Stories that Inspire and Amaze

This spring I had the opportunity to interview a number of amazing Spartan scientists. Among them:

Finding One's Way: Proprioception and Biological Research: How do we use sensory information to move, balance, and position ourselves? Associate Professor of Biological Sciences Katherine Wilkinson developed a neurophysiology lab at SJSU to explore how and why the human body interacts with the world around us.

Solving DNA Puzzles, One Worm at a Time: How do neurons transmit messages throughout the body? How are memories formed? Miri VanHoven’s neurogenetics lab at San Jose State explores big questions.

Geology From the Ground Up: SJSU Assistant Professor of Geology Kim Blisniuk explores how geologists measure seismicity and communicate earthquake risk to the communities that could one day be affected.

Evan Low’s American Dream: Evan Low, ’03 Political Science, was the youngest openly gay mayor of an American city.

Fire, Water and Spirit

This year, I’ve gotten the opportunity to write about wildfire researchers, stem cell scientists, pioneering STEM educators, a MacArthur genius, and the first woman to receive tenure in SJSU’s chemistry department—to name a few.

I will never look at a forest the same, thanks to the expertise and wisdom of SJSU’s Associate Professor of Meteorology and Climate Science Craig Clements. He shared his experience collecting data 100 feet from the plumes outside Paradise in November 2018, accompanied by an undergraduate and a graduate student researcher. Check out our spring/summer feature “On Fire” to learn more.

Sculptor and artist Titus Kaphar sees art as an opportunity to shed light on history—and to examine and challenge commonly accepted narratives. The founder of a collaborative artist space in New Haven, Kaphar is a true visionary.

What exactly is STEM education and why does it matter? I had the chance to interview a number of teachers at San Jose’s AdVENTURE STEM middle school, as well as the dean of SJSU’s Connie L. Lurie College of Education, chemistry professor Lionel Cheruzel, and Intel’s Rita Holiday. Read more on Washington Square.

SJSU alumnus Marc Slattery studies how the chemistry of marine invertebrates could help scientists understand how to develop drugs. The professor of pharmacognosy and environmental toxicology at the University of Mississippi was awarded the 2018 Distinguished Research and Creative Achievement in recognition of his work.

The Stem Cell Internships and Laboratory-Based Learning program at San Jose State offers graduate students experience in stem cell research labs while they pursue their degrees, preparing them for competitive careers in academia, biotech or research.

In March 2019 I had the opportunity to meet pioneering professor/scientist Ruth Yaffe, who started teaching in SJSU’s chemistry department in 1957, later becoming the first tenured woman professor in the department. A pioneering chemist with a love for Great Danes, it was a pleasure to learn more about her.

Inspiring Spartans

Every day I feel grateful for the opportunity to tell the stories of Spartans, alumni and faculty of San Jose State University. It has always been my dream to make a living writing meaningful stories, and this semester is no different. I’m proud to share a few of the recent profiles that have been published on Washington Square, SJSU’s alumni magazine blog.

Kinesiology Professor Shirley Reekie first hopped aboard her father’s sailboat at age two, inspiring a career in athletics and sport history. This Spartan women in sports story shares her connection to Margaret Jenkins, SJSU’s first Olympian.

Wayne Merry, ’59 Conservation, was one of the first rock climbers to summit El Capitan.

Photographer Dan Fenstermacher, ’16 MFA Photography, traveled to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria to capture the stories of survivors.

Theatre Arts Professor Buddy Butler believes his productions can engage young audiences in complex issues and inspire thoughtful dialogue.

Spartan swimmer Lisa Covey Peters, ’07 Physics, leads an exciting career as a systems engineer at Lockheed Martin.

Gymnast Shanice Howard was named the 2011 Arthur Ashe Jr. Female Sports Scholar of the Year and went on to become a physical therapist.

Agnieszka Winkler launched and led one of Silicon Valley’s most successful independent advertising agencies in an era when she was often “the only woman in the room.”

Big thanks to all of these amazing people for sharing their stories with me, and to the designers and photographers who made these stories come to life. Coming this spring: a special series on science research at SJSU. Stay tuned!

Silicon Valley Arts Emerging Artist Sample, 2018

I am applying for the 2018 Emerging Artist Award, sponsored by Content Magazine and Silicon Valley Creates. My writing sample includes text from two published magazine pieces (“The Women of the Olympic Project for Human Rights” and “Throwing Convention: Margaret Jenkins, ‘25 Education”) and “The Bridge,” a fiction piece that is excerpted from my novel-in-progress. This excerpt won the 2018 Mendocino Coast Writers Conference writing contest in the novel category, as judged by Shanthi Sekaran, and will be published in the 2019 Noyo River Review.

I believe this sample is representative of my literary voice, both in nonfiction and fiction.

Please click here to access it.

Thank you for considering my work. And, in the off chance that someone finds this who is not on the jury for the Emerging Artist award, I hope you enjoy my work.

