Some Background Music For Your Screams

So yesterday was rough for a lot of us. And by “us”, I mean the ladies out there. And if the news coming out of Washington this morning is any indication, things are only going to get harder.

In many ways, this feels like a turning point. On one hand, we’re going to get a Supreme Court that will dismantle some of what I believe are our fundamental rights. On the other hand, I also see A LOT of really pissed young people. In twenty or thirty years, these people are going to be running the country. And they (we) will not forget what just happened once the crusties are out of Congress and we’re sitting in their chairs.

But in the meantime, we’re going to be angry. We can’t let that anger paralyze us; instead, we need action.

So I made a playlist. No, it isn’t much. It won’t bring about world peace or whatever. But yesterday, while the sounds of the Senate hearing drifted towards me from my coworkers’ computers, I put on some really angry music and got a shit ton of work done. Music quickens our pulse and inspires us and makes us focus. And that’s what we need most right now: focus, and progress.


A Playlist for Early Mornings

Like a lot of writers, I get a massive amount of inspiration from music. I actually go to more concerts than book signings and author events, which I continue to feel guilty about but whatever. The rush that comes with being in a crowd of people dancing and singing the same words is hard to beat. I also think musicians would probably be the only ones to survive the apocalypse, but I digress.

I also make playlists like I breathe: it’s involuntary, and life gets pretty uncomfortable when I don’t do it. I hear a song, and it inspires a mood, and all of a sudden I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole for hours and I have ten or fifteen songs that I’ve arranged and rearranged to make sure it builds the right way, or to make it cinematic, or because I’m really excited about a certain song and it needs to be surrounded by exactly the right beats.

Which is all to say, I’m a nerd for this shit. I’ve enjoyed combing through authors’ mixes for years — on Soundcloud, sometimes on Youtube, and more recently on Spotify, where I’ve been all over Lin-Manuel Miranda’s playlists. Since I’ve always appreciated the window a playlist gives you into other people’s brains — and since there’s no better feeling than the high of discovering a new song that you love — here’s a mix of my own. I listen to it as I’m getting ready for work, when I’m inevitably still half asleep and soft violin concertos just won’t cut it. Nothing gets you of bed like hearing a song and knowing it would be a crime NOT to dance to it.

The Eclipse

solar eclipse lens flare picture
A photo capturing a tiny, crescent-shaped reflection of the August 21, 2017 eclipse.

On Monday morning, my coworkers and I filed out to the top story of our parking lot to watch the eclipse. My boss had made one of those pinhole projectors with a paper plate, and we stood around the wall, squinting to see the tiny crescent on the painted cement. Eventually, some other people from our building took pity on us and offered their eclipse glasses, and I risked my iPhone camera to snap a few pictures, capturing the eclipse via a lens flare.

How is it that we happen to live on a planet where this can happen? There has to be a certain distance between us and the moon and between the moon and the Sun in order for a total eclipse to be possible. So we’re lucky. But already, the moon is getting farther and farther away. If the human race continues to exist for 600 million years, our descendants won’t get to see what we saw in the USA on August 21. Like everything else, total eclipses are temporary.

Also temporary and (let’s be real) magical was the way people just…forgot about everything. Instead of giving our attention to bombast and manmade beauty, we devoted ourselves to this quiet movement in the sky. As Annie Dillard said in her essay “Total Eclipse”, “It was odd that such a well advertised public event should have no starting gun, no overture, no introductory speaker.” Instead, it started with a hush, and continued with a hush, and ended with awe.

Sure, I almost immediately began to see politics-related eclipse tweets and pictures of our Commander-in-Chief squinting directly into the sun, but for a second, we remembered that we’re tiny and made of stardust and have no control over so many things. And it felt…nice. Standing in the heightened shadows, which threw the normally hazy LA landscape into sharp relief, there was no pressure to satisfy anyone’s expectations, including my own. I felt like existing was enough.

As we all looked at the pictures on my iPhone later, my coworker was overcome. He smiled and said, “It definitely makes it seem like there’s someone out there, screwing with us.” Or, I added silently, someone wanting to give us a moment of quiet.

Internet Deep Dive: Frank Ocean Edition

Frank Ocean

For the last few months, I’ve wanted to start a new series on my blog with links to what I’ve been reading, watching, and thinking about. Here it is. This is Internet Deep Dive, and I’m starting it off with a few links related to my current obsession: Frank Ocean.


Genius has some of the best music analyses on the web, so I went right to them after Frank Ocean dropped “Lens” this past weekend. I definitely recommend listening to the song before watching this. The song doesn’t appear to be on YouTube, but it’s on Apple Music for sure.

