What writing is teaching me about being myself

Read time: 3 min.

What I’ve learned from some of my personal experiences finding my identity and calling.

1. Our differences are our strengths

When I was a kid, I always had a sneaking suspicion in the back of my mind that I thought differently than everyone else.

When the teacher would ask a question, I wouldn’t hesitate to raise my hand to answer. Somehow, it seemed like I always took the conversation in a different way than the teacher had planned. I became less confident in my answers over the years, and would just sit back and listen to others answer and wonder why I always thought about the question in a completely different way than everyone else.

It is only in recent years that I have started to speak up again when I think about something differently than everyone else. I am finding that the different answer is sometimes what everyone else was trying to figure out all along.

The more I use my own, unique voice when I write, the more people seem to praise it. If Mark Twain sounded like C.S. Lewis and he sounded like Maya Angelou and she sounded like Flannery O’Connor, we wouldn’t have a need for all these great writers. Everything they had written would be the same. As it stands, they all have different voices and they all write about different things, so we need them all.

Our differences are not our weaknesses. They are our strengths, because they are what everyone around us is missing.

Our differences are what we have to offer others that they don’t already have.

2. Go with the gift

I’ve had a love for writing my entire life and have been told I’m a gifted writer since I was a kid. It’s just a part of me.

Somewhere along the way, I started telling myself it wasn’t a good enough gift. I’ve always had this vague desire to change the world in a big way, but writing has always seemed like a very passive way to do that to me.

One time I was with friends and discussing what career I should choose. The conversation naturally went to writing, and one of my friends looked me dead in the eye. “You have to be a writer,” he said.

I asked him why.

“Because you lit up when you talked about it,” he said.

I wasn’t convinced this was a good enough reason to pursue any career path. My true calling couldn’t possibly be something I loved so much — it would involve sacrifice.

I thought being a teacher seemed like a more noble calling. It was an active way to change the world and serve others. It seemed like the type of job God would approve of. I convinced myself that was what He wanted me to do.

Eventually, I heard someone say your calling is where your gifts, interests, and something the world needs collide. Writing is one of those things for me and I started to see how it could be used to change the world. In an effort to serve God how I thought would be best, I was missing the opportunity He had placed right in front of me through my gift of writing. I look back at that time of my life and laugh at how obvious it should have been.

I knew pursuing writing was the right choice when I was visiting my high school and told one of my old teachers about my decision.

“Ah, yes,” she said. “Go with the gift.”

3. Just tell the truth

The comedian Tim Hawkins once said, “If you want to be a comedian, tell the truth.”

You can make a whole comedy sketch by simply saying what everyone is already thinking.

People gravitate to genuine people. We can get really lost looking for it and often deny it, but we all want truth at the end of the day.

The silly thing is, I always think people will want some put-together, perfected version of myself. I spend so much time crafting an elaborate facade of who I think people will want me to be, only to find the facade becomes a wall between me and them. Every relationship requires tearing down this facade, one truth at a time. Then, the real friendship begins because I am relieved to find they actually wanted the real me all along. The real me doesn’t usually scare people off and, if it does, they aren’t my people.

When I write, sometimes all I’m thinking about is how to impress people with my writing. I want it to be profound and perfectly worded. When this is my motivation, the writing never turns out very good. It’s stiff, stale, and just plain boring. It’s like the phony facade, keeping people from the real me. If I skip the facade and just write down what I really think, it resonates with others and becomes what I actually wanted it to be all along.

If you want to be a writer, tell the truth. The truth always makes the best stories. And everyone knows, truth is stranger than fiction.

Everything I’m learning about being a writer keeps bringing me back to this one truth:

If you want to be a writer, be yourself.

The 5 best downtown Springfield coffee shops for writing

Read time: 2 min.

The best spots downtown to get writing or other work done when you need to get out of the house.