The Olympic Project for Human Rights, 50 Years Later

I’ve had the opportunity to write for a number of universities over the years, but what makes San Jose State University stand out is its legacy of social justice. I’ve been privileged enough to devote my last few months to interviewing a number of alumni who were involved in the civil rights movement at SJSU 50 years ago. I pursued each of these stories because I believe now, more than ever, it is critical to elevate voices of American change, especially those who have benefited communities of color, first-generation college students and the women and men who go on to inspire future generations of change-makers.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Mexico City Olympics, in which Spartan athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their gloved fists on the medal stand in a civil rights salute. As members of SJSU’s Olympic Project for Human Rights, spearheaded by Harry Edwards and Ken Noel, their lives and stories have been well documented over the past five decades. This made me wonder: what about the women of the OPHR? Who were they and how did they contribute? What did they go on to do?

While pursuing this story, I had the pleasure and honor of learning from Sandra Edwards, Mary Noel and Gayle Boze Knowles, three alumnae who volunteered with the movement. Together with their friend Rochelle Duff Davis, they distributed OPHR material at track events, managed correspondence and helped spread word of the movement on campus and beyond. All four of them went on to become teachers, principals and educators. Coincidence? I think not. Learn more about these amazing women at Washington Square.

I spent a few months researching the history of SJSU’s Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), which was one of the first such programs in the state. I am grateful to S.T. Saffold, Debra Griffith, Judge Robert Rigsby, Erika Cortes, Gabriel Reyes, Humberto Garza, Teresa de la Cruz, and countless others for sharing their experiences with me. You can read all about the history and future of SJSU’s EOP on Washington Square.

In early June I had the opportunity to spend a few hours with Mary and Ken Noel, educators and activists who devoted their years at San Jose State to recruiting and supporting first-generation black college students. Ken co-founded the United Black Students for Action with Harry Edwards, and later the Olympic Project for Human Rights. Mary became a teacher, principal and school board member, and to this day the couple remains dedicated to supporting education. I was compelled to write both a profile on Mary and a story on Ken.

San Jose State will be recognizing the 50th anniversary of the famous Mexico City salute with a special town hall sponsored by the Institute for the Study of Sport, Society and Social Change. Harry Edwards, Tommie Smith, and John Carlos will be joined by Wyomia Tyus, as well as two of the Olympic rowers who supported the OPHR at Mexico City, Nate Boyer, the Green Beret who has supported Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest, and a number of journalists and academics. I’m grateful to work at a university that supports a productive conversation around civil rights, and even more excited that I’ve gotten the chance to learn from a number of these people firsthand.

MCWC Writing Contest

Last week I attended the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference. It was--in a word--glorious. Boosted by the support of a scholarship and the encouragement of my employer, I was grateful for the opportunity to be surrounded by writers and readers for four days in a beautiful place. It had been three years since I had been anywhere by myself, and just as long since I had the chance to focus wholeheartedly on fiction. I was attracted to the conference because of the support it offered, the faculty it attracted, and the community of writers it promised. It did not disappoint.

I was lucky to attend a novel writing workshop with Shanthi Sekaran, author of Lucky Boy and The Prayer Room. I read Lucky Boy last year and was completely blown open by its characters, its attention to detail, its keen observations on life in 21st century America. I was excited to have her read my work and get some constructive criticism to keep my literary brain whirring.


Another great perk of MCWC is that the organization hosts its own writing contest. On a whim I submitted "The Bridge," a short story excerpted from my manuscript-in-progress, Foreigner. I was startled to learn a few weeks later that the piece had won first prize--and that the contest had been judged by Sekaran herself. I received the following email while planning out daycare and work coverage for the days I'd be gone:

"Reading The Bridge, I found myself enthralled and then shocked by its small band of children. With deft and lively prose, the author coaxed me into the narrative, much like the stray cat at its center, only to horrify me with news of what these seemingly lovely children were going to do to said cat. After reading the excerpt, I wanted to know more of the children, to be pulled into their world. That hunger is the clearest sign of an excellent beginning."

I have since printed this out and taped it to my wall at work. A reminder that fiction matters--that no matter how ploddingly slow it is to finish a book, there is value in exploring the ideas that intrigue us. 

L-R: Writers Jamie Moore, me, Shanthi Sekaran, Mairead Brodie and Vanessa Hua. Taken at the Hill House Inn in Mendocino.

L-R: Writers Jamie Moore, me, Shanthi Sekaran, Mairead Brodie and Vanessa Hua. Taken at the Hill House Inn in Mendocino.

All in all, the days blurred by in a series of workshops, faculty readings and events. I feel as if I have been given new life. When my daughter was born, writing fiction seemed like such a luxury--such an indulgence. But I am motivated to finish this book, if anything so I can talk about it with her someday, and hear what she thinks of the worlds we create and the worlds we reflect.




POW Presents Nostalgia-rama: August 27 at Dragon Theatre

This summer Play On Words is proud to present Nostalgia-rama, a special evening of staged readings of some of your favorite sitcoms and children's programming (mostly) from the 80's and 90's, performed by the (former) children of the 80's and 90's. If you're a fan of Cheers, Wishbone, Tales from the Crypt, and everyone's favorite rerun, The Twilight Zone, you won't want to miss out. RSVP on Facebook or check out our website for more details.