2.  “OK Ken and David…”

When two of the head honchos behind the Grammy awards made an assumption about why Frank Ocean chose not to attend the 2017 Grammys (or to submit his sophomore album Blonde for awards consideration), Ocean wrote them this note on his Tumblr page.

3. “Frank Ocean Can Fly” by Jeff Himmelman

A profile of Frank Ocean published in The New Yorker shortly after his first album came out. Himmelman manages to write about him without making it seem like he and Ocean became friends, or that they even had a truly revealing conversation, as most celebrity profilers try to do. Read this for insight on Ocean’s process and his philosophy on making art.


Mary’s Night Out

Today was a difficult day, so I wrote a short story. It’s about a girl learning to live on her own terms, so it felt appropriate. I used the prompt from Visual Verse, an online literary magazine full of flash fiction inspired by paintings and photographs. This picture (by Manon Bellet) is their current prompt.


“Mary, what’s on your skirt?”

Mary blinked. She hadn’t been listening to her father as he read, but he didn’t seem to notice. He still held the book too close to his face, but his narrow eyes peaked out over the top of its cover, staring straight at Mary’s sister.

“Elizabeth.” Their father’s voice was strained. “What have I told you about interrupting our daily reading?”

Elizabeth bounced in her seat, making her white prayer cap come loose. She was at that age where she was still oblivious to their father’s severity. Mary envied her.

“But look, Papa!” Elizabeth said. “There’s something sticking to Mary’s skirt!”

Now he was looking at Mary. “Well?” he said.

Mary looked. Clinging to the side of her long blue skirt was a torn piece of a plastic bag with the handle still attached. She touched it gingerly before she peeled it off.

“What is it?” Elizabeth asked again, because she truly didn’t know. How could she? Their father was a staunch environmentalist. No plastic, no visits to stores with electricity, barely any paper except in books or when required for school. Even in a town full of Amish, their father looked extreme.

He snapped the book shut, narrowly missing his nose.

“You know we don’t allow such materials under our roof,” he said. “Our neighbors may be fine with damaging the Earth, but God put us here to protect it.”

“Yes, Papa.”

“Where did you get it? You haven’t even been out of the house today.”

Because it wasn’t today. The last time she’d worn this dress was two nights ago. It was the only one with sleeves loose enough to roll up and buttons up the front. When adjusted, it could almost pass for a dress that someone outside of her town would wear. And that was exactly what Mary wanted. To look like someone from Indianapolis, or Bloomington, or even Muncie.

The sounds of the city still filled her head: the screech of tires as her bus rolled into town and cars honking and the bubbling of conversation on the sidewalks.

She remembered the whir of the automatic doors, the chime of the cash register as she bought her first candy bar, the swish of the plastic bag as the convenience store employee slid the candy into it.

It was a simple stroll in town, Mary told herself. She just wanted to see what it would be like.

But she couldn’t tell her father that.

“I think the Nicholsons are littering,” she said.

Mary’s father stopped short. He had already been drawing a breath, preparing to yell at her, but now his rage was redirected. He flung himself to the front door and burst across their lawn to the Nicholsons’ house. Elizabeth covered her ears, and Mary reached out to pat her head.

Poor Matthew, Mary thought as she heard her father screaming at his parents. I’ll buy him a candy bar next time.

Reflections from NaNoWriMo


So NaNoWriMo is over. And I did not win.

I’ll once again give a little bit of a refresher for people who don’t know what I’m talking about. NaNoWriMo stands for “National Novel Writing Month”, which takes place in November each year. The idea is to commit to writing a complete 50,000 word novel, which comes out to 1,667 words per day. I wrote a blog post about how I was doing NaNoWriMo for the first time in years. I was scared but determined. After all, if you can’t produce, you can’t call yourself a writer.

Fast forward a couple of weeks. I’m still shellshocked from the election and worried about my country. I’ve barely written anything because writing fiction strikes me as insensitive to what’s going on around me, so I sit by myself or with my boyfriend and mope instead, which is even MORE insensitive. Good job, Alyssa.

But one day, I wake up, and I know I have to keep moving. I’m already behind by about 10,000 words, but I’ve always had a lot of blind faith in myself, so I don’t let it stop me.

The next week and a half are better. I’m writing a lot more, but I’m still behind, so I push harder. And harder. I say no when friends ask me to hang out. I skip exercise. My room gradually gets messier. My word count goes up a lot. I’m convinced I’m doing this right.

And then something happens. I start to write terrible things.

