Writing Rituals

I was asked recently if I had any writing rituals.

I would not say that I have a particularly consistent “writing ritual,” but I have certain habits that contribute to my writing. Most days, the first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is check my email and respond to anything that calls for a response, no matter whether it is personal, work, or writing-related. Next, I will usually make some coffee and try to wake up my brain with either a crossword puzzle or an online game of Scrabble.

Next, I’ll spend a few minutes attending to some Steel Toe Review or Birmingham Free Press business. That might involve posting a story to one of the STR or BFP websites, doing a little research about something, or sending out a fundraising message. Once all that is out of the way, unless I have urgent day-job work to do, I can start working on some of my own writing.

“Working on writing” might mean setting up an interview for a Birmingham Free Press article, adding to a fictional piece that I’ve already started, creating an outline, composing something for my personal blog, or any number of other things. I try to do as many of these activities as time permits every day.

Whenever I have the time, and the weather is tolerable enough, I like to take long walks with a notebook in hand. I think over whatever project I’m working on as I walk, and I occasionally stop to jot down notes. I’ve been known to spend entire days doing this. Lately, this activity has been a rare luxury. I have a treadmill at home, and I’ve tried to use this to emulate the ritual, but it isn’t the same. I get too distracted by the timer and calorie counter, and I start doing calculations in my head instead of thinking about writing.

When I’m writing at home, I like to have a dedicated beverage next to me. In the morning, it’s coffee. At night, it’s usually a glass of good bourbon or scotch. Afternoons I’m not too busy with day-job work and don’t have other plans, I will go to a coffee shop to write. Some evenings, I’ll go to a bar with my writing journal, the seedier the better, and take notes about people who are around, overheard conversations, etc.

What I usually can’t do while I’m writing is listen to music, though it doesn’t disturb me too much when I’m working from a coffee shop or bar. If I do listen to music, it’s usually some sort of noisy avant-garde or free jazz selection.



I can barely believe we’ve made it to our tenth issue of Steel Toe Review–not without our ups and downs, but here we are not much worse for wear than we were a year ago. What’s exciting is that it seems to keep getting better with every issue. Even more exciting is the fact that we are on the verge of publishing a print anthology featuring the best pieces we published during our first year. And this is super important–we need your help with that project.

Go to to our Kickstarter page to help support us. A pledge of even $1 is helpful. If you donate a little more, there are a number of rewards available, including free books and internet serenades.

The impetus behind STR generally is to connect Birmingham writers and artists with a community of like-minded people elsewhere. The print anthology will further that goal by, literally, putting our work in peoples’ hands.

In addition, we have a fancy new mailing list. You can now sign up voluntarily to have the new issue of STR delivered to your email whenever it comes out, free of charge. And when you are tired of us, you can simply unsubscribe.

And finally–look! Issue #10 is here, and it looks very promising indeed.

The Write Mind

I think perhaps the hardest thing about writing is to get into and stay in the right frame of mind for writing for an extended period. I can’t be too relaxed or too amped. If I’m tired, like when I first wake up, I can’t think at all. Have to have some coffee. But too much coffee, and my mind is all over the place. Some exercise sometimes helps clear the head sometimes, but I can also use it as a distraction so the only thoughts entering my head are about how many calories I’m burning and not about the story I’m working on. Anything can be a distraction. Staring at a computer screen rarely helps, and often is also a distraction. Sometimes, I have to print out what I’m working on and take to it with a pen. Or I just grab a notebook and get some thoughts down that way.

For a lot of writers, the ritual is very important–sitting down at a certain time every day with things arranged just so, distractions put to the side. My schedule seems to be too unpredictable to ever settle down into such a routine. Between paid work, grad school, the Birmingham Free Press, Steel Toe Review, Ghost Herd, and a relationship, my to-do list is a constantly shifting jigsaw puzzle. One might suggest dropping one or two of these activities to create more time, but they are all intertwined like a pit of anacondas in heat. Each project supports the others in some way or another, either financially or by facilitating connections with other creative people that can help me or inspire me. Also, if I can’t seem to finish that short story, maybe I can write an exposé about the Shepherd Bend coal mine, and at least then I’ve written something that day.

I’ve been known to go on long walks, sometimes for an entire day, with just a notebook and a pen, circling through sentences in my head, occasionally sitting down somewhere to scribble out my notes. Then I’ll come home and type everything up later, editing as I go. This is, in fact, my preferred way to work, but often, the weather, or my non-literary responsibilities, prevent me from going on these expeditions. It’s rare that I have a day, or even a couple of hours, that I can spend that way.

I’m trying to flesh out a short story right now, but I’m writing this blog post instead. Sometimes, I have to work on two things at once. Write a couple of sentences on one topic and then go  back to the other project, because I can’t stop my  brain from jumping around from one to the other anyway.

