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

September 22, 2014
by Andi

Write Who YOU Are Today

Never say anything in writing that you wouldn’t say comfortably in conversation. — William Zinsser

Yesterday, I packed up my collection of journals – pages and pages of sporadic writing (I’ve never been one of those every day journallers) from college until now.  There’s one notebook I used in my senior year of college that I just love partially because of it’s cover – a light blue with a starlit print on the front – and partially because it’s the first journal in which I used my favorite pen – the Uniball Vision Elite.  I know these are superficial reasons to love a journal, but they are real.

And they make up for the overtly pretentious, profoundly striving writing I was doing in those pages.

I flipped through just a few entries before I tucked the book into a box, and I found myself grinning at how hard I was trying to sound elegant and intellectual.  I had clearly bought into the “idea” of myself as a writer and academic, but I equally clearly did not believe myself to be those things.

It has taken me a long time to be comfortable with who I am as a person and as a writer.  I’m not really an academic – although that’s not a fault of intellect or desire but more of temperament – and “elegant” is not a word that would really describe me either.  Rather, I’m me.  (Notably, I’m finding it hard to put positive labels on myself, which is something I’ve also learned to be true of me – a innate belief that self-praise is pride creeping in rather than the honesty I urge in other people.)  I’m loyal and dedicated, and I so value the casual and simple things of life – a great book, a long conversation with a friend, a walk with leaves crunching under my feet.


Once, I wrote an essay about the ways that my language changed from situation to situation – about how the academic world kept pushing me to let go of my casual phrases – to float up into my mind instead of staying tied by blood to my hands.  The piece got published, but I think, now, not because of the point I came to in the piece.  I had been saying, then, that I was learning to adjust our language to the situation.  But I suspect that the editors saw with more honesty what I was doing – chafing against that expectation that I could not be fully me in the things I was writing for school.

If there’s one thing I have come to believe about writing (and the life for which writing is a day to day metaphor), it’s this – be yourself.  Don’t be who the situation expects you to be, and don’t be what you think will sell.  Don’t try to sound like that famous writer or that woman who makes your skin dance in her presence.  Those people are beautiful and strong because of who they are, but you cannot be them.

Just be you – full of mistakes and the beauty that catches your breath.  Say things the way you hear them when you speak them to yourself. Write the stories that prick the edges of your heart and pound them out as they come to you, not later, when you think you will be better or time will suddenly become more abundant.  Write who you are today. 

I take joy in those journals now because I see them for who I was then – a young woman trying to convince herself of who she would become.  In that, they are profoundly honest . . . and they remind me of who I actually am now – dirt under my nails, academics long behind me, and words always at my fingers.

Who are you today?  Take a few minutes and write that down.  Then, if you want, share it here. I’d really like to know you more.




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September 21, 2014
by Andi

Why Banning Books Might Be A Good Thing: The Sunday Salon

Banned Books WeekOkay, so I don’t really think banning books is a good idea.  Ever.  But I do see a few things that happen when people ban books.

1. We get great events liked Banned Books Week, which begins today.  And so then, more people hear about these banned books than might have been the case if they hadn’t been banned in the first place.

2. Rebellious spirits like me regard lists of banned books as “to be read” lists, thus upping again the number of readers for those titles.

3. Good conversations begin about censorship and art and the difference between discretion and appropriate content and outright censorship.

So in all, the banning of books may have just the opposite effect as those banners intend – i.e. more people read the banned titles.

However, I still think censorship is unwise at best and dangerous at worst.  Every time we censor a book, we say that someone else’s story should not be available to other people.  As a big proponent of everyone’s stories, I think they should be widely and wildly available to everyone.  All the time.

You see, often the stories we choose to ban are ones that challenge our privilege – Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Walls’ The Glass Castle.  These books urge us to see with other lenses – to recognize the challenges of racism, to acknowledge violence and sexual identity in teenagers, to understand poverty and mental health – and those are hard things to deal with much less deal with responsibly – so rather than deal, we ban.  Every time we ban a book we tell the person whose story is told in those pages – be that person the writer or the reader who finds herself finally portrayed there – that they are not worthy of time and that they are dangerous and shameful. 

What a wonder it would be if we stopped banning books because they scared us and, instead, starting having conversations about what racism really looks like, what sexual identity means to a young man, what mental health struggles do to a family. What if we talked with our children about these difficult things instead of sheltering them from them?  What if we trusted each other to make good decision about what to read and what to give our children access to read?

