Andi Cumbo - Writer, Editor, Online Writing Courses, Classes & Lessons

October 25, 2014
by Andi

Keep A Balance: A Writers Write Interview with Wendy C. Ortiz

I met Wendy Ortiz in the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles.  She was this super nova – kind, lovely, talented – and I only really worked up the courage to talk with her once or twice.  But I remember the night she did her graduate reading, the way I felt like someone had peeled back my flesh to reveal a glittering skin underneath.  Wendy continues to amaze me, and her new book – well, it’s skin-peeling in just the best way.  Enjoy this interview with a woman I just adore, Wendy Ortiz.

1. Tell me about your latest project.  Excavation: A Memoir by Wendy Ortiz

I always have more than one project in the works. I consider the launch of my first book, Excavation: A Memoir, in July of this year to be a continuing project—because it’s with a small press there is much to stay on top of to keep the positive trajectory going. The next project is to get my second book, Hollywood Notebook, a prose poem-ish memoir, out into the world.

2. What role, if any, did books, writing, and reading play in your childhood?

My father took me to the public library every Saturday morning. My parents took me to bookstores and books were in every room, even if just a paperback from the grocery store. I was an early, avid reader. My mother likes to talk about how she found me reading Jaws at four years old.

3. What is your writing practice, your writing routine?

I can’t say I have much of a routine or practice. I write when there’s time and space in which to write, when I need to (deadlines, both from outside and self-imposed), and when I want to.

4. Who are you reading now?

At the moment I’m reading Megan Stielstra’s excellent book of personal essays, Once I Was Cool.

5. What are three of your all-time favorite books? Why do you love those?

Okay, three of my top 25 all-time favorites:

Firebird by Mark Doty, for its poetic storytelling and for particular scenes in the book that will stay with me forever, as though I lived them.

The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch, for its honesty, beauty and intensity.

Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins because it’s a phenomenal short story collection that reminds me I have so so so much to learn about writing short stories.

6. How do you balance “building a writing platform” and the actual writing to set on that platform?

I don’t get too complicated with the idea of platform. When I use social media (Twitter, Facebook), for example, I strive to be honest, engaging, and open. I maintain a tumblr but also don’t let it get too complicated.

7. What is a typical day like for you?

A typical day involves driving my kid to preschool, possibly seeing clients in my private practice psychotherapy internship, writing with deadlines in mind (outside or self-imposed), reading, and a decent dose of staying in touch with friends, family, and readers via social media.

8. Describe your dream writing space?

In our backyard, we have a garage that I dream of converting into a writing studio one day. All I need is a desk, a window, and a bathtub. Alternately, I also dream of recreating my old apartment on Kingsley Drive in Hollywood, the location of much of Hollywood Notebook.

9. What is the hardest writing critique you ever received? How did you respond?

I got some feedback that essentially suggested that I rewrite an essay that was a little unusual in form, with the advice that I should abandon the form altogether because certain other writers would say that I was somehow getting away from the crux of the story within the essay. My response was to thank my fellow writer for reading and then send it to another trusted writer. The second writer remarked, Yes, this is the form this story should take—a feeling I had and was glad to not abandon. In other words, it was important to get a few opinions. Sometimes one isn’t enough (unless you’ve found your one dream reader, which I can now say, I have).

10. What is the best wisdom you have to share with other writers?

I don’t know about ‘best’ but the wisdom I’ve learned from others and keep returning to is to keep a balance between focusing only on the work in front of you as much as possible while maintaining a connection to whatever literary community you might be lucky enough to call home.


Author Wendy Ortiz

Wendy C. Ortiz is the author of Excavation: A Memoir and the forthcoming Hollywood Notebook. She wrote a monthly column for one year for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Nervous Breakdown, The Rumpus, and many other journals. She is the co-founder, curator, and host of the decade-old Rhapsodomancy Reading Series. Wendy lives in Los Angeles, California. Read more about Wendy’s work on her website, find her on Tumblr, or follower her on Twitter. Plus, be sure to check out the profile the L.A. Times did of Excavation.


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October 24, 2014
by Andi

My Top 10 Books To Read Before I Turn 40

I’ve been thinking about this post for a long time now, trying to decide what I wanted to say about turning 40  – about how it feels like it should be a huge milestone but doesn’t really.  About how huge it really does feel, and our childlessness, and my mother’s death. . . I think I have a lot to say, but I think I’ll save it for the actual day.  (November 11th, in case you’re curious.) Today, instead, I want to talk about about the books I want to read before I turn 40.