When I have some writing I need to get done and catch a pang of procrastination, suddenly my whole house becomes a big project. You might find me cleaning the furthest corners of the pantry which haven’t been touched in years, or ironing every shirt in my closet to perfection, or any other completely unnecessary task that is not writing.

I get a lot of things done when I’m really supposed to be doing other things.

When it’s really bad, the only solution is to get out of the house. Luckily, there are plenty of great writing spots in Springfield, Missouri, the city I live just outside of. Some of my favorites are located downtown. Coffee shops are usually the perfect atmosphere to get inspired and focused.

Here are 5 of my favorite downtown Springfield coffee shops to write at:

1. Kingdom Coffee

Unit #100, 211 S. Market Ave.

The atmosphere: Kingdom Coffee is the right mix of cozy and airy. The decor is modern yet rustic, with an industrial flair. Plants sprinkled throughout the room give it an earthy feel. With two rooms, there are plenty of seating options.

What to order: In the winter, the O Holy Nog is a must — think eggnog, but add coffee for a whole new take on the classic drink. Year round, all the coffee drinks are top notch.

2. The Coffee Ethic

124 Park Central Square

The atmosphere: Located right on the square, you’re in the right place for people watching out the window at The Coffee Ethic. Dimmer lighting and industrial decor makes it cozy so you can feel at home, but not actually be at home where there is a distraction obstacle course.

What to order: Personally, I’m a fan of the chai latte and a cinnamon roll, with plenty of icing.

3. European Cafe

207 Park Central E.

The atmosphere: The European Cafe is the best choice if you need plenty of bright lighting to work. The room has lots of seating and airy, elegant decor. If you want to pretend you’re in Europe for the afternoon, go here.

What to order: You absolutely can’t pass up the macarons. Grab a drink to go with them.

4. Cherry Picker

601 S. Pickwick Ave.

The atmosphere: Cherry Picker has a charming hole-in-the-wall feel to it. It’s extremely small, but if you can snag a spot at the bar facing the window, you’re in for some focused writing time.

What to order: I liked the chai latte (my go-to), and I’m sure the other drinks are great, too. Leland’s grilled cheese was out of this world, if you happen to be there at lunch time.

5. The Potter’s House

724 S. National Ave.

The atmosphere: This place is the closest you’re going to get to a home away from home, as it’s literally located in a house. There are three levels filled with cozy nooks around every corner.

What to order: There is an extensive menu here, and I like everything I’ve tried. The Thai tea is my personal favorite. The Oreo Quicksand is all the buzz if you’re craving a milkshake, and the Honeybee smoothie is a healthier option that will still satisfy your sweet tooth.

What’s your favorite local coffee shop? Tell me where I need to go next in the comments!

P.S. If you’re working on a novel during your next coffee shop visit, check out this resource from author Beth Linton about the concept of showing rather than telling in writing. She gives practical tips and great examples from classic novels.

What I learned from interviewing a celebrity

Read time: 3 min.

Advice for journalists and writers I learned from interviewing actor Rudy Pankow.

This summer, I had the opportunity to work at a magazine called Local Life on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina (if you’re reading this, I miss you all).

Outer Banks, the Netflix hit show (click here for some background info if you have no idea what I’m talking about), came out a couple months before my internship. It was filmed in South Carolina, so I received an assignment to write a story about the tie between the show and where our magazine was located.

The editor said I could take it any direction I wanted, including interviewing an actor. As big as the show is, it seemed impossible to land an interview with one of them. Still, I decided to go on a quest to track them down.

Against all odds, Rudy Pankow (aka JJ) said yes. Needless to say, I learned a lot from the experience.

Here are 3 essentials for any interview:

© Provided by Netflix

1. Persistence

Getting the interview was a long shot. A very long shot. I felt like a crazy woman, sending an email to ask someone with over 3 million Instagram followers if they would take the time to talk to an intern at a magazine that goes to about 30,000 people.

Rudy’s publicist asked if he would be on the cover, and the answer was no. She asked if he was the first actor we reached out to. Again, no. Then, I accidentally advertised the fact that an intern was going to be doing the writing and interviewing. Three strikes, right?