Washington Square Spring/Summer 2018: The movement toward equity

I was delighted to contribute to the spring/summer 2018 issue of Washington Square, San Jose State University's alumni magazine. The theme this spring was moving toward equity. San Jose State has quite the legacy of social justice and it was an honor to explore some of these topics with notable alumni, faculty and community members. I enjoyed writing a feature on SJSU's first Olympian, Margaret Jenkins, as well as profiles of alumna and speech pathologist Dr. Pamela Wiley, who developed a program that pairs young men with autism with law enforcement. I also learned a lot from SJSU Physics and Astronomy Professor Peter Beyersdorf, whose research on black holes contributed to a major discovery in 2015. Dr. Marilyn Easter of SJSU's Lucas College and Graduate School of Business has developed an amazing program for undergrads called Generation of Aspirational Learners--it was a pleasure chatting with her as well.

Other notable features written by fellow contributors include a great piece on the Silicon Valley housing crisis and an exploration of the impact of movements such as #MeToo, #TimesUp, #BlackLivesMatter and #NeverAgain.

I learn from every issue we create and from every person I interview. I hope their stories inspire.

Women in sport

This year I've enjoyed the incredible privilege of interviewing a number of woman athletes who graduated from San Jose State University. Over the past several months I have sought out women of different generations who have competed at the collegiate, national, Olympic and professional levels--women who have created opportunities for subsequent generations before, during and after the passage of Title IX. I'm proud to share their stories:

Margaret Jenkins, '25 Education, threw discus in the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam as a member of the first women's track and field team representing the United States. She pitched for her high school baseball team, which lost only one game, participated in two Olympic Games, collected more than 100 medals throughout her career and was inducted into three halls of fame before her death in 1996 at age 92. Read her story here.

"Small acts of defiance make change," says Carolyn Lewis, '70 Kinesiology, '70 Teaching Credential. The four-sport collegiate athlete became a coach and athletics administrator and helped create SJSU's Gender Equity Plan. Read her story here.

Record-setting gymnast Thomasina Wallace, '12 Kinesiology, says "20 percent of the sport is talent and 80 percent is how mentally prepared are you to perform your routines while others are judging you." Read her story here.

SJSU alumna and LPGA golfer Tracy Hanson supports athletes who face significant obstacles, including abuse and performance acceptance, in their pursuit of sport. Read her story here.

"To see women perform at high levels, and to hear those women speak and present themselves, I think changes a lot of people's opinions and outlook on women," says Gay MacLellan, '83 MA Kinesiology. Read her story here.

"Sport is a great equalizer," says Dana Dormann, '90 Finance. Now associate head coach of SJSU's women's golf team, Dormann competed on the team that took Spartan golf to victory in the 1987 NCAA Championships. Read her story here

"I came from a family that didn't put any boundaries on gender," says two-time Olympic medalist swimmer Lynn Vidali Gautschi '76 Kinesiology, '77 Teaching Credential. "I had no idea that only 25 percent of women in the United States were in sports at that time. Read her story here.

Olympic medalist Marti Malloy, '10 Advertising, '15 MS Mass Communications, says training with legendary judo coach and @SJSU alumnus Yoshihiro Uchida gave herperspective on social justice in athletics -- and helped her dismiss stereotypes about women in sports. Read her story here.

Champion fencer Stacey Johnson, '80 Public Relations, has made it her mission to “speak actively for women.” As the first woman president to hold a four-year term as president of the U.S. Fencing Association, it is thanks in part to her efforts that women fencers could finally compete in all three disciplines of the sport at the Olympic level. Read her story here.

I feel incredibly lucky to meet and learn from such talented and hardworking individuals here at San Jose State. I hope this is just the beginning! 

Mendocino, here I come!

I'm delighted to share that I've been awarded the Byerley Memorial Scholarship to attend the 2018 Mendocino Coast Writers Conference. I am beyond excited to attend a novel workshop with the amazing Shanthi Sekaran, a fiction writer whose novel Lucky Boy left an indelible impression on me. I also cannot wait to return to the beautiful north coast, which Ryan and I visited for the first time shortly after Christmas. There is something about that wide open sky and the rugged cliffs along the water that make anything feel possible.











Many, many thanks to the kind folks at MCWC for making this possible for me. For the first time since having my daughter I feel ready to rework my novel--to call out characters who have lived inside me for more than a decade. I can't wait to see what this brings.

Activists Unite on January 17

Play On Words is kicking off 2018 with a special show, Activists Unite, at Cafe Stritch on January 17.  In summer 2017, we partnered with San Jose’s Flash Fiction Forum, along with writer and professor Maria Judnick, and graphic designer, artist and writer Peter Caravalho, to create Activate, our activist chapbook. We are delighted to read selections from the forthcoming book at our January show. Hope to see you there!


Washington Square: Fall/Winter 2017

I'd like to share links to San Jose State University's alumni magazine, Washington Square.

This fall's theme is health and innovation. Check out great articles about the future of mobile health, our San Jose State of Healthcare feature, or my profile of SJSU's first woman athletic director, the multitalented Marie Tuite. I was also delighted to chat with the fabulous Netta Conyers-Haynes, who is now Facebook's head of internal communications for North America, Matthew "Levee" Chavez, creator of Subway Therapy, and packaging professor Fritz Yambrach, creator of the Fritz Water Vest. I like to think that microbiology professor Cleber Ouverney is SJSU's Bill Nye, especially if you read up on his year spent in the Amazon rainforest

Spartan up, my friends, Spartan up!