First, there’s this whole category of books that I don’t know about, I expect – books about women in their late 30s or early 40s that are not about their marriages or about their children but are about them as strong, confident women.  Bossypants by Tina Fey comes to mind as does The Season of Second Chances by Diane Meier.  Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed has good wisdom from and to women in this age range. . . Anne Lamott’s latest books (Her new book, Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace comes out the day before my birthday.). But beyond these, I’m coming up short.  I expect books like this are out there – books with women protagonists who love their lives, have to struggle through hard things still, whose identity is grounded in their own person, not just in their families. . . but I’m having a hard time thinking of any. Maybe you can recommend some titles?

But there are some titles I do know I want to read, and this afternoon, I’m going to head to the local library to pick a couple up.  I was inspired, in part, by this great list Random House in Canada, and then a few other titles came to mind.

So here are the 10 books I want to read by the time I turn 40:

1. Daring Greatly – Ever since I saw Brene Brown’s TED talk, I’ve been enthralled with this idea of vulnerability as strength. It’s a lesson my father has taught me all my life, and it’s one I’m eager to understand more.

2. The Portrait of a Lady – In college, I had a great conversation with a man named Erik about how this book changed his life, and I carried the book with me for years. I’ve since given away my copy, but I”m going to pick one up again and give this a read.

3. Faithful Place – So I’m adding this third book in Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series as a kind of cheater’s way to prioritize it. I read the first two and fell in love with French’s writing and her ability to weave the hints of the supernatural with a good ole murder mystery.

4. Little Women – I know. The fact that I haven’t read Alcott’s classic yet probably means I have to give back my English major club card, but it’s true. Stlil, I feel like maybe now is the time. . . what do you think? (By the way, the Kindle version is just $.99 right now.)

5. Lila – Okay, so I’m cheating a bit with this one, too. Marilynne Robinson is one of my all-time favorite writers, and everything I hear about her new book is stellar.

6. The Goldfinch – A Pulitzer. Lots of recommendations. Intriguing comments about length and plot from friends. So while I may be busting my hopes of actually reading all these in 3 weeks, Tartt’s novel goes on the list.

7. A Mercy – I’ve picked up Toni Morrison’s latest novel several times, and I find it rich and hard and beautiful. So now, I commit.

8. The Woman Upstairs – I’ve wanted to read this book since Poets and Writers profiled Messud. But then when the critique of the protagonist as unlikeable come out, I wanted to read it even more.

9. MaddAddam – If you saw my post from last week, then you know that Atwood is one of my favorite all-time writers, so this last book in her dystopian trilogy, yep, I’m on that.

10. ????  What title would you recommend I add to this “turning 40″ reading list? Is there a book you think I should have in myself at this milestone? The Feminine Mystique, perhaps? Something that changed you profoundly? A light read that settled your spirit during a big change?  I’d love your recommendations.

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October 23, 2014
by Andi

I Oppose Outlines in My Own Writing

You know more than you think you do. – Benjamin Spock

I’m almost entirely opposed to outlines in my own work, especially my creative work.  Maybe I’d make an exception if I went back to academic writing, but I hope that isn’t going to happen so . . .

Outlines – at least for me – kill the energy of a piece.  They push me into my head, force me to look for balance and arc and momentum too soon. They hold me too tight to the path I sculpt and curb discovery and whimsy.   I find them stifling, which is not to say you should.  It’s just true for me.

I prefer to build my drafts as I did when I was a child writing songs – letting one line come upon the next without much conscious thought, my eyes following the power lines as we drove and my lips forming words I did not yet recognize as such.  I prefer to discover what I know or feel or believe without shape because within me it does not hold form – it sparks and weaves and turns on itself, a dervish whirling into worship without a number of spins in hand.

Children tells stories this way.  They begin without knowing just where things will go.  A princess arrives at the gates of a mountainside castle, her sword drawn, and we know nothing further until we see her swing her legs down and advance on the gate.

Or maybe I’m more like my dog Meander who leaves the house with her nose to the air. The story of another living creatures passes by her nostrils, and she’s on the move, trailing it as it winds through the yard.  Sometimes, she sprints to life across the field. Sometimes, she wanders back to the porch, content with a small journey for the day.

Yesterday, I had the honor of speaking with a writer who reminded me that much of life is about intuition when lived with passion, that the way we choose houses or spouses or vocations is often about listening to the spark of spirit within is.  It is that quiet voice of wisdom that I try to honor with my days and with my words. It is that hushed speech that led me to name our farm, God’s Whisper.

So here, then, are three ways I force myself to write without a plan and with an ear to my heart:

1. I write fast. Far too fast for me to be able to analyze much of what I’ve said until I said it.  I type out my work for this reason, and sometimes, I rewrite it by hand so that I can see exactly what it is I’ve said.

