch. I don’t expect my freelancers to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the publication. That’s my job, and I’m not going to look down on them for pitching something we’ve already done unless it’s in the current or immediate past issue. Then they’re just being lazy.

Tip No. 7: Keep it simple. Don’t send a multi-page pitch. If I want more info, I’ll ask for it. Something that details is likely to fall by the wayside because I’ll save it for when I have time to properly digest the email—and that may not be for weeks.

Tip No. 8: Unless it’s a time-sensitive piece for a publication that publishes frequently, do not follow up in 24 hours. And never follow up to say, “Hey, did you get my email?” I receive about 75 emails daily. I will respond to yours, but likely not within 24 hours.

Tip No. 9: Do follow up. I try to respond to every sincere pitch (that is, something that came from a person, not a mass email). However, things slip through the cracks. Following up in a week or two is perfectly appropriate.

Tip No. 10: Value your time and your work. You’re a professional writer, and the payment you receive should reflect that. If you work for free or cheap, be sure that it’s worth it to you. For example, I’m working on a low-paying piece for a site where the reader is the target demographic for my books. I’m getting more than money out of that.

Tip No. 11: Establish your boundaries, and respect those of the editor. It irks me to get pitches on my personal email account and text message.

Likewise, know that it’s OK for you to say no to an assignment. If you don’t have time, be honest about that. A good editor isn’t going to avoid using you in the future because you weren’t at his or her beck and call. That’s part of the deal with freelancing. You aren’t on staff. We don’t have the high overhead of having you on staff. And you have the flexibility to work on other projects.

Tip No. 12: Negotiate. The terms of most stories are negotiable, and as long as you’re professional, it doesn’t hurt to ask. Rates, deadlines, word count, even rights and sometimes payment terms (upon acceptance or upon publication) can be negotiated on a case-by-case basis.

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On the 12th day of Christmas, my true love gave to me …

I’m a leader, sometimes to the point of being pushy. That’s a natural result of being an oldest child.

Around age 3 my sister Cristin, who is 14 months and nine days younger than me, was a ballerina for Halloween. I couldn’t in good conscience send her to the church fall festival without a few steps in her repertoire, and so I took it upon myself to teach her some basic ballet steps.

I’m now 33, and I have yet to take a day of ballet.

And so I shouldn’t have been surprised when I solved the Mystery of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Growing up, Cristin and I would often sing the song and perform hand motions. (A late-’80s video of this is a family treasure.) But as we grew older, I could never find anyone else who knew these motions. I became convinced it was an Alabama thing. That must be why our Florida brethren had no idea why we jutted our chins back and forth when singing “two turtle doves.”

I moved back to Alabama in 2003, and I was certain that I would at last find my kind of holiday performer. But after months of asking around, I still couldn’t find anyone who knew what I was talking about. I’ve since Googled in search of our kindred, and while there are videos documenting motions, they only occasionally overlap with our performances.

At last, I realized my older sibling tendencies must have struck again. Without any evidence that others know these motions, I deduced that I made up the movements and taught Cristin to follow in the foolishness.

Merry Christmas! Enjoy the documentation of our foolishness, circa February 2003.

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What I’m writing: November 2014

These are stories I wrote that were published this month.

Balancing Act: Yoga Essays

balancing actCarla Jean Whitley dwelled primarily in the world of her mind–and she was OK with that. That is, until she turned 30. The bookish Carla Jean recognized that finding some physical movement was the best way to keep her body, and therefore her mind, intact for the long term.
She found the answer in yoga.
Carla Jean came to yoga because of those physical issues, but fell in love with it because of its mental and emotional effects. After falling head over feet for yoga, she quickly became a yogavangelist, telling everyone who would listen about the practice’s powerful benefits. This slim collection of essays recounts her journey from yoga newbie to certified yoga instructor. Buy “Balancing Act: Yoga Essays” at smashwords.com or your favorite ebook retailer. Sign up for either of my enewsletters at right for a coupon code.

Second Avenue North offers many dining options

As this dsecond aveowntown street has transitioned from revitalization mode to a loft-district favorite, a variety of eateries draw patrons back time and again. Read more “Second Avenue North offers many dining options” at bhammag.com.

 

LIVE CHAT: Discuss local shops and their buyers with writer Laurel Mills

buyersThe holiday shopping season is upon us, but those who purchase items for area stores completed their shopping months ago. In the November issue of Birmingham magazine, writer Laurel Mills interviews three of those buyers to learn about their responsibilities and how they determine what the hot items will be each season.  Read more “Live Chat” at bhammag.com.

LIVE CHAT: Recipe developer and photographer Melina Hammer shares cooking tips

autumn picnicMelina Hammer draws inspiration from the seasons, and that’s clear in “An Autumn Picnic,” the cover story she produced for the November issue of Birmingham magazine. Join Melina, a recipe developer and photographer, for a live chat today from 1 to 1:30 p.m. She’ll answer your questions about her inspiration, favorite seasonal cooking tips and more. Read more “Live Chat” at bhammag.com.

Treat Us Like Dogs, and We Will Become Wolves: Investigating a curious collective 

chuteThe Settlement is a community of about 100 people who live outside of the view of the rest of America, tucked away on a patch of land near Egypt, Maine. This curious collective, the focus of Carolyn Chute’s latest novel,Treat Us Like Dogs and We Will Become Wolves, is not altogether unlike the one inhabited by Chute herself. The author and her husband live off the grid in Parsonfield, Maine, where they run the 2nd Maine Militia and rely on the community around them for sustenance. Read more “Treat Us Like Dogs, and We Will Become Wolves” at bookpage.com.

