Stepping out of my (writing) comfort zone

Anyone who knows me knows that I have a comfort zone, and it’s fantasy.

I love writing fantasy novels. I love making up worlds, creating cultures, and weaving it all-together. I like creating my own politics, because I sure as hell hate today’s politics.

I also love lists. I love outlines. I love character sheets. I love organization.

So, for this year’s NaNoWriMo, I am not going to use an outline. I am going to brainstorm, yes, and probably create a few character sheets, and write notes about all of this, but I will not outline or create a list of things I need to do. WHY would I torture myself so, you ask? Because I keep trying to write outlines and it keeps not working. Every idea I come up with, I hate. I like it at first and then the more than I think about it, the more the ending is not right. The more the characters seem all wrong. The more it doesn’t fit.

I’m pretty notorious for thinking too much, so this year I’m going to try not thinking so far ahead. Going to try to focus on writing now and let that be enough.

Oh, the fantasy thing… I’m still doing fantasy. BUT! It’s urban fantasy. It’s set in today’s world with the elements of a fantasy novel (namely: witches). Which is something I’ve never done for a short story, much less a novel, so it’s a little daunting and very exciting.

I have characters in mind. The barest outlines of a plot. And November is creeping up on me, slowly but surely.

I remind myself pretty regularly that there is no need to panic. We’ll figure it out when it comes, one way or another.

Are you doing NaNoWriMo this year? Got any plans, or are you winging it?


We made a zine.

I would like to present the first-ever issue of Thujone, a zine! My writing group has been working pretty hard on this for a while, and we’re proud of the end result. Please take a gander and maybe read its contents (two poems, three short stories, and a comic).


My short story is on page 8. The zine also includes the work of Micmit, Katerina Barrett , Shannon Greene, Mark Jones, and Evan Leihy.


Why Writing by Hand (Journaling) Is a Great Idea

I love journaling. I’m not always very good at it (read: sometimes I journal every day for a month, sometimes I skip months at a time), but I love it. The way it always me to honestly look at my actions, dreams, and wishes. The release that comes from writing down my thoughts and feelings. The relief from being honest with myself about something—honest enough to write it down (it’s a big deal, I’m tellin’ you).

I don’t always journal, per say. Sometimes I write writing prompts (in fact, I have a journal just for that). It has been so instrumental for me to write about my day (and also write about little things I will forget about in six months).

SO! Let’s talk about why I journal and why you should.

My beautiful writing prompt journal!

My beautiful writing prompt journal!

Benefits of journaling:

  • Connect with yourself
  • Gain clarity
  • Create a judgement-free space about yourself (this is hard—but worth it)
  • A place to vent and complain
  • Mental health benefits
  • A place to get creative
  • WRITING IDEAS (I’ve gotten novel ideas, short story ideas, and poem ideas from journaling)
  • Actually physically writing stuff down gives you more time to think than typing does

Got anything to add to my list? Do you journal?



I never really thought of myself as being anxious.

But when I first moved to South Carolina, there was this time that I sat on our outside steps, sobbing hysterically and unable to breathe, and Jacob said, “You’re having a panic attack.”

And I thought, What? I don’t have panic attacks. Except that I do. And just like that, the rose colored glasses were lifted. Looking back on my life, I saw things a different way. Unable to focus on work because there’s a big rock in my stomach and it keeps twisting and pinching. Can’t sleep and lie awake fighting tears and irrational thoughts. Convinced that a friend now hates me because I said something that, while true, was hard to hear. Eating my lunch in the bathroom at my new high school, afraid of even venturing into the dreaded cafeteria.


I hate that word, but it sums up so very much about my daily existence. It’s even difficult to talk about, especially to the masses (aka you): but a friend told me recently, if you aren’t vulnerable in your writing then no one gives a shit. I’ve been told that I seem generally confident and in control of myself, that I am smart and capable and I have nothing to be anxious about.

Yeah, well. Anxiety is still there, pressing into my head and resting there on a pressure point. I’m on a new project at work and I am sure I keep making mistakes, so when I pull up the materials my palms get sweaty and breathing gets a little bit difficult. If I think too hard about where my future is going then my stomach starts to hurt and I have to delve into a book or else begin to cry. The panic attacks are, thankfully, fewer and farther between, but they still hover just underneath the surface, ready to latch onto me if I let my anxiety spiral out of control.

Sometimes my mind is a very scary place to be.

I think that’s where my incredible ability of lying to myself comes from. Anxiety. My anxiety builds and builds and builds until I feel like I am choking and I cannot possibly continue on, but no—it’s fine, your past mistakes don’t affect you now. Oh, but they do. And my lying has caught up with me. I can no longer pretend that everything is going to be fine. That is a lie I tell myself to avoid confronting reality.