Introducing the POWer Half Hour


I'm a diehard podcast nerd--been listening since 2004, when a friend showed me how to download the Dawn and Drew Show on my desktop iTunes. For years I've listened to NPR, developed a passion for all things MaxFun, discovered my favorite comedians, heard my favorite writers discuss their work, learned important lessons about how to be an intersectional feminist and activist...this is why it is no small thing to see Play On Words on iTunes. We have a podcast now, thanks to Ryan Alpers' mad skills! We are introducing our first 10-episode season this fall. This is a real thing and it gives me hope.

Find us on Soundcloud and iTunes! Our first episode features an interview with writer and teacher Andrew Christian. 

Parents Who Write: April Halprin Wayland

In my family, writing is essential. Growing up, my love for writing was inspired in large parts by the women I grew up around: my mother Lyra Halprin, whose background as a journalist led to a successful career as a public information specialist for UC Davis, while she simultaneously produced stories for television, radio and print, and my aunt April Halprin Wayland, who for as long as I knew her, was a walking, talking whirlwind of poems and stories, songs and books. From both of these women I inherited a deep respect and awe for writers and artists; to be a Halprin woman was in large parts to be an artist. I still feel that way, which is why my daughter's middle name is Halprin.

My aunt April's career as a children's book author, poet and activist kicked into high gear when I was a small child, so I got to witness the joy of her booksignings, school lectures and public events. For years she would come to my school to talk to kids about the writing process. (I'll never forget the way she compared writing to cooking, telling us to let things "Simmer, boil and cook.") She's garnered critical acclaim for her books, which include To Rabbittown, Nighthorse, It's Not My Turn to Look for Grandma, Girl Coming in For a Landing, New Year at the Pier, and most recently, More Than Enough. She's traveled the world meeting writers and writing students and founded Authors and Illustrators for Children, an organization which unites writers around political causes that benefit kids. 

I called my aunt on a Sunday afternoon shortly after my daughter's first birthday, happy but also exhausted from juggling chores, full-time work, volunteer work, and the day-to-day joys and challenges of living with a small person with a big personality. I'll never forget the relief I felt just hearing about April's experiences as a young writer and parent. 

Thanks to April for answering my questions for today's installment of Parents Who Write.


April Halprin Wayland

April Halprin Wayland

· Name:

April Halprin Wayland

· How many children do you have? How old are they?

I have one; he’s twenty-frickin'-eight.

· How many hats do you wear in your household? I.e. how many gigs do you have?

My jobs:

write a poem every day,
teach writing,
blog about writing on,
take care of my books (PR, conferences, etc),
make our home a place of peace and comfort,
move our country in a positive direction,
be kind. 

Also walk the dog.

My husband's jobs (according to him):
feed the fish
make money.

When our son was growing up, one of my jobs was to make sure he ate healthy. He did.

· How long have you been a writer?

My first published book, To Rabbittown (Scholastic) came out in 1989, but I wrote and illustrated (in pencil) my very first book in second grade. Clothing Through the Ages began with cave people wearing furry coats; next you see women in colonial gowns, then flappers with shorter skirts, then mini-skirts. In the final spread, everyone is naked. I wrote a sequel, Hair Through the Ages. 

· Tell me about your relationship to writing before you had children.

In the last stages of my corporate life, I was a round peg in square hole; I was very unhappy. I looked around the company for a role model. I asked a colleague what she did to stay happy; she said she took lots of classes. So I took a class in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program on writing for children. As soon as I started taking that class—BAM!—men at construction sites who never noticed me before whistled as I walked past, though nothing else had changed. I was alive—I was soaring!

When I quit my corporate job, I committed to being a full-time writer. I was 30. I joined a group of artists, musicians, architects, dancers, actors, etc. who met to talk about doing our art. That was the first time I said aloud, "I’m a children’s book writer." I wore pinafores (!) thinking that was probably the uniform children's book writers wore.

I was determined, passionate and ambitious. I was a learner. I went to conferences. I took a master class in writing poetry for children from a brilliant teacher for 12 years. I joined three critique groups (Yikes. That would make my head spin today).

I was thrilled to get up each day to write. Somewhere along the way, though (after my son went to college) that joy morphed into a grayness. It was a hard job. It was a lonely profession. Something had to change.

So in 2010, I began writing a poem every day, no matter what. I sent it (and still do) to my best friend, who is also a children's author and poet. He, in turn, sends me a poem every day. I felt alive again.

I loved (and still love) the people in my field. I loved saying that I’m a children’s book writer; it gets a nice response at a cocktail party. I saw that that as part of my paycheck. Still do.

· How did you expect parenthood to impact your writing? Did it?

We didn't expect parenthood to impact us at all. We thought you could just put your kid on your back and do everything you usually did. I hadn't a clue how things would change.

When I was pregnant, my poetry teacher commented that every poem I wrote was about a blooming flower, a fruiting tree. I didn’t see how wrapped up I was in creating a child.

My son was born in 1989, and that’s when my first book was published. I was 9 months pregnant and—OMG!—I was autographing a book!

I didn't write much as a new mother. A writer who worked at our local bookstore brought me to my senses. “If I were you, I'd hire a babysitter a few hours a week; my writing is worth that.”

I loved my writing time when I did finally hire a regular babysitter. And yet...there was an inner tug-of-war when I had to leave to speak or teach and the sitter got to stay home and take our son to the park. Why couldn't I pay her to go speak so I could stay home?

