Take a Breath, Get Inspired

If you’ve found yourself in a creative slump and are coming up short on ideas, or at least any worthy of pursuit, this is the post for you! In these situations, I recommend curating a space to recharge and be inspired. Here are some essays, albums, podcasts, and more that have been getting me ramped up to create so far this year!

The Day Job series
In this essay series on Medium, writers run down the details of toiling to make ends meet while writing books in their off time. These are must reads for anyone working a day job to support a dream!

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Daily Routine
“Some of us are Norman Mailer, but others of us are middle-aged Portland housewives.” Here’s an opportunity for those who can dedicate full days to creative work to try out the writing schedule of a master! Personally, I see it as both aspiration and inspiration.

Ditch Diggers – Drinks with an Agent
On the latest episode of my favorite lit-adjacent podcast, Mur Lafferty sits down and, you guessed it, has drinks with her agent, Jen Udden! I’m always up for any insights a literary agent is willing to share, and this episode does not disappoint!

Yugen Blakrok – Anima Mysterium
I read the Bandcamp Daily feature about this album and, while intrigued, I was in no way prepared for how much I’d enjoy it. It delivers on the promise of a sprawling sci-fi excursion, but it’s so much more. Tripped out, down-tempo sonic atmospheres swirl around cosmic but truthful, potent, and (just like the best sci-fi) relevant lyrics, weaving an engaging listen that I can’t stop going back to. And that closing track? Read the lyrics while listening and try not to visualize the perfect scene to kick off your next masterpiece!

So I wear this cloak of raven feathers, holding a scepter
As letters from the ether fall like rain when I rip deserts
Welcome to the land of gray
Where troubles never cease, and man’s awakening is accompanied by grief

From “Land of Gray”

Stream Anima Mysterium on Spotify or Apple Music, or buy the album on Bandcamp!

Voyage to the Stars
Here’s a completely different take on the cosmos! This new podcast with Colton Dunn, Felicia Day, Janet Varney, and Steve Berg is an interstellar comedy about a group of underdogs stumbling into unfathomable situations. Not only is it hilarious and absurd in all the best ways, but all of the dialogue is improvised! The framework of the storyline is in place, but it’s on the actors to keep it progressing and make it fun. Though it feels like a nice escape, it’s also a great study in character creation and dialogue. This is an Earwolf show, so you’ll find it on the podcast app of your choice.

Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj
While the news cycle can feel inescapable, Hasan Minhaj’s Netflix show focuses more on the often obscured issues and root causes behind the big news stories. New episodes premier weekly, but due to the format you won’t feel behind if you don’t watch as soon as they drop. Minhaj is a sharp host and undeniable comic force, which alone would make for a great show, but he also manages to break down complex situations with a dose of humanity. Even if your work is not overtly sociopolitical, you will certainly benefit from the show’s fresh perspectives and investigative nature, not to mention the plethora of ideas on how to torture your characters from the governments and corporations who do it best! Check out a preview and watch on Netflix.

Low – Double Negative
This album sounds like nuclear winter. Like everything’s changed. It sounds like the last swarm of bees. It sounds like breaking down. Structures and infrastructures, industries and societies, emotions and mental faculties, all breaking down. Collapse. It sounds like the collapse. Like the Doomsday Clock melting. All precedents are annihilated and you don’t know what’s coming next. It sounds like a warp through time and space, but feels distinctly present.

Low – Double Negative

Double Negative came out last year, but I can’t say I’ve ever heard anything quite like it and it continues to bloom, each listen dusting me in a new sensation of panic or discomfort or uncertainty or serenity. While it doesn’t stray far from the slow, deliberate movements that Low has come to embody, it also takes new compositional risks and melds them with bold production to construct something larger and far more affecting than just a collection of songs. This record is nothing short of striking, and if you’re in need of something new to shake you out of old cycles, this is that something. Low has been around for over twenty-five years, so for them to create something this unique and potent at this stage is itself inspirational. If nothing else, listen and try writing a description of what you’re hearing and feeling—that’s a writing exercise in itself!
Stream it on Spotify or Apple Music, buy it on Bandcamp!

Zeal & Ardor – Stranger Fruit
Can you tell music is my go-to when I need some direction? Stranger Fruit is another release from last year, but I just can’t shake it. Zeal & Ardor is the brainchild of Manuel Gagneux, and seeks to answer an odd, genre-crunching question: what would slave spirituals sound like in the context of black metal? The answer, under Gagneux’s capable guidance, is, well … fucking incredible. While the previous two releases were eye-opening and enjoyable, Stranger Fruit is the most fully-realized yet. It’s the perfect soundtrack for you genre-hopping, interstitial types looking for new ways to blend seemingly disparate elements into something fresh, using tropes as pole vaults instead of borders.
Stream the album with your preferred service or purchase here!

Wondering why there are no books on this list? Check out my previous post, “Reading for Writing!” Additionally, I’ve found I’m too easily influenced by other writers when I’m struggling with ideas, and prefer to reach outside the medium. If you need to read to write (not uncommon!), I suggest starting outside of your preferred genres. Keep your expectations tempered and your mind open, you just might discover new ways to tell stories that you’d never considered!

Has something helped you get out of a funk recently? I want to hear about it!

(Note: We do not benefit from sharing links to purchase any of the works mentioned here, I just think they’re worth buying!)

The Secret to my College Success: How to get an A on any Essay

While it’s not strictly true that I got an A on every paper in college, it’s safe to say that I would have graduated with a 4.0 if all my grades rested only on my ability to write an essay. So gather your college hopefuls and struggling students. I now share with you the secrets to my success and how to implement them for your own purposes. It’s important to note that these tips are specifically related to playing the academic game, and not all can or shouldbe used to generally apply to writing an essay for purely literary purposes.