2. I picture myself facing the inside of myself. This sounds odd, I know, but I imagine myself turning inward, almost inside out, and listening carefully to the voice that comes from inside of me.  Sometimes I even cock my head to listen better.

3. I do my very best not to censor or even change what I am saying in the first draft.  I go wherever the words lead me, even if something in my brain is telling me it’s misguided.  I don’t trust my brain when I draft. I trust my heart.

I do not in any way say that others should eschew outlines – use whatever you need to get the words down on the page.  But for me, the intuitive, wending journey is the one that serves my spirit best.

And you? What do you prefer – the unmapped journey or the carefully planned route you’ve built for yourself?

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October 21, 2014
by Andi
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Cleaning My Desk; Calming My Spirit

This morning, when I came up to my office, all I wanted to do was spend the day sorting paper and organizing things.  Oh, and I wanted to scream.

When My Desk is Cluttered

My desk this morning. AGH!

My desk is a little bit of a nightmare right now – stacks of papers, bills willy nilly, a random ruler jutting out across my notes.  If I could, I’d just throw it all away, take out a clean notebook, and begin afresh.

But well, I don’t feel like having creditors calling, and I would probably regret trashing the notes on the research project about a small Virginia town that I’m doing for a client.  Still, some days.

I do take one thing from my messy desk, though – a reminder that my self is much the same these days – a bit disheveled, disorganized, a little frantic.  I’m still settling into a new place and routine, and that settling takes time.

So here’s what I’m going to do to clean up my desk and ease my spirit a bit.

1. I’m going to take an hour this morning for yoga.  Nothing calms me or makes me feel more centered than a good yoga practice, and here in this new office, I have space to lay out a mat and move through some asanas.

2. I’m going to take an hour and clean my desk and organize my files.  I need to find a place for everything and come up with a system for all my projects.

3. I’m going to make a point – as Tayari Jones suggests – of readying my desk for the next day each evening.  I had been fairly faithful in doing this before, but then, well, moving meant that piles of things were everywhere.  So back to that today.

This past weekend, my friend Sarah picked up a Feng Shui book at the local library.  Neither she nor I knew much about the practice, but after reading a bit, she suggested that perhaps the central tenet – and feel free to inform me fully if you’d like – was that we make our spaces beneficial and calming to our spirits.  That idea appeals to me so much . . . and so off I go, for some yoga and then some organizing. . . I expect by Noon my spirit – not to mention my writing space – will be much more soothed and productive.

What methods do you use to keep your spirit and your workspace calming? Regular filing? Nightly clean-up? Feng Shui?


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October 20, 2014
by Andi

Stories and Names: Our First Walk in the New Neighborhood

Just down our driveway, past the voting house at the road (the one that will become our farm store), you will find our local post office.  It’s about the size of a large bathroom, and in it, Kay the postmistress keeps the communications of this small town going.  Behind the PO is an old family place, which our neighbor Glenn keeps up now that his parents have passed. He stores his 9 John Deer tractors there, and he’s told us we can help ourselves to the pear trees anytime we’d like.

Across the road, the Tucker cemetery sits on a knoll, the mausoleum for Dinwiddie Tucker – the most famous man from Radiant, by my reckoning – is white and bold in this quiet country town.  I expect when someone from a town of less than 200 people becomes a professional athlete – baseball in this case – his life and the memorial to his death become the stuff of legend writ large in white marble.

In a few minutes, Meander and I will take our first walk around this, our new neighborhood.  We’ll pass the voting house and drop off a letter with Kay, then wave at Glenn as we swing by the cemetery and then past what I think must have been the local school on the corner.  We’ll wander up Lost Mountain Road and pass the Mennonite farms tucked there.

I expect the dance of yellow and orange that makes a Virginia autumn will greet us at each step, and it’s almost guaranteed that I will tuck a leaf behind one ear.  I imagine there will be talk about the woman and her dog that now live in the old Tucker Place.  (Glenn has already reminded P that our house will always be “The Tucker Place,” and we are glad of that.)

I will take in the faces and names of each farm and each road, and I will watch especially for black faces because they are the breathing memories of the African American history on this land, the history that is most untold, at least publicly. And because here, in a world where life is still largely segregated, I want to extend my hand to see if anyone will want to take it.

I’ll memorize surnames as I walk and etch them onto the notebook I have just for this place when I get back.  I pray those names lead me to more names, maybe even the names of the people who lived and worked as slaves here at The Tucker Place.

A walk – out from behind windows with at least one hand free to wave – that is the way to know a place – country or city.  Beyond the confines of “mine” and into the world of “ours,” where stories stand in old trees and the way a road curves, and in the quiet graves marked by white tombs and those unmarked at all.  The way to know a place is to walk it, and I begin today.

Have you ever found anything precious or new when you walked a place? 

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