· Have you shared your writing with your children? If not, do you plan to someday?

Yes. When my son was in elementary school, I would ask him to read some rough drafts. Does this ending work? He’d say, not really, or what if…? Both he and my husband were brutally honest with me. I can't always tell if my stories are delightfully off-the-wall or completely incomprehensible.

· What piece of culture are you obsessed with right now? 

I am crazy about audiobooks. Now I’m listening to My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She's Sorry by Fredrik Backman. I just finished Girl on the Train. I loved Each Little Bird That Sings, a middle grade novel by Deborah Wiles and a library-full of others.

·  Is there a poem, short story, novel or play that you return to when you are stuck in your writing?

Harold and the Purple Crayon, written and illustrated by Crocket Johnson, hands down. Although I have many favorite teen, middle-grade and picture books, Harold and the Purple Crayon is my all-time favorite. Why? When Harold falls into the ocean and is drowning, he comes up thinking fast—and draws a boat with his purple crayon. It's a story about being resourceful. Whatever you need is already inside you.


Learn more about April at

If you are a parent who writes and would like to share your experience with me, please reach out. I'd love to hear from you. 



Parents Who Write: Melissa Yancy

There are some characters, some voices, that stick with you, even years later. I'll never forget Boris, the unlikable-yet-somehow-affable character in a story by Melissa Yancy, a writer I met in 2015 at Lit Camp, a writing workshop in Calistoga. The story connected the dots between organ donors in a long chain--itself a fascinating premise--and revealed a wry, poignant and fresh voice. It didn't surprise me to see Boris appear a year later in her debut story collection, Dog Years. To say that 2016 was a big year for Melissa would be to diminish her accomplishments: In addition to winning the 2016 Drue Heinz Literature Prize, the book was a finalist for the California Book Award and longlisted for The Story Prize. And she won an NEA Fellowship. That--and she had her first son. While working full-time. No big deal.

I truly admire Melissa's work ethic and killer voice--and am grateful she found time to answer my questions about writing and parenthood.

Melissa Yancy, author of  Dog Years

Melissa Yancy, author of Dog Years

•Name: Melissa Yancy

•How many children do you have? How old are they?

A son who recently turned one.

We also have two pugs, and when those two get going, they can feel like children. (Except I can leave them at home unsupervised all day.)

•How many hats do you wear in your household? I.e. how many gigs do you have?

I have a full-time senior level job as a fundraiser with an unfortunate 2 ½ hour round-trip commute. Then there’s writing, of course, and currently, book promotion, too. When I get home I try to have some playtime with bebé and then do the nighttime routine—dinner, bath, book, etc. with him. We are also a little obsessive in our household about tidiness, and we live in a modern, too-white house, so there is a lot of cleaning. Writers and new mothers are often given the same advice about letting the house go, but I might as well have a Mr. Clean magic eraser on a lanyard around my neck. I have a fantasy we’re going to move to a rustic, worn-in house and that’s going to allow us to be less particular. One hat I’m not wearing much right now is cook. My wife’s been doing the grocery shopping and cooking, so I’m happy about that.

•How long have you been a writer?

Since grade school. I’ve been in workshops and whatnot for 22 years.

•Tell me about your relationship to writing before you had children.

I recently found an old to-do list in the 1999 O’Henry Awards. Like every to-do list I have ever made, it was basically me berating myself to wake up earlier! write more! and exercise more! This list also commanded I “fix the stove,” which I’m guessing is the only thing I accomplished. I’ve always had a difficult relationship with my own (perceived) lack of discipline. I have a beef with myself about not writing enough, even now, when I have virtually no time. But on the other hand, I’ve come to realize how dogged I am, how persistent. I may not be the workhorse I’ve always wanted to be, but I also don’t know to quit. I’m finally coming to a place where I at least respect myself for that.

•How did you expect parenthood to impact your writing? Did it?

I expected it could make me a better writer in the long-term (that remains to be seen!) but I suppose I also had the small fear that being fulfilled creatively in this other way would make me lose interest in writing, even temporarily. I’ve seen a lot of people lose interest in writing when they’ve become more fulfilled in some other aspect of their lives. That hasn’t happened. Perhaps having a lot going on in my writing life during the first year of parenting has made the parenting even more joyful. I miss my son terribly when I’m away, but I may have avoided the terror about loss of self that parenting can bring. I’ve been forced, through travel and interviews, to maintain that old self. One challenge for me lately is that I’ll contemplate another child, but it’s taken me twenty years to get my writing “career” to where it is now, and this is the time I should capitalize on that. There are practical considerations—I have a residency I can use next spring, and I really need that time for this novel. But can I really take a month? That seems insane. Two weeks, maybe. I’m constantly angling for some kind of solution . . . if I consult instead of working full-time, if I teach, if I buy some income property (ha!). My brain never stops imagining some alternate universe where I fit all the pieces together more artfully.

I’m curious to see if being a parent changes my writing about parenthood. There’s a lot about parenting in Dog Years, pre-parent.

•Have you shared your writing with your children? If not, do you plan to someday?

Right now, sharing it with him would mean allowing him to eat the paper. I should be so lucky to have a kid who has any interest in reading anything I write. If I ever get to that point, yippee. I’ll be delighted if he likes to read, period.