Not “terrible” in the sense that awful things are happening to my characters (though that’s also true, heh). “Terrible” in the sense that what I’m writing is just plain bad. I was already putting my story down with a degree of abandon, but up until that moment, I still knew where the story was going. But I was losing that direction. Suddenly the characters were doing things that didn’t make sense. The plot was taking pointless twists, which is something I hate as a reader because it’s so obvious that the author is just making something happen for the sake of it. I knew I could do so much better, but part of the NaNoWriMo tradition is that you’re not supposed to edit as you go. But I wasn’t even editing — I was writing things down knowing I could do better if I just thought about the story for even a few minutes longer.

It was becoming clear to me that I wouldn’t get to 50K, though, and I wasn’t all that bothered by it. The last draft I wrote was almost three times that size, so there was never a question of whether or not I could do it. Instead, I felt concerned for my characters. Like any writer with any of their books, I’m obsessed with the story. I want it to be good so that maybe I can make it great. And even if I had a 50K word draft to work from, what if I ended up scrapping most of it the way I did with the first draft of The Lost Royals? That was painful, and I didn’t want it to happen again. This time, I wanted salvageable material. I wanted good to make into great.

And so I took a breath, and I returned to writing just over 1,000 words a day. Already, I feel a lot better with what I’m seeing on the page. And I ended up with just over 25,000 words that — dare I say it? — I’m actually sort of okay with. This is a big step up from post-TLR Alyssa, who was very emo about how awful her draft was.

Even though winning NaNoWriMo will no longer be a goal of mine, I’m fully planning on participating next year. I loved being part of online word sprints and reading author pep talks and seeing people writing their hearts out. It’s inspiring. And in the meantime, I’ll be finishing my current draft. Writing this book has been a huge learning experience so far, and I’ll be talking about that in my next post. And I think I speak for many people when I say: good riddance, November.

Gearing up for NaNoWriMo

          The definition of “terror”.

Almost eleven years ago, I created an account on NaNoWriMo.

I can remember how excited I was when I found the website. If you’re not a writer and you haven’t heard of it, it stands for National Novel Writing Month and is, in my opinion, one of the best things to have come out of the internet.

In a nutshell, you sign up to write 50,000 words in the month of November. But it’s not just about the word count. NaNoWriMo asks that you create a fully realized story. One with a beginning, a middle and an end. If you treat it right, it’s basically one of the most grueling writing bootcamps out there. Not that it makes you into a good writer, per se, but it makes you produce. In the end, if you don’t write, it doesn’t matter how pretty your words are.

With all that said, I’m embarrassed that I’ve never “won”, despite a handful of attempts. That is, I’ve never written 50,000 words in the span of a month. I’m a slow writer, and even though I was always excited to participate in NaNoWriMo, I got discouraged when I didn’t like what I was writing. My lifetime NaNoWriMo word count is just over 15,000 (I’ve formally attempted it twice). My actual lifetime word count is way, way higher than that, but seeing that little number on the NaNoWriMo dashboard makes me forget that tiny detail. Instead, it makes me feel competitive. I want to crush that little number under the weight of thousands and thousands of words.

And so, because there’s no one I like competing with more than myself, I decided this will be the year. Since I’m no longer fourteen and am much better at pushing myself through a draft even when it’s a giant stinking pile of poo (see: The Lost Royals, draft 1), I’m going to go for the 50K. I’m taking an idea that I’ve already done a solid amount of pre-writing for, and it’s tentatively titled The Tower. It’s a story about a young woman who escapes a doomed fate as a sacrifice to a mysterious creature only to have it follow her into the streets of London and beyond. The time I’ll be spending on this means I’ll be putting my main project on hold for the month, but I think I need that. I’m at a point in the middle of my second draft of TLR that’s hard to wade through, and the solidity and encouragement that would come from finishing another manuscript is probably what the doctor would order if there was a doctor especially for writers (is that what shrinks are for?).

I’ll be updating my progress on my blog throughout the month. But first, I need to stock up on coffee.

Freedom! or, the benefits of doing something without understanding why


This last week has brought me three anniversaries.

The first was the one year anniversary of my move to Los Angeles.

The second was my one year anniversary at my job, which I started the day after my Honda Civic crawled down the highway (I’ll never say freeway) into what is a desert city but likes to try covering itself with lawns and shrubs anyway.

And the third anniversary? My birthday.

Needless to say, this was the perfect recipe for a week of reflecting on the state of things. I’ve gone through the tired but true revelations about how quickly time passes and how important it is to spend time with the people I love. And I’ve also thought about how important it is to keep your eyes open and let things happen without fighting it.