My good friend and I like to say, “This is a problem for Future Vanessa.” Anxiety comes crawling in when I can’t figure something out or when things are uncertain. Like, for example, the fact that I need to buy a car soon. There’s a lot of shit to consider and think about and I have never done it before and as I think about everything that’s involved, I start to panic. I tell myself, frantically, you’ll figure it out, you’ll figure it out, think about something else. It works until that thing comes up again.

I had terrible acid reflux a few weeks back, and we had to go to the ER. Initially, when Jacob said, “I think we need to go to the hospital,” I panicked. Anxiety reared its ugly head and I immediately began to sob. “They will prick me with needles and it will hurt and it smells strange and sterile and they never tell me what they’re doing before they DO IT and I can’t go, I can’t”—and he let me sit there until I finally stood up and said, okay, I’m ready to go.

And you know what? The anxiety didn’t magically go away. I was swallowing over a lump in my throat all night, I was fighting tears and reminding myself to breathe. But I went instead of sitting at home, hysterical, because I was afraid to do what I knew I needed to do.

It’s been an interesting year. I’ve had to learn to live with my anxiety, to respect it and its wishes. And to know the difference between letting it rule me and knowing when I need to overrule it. No, I do not want to go dancing where men will, undoubtedly, come up and grope at me. Yes, I do want to you read my very personal poem even though you may see me differently. No, I don’t feel like going to the bar tonight, I don’t want pressure to drink and make conversation and then have to worry about how much I’ve drank and when I’m safe to go home. Yes, I do want to go to that poetry reading even though I won’t know anyone there.

I’ve had to stop lying to myself. I’ve had to deal with some hard truths and let a lot of things ago, and I’ve had to learn to cope. To deal. To be okay anyway. I’ve had to tackle things head on inside of running and hiding around the next corner.

Anxiety is a part of my personality. I don’t foresee it going away, not yet—but I see it calming, lessening, letting me breathe a little as I learn to understand it. To live alongside it, instead of pretending it doesn’t exist. It’s a harder route to take, but it’s slowly getting easier.



Summertime used to mean bathing suits and lakes, canoes and campfires. It used to mean ice cream outside and long drives up north. It used to mean sprinklers and water balloons, watermelon and mosquitoes.

This is my third summer in the workforce as a full-time employee. This is my third summer where I haven’t had the summer free (okay, not entirely true—I’ve worked for a while, but having a full-time job doesn’t compare to summer classes and a part-time job).

I’m still not over it, to be honest. I miss my summers. I miss long camping trips and visits with cousins. I miss picking fruit up near Niagara Falls, I miss the gentle heat of Michigan summers. I miss the freedom. It’s how it always goes with me (and, most likely, with all humans). I miss things that have gone away. I get nostalgic, and now, the idea of summer as it once was has a feeling that goes along with it, always very, very specific (does this happen to you, too?).

Summers in high school feels like walking barefoot in cool, damp grass, and they taste like my Oma’s peach pie.

Summers at Oakland Community College sound like Kings of Leon’s Only by the Night album, they smell like a smokey campfire, and they feel like guitar strings.

Summers at MSU feel like the skyscrapers of NYC and they taste like Jose Cuervo, they sound like the slurping of iced tea from the bottom of a glass.

But hey—summers now are pretty cool too. Summers now are mostly inside of an air-conditioned building doing social media strategy, designing neat things, and eating carefully prepared lunches.

Summer is also fruity iced tea. It’s baking parties with my friends, eating leftover icing and complaining about how hot the little kitchen is. It’s day trips out of town and it’s writing in the mornings. It’s staying up late to drink beer on the porch, it’s finding new restaurants and eating outside. Summers smell like the hot inside of a car and taste like cold, hoppy beer.

I don’t get summers off anymore, but I still love them. I love the juxtaposition against the winter I just survived. I love the way they make me ache for fall. I love the heat of the day and the warm walks at night. I love the sound of crackling wood, the smell of a campfire on the block. I love the warm rain.

In certain ways, I love the promise of summer more than summer itself. I’m not a kid anymore and I’m not in school anymore, but summer still seems to mean adventure.

And no matter how small the adventure, that’s what I always want summer to mean to me.


Nightmare Dentata

Nightmare DenataI’ve always been told that if you dream about your teeth falling out, it means you’re stressed the fuck out. I started having these nightmares in college, and they’ve stuck with me since then. I have heard a myriad of interpretations—DreamMoods sure has a lot to say on the subject.

Regardless, nightmares where my teeth fall out are always terrifying. So I wrote a poem about it.