•Is there a poem, short story, novel or play that you return to when you are stuck in your writing?

There are so many—here are a few:

Lorrie Moore – “You’re Ugly, Too”

Melanie Rae Thon – “First, Body”

Mary Gordon – “City Life”

Nam Le – “Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice”

Rebecca Lee – “Bobcat”

Stuart Dybek – “Paper Lantern”

Marisa Silver – “Pond”

Mary Gaitskill – Don’t Cry and Veronica

Michael Cunningham, The Hours

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

J.D. Salinger, Franny & Zooey

There are also those writers I go to as tuning for different moods: Kazuo Ishiguro, Banana Yoshimoto, Junot Díaz, George Saunders. But I risk bad imitations if I’m not careful.

•How has your approach to the artistic process changed since becoming a parent? (If it has?)

I’d like to think I had already given up being precious about it long before (I can and do write in twenty minutes stretches) but now I have to be even less precious, if that’s possible. One downside of having little time (which pre-dates baby) is that I’ve become focused on efficiency. I don’t like to waste time on projects that won’t work out, and so I don’t give myself permission to fail. It’s especially a challenge for novels. Failure is so important. But failure takes time.

•What piece of culture are you obsessed with right now? (i.e. music, film, book, podcast, etc.)

God, with all this binge-watching now available, my obsessions are so sadly short-lived. (Westworld feels like a lifetime ago). I’m excited for Jon Ronson’s new podcast The Butterfly Effect. I’m obsessed with the way Jon Ronson is obsessed with everything, and his voice is just so . . . funny to me. I’m also eagerly awaiting the Bladerunner sequel. Bladerunner is my favorite movie, so if they screw this up, god help them. One show that’s not that hyped but that I’m finding consistently good is Bosch, based on the Michael Connelly novels. I wish they’d bring The Knick back. I wish Luther hadn’t had so few episodes. I was pretty obsessed with the Leah Remini Scientology show. And I do read books now and again. I read all the Neapolitan novels on maternity leave, and now have Christa Wolf’s The Quest for Christa T., on my nightstand, which is supposed to be a Ferrante influence. I went through a phase where I was looking for “lost hits” or one-hit wonders after I read Julie Hayden’s Lists of the Pasts (which I discovered through Lorrie Moore’s New Yorker podcast reading of “Day-Old Baby Rats.”) I read Chocolates for Breakfast by Pamela Moore then Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles (still in progress, perhaps forever) then A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin. I guess that means Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins should be up next.

•Do you have any projects or publications you’d like to tell me about? Or goals for future projects/publications?

My goal is to not self-sabotage the next novel. To try, against all my instincts, to keep it simple.

Melissa and her son

Melissa and her son

Thanks for answering my questions, Melissa! Congratulations on being an overall badass.

Parents Who Write: Melanie Unruh

You know those writers you meet at a young age whose work you follow for years? Melanie Unruh is a writer I met in 2005, when we were both undergraduates studying abroad in Granada, Spain. I've always felt a certain kinship with artists that I meet while traveling: When we gravitate beyond what is comfortable, when we take in the world in all its glory and messiness, there's usually room for a great story. Melanie's work is vibrant and raw, real and well-crafted. She completed an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of New Mexico and has a young son. I'm inspired by her work and her clear ability to juggle. Thanks for being game to answer my questions, Melanie! And now, our latest conversation about parents who write:

Melanie Unruh is a writer in New Mexico.

Melanie Unruh is a writer in New Mexico.

Name (or pen name): Melanie Unruh

How many children do you have? How old are they? I have one son, who is 2.5 years old.

How many hats do you wear in your household? I.e. how many gigs do you have? 

I’m an adjunct writing instructor at a community college; I’m enrolled in school part-time; I’m the primary caregiver for my son; I do a lot of the household duties because my husband works long hours; and a friend and I have been dabbling with starting our own business. In my free time, I try to write and work out and, you know, be a person. Maybe that’s a lot? I think most of us wear numerous hats!

How long have you been a writer?

It’s hard to pin down a date, so let’s say forever? My first real memory of considering myself a writer was after I wrote a short story for a class in 8th grade. My teacher and the student teacher working with her had me convinced I was going to write novels. I’m glad they said this because it motivated me to pursue writing fairly early, but looking back the story was terrible (The main character was a young girl who rode around on a horse named Rocket… in the 1800s…).

Tell me about your relationship to writing before you had children.

I don’t want to say that I took writing for granted before I had my son, but in a way, I did. I had a dedicated home office, and when I wasn’t working, I could pick and choose when to write. Although it’s hard to find as much time now, I do think I appreciate those moments I can dedicate to myself and to my writing more. 

How did you expect parenthood to impact your writing? Did it? 

I knew things would change; however, it’s easy to idealize in your head, “Oh, I’ll write while the baby sleeps on me” and then you’re so exhausted and one of your arms is pinned down by his head, so you just end up on your phone pinning recipes you’ll never make. Now that my son is older and a good sleeper, finding time (and arms!) is a little easier. 

Have you shared your writing with your children? If not, do you plan to someday?

I haven’t yet. I wonder if he’ll have an interest or if he’ll just think it’s weird (especially the sex scenes…). But I’ll be open to sharing anything he wants to read when he's older.