This last thought holds especially true for this past year. Sometimes, it seems like Los Angeles found me instead of the other way around. I remember being set on moving to New York City. Los Angeles hadn’t even crossed my mind. Then, I stumbled upon a New York Times article about how rent in LA was just the tiniest bit cheaper than in New York. I was intrigued, but I didn’t think much of it. But soon after that, my dad asked me if I’d ever considered living in LA, since I had an uncle out in Torrance but no family out east. And then I picked up a book by one of my favorite authors (Maggie Stiefvater), and it just happened to be set in LA. And then I got invited to visit the city by one of my closest friends from high school. My head was suddenly full of LA, LA, LA.

Five months later, I was living and working in the City of Angels. I can’t say there was ever a moment when I thought, “I belong here!” As I’ve told the people who’ve asked why I came out here, I just liked it. There’s no profound reason behind what I did.

Despite how simple I wanted it to be, making a move like this is a risk. Some things worked out (I tried online dating!) and some didn’t (roommate problems). I started acting again for the first time since high school, and I met a lot of new friends in some of the most random circumstances (e.g., commiserating over back problems at the chiropractor). I met some goals (finishing draft one of a book) and didn’t meet others (only halfway through the second draft). But on the night of my birthday, I watched the band Chvrches perform the album that was the soundtrack to my cross-country drive one year ago. In that moment, in a chill crowd of music-lovers, I was so happy to be here. Trusting my gut, no matter how unfocused it seemed, has left me with no regrets. And as you’re looking at a new year ahead, that’s the best feeling in the world.

Malala Yousafzai: Unending Bravery, Unstoppable Activism

malala_associated press
Courtesy of Associated Press

“Once I had asked God for one or two extra inches in height, but instead he made me as tall as the sky, so high that I could not measure myself.”

Malala Yousafzai is an outspoken advocate for girls’ education and the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Many people know her story: After speaking out against the Taliban’s efforts to keep girls from attending school in the Swat Valley in Pakistan, she was shot point blank by one of their followers on her way home from school. She went on to make a full recovery, and she redirected the attention she received after the attack to further the cause of obtaining education for every girl around the world.

Yousafzai is one of the most inspiring advocates on the international scene. She’s also the first women I’ve written about in this series inspired by Women’s History Month that’s a modern figure rather than a historical one. With the help of Christina Lamb, Yousafzai wrote a memoir of her life up to age 16 titled I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban. The book tells the reader about Malala’s family, her friends and how she became an advocate amidst the repression brought to her valley. Her voice on the pages sounds vivid and authentic, and the occasional awkward turns of phrase sound characteristic not of someone whose first language isn’t English, but of a young teenager, reminding the reader how much Malala (and many other girls like her) has endured at such a young age.

Despite the focus on many aspects of Malala’s life in the memoir, she writes with a few particular goals. Her desire to draw more attention to the cause of equal education is obvious, but she also takes time to write about Islam for her (presumably western and non-Muslim) audience. In today’s political climate, even mentioning Islam seems like a risk that many people wouldn’t be willing to take. But Malala has never shied away from taking risks – this is the girl who kept speaking out when the Taliban named her as a target and who flat out told Obama that “drone attacks are fueling terrorism” (“It’s not just the Taliban killing children,” she writes). So of course, she’s going to take time to address misunderstandings about her religion, however controversial it may be to do so.

For Malala, Islam is about patience and peace. When Malala speaks of a God, she speaks lovingly and with respect – and it’s a respect that she believes is mutual. “In the Quran it is written, God wants us to have knowledge,” she says, referencing the core principal that drives her. But not all people interpret the Quran in that way. She cites numerous examples of disagreements between what the sacred text says and how the Taliban use it to amass power. As she grows up and her friends were made to stay inside and observe purdah — the practice of women staying out of the sight of men and strangers — Malala questioned whether or not that way of life is what God and the prophet Muhammed would’ve wanted. After all, she says, Muhammed’s first wife was a businesswoman who had been married before, implying that extremist Muslims are misguided in their desire for women to stay out of school and the workplace and to stay married to one man unless that man dies. Throughout the book, Malala and her father get their egalitarian principals in this way: they take a claim from the Taliban and they dissect it according to their own reading of the Quran.

At the same time, Malala defends her own decision to wear a headscarf. She brushed off critics when she eventually “realized that simply having your head uncovered isn’t what makes you modern!” Instead, it’s your ideas and your day-to-day actions that matter. If anyone has proven that to be the case, it’s Malala, whose actions make her much more modern than the westerner who criticizes Islam without first making an effort to learn about it. And if said westerner wanted to know where they should start, I would say they should start right here, with Malala.