#1 Know your audience.

This is essential for any graded assignment. In attending lectures you will become aware of certain peculiarities and opinions held dearly by your professor. They don’t mean to, they do try to be objective, but opinions or stances that mirror our own just sound better. I remember laughing out loud at a comment scribbled in the margin of one of my essays; “very well stated!” Turns out, it was nearly a direct quote from her own observations in class. Does that mean you should be a sycophant and suck up at every opportunity? Absolutely not. In fact, if you disagree with a professor, absolutely take it on; but be sure that every opinion you know they have is addressed in some way or your argument is flawed. In fact, I once took a Semantics class that had two different textbooks with two different theories of semantics to consider. Our final paper asked that we choose one or the other and defend it. I couldn’t in good conscience do either, so I showed why both were wrong and suggested my own theory with the research to prove it. A+.


#2 Know your assignment.

Read your assignment carefully. Usually the professor plants in there all the clues for your success. This isn’t like writing for a publishing house or magazine you hope will be a good fit. They are literally telling you exactly what they want. Be sure you give it to them. Thinking outside the box is great and showing your creativity is even better, but not if it’s at the expense of your grade because you failed to meet the minimum requirements. If they want you to demonstrate your understanding of a scientific principle using three examples, make sure you have all three! If they want 1500 words, keep fleshing that out until it’s at least 1500 words. And if it’s a page requirement, don’t mess with the margins to make it work. Professors aren’t stupid, and they look at this stuff every day of their lives. They know a two-inch margin when they see it, and they will flay you. You can’t afford to miss an expectation that easy to meet, especially if writing is a challenge for you.


#3 A good outline saves lives.

Okay, friends. Here is the meat of it: I will be forever grateful for my high school English and History teachers who taught me the value of a good outline and how to write it into the first paragraph as a stellar introduction. This tip is especially effective for essay responses required on a timed test but can be adapted for nearly any informative essay. Your format is as follows:

Sentence(s) 1: Attention grabber. Start with an inspiring quote, restating the prompt in a creative way, and make it personal; whatever you can grab that is relevant and interesting. For example: “‘When tillage begins, other arts follow. The farmers, therefore, are the founders of civilization,’ said Daniel Webster.”

Sentence(s) 2: A sentence or two that lists out the points you intend to prove, and there should be at least three points of discussion. For example: “The American Civil War impacted the lives of farmers in multiple ways. Not only did the war itself disrupt production and destroy valuable farming land, but the shift from great plantations to smaller farms led to changes in economy and family structure.” Do you see that? I now have my entire essay set up. I have stated my thesis, and I know where I need to go. I need one paragraph about the war and its impact on the land itself, I need one about the transition from slave-owning plantations to smaller farms, which transitions nicely into how the subjects of those two preceding paragraphs changed the economy, then how things changed for farming families or civilization… which ties into my quote that started it all.

Sentence 3: A bridge or transition from this to the next paragraph. Example: “The war changed the landscape literally and figuratively.”

Rinse and repeat. This format enables writers to quickly outline their thoughts in a few sentences. All you have to do is come up with at least three things to talk about related to the subject at hand. That’s not so hard as coming up with an entire essay and complete thoughts all at once. After this initial paragraph is set up, the essay practically writes itself. You know what comes next, you just need to flesh it out with thoughtful examples from history, evidence from the literary text, proof from an experiment; whatever the subject, these same principles apply.


#4 Transition well.

The body of the essay will start and end each paragraph with these transition sentences, which are often the hardest part, so I will sometimes skip them to be added back in once I have the body completed. The format of the middle paragraphs will echo the format of your introduction, with each point of discussion substituting for the overall thesis statement in the introduction. The structure should be as follows:

Sentence 1: Transition into this point

Sentence 2: Point 1 stated

Sentence 3-5: Examples of point 1, at least 3 of them

Sentence 6: Transition into the next point

As you can see, the transitions are a big part of smoothly moving from one subject to the next. Try to see how each idea is connected to the next, and highlight that.


#5 Stay on Target.

The meat of what you’ve studied and are now expected to communicate is the important element to get right. Make sure each paragraph stays on topic, shows relevant evidence of your point, and has at least three such evidences. If it’s a literary critique, this can be proof from the author’s life, a quote from the text, or a note about the meaning of a word at that time … whatever is needed to prove your point. History, science, and (I imagine) law are actually very easy to write essays about because there are actual facts and quotes about that event, or scientific experiments to draw from, legal precedents to relate. Again, you just focus on the three things needed to prove your point here. You can do this!


#6 Draw your conclusions.

This last paragraph is going to be more similar to the introduction, but not a parrot of it. This is where you pull together all the things you’ve described and proved throughout the essay. You need to mention the points you’ve made throughout, but it doesn’t have to be as explicit at this point because it’s been well fleshed out. If there is a way to reference back to the quote or beginning concept, great, but it isn’t absolutely necessary. The thesis should really shine here and be illuminated as truth now that you’ve proved all your points.


For example: “The lives of farmers were forever changed by the civil war in so many ways. With the demands of war on limited resources, farming changed in scope and technique, which in turn affected prices and market value, which changed the opportunities available for families. One could even say the war changed the foundation of civilization, as it transformed the life of the farmer.”

See how each main idea is covered, but in a new way, reflective of the information that would have been shared in detail throughout? The tip of the hat to the beginning quote in that last sentence may be a bit over the top, but it depends on your audience. Is that a concept they’ve really highlighted or resonated with during lecture? Then it will only help.


So there you have it, friends; the secret to my college success. My niece has used this advice to good effect in her college essays, and I hope it will do you proud, too. I am happy to answer any questions in the comments.