But then, he said yes.

Never be afraid to ask. You might not get the answer you’re looking for. Then again, you just might get it. If you don’t ask, it’s guaranteed you won’t get a yes. I received a no from the publicists of several other actors, but that didn’t stop me from asking again. All it took was one yes.

Ask. Ask twice. Ask three times.

I’m pretty sure being annoying when it comes to getting interviews is part of the job description for journalists. You can be a little annoying, but be respectful. You’re not entitled to an interview with anyone, but you are always allowed to ask.

2. Preparation

When writing questions for interviews, don’t be skimpy. Write down every question you can think of. I don’t care if “What’s your favorite vegetable?” is the question that comes to mind — write it down. After you finish your master list of questions, refine it to 10 or 15 of the best ones.

List them in order of the most important ones to cover. I’ll explain how to figure out which questions those are in a bit.

Bring the master list with every dumb question you could think of into the interview, too.

My fellow intern (shoutout to Megan who was my copilot in the interview and also did an amazing job illustrating and designing the article) and I ended up getting more time in the interview than we planned for, so we almost ran out of questions. If you ever get extra interview time with a celebrity and run out of questions, grab onto every last second and just ask something. However, coming prepared with plenty of extra questions is always helpful.

On top of that, don’t make assumptions. Be very clear about the time and location of your interview.

In this case, I knew Rudy would be in a different time zone than us, so I asked about his time zone. As it turned out, when Rudy’s publicist told me the time of the interview, she told me the time in my time zone. I assumed she would realize that’s why I asked about the time zone and clarify, but I was wrong. We got on the phone a little later than planned due to this mix up. Thankfully, he was understanding and it turned out okay.

© Provided by Netflix

3. The golden question

The golden question is the question that unlocks the person you’re interviewing. Let me explain.

In the interview, my thinking was that we would take care of business first. So, first on my list were questions about the location where they filmed. This part of the interview felt a little stiff and didn’t flow.

Near the end, I got curious about what an actor must do to prepare for an audition after Rudy said something about auditioning. I went off the question list and asked him about it. He lit up and started explaining the ins and outs of acting — stuff I wouldn’t have even known to ask about. Acting is his expertise. He loved talking about it.

The questions following this one flowed naturally. I realized I should have started with this question, because it put him at ease. Rudy was comfortable and confident talking about acting.

Find whatever it is the person you’re interviewing loves to talk about, and ask them that first.

If they feel confident answering the first question, they’re going to feel more confident talking about things they don’t know as much about later on and the whole interview will run much more smoothly.

Try to figure out what the golden question might be beforehand. If you’re not sure, start the interview with some easier questions and look for rabbit trails. The rabbit trails will usually lead you to the golden question. After that, it’s all about asking follow up questions.

Illustration by Megan Goheen

To read the full Rudy Pankow article, click here.

Know any journalists or writers who need interview advice? Share these!

How to find story ideas anywhere: Savannah edition

Read time: 4 min.

Get inspired to write with writing prompts from the dreamy city of Savannah, Georgia.

When I get stumped on what to write about, there is no better way to get the wheels of my imagination turning than to visit a new place.

Wandering around new sights, smells, and sounds whisks me away to distant lands where anything is possible. People watching triggers ideas for new characters I want to meet. Interactions I watch inspire new plots. Observations I make fill me with insatiable curiosity about the world around me.

This summer, I found myself at an internship located about 50 minutes from Savannah, Georgia. Thankfully, one of the closest airports was in Savannah so I was able to make several visits. This dreamy city enamored me with its old European feel, whispering story ideas at every corner.

But how do I know if there is a story idea in something I notice? It’s simple. I pay attention to the things that make me ask questions. Where there is a question, there is a story idea.

I’ll show you what I mean.