Is there a poem, short story, novel or play that you return to when you are stuck in your writing?

When I get stuck, I often re-read the beginning of Janet Fitch’s novel White Oleander. It’s the perfect marriage of plot and prose. Her writing style is gorgeous and it always compels me to try harder.

How has your approach to the artistic process changed since becoming a parent? (If it has?)

I tend to let things sit longer. Before I would be actively juggling multiple projects, but now I might have one or two pieces I’m working on, while the others stay dormant for months, if not years, at a time.

What piece of culture are you obsessed with right now? 

The Handmaid’s Tale has me on the edge of my seat! I finally read the book right before the show came out and I loved it. The show is taking liberties with the source material and expanding upon it, but I’m on board for what they’re doing so far. Movie/TV adaptations of books can be fraught with so many issues, and yet I’m addicted to them (Others I love include Game of ThronesGone GirlThe Girl on the Train, and Me Before You). I love seeing the way someone interprets a piece of writing for the screen. 

 Do you have any projects or publications you’d like to tell me about? Or goals for future projects/publications?

I recently had a short story published in Sixfold.

I have one YA novel that I’m submitting and another that I’m revising. Ideally, in the next year or so I’d like to get the second book to a place where I wouldn’t want to hide under a rock for five years if someone read it. 

I’ve also gotten more into nonfiction this year, so I’m working on a couple of essays.

Melanie and I in Granada, spring 2005.

Melanie and I in Granada, spring 2005.

Parents Who Write: Lita Kurth

I first met Lita Kurth in 2014 at Flash Fiction Forum, a monthly submission-based literary series in San Jose that she co-founded and curates with fellow writer Tania Martin. Lita is a Renaissance woman: writer, teacher, community organizer, activist, parent. Her work has been published in Fjords ReviewBrain,ChildMain Street RagTikkunNewVerseNewsBlast Furnaceellipsis…literature and artComposeReduxRaven ChroniclesTattoo HighwayComposite ArtsVerbatim Poetry, the Santa Clara ReviewGyroscope ReviewVermont Literary Review, DNA, and othersShe contributes to,, and

Anyone who knows her knows how successful she is at bringing people together. It is thanks to her and Tania that Play On Words got to perform at Anne and Mark's Art Party last year--a wonderful event. When I knew I wanted to start interviewing writers with children, she was an obvious choice. A million thanks to her for taking time out of her busy day to answer some questions!

Lita Kurth

Lita Kurth

How many children do you have? How old are they?
I have one daughter, Lilyanne, who is eighteen and a freshman in college, away from home, this year.

How many hats do you wear in your household? I.e. how many gigs do you have?
Cleaner, cooker, shopper, maker and planner of holidays, gardener, sender of cards and packages, noticer of things that need repair, clutterer, cat entertainer—and designated political activist. I actually spend a ton of time on political stuff: meetings, writing, info sharing and belong to several organizations dedicated to issues like housing, wage theft, progressive candidates, etc. Any leftover time is spent co-running Flash Fiction Forum, teaching writing workshops in my house and online (I also teach part-time at De Anza College), encouraging other writers and trying to attend as many local literary events as possible. And reading! When something has to give, it’s usually sleep and then my sanity.

How long have you been a writer?
Maybe since my haiku in fourth grade, but definitely since winning fourth prize (and $15 and a plaque!) in an essay contest sponsored by the Rex Rod and Gun Club on the weighty topic: who needs conservation? My brilliant idea was to write it as a poem. Luckily, I only remember one line: “Have you ever seen a forest God has made in all His grace?” I can only imagine what the other entries were like.

Tell me about your relationship to writing before you had children.
I worked full-time and more than full-time as a community college writing teacher before having my daughter. I wrote my first (unpublished) novel in 15-minute increments before running off to teach the first of four daily classes at two or three institutions. Summers I was usually unemployed, but having the entire day was also not good for me as a writer.

When I had my daughter, I actually was able to cut down to part-time work and be a part-time mom. That worked well for me on the whole although middle-class parenthood has metastasized into way more than a full-time job.

How did you expect parenthood to impact your writing? Did it? 
I assumed I’d get virtually nothing written the first year; I wanted to commit myself to motherhood. I was an old mother, however, so I already had a career I liked (even if I had too much of it) and I had a backlog of old writing to work on when I had time. Plus, I enjoyed very much writing about my daughter and motherhood. I published a few things including an essay called “Momnipotence” in Brain Child.

Have you shared your writing with your children? If not, do you plan to someday?
Quite a bit of it. I often ask my daughter and husband to listen to any flash fiction or other work I’m going to perform. They are both excellent editors. I haven’t shared writing about my lowest lows or majorly adult content, however. But I sometimes wonder if my daughter will at all be interested in having my journals one day (assuming the Library of Congress does not contact me about acquiring them).

Is there a poem, short story, novel or play that you return to when you are stuck in your writing?
I wish there were! I read psycho-spiritual books regularly which helps sometimes. I read essays by other writers which helps a lot. I recommend John Steinbeck’s two journals, one he wrote while writingThe Grapes of Wrath and the other while writing East of Eden. I took over responsibility for a Facebook group (not that there’s anything to manage, really) I enjoyed called Paper Our Walls With Rejection Slips II where we faithfully report our failures and rejections in an atmosphere of encouragement and sometimes outrage.