So I don’t know what to do exactly to improve this situation. It will definitely be one of my goals in 2012 to be more organized about this process. It’s also one of my goals to do more walking.

Best of the Net Awards




Steel Toe Review has nominated the following contributors for the 2010/11 Best of the Net Awards. Congratulations to these authors.

In fiction:

“Serial Killers” by Melissa Studdard
“At the Fish Tanks” by Louis Bourgeois

In poetry:

“My Magnum Opus” by Catfish McDaris
“Auburn Memory” by Katie Berger
“In the Garden” by Matt Layne
“Holy” by Curtis Rutherford
“Red Paint Hill” by Chris Hayes

Update Update and Short Story Contest

It has come to my attention that I haven’t updated this blog in more than a month. So here’s a quick run-down. I haven’t been writing much here because I’ve been writing a lot elsewhere.

First off, Steel Toe Review is getting better all the time, publishing new work every day or two. And we are hosting our first short story contest with a $100 prize. You can see the details on the home page of the STR site. This is a themed contest. I have long had this idea that Birmingham/Red Mountain is sort of like a spaceship that landed 120 years ago in the middle of Alabama. This probably has a lot to do with my fascination with Sun Ra, but also I think Birmingham just makes a lot more sense when you think about it that way. So I’d been thinking about writing a story like this but I never got around to it. So now, here’s $100 incentive for other people to write it for me. Exciting, no?

Secondly, I’ve been writing new songs, performing, and recording. This coming Friday (March 11), my band is playing a show at the DanielDay Gallery/DreamMecca Studio in Lakeview. Our sister band Results of Adults are opening for us. There is a $10 donation at the door, which I know sounds a little steep. BUT it’s BYOB, so you will save lots of money by bringing your own beer.

New Issue of STR is Online, Sort Of

We believe we can say that our first issue was a success both from the standpoint of the quality of material we ended up with and with the readership we acquired. However, we are making a couple of changes based on lessons learned over the past two months.

December was slow, traffic-wise, what with all the holidays and such and all the content we were not posting. To rectify this, moving forward, we are going to start taking more advantage of the blog format facilitated by the WordPress platform we are using. Instead of doing a typical “issue” every month or two as initially planned, we will begin posting content as we approve it.

For the January 2011 issue, we have already made our selections, but we will post one or two pieces every couple of days throughout the month. We will keep doing an editor’s note periodically along with a table of contents that will be updated as new work is posted, thus creating the illusion of preserving the old-fashioned print media paradigm of “issues.”

To kick off the new issue, please enjoy Brent Stauffer’s short story, “A Good Snow.”

Toot Toot

Today was my last day tutoring at Woodlawn High School for the semester. I really only got three sessions in because the program started only this month, I was going twice a week, and one week it was canceled due to testing. Next semester I hope to be able to commit to more days. I’m only barely starting to break the ice with these kids. But today I made some noticeable progress with them.

I have four students, a girl and three boys, all tenth graders. Even though I was told what to expect, it’s kind of shocking how poor their basic spelling and grammar skills are in general. Between the handwriting and the spelling, I can’t even read what they write a lot of the time, and I have to have them read it aloud to me (I’ve also caught them more than once “reading” something they hadn’t actually written down). But three of them seem to have a genuine interest in bettering their situations and improving their chances of one day going to college. The fourth one, one of the boys, is kind of a trouble maker and so far hasn’t written a single word. We’ll call this one Bradley. On the day of our second session, I found him hiding between stacks in the library trying to avoid me. Then he “accidentally” threw his pen in the trash along with a piece of paper (on which he had written nothing but his name), and he refused to go through the trash can and retrieve it.


I’m trying to get them to focus on a simple expository essay about how to do a task. One boy is writing about how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Another is writing about how to cook an egg. The girl is writing about cleaning her room. I’m trying to get them to add more details each week, to describe even the most obvious steps in the process, explain the importance of the task. Have an introduction and a conclusion.

Bradley spends each session either bothering the girl sitting next to him (I will not have them sitting next to each other next semester) and claiming he can’t think of anything he knows how to do.

Me: You don’t have to do any chores at home?

Bradley: No, I got people to do that.

Me: Do you know how to cook anything, make anything, fix anything?

Bradley: No.

Me: Is there a video game you are good at?

Bradley: I don’t play games.

Me: Do you dress yourself everyday?

Bradley: My mama does that for me.

Me: Now I know you’re just being goofy. Think of something.

I tried to get them to ask and answer questions like why you would make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (because your mom isn’t home, the ingredients are in the house, it’s easy to do, and you are hungry). And the steps involved are more than just (1) get the bread (2) get the peanut butter and jelly (3) eat the sandwich. You have to open the peanut butter, spread it on the bread with a knife, etc. I said to explain it as if you are explaining it to someone from outer space who has no idea why or how this is done.