Scroll through some of the things I noticed to get your imagination running:

The Paris Market

This place alone is enchanting enough to inspire a thousand stories. It’s a wonder room of captivating products, with a little café to boot. Perfume, jewelry, magazines, journals, home décor, and so many other goods that feel as if they’re from the other side of the world dance around the store in ever-changing creative displays.   

Prompt: Who wrote these magazines? Write about a new editor, running to these shelves to pick up her very first issue with a beaming look on her face. What will she do next?

Prompt: Who made this display? Who designs all the displays in the store? I want to meet them. Talk to them and write an article for me.

Prompt: Tell me about a dinner around this table. Who was there? What was served? Did a tall guest bump his head on the chandelier? Did a fight leave those beautiful dishes in shambles?

Prompt: Who do these photos belong to? Why did they take them out again? Are they trying to solve the mystery of their mother who they never met? Is it an old man, reminiscing on the golden days of the past? While you’re at it, give me all the juicy details on that letter in the pile.

Prompt: How is perfume even made? Who chooses the bottles and names? Sounds like a dream job. Research this and fill me in.

Prompt: Where are these shells from? I’m not sure if they stole them from a mermaid or what, but I’d like to read the story of how they got here.

River Street

This cobblestone street lining the Savannah River is where all the action happens. You can weave in and out of shops filled with exciting goods and tasty snacks, between street performers and endless photo ops.

Prompt: What if something happened under this charming, yellow umbrella? I’d like to read about someone storming up those steps under the string lights, too.

Prompt: A short story about shoes, from the perspective of this street. Does it have a favorite brand?

Prompt: Technically not right on River Street, but close enough. I absolutely have to know about this moped. Who owns it and where do they like to ride it? Find them and interview them, or write a fiction story about who you imagine they are. I don’t care which option you go with, but I have to know.

Prompt: Write about the two kids I can imagine living in apartments right next to each other at the very top of this building. Do they communicate with tin can phones? I’d say so.

Prompt: This is Savannah’s Candy Kitchen and it’s probably best to write about it with a praline in hand. I’m curious about what goes into making a praline. Now that I think about it, what are pralines? Or, take a story about this candy store more in the imaginative direction of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Prompt: Is this place even real? It’s like what the Mad Hatter went on to do after all the stories from Alice in Wonderland. There are too many directions you could take this idea, so I won’t limit your imagination by giving you a specific prompt.

Prompt: This view from River Street. Describe it to a blind person. How does it make you feel? What might you hear or smell when looking at it?

The Coffee Fox

The quirky décor at this coffee shop was as wonderful as the food and drinks it served. It’s the perfect setting for every kind of character you can imagine, all with only one thing in common: the place they go to get their morning coffee. As a side note, if you ever visit, it’s an absolute must to try the cranberry orange muffin.

Prompt: You know that rhyme from when you were a kid, The Muffin Man? What is that all about? Where is Drury Lane?

Toasted Barrel

This restaurant was seriously beautiful. The tasteful décor is the backdrop of a simple menu of — get this — grilled cheeses. They have every kind you could imagine. I love the dynamic between the sophisticated décor and the playful menu.

Prompt: This grilled cheese was so good, it doesn’t need to be written about. Go reward yourself with a snack break.

Wormsloe Historic Site

This avenue lined in oaks dripping with Spanish moss is mesmerizing, to say the least. I could spend all day walking up and down it. They filmed a scene of the Nicholas Sparks’ movie, The Last Song, here. Centuries of history live on this avenue. There are few places so perfect to daydream about story ideas.

Prompt: Tell me about the person who lives at the end of this driveway. Is it an old lady who never makes it out of the house, which is rumored to be haunted? Or, is it a giant family with four kids who won’t stop climbing on the trees?

Whether you choose to use one or all of these prompts, I hope I sparked your imagination with this dreamy city. Savannah is filled with ideas, but so is the city you live in. There are endless story ideas all around us.

You just have to know how to look.

The ideas are in the questions.

Know anyone else who could use some inspiration to kickstart their writing? Share these!