In essence, what would it look like if our society decided that words and ideas and experience weren’t really the dangerous things? And instead put the blame of danger on ignorance and fear? 

So all hail Banned Books Week. May you never have to exist again.


You can get some great lists of banned books here –

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September 20, 2014
by Andi

Putting Form on Experience – A Writers Write Interview with Elske Rahill

Today, I’m super excited to introduce you to Elske Rahill, another great writer I’ve connected to through the web.  I absolutely love her “average day” answer.  Enjoy!

1. Tell me about your latest project. 

My most recent publication is a ‘cover’ version of Joyce’s short story ‘A Mother’ for a contemporary collection; Dubliners100. It was published to make the centenary and is a retelling of each of the Dubliners stories by various contemporary Irish writers.  Dubliners100

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

I read a lot as a child; more than I do now. Reading made me feel less lonely; it offered me human connection, in a way. It was also a way of escaping as a child.

Writing was a different thing. It was a way of putting form on experience and of speaking, because I was a very quiet, shy child and found it hard to speak otherwise.

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

That depends on what stage my life is at. Since my first son was born, I have written in the morning before anyone else is up. It is the only way I feel sane for the day. Whenever I have been pregnant, I have found it very difficult to write and have read instead, but some of my best writing was done at times when I had a very young baby. Breastfeeding was a great excuse to get into bed, baby on breast, with the laptop, but after that I have to be more structured about it – these days I write from 6 to 8 and then, if I don’t have other work I write during the baby’s naptime – 2.30-4.00.

4. Who are you reading now? 

Rupert Sheldrake. He is a scientist, parapsychologist and biologist. I’m reading one of his earlier texts The Presence of the Past– very, very slowly.

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

I hate this question because I know I am leaving something important out. Some of the books I love I think I would find fault with now, but I retain a real love for. Some of them I haven’t reread since I was a teenager; Women in Love, for example, or East of Eden, but I love them because I discovered something new in them, or I understood ideas that I had never considered before; that makes me feel alive; to thinks something new, or consider a vantage point for the first time.

I love To The Lighthouse for a number of reasons; I remember reading it at 14 and being overwhelmed with concepts I couldn’t articulate but could grasp through Woolf’s work nonetheless. I think that is the real work of writing; and I think the bravery of her insight and her vision is something chillingly admirable. The Handmaid’s Tale is another one; I think Atwood has an immense capacity to make strange experience familiar; an incredible, compassionate but searing understanding of the human mind. I loved Oscar and Lucinda similar reasons, though it is a very different book…

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

It’s something I am pretty bad at. I don’t have a website or anything like that. I feel like I need all the spare time I can get for writing, and that there is no point ‘building a platform’ unless there is something to put on it. That said, I sometimes go to publicity things that I am invited to, if I am in the area anyway, and if they don’t sound too painful, because I’m afraid no one will read what I write otherwise, but it is usually hard to gauge how necessary they are. I am answering these questions, for example, because it is something that I can do quickly and easily, but usually the time that goes into these things feels quite wasteful. I don’t have enough time to write as it is, so I tend to resent publicity things. If I had more time I’d be all for it!

7.What is a typical day like for you? 

This is boring, but I will go through it step by step:

Weekdays I wake up at six and make some coffee, then I get back into bed with my laptop, or sit at my desk and write until 8.00. Then I get the kids up and ready for school, make breakfast, dress the baby etc. I spend the morning with my two year old, in the vegetable garden, or cooking and doing housework, except two mornings a week, when he goes to crèche and I work as a copy editor and proofreader. The kids come home from 12.00-1.30 and we have lunch together. Then they are back at school until 4.30. The baby has his nap in the afternoon and I write some more, or, if I still have ‘money work’ to get finished I do that. When the kids come home we do a bit of gardening, usually, music lessons and homework, then dinner, a story, and bed. In the evening I am too tired to work. I read and have a bath and watch tv with my partner. This is a vague outline. In reality it is far less organised than this and my partner and I sort of take turns taking days off to write or work to deadlines.

8. Describe your dream writing space? 

I don’t have one. It depends what I’m writing and at what stage. Sometimes a cafe is the best place, sometimes bed or a desk. I wrote a lot of my first novel while working as a receptionist in a posh B and B. I had a secret file on the computer and used to minimise it whenever my boss came in… It really depends.