4 Blog Post Ideas to Hold Your Fans’ Attention

laptop-headphones-liThe musician’s life isn’t always glamorous. But the average fan doesn’t have an understanding of what that life is really like – and they’re often eager to find out. Sharing your story byblogging can help build a lasting fan relationship. None of this has to be complex; a few good sentences or a photo that offers insight into who you are and what you’re doing will keep your fans interested whether or not you’re releasing new materialRead more “4 Blog Post Ideas to Hold Your Fans’ Attention” at sonicbids.com.

Want more? Visit my “What I’m writing” Pinterest board.

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“Balancing Act: Yoga Essays” is now available for purchase

IMG_6503Writing has always been my passion, and in yoga I’ve found a perfect counterbalance. It takes me out of the rat race of my mind and the to-do lists that so often dictate my days. Yoga also addresses many of the physical issues common among those of us who spend hours each day hunched over a computer. I suspect my yoga practice will continue to influence my career for decades to come.

It’s natural, then, that I’ve documented my yoga journey through the written word. Those columns are now available as an ebook, “Balancing Act: Yoga Essays.” This short collection traces my journey from yoga newbie to yoga teacher. It’s available for virtually all ebook platforms for $2.99 through Smashwords.com, and will soon roll out to other retailers as well.

I’m excited to share this with you. The journey has only just begun.

FAQs (or what I imagine would be FAQs if I didn’t go ahead and answer them)

Q: How long is the book? 

A: It’s 9,060 words, or 54 pages on my Kobo Mini. Your ereader will likely be different.

Q: Will it work on my Kindle?

A: Yes, there’s an option for that (download the mobi version of the file). The book will not be available through Amazon, but it is totally Kindle compatible.

Q: Why did you decide to publish an ebook?

A: Well, why not? The publishing industry is rapidly changing–I’m sure that’s not news to you–and this project allowed me to familiarize myself with another aspect of the industry.

Q: Did you pay Smashwords to do this? Was it hard? Did it take a long time?

A: No, Smashwords’ deal is they get a percentage of all sales. (The division is favored heavily toward the author, in case you wondered.) Since I had already written each of these essays, all I had to do was format the document per Smashwords’ stipulations and design a cover. That took about three hours, all told.

Q: So wait a second–this is stuff that has already been published as blog entries. Can’t I read these essays free on your website?

A: Of course you can. They’re not going anywhere. This is merely another option if you prefer ebooks or to read these as a collection, rather than interspersed through a great many other entries here.

Q: Can I get a coupon?

A: Actually, yes. Through Jan. 1, sign up for either of my enewsletters and you’ll receive a coupon code for 33 percent off the ebook. You can sign up for the books newsletter here, and the yoga newsletter here.

Q: Can I get a coupon for “Muscle Shoals Sound Studio: How the Swampers Changed American Music” instead?

A: I’m sorry, but no. That’s determined by my publisher and individual retailers.

Q: Well, is it at least available as an ebook?

A: Yes indeed! You can buy it from your ebook retailer of choice.

Q: Roll tide?

A: Roll tide. And go Seminoles.

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“You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

Sacred Glow Yoga's class of 2014

Sacred Glow Yoga’s class of 2014

On Nov. 16, I graduated from Sacred Glow Yoga’s 200-hour teacher training program. I’m now a certified yoga teacher, registered with Yoga Alliance and excited to help you find your way on your mat! The nine-month-long training includes writing a number of papers, which I’ve posted here because, well, that’s what I do. The final writing assignment was to reflect on the experience as a whole. 

I’m rarely at a loss for words, but I don’t know how to reflect on the nine-month period that has encapsulated yoga teacher training. My head spins when I try to recall the amount of information we’ve covered in these 200 hours, as well as the knowledge imparted from assigned reading and practice teaching. And of course, daily life has continued throughout this training.

That’s probably the most significant thing I’m taking from this experience: deeper knowledge of how my time on the mat affects everything else in life. I’ve learned how much I struggle with discipline as I try to build a regular home practice, and I see that pop up as well when I’m faced with a task that I’m less than enthused by. I’ve finally learned what the SI joint and sacrum are, and I now find myself regularly moving through not only a lengthening axial wave, but also a Y wave to relieve stress on those areas. I have a better understanding of my body (and the tight hamstrings that limit me so!), and through that I’m better able to offer others grace in their practices.

I’ve worked for years to establish boundaries, saying no when I need to and recognizing how much energy I have to offer other people and obligations. But this training has also helped me in saying yes. I’ve been challenged to recognize my strengths, and to define myself by those rather than my weaknesses. I am capable of so many things, and there’s nothing to be gained in denying that.

But most of all, I’ve realized how much I still have to learn. Whether it’s chakras or anatomy, developing a deeper understanding of yoga has introduced me to concepts and knowledge that I don’t always find easy to grasp. As I begin to live out these lessons as a teacher and guide others through them, I hope to continue reading, studying and increasing my understanding of this physical, spiritual, mental practice that has had such an effect on my daily life.

The journey has only just begun.

Join me for the next step Sunday, when I’ll lead a free, public class at Lululemon. The hour-long class begins at 6 p.m.

Today’s subject line comes from the poem “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver … which I found by googling yoga poems. Of course.

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