Buy I Am Malala at Powell’s, Abebooks or Amazon.

Watch the trailer for Malala’s documentary He Named Me Malala here.

Watch Malala’s excellent/adorable/super entertaining interview with Jon Stewart here.

Madam C.J. Walker and the Power of the Self-Crafted Narrative

madam cj walker

So I’m behind in my posts about Women’s History Month because of this infectious disease called “life”. Even though March is over, I want to continue with this series because every month should be Women’s History Month, amirite? Also, my next post is about Madam C.J. Walker, who was great at not following the rules that would’ve only served to hold her back, so there’s my roundabout justification and not-so-subtle introduction to this post.

As I was deciding what women to research for this series, I made an initial list that I was pretty happy with. It included women from government, an activist for education and the first computer programmer. But pretty soon, I realized I was missing something: racial diversity. Sure, these women were all from different countries, but three out of the four of them were white. The very point of this series was to highlight women who are often overlooked in the annals of history and also in the present, and here I was passively ignoring the contributions of non-white women. After I caught myself, I took steps to make sure my list was more diverse. And that was how I came upon Madam C.J. Walker.

In Madam Walker, I had a perfect example of a non-white woman who made a huge impact. Despite her achievements, I still knew next to nothing about her. Madam Walker’s name sounded familiar, though I couldn’t say why. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Indiana and learned about her in my elementary school textbook, though I wouldn’t be surprised if she was overlooked. To this day, it’s easier for a white woman to get the credit she deserves for her work. Women of color have layers of prejudice to work through before they can achieve the same recognition.

This was certainly the case for Madam Walker. In A’lelia Bundles’ book On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker, Bundles writes about her great-great grandmother with a kind of awe. Walker, who was born Sarah Breedlove, had the kind of classic up-from-your-bootstraps story that Americans love. Born to former slaves in Louisiana in 1867, Breedlove initially made a living as a washerwoman for wealthy white families, a common occupation for African American women at the time. By the age of twenty, she was a mother and a widow. The uncertainty facing Breedlove and her daughter, Lelia (who later went by A’lelia and is the author’s namesake), was immense, but soon Breedlove became part of a growing industry that would change her life: hair care for black women.

After initially becoming an apprentice to Annie Pope Turnbo, Breedlove struck out on her own. This coincided with her marriage to Charles J. Walker, whose name she took and stylized with a French prefix. With a tireless work ethic and relentless determination to build relationships, Madam Walker would spend the rest of her life growing her beauty empire and making a huge philanthropic and cultural impact.

So those are the facts. But as I was reading Bundles’ account of Madam Walker’s life, what struck me just as often as her cut and dry achievements were the gaps in information about her life. Despite how meticulous Bundles is with her research, she’s still forced to make leaps when describing Madam Walker’s early life. Bundles is up front about this struggle, and, most interestingly, she seems to make an argument for why there is so little known about this time in Walker’s life: that Walker wanted it that way for the benefit of her business.

It sounds obvious, especially in the age of branding. But by hiding away certain parts of her past and spreading a narrative about herself that may or may not have been true – and does it really matter either way? – she was able to take agency over her own story. Something about this is fascinating in its daring and power. I’m a firm believer in the idea that parts of history have been tailored to suit a particular group’s narrative, meaning that we have to examine the fossils firsthand to get the actual story (see Kameron Hurley’s incredible Hugo-winning essay for more on this idea). Luckily, we have Bundles to sift through the facts and present us with this story.

What we get is a tale of a woman who managed to dodge submersion under the stories of whites and men, at least in her own time, by taking charge of the way people thought of her. She erased her three husbands from her life – including the one whose name she made famous – and she established her identity as an independent entrepreneur, leaving marriage at the wayside as she amassed her wealth. Walker also enthralled crowds with retellings of a prophetic dream from God that gave her the formula for her hair-growth concoction. After she gained enough influence, she used the power of her story to create ties with prominent African Americans, including Booker T. Washington, whose initial reluctance to take her seriously turned into respect for her business acumen. By the end of her life, Madame Walker had become one of the most influential African Americans of her time, thanks to her impact on the lives of women through access to beauty products and employment opportunities.

As someone who loves to write, I believe in the power of stories to bring about change. Not only did Madam Walker create a narrative that made her successful — she helped many other black women become more confident and independent. No matter your skin color or even your gender, Madam Walker’s vision and perseverance set the bar high for what can be achieved in a lifetime.

Buy Bundles’ On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker at Powell’s, Abebooks or Amazon.