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

A fellow first time novelist said my prose was clunky. She also quoted dialogue as though it was my own description… I didn’t mind that because it was sort of invalid, but the clunky prose bit was really difficult to take. I think good prose is basically instinct so it really left me floored. The first thing I did was look her up to see what her credentials were. I hoped she’d be a bad writer herself (because then maybe she was jealous… or didn’t get it?)but in fact she seemed pretty well placed to critique me and had only rave reviews behind her own work…so I reacted by looking up good reviews I had received! I found it hard to write for a few days (everything clunked) but then I just forgot about it because short of stop writing that’s all I can do.

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

Figure out why you want to write and whether it is worth it.


Born in 1982, Elske Rahill graduated from Trinity College Dublin with an M.Phil in Creative Writing and Gender and Women’s Studies. As an actor she appeared in the Abbey and Gate theatres. Author of the plays After Opium (2003) and How to Be Loved (2008), she is currently working on a short story collection. Her stories ‘Manners’ (2011) and ‘Bride’ (2012) were published in The Dublin Review.

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September 19, 2014
by Andi

Fight For the Life You Love

In just a few hours, I will be back on the road and over the Appalachians to my home.  I ache to be there.   And that’s new for me.

For many parts of my life, my times away were my favorites – they were the times when I felt most alive, most rested, most me.  Part of that feeling came because I was younger and had more energy as well as a stronger drive to be “on the move.”  And some of my desire to be “away” came from some quiet but deep unhappiness about something in my life – where I lived, who I loved, etc.

But now, now, I take great joy in going home – and being home.  I have a man in my life who loves and supports me in just the right way and who I take joy in loving.  I have animals I adore, who show joy at my very breath.  I have a lifestyle that allows me to spend almost every hour of every day doing something I love.  My father is near, and dear friends are close – by car or by phone.  It’s a good life.

And it’s one I’ve fought to have for a long time.  So today, as I pack my bags and hope I can finish Outlander on the ride home, I offer you this encouragement:

Fight for the life you want.  Every day.  In every way.  Fight to do the work you love. Fight to be with the people who love you unconditionally and who you love in the same way. Fight to live in a space that lets your lungs open up like wings. Fight until you wake up every day ready to face whatever comes because you know you have chosen it.  Fight, dear ones.  Fight.

What life are you fighting for?  I’d love to hear about it.


Many thanks to all the incredible people who hosted my time here in Ohio.  I have had a wonderful, rewarding trip . . . . and I’m glad to have met all of you. 

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September 18, 2014
by Andi

Meeting Lucy Skipwith’s Great-Great Granddaughter

We sat in our booth for four hours.  And we didn’t stop talking the whole time.  Our conversation ranged from racism to history to dating to professional athletes and the lenience they are given for violence.

Skipwith Descendants

Carol, her mother Mattie, and her daughter Samira.

It was a holy night.

Last evening, Carol and I met for the first time at a restaurant in Cleveland’s Warehouse District, and I know I have a lifelong friend and confidante already.

This could, of course, happen between any two people – a phone call of introduction, a decision to have dinner while I’m in town, an immediate connection that feels perfect and special. But for me, my new friendship with Carol is particularly amazing because she is the descendant of Lucy Skipwith, a woman who was enslaved at Bremo, a woman who became a schoolteacher, a woman who was Carol’s great-great grandmother.

So on top of the powerful beauty and wisdom that Carol brings to our friendship, she also brings me Lucy – in her genes, in her living, in her very breath – and I am honored beyond words to call her my friend.

Much of our conversation I will hold close – precious, mine to treasure.  The words of a friendship just new but already deep.  But some I will also carry forth – with Carol’s approval – as she and I find a way together to share the history of slavery – a white woman and a black woman – hand in hand to heal ourselves and to offer the hope of healing to other people we meet.  It’s sacred work.

On this book tour, I have met incredible people – including Rebekah who has an idea for a book series with her friends, an idea that sounds really promising and who shared the book she is currently reading with me – Passages: The Marus Manuscripts, and Susan, a farmer friend working through the life of parenting and raising animals and writing, a kindred wanderer.

But it is Carol I will open the widest space in my heart for – because she has given me part of myself with her ancestry but also with her passion and her honesty and her courage – her profound, seemingly endless courage.

My love to you, dear friend.  Thank you for being alive, Carol. Thank you for surviving true horror, Lucy, so that I could know your granddaughter.


To read more about Carol’s family story, please see this article - the article that helped me find Carol – from the Plain Dealer.


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