How has your approach to the artistic process changed since becoming a parent? (If it has?)
Parenthood enhanced my community connections and those connections with fellow parents grew into the core of my writing community! Those people and a few others from other segments of my life grew into a web that is both personal and artistic-- and vital to my sense of being part of the South Bay writers’ and artists’ community, a community I am so proud of.

What piece of culture are you obsessed with right now?
Recently, I’ve been obsessed with the way political trauma has expressed itself in the arts (and also the way much of it is not yet finding expression). At this very moment, I’ve been writing a series of extremely unorthodox Lenten reflections and I’m obsessed with the role of women in the Easter story; I’m also obsessed with the deplorable sinking of employee rights and rise of income inequality, the way so many communities are left to struggle, suffer, meet impossible demands, and then get punished. Those thorny human problems concern me greatly and often make their way into my work.

Do you have any projects or publications you’d like to tell me about? Or goals for future projects/publications?
I’m trying to send out my finished but not published novel, The Rosa Luxemburg Exotic Dance Collective. I so deeply hate the process of approaching agents and writing query letters that sometimes I can’t make myself do it though I feel my novel is exactly right for this political moment. I’ve begun yet another novel that’s more personal and deals with the interpersonal struggles that arise in spiritual and political communities as well as the end of a marriage. And I always have a million small projects cooking!

Thanks, Julia, for connecting our communities through your blog.
Thank you, Lita!

Are you a writer who is also a parent? I'd love to hear from you. Feel free to contact me and I'll follow up with some interview questions. 

Parents Who Write: Allison Landa

I am a writer and mother to a 10-month-old girl.
Sometimes I feel like these two identities are in conflict. Other times, they are one and the same. Who are we without our words, without our family? I write every day for work: profiles, interviews, emails, ad copy. And yet, since having my daughter, when I write, my heart is lying awake in the next room. My heart is a bird that flies above her head, an invisible kite that she has tied to her hand. In a recent conversation with my boss, who is also a writer, I realized that I am indeed missing something: my voice. Where did it go?

While I grapple with that question, I decided to turn to a community of writers I know who have children and ask them how they feel. I want to know if becoming a parent impacts the way people write--if it rewires the way we think. The first of my friends to respond is Allison Landa, a wonderful Bay Area writer who I first met in early 2016, when Play On Words performed an excerpt of Not the Madonna. A piece which, interestingly enough, described how she discovered that she was pregnant with her son Baz. 

Allison Landa with her husband Adam and son Baz.

Allison Landa with her husband Adam and son Baz.

How many children do you have? How old are they?
One – Baz Franklin Sandler (AKA Poppy, Bazzy-Ola, D.J. B. Frank). 18 months in age. Eternal in personality. Fleeting in being shorter than me.

How many hats do you wear in your household? I.e. how many gigs do you have?
Oh, my. I range from sports cap to fedora. I’m the bad dishwasher, the reluctant diaper-changer, the dog-wrangler, the husband-lover. Mostly I’m the couch warmer.

How long have you been a writer?
Forever and a day, my friend. Always.

Tell me about your relationship to writing before you had children.
Oh, we were tight. Not necessarily monogamous since I also enjoyed the company of sushi, but writing was always my main man. My bottom bitch. I would rather write than just about anything else. Always.

How did you expect parenthood to impact your writing? Did it? 
Oh yes. Fantastically. For the better than best. I am smarter and sharper in words, more economical with my time, somewhat more disciplined. Honestly, it really has only improved things.

Have you shared your writing with your children? If not, do you plan to someday?
Yes and oh my yes. I’m putting this kid to work. He’s going to be a beta reader if I have to sit on his head to do it. In all seriousness, I want to involve him. I want to hand him a page and say: “Bazzy, what do you think of this?” I don’t want to close off my creativity to him. I want him to be part of it, to understand what Mom does for love and money and questionable morality. And I truly believe he is and will continue to be that part.

Is there a poem, short story, novel or play that you return to when you are stuck in your writing?
 I like quotes. One of my favorites is from E.L. Doctorow: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Another is Miles Davis: “Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.” Another still is Yogi Berra: “I never said most of the things I said.” Or maybe that was Yogi Bear. I forget.

How has your approach to the artistic process changed since becoming a parent? (If it has?)
I’m better able to slow down and take in the meaning of a moment. I’m more confident in remaining in that moment and pulling out its significance, rather than rushing through. I’m also (at least a little) more comfortable with being critiqued, criticized, pulled apart, unjustly disparaged…yeah, I’m still sensitive. Duh.

What piece of culture are you obsessed with right now?
I’m loving Dave Eggers’ Heroes of the Frontier–-it’s SO worth checking out. It’s a gorgeous meditation on so many things, including parenthood, Alaska, and the futility of driving an RV. I want to be this book.

Do you have any projects or publications you’d like to tell me about? Or goals for future projects/publications?
Right now I’m struggling with the revise of BEARDED LADY, a memoir-turned-Young Adult novel that has gone through what feels like every possible incarnation over the last decade. Wait. It hasn’t yet been sci-fi. Or anime. Those are both good ideas.

Thank you Allison for sharing your wisdom.
Are you a writer who is also a parent? I'd love to hear from you. Feel free to contact me and I'll follow up with some interview questions.