It’s hard to get them to recognize these concepts, but today I outlined it all on a dry erase board. I really felt like a teacher for the first time, and they all copied down what I wrote, even Bradley.

Technically, I should go there again on Thursday, but the kids already told me not to bother. All their classes are having end of the semester parties. They will be there, but they won’t be there. So I said fine, I’ll see them all in January.

Despite the difficulties, this feels very much like the sort of thing I’m meant to be doing right now. I’ll get more involved in the program in 2011.

STR and Tritone Represent at NOLA Bookfair

I acquired a table at the NOLA bookfair to promote Steel Toe Review as well as my two books.

On the way down, I stopped at a Chick-fil-A in Meridian, MS because I had to attend a conference call for work. I was there for almost three hours, during which I overheard the manager discuss with several people his theories about the similarities between the U.S. today and Germany in 1939. He also refilled my drink several times, so I let it slide. Languid Christian music was playing on the p.a. I ate two chicken biscuits.

I picked up my much overqualified editorial assistant at the New Orleans airport because she was flying in from Florida. It was nothing short of miraculous that we found each other there, since I was running late, she wasn’t sure if I was coming to get her, and she is the last person on earth who doesn’t own a cell phone. But I guess since I tolerated the Lord for three hours at Chick-fil-A earlier in the day, He was looking after me.

The divine intervention didn’t end there–for example, getting back to our motel each night after the relentless debauchery and decadence that being in New Orleans seems to necessitate. Also, my assistant and I each randomly encountered people we knew but hadn’t seen in more than a decade and whom we did not know now lived in New Orleans. But I’m getting things out of order.

After checking into the charming Super 8 motel and inspecting it for bed bugs, the first stop was the official pre-party for the book fair, where Jordan Flaherty, author of Floodlines, was giving a talk about post-deluvian community organizing. Flaherty was funny and inspiring, despite the fact that I personally have very little emotional brain space at the moment to care about anything at all (cf. this and this, but I’m digressing again already).

We saw our first jazz funeral parade of the weekend as we were leaving the party. We headed down to Frenchmen Street, where the fair would be taking place the next day, drank way too much bourbon, and then called it a night.

Early the next morning (okay, about 10 am, which is early by N.O. standards), we set up our table. I had a surprising amount of interest in both the books and the literary magazine. I met several writers, whom I asked to submit to STR. I was asked to be on the radio. And my assistant and I ate shared a muffaletta that was bigger than both our heads combined.

We also saw another, much larger funeral parade, which I came to find out was in honor of the famous photographer Herman Leonard.

There was an after-party for the book fair at an undisclosed location. We were supposed to call a number after 7pm for directions. That was far too complicated for us. But we did attend the book fair-related Books & Burlesque show upstairs at Le Maison. The book theme was a stretch for several of the burlesque acts, but it was pretty entertaining. Somehow, I got roped into the audience participation segment of the show, which turned out to be a trivia game (we didn’t win, sadly).

The revelry continued after the burlesque was over, until the wee hours of the morning. Around 10 am (again, early by N.O. standards) we were awakened by what seemed to be a rocking gospel band performing just outside our motel room. Neither of us had the energy to actually get up and look out the window, so we still don’t really know what happened. But speaking of music, I forgot to mention that there was incredible music everywhere we went, more than I ever remember from my previous trips here. On every street corner, at every bar, many styles of music, expertly and joyfully performed.

When we finally managed to get up on Sunday, we met up with friends at Court of Two Sisters for their famous jazz brunch (more excellent music, not to mention amazing foodstuffs). This had to be followed by yet another nap, which was then followed by a home-cooked meal at another friend’s house.

It will require several more blog posts to fill in the details on some of these events. There are definitely stories worth telling. New Orleans never fails me in that respect.

Radio Radio

I’m supposedly going to be on the radio in New Orleans Monday morning (about 7am Central time — remember to account for the time change). Christopher Tidmore will be interviewing me about my novel Zen, Mississippi on his morning show, which you can also listen to online right here.

I met Mr. Tidmore this afternoon at the NOLA Bookfair, about which I will write more after the weekend. He is a writer for the Louisiana Weekly who ran for the state House of Representatives here in Louisiana in 2007. He seemed intrigued by the title of my book. Perhaps he will still want to talk to me after he has actually read it.

One quick story about the book fair, because it relates to radio. I sold two books to a very nice lady who swears she heard about me on NPR yesterday, which I’m pretty sure could not possibly be true, and I even told her so, but she stuck to her story. So maybe I’m more famous than I thought.