Nightmare Dentata

The loose tooth—no, teeth
start as a wobble, a loud crack
reverberating into my skull
panic nails scratching my skin

I reach into my mouth and find
they are crumbling,
cracking, chalky.
I pull out shards and

blood coats my fingers, teeth
white like bone. The panic
is a full demon in my chest
and I cannot breathe, can only

sob, tears mixing with blood.
I spit teeth into my cupped hands.
The dentist can put them back
can’t he? When I pull out a molar

there’s a gaping, bleeding hole,
a bone in my gums that I can
slide in and out like a money drawer.
I push it back inside.

Panic is a clawing animal,
loose inside my skin, and I
spit, spit, spit fragments of teeth,
saving them all

just in case.

The value of great teachers and what they taught me

There are so many professors and teachers who have made big impacts on me throughout my life. I can’t name them all, but I do want to take a moment to talk about a few and to just point out what a HUGE difference a teacher can make. These people taught me so much about myself and about the world, and I will always be infinitely grateful for what I’ve learned from them.

It is crazy how vulnerable I was as a young adult. Thinking back on it, it blows my mind how little I knew (and how little I know now). I was not arrogant in my assumptions of the world—I knew I didn’t know much. But to look back on it and see the difference is amazing. To look back on teachers who saw value in me and understood and yearned to help and who did make a difference. Teachers I think of and miss. I’m so thankful I’ve had so many wonderful role models and people to teach me the ways of the world—even if I’ve had to learn most things by trial and error.

Mr. Johnson // 10th through 12th grade
My favorite teacher of all time. I loved many of my teachers, and all of them for different reasons, but Mr. Johnson was great in every way. I had him for three classes, and by the end of my senior year in high school I was taking his classes just to have a class with him. I learned so much with him. He taught me why Shakespeare is great, how to digest a good short story, how to take damn good notes. He taught me so much about life.

He was hard on me when he needed to be—once, I was going through a really hard time. My work suffered as a result. I can remember when I started getting my groove back. I got a test, and on it was an A and the words “you’re back!” He was the only one of my teachers who had even noticed something was wrong.

It doesn’t hurt that he climbed a tree to illustrate a point and once threw water everywhere while acting out Moby Dick. There is so much to be said about Mr. Johnson—I even wrote an essay about him, once. He was one of my most influential teachers at a time when I was very easily influenced. I even gave him a few pieces of creative work for him to edit—because that is how much I trusted him and his opinion. He was the absolute best, and the older I get and the more I reflect on it the more I realize it. I can never thank him enough.

Dr. James // freshman & sophomore at Oakland Community College
Creative writing classes were always awfully intimidating to me. I was a budding writer—just learning my strengths and weaknesses. I had written a few bad novels and bad poems when I wandered into his summer Creative Writing class, anxious and nervous. But over the following months, I would listen to strangers read my work out loud and then discuss it. I would draft and redraft poems. I would get my work torn apart.

It never made me cry like I thought it might—I loved it. I loved the dissection of things. I loved hearing others thoughts. I loved Dr. James’ comments on my work and his enthusiasm for poetry (something I had never thought I would be any good at). I loved his methods. I loved it so much I took Advanced Creative Writing.

It was even more wonderful. I wrote good poetry. I learned about my writing and my style. I had help taking things apart and putting them back together. I read some damn good short stories and discovered new authors. Dr. James, through his feedback and help, helped me grow into the writer I am today. It was through his class that I wrote a poem that won second place in a college-wide contest. It was him who taught me that I am, actually, a poet.

Danielle DeVoss // junior & senior at Michigan State University
I first met Danielle as a high school senior when I decided I wanted to attend MSU for the Professional Writing program. She convinced me that it was the program for me, and stayed in touch the whole two years I was at community college. When I came to MSU, finally, and had a class with her, it was wonderful. Danielle is a professor who dolls out useful assignments, gives helpful critique, and edited my cover letters and resume. She wrote me reference letters. She helped me gain a stronger understanding of the way the real world works.

When we went to NYC on a study-away, I had one of the best times of my life. Danielle took us to some of the most amazing places. She bought us hot dogs. She gave us assignments that were actually enjoyable and that actually taught me something. She made the experience something to remember—especially for someone at age 21 (hey, I might have made a few irresponsible decisions… I learned from them….). I was so lucky to have her as a professor and also as someone I could go to with questions, issues, and when I needed help.

She went above and beyond in so many ways, and I am so grateful that she was around while I went through some pretty complicated and serious changes in my life

*   *   *

Thank you to all of the professors who have impacted me over the years. I cannot express my gratitude enough to how you went above and beyond—not just for me, but for others as well. And those of you who are teachers now: you make a difference. Many of these students will later attribute so much to you. You have no idea the impact you can make.

To all the kickass teachers out there: thank you. Keep doing what you’re doing.