Author Archive

Writer’s Block

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Today I’m pleased to feature a post on writer’s block from friend and fellow author, Heather Douglas. Heather is a writer, illustrator, and educator based in Astoria, Oregon. She is the author of a book of poetry and was recently awarded Astoria Visual Art’s Writer in Residence. She also writes for Coast Weekend. More of her work can be found at OscarAstoria.com.

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“Writing about writer’s block is better than not writing at all.” –Charles Bukowski

Whether the phrase writers’ block conjures up an image of Jack Nicholson in The Shining obsessively typing the same phrase on his typewriter, or a romance novelist at their peaceful mountain retreat with a cup of tea waiting desperately for inspiration to come, the struggle is real for many writers.

Stephen King, a very prolific writer and America’s most famous of the horror genre once said “amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us get up and go to work.” While King is absolutely correct, it doesn’t hurt to have a few strategies to employ from time to time.

My relationship with writing has reflected the ebb and flow of my own creative life. In elementary school, I was encouraged and rewarded by events like the Oregon Writing Festival at Portland State University where I could meld minds with kids like me. I loved creative writing and poetry and had some of my work published in the local paper and won some school wide writing contests. Along with other kids in my neighborhood, we created a newspaper called The Tapiola Times (named after the park I grew up next door to); we wrote movie reviews, comic strips and from time to time ‘investigative’ article and features. Putting pen to paper and writing was easy back then and was a blast—I was good at it, I liked it and I could say what I wanted and think hard about it without getting flustered in everyday conversations.

Middle school began what I would call the ‘essay and book report years.’ The formulaic pattern of essay writing was stifling. I was no longer expressing my own imagination and creativity, but writing analysis about the creative work of authors who were dead and gone. It’s not that I had no love for the classics. I spent half of one summer reading Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Ubervilles in a tent I had set up in my parents’ backyard—but I didn’t get to choose what classics I wanted to write about—yet, there is value in pushing through work that is difficult.

Yet, I craved a balance between expressing my own creativity and following the rules in school. I no longer loved writing, but I never suffered from writer’s block because I adapted; I began to rely on my work ethic—something I had thankfully nurtured through sports—you push through the pain, get the job done and don’t complain. I begrudgingly became friends with the essay, the book report and the worksheet. I was rewarded and encouraged by my teachers for my efforts in writing.

In college, I majored in English and was required to write copiously in the standard essay format. I wrote very little, if any creative pieces. I realized that if I was going to write about more than just famous works, I would have to write on my own. It was a tumultuous time for me emotionally, and I began to lean on writing as a form of expression and therapy; I wrote hundreds and hundreds of pages of journal entries in great detail about what I was feeling at the time. I even earned a coveted compliment from a notoriously unrelentingly strict professor of James Joyce. He said I had talent and should consider getting a PhD to teach English. Although I was beyond flattered, I couldn’t imagine that the rest of my writing life would be spent centered around studying the works of a dead author—no matter how talented or epic.

While writing saved my life in a time of great existential loneliness during the college years, I went through a long phase of what I can only call tongue in cheek a phase of “creative constipation”—otherwise known as a decade of writer’s block. I stopped filling my journals and collapsed in exhaustion after my college graduation with the hopes of taking a huge break from essay writing and literary analysis.

Although I stopped writing, the ideas never stopped coming. Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic author, said about creativity, “possessing a creative mind is like having a border collie for a pet; if you don’t give it a job to do, it will find a job to do—and you might not like the job it invents.”

In the past 5 years I have found my way back to writing through blogging, journalism, poetry and the occasional non-fiction story. I also teach high school students to find their voice through writing. I want them to feel inspired and empowered to try out different genres of writing. I don’t want them to experience the frustration of having no outlet for their feelings.

It has been a difficult journey, but these days I have a healthy balance between work ethic and inspiration. If I were to give advice to my young writing self about moving through creative blocks, this is what I would say now.

You are Free to Write Crap

In Natalie Goldberg’s book Wild Mind Living the Writer’s Life, one of her bedrock rules to writing is this: “you are free to write the worst crap in America.” You have to start somewhere, and keeping the pen moving whilst writing what you may think is the worst crap is better than not writing at all. Worst case scenario: it IS crap, but that’s what multiple, successive drafts are for. Best case scenario: it actually isn’t crap and you’re just too hard on yourself.

You Are a Writer if You Write

If you run, you are a runner. If you write, you are a writer. If you’ve always “wanted to write,” or you have a plan to “write someday,” or you have “a novel in your head,” you’re a dreamer, not a writer. It sounds harsh, but it’s true. One of the lessons you learn as you mature is that work ethic nearly always beats talent.

Writing is Work

Hemingway famously said “there is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Writing can be scary, emotional and terrifying. But it’s work and it’s very worthwhile work.

Smack Down the Internal Editor

What Natalie Goldberg calls the “monkey mind” is the internal critic—the monkey that sits on your shoulder and peers down on what you do. It’s your ego and the one that constantly corrects you and forces you to doubt yourself.  It’s the perfectionist side that causes you to freeze like a deer in headlights.

There Are No Hard and Fast Rules for Writing

Work with the limitations of the day, but there are not hard and fast rules for writing. Some will say “write every day at the same time.” Some will say “make sure your desk is free from clutter.” Some will say “a messy desk is a mark of a creative mind.” Writing is amazing because there very few places where you can’t write. I have yet to think of a place where you can’t write—well, maybe…don’t write while you’re driving.

Talk To Other Writers

Chances are other writers feel exactly the same struggles. Find comfort in talking to them and rekindling the reasons you love writing.

Trust Yourself

Your narrative matters. Repeat: your narrative matters. Your unique perspective matters. What someone else thinks of your ability as a writer is none of your business. Write because your voice matters. Write because you have something to say. Write because although it may be hard work, you love it.

Thank you for joining us today, Heather! Check out Heather’s work at OscarAstoria.com.

© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2017


More Sunset Empire

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Much appreciation to everyone who came out to Lucy’s Books last Saturday for the Second Saturday Art Walk! It was fun to chat with so many readers–some of you I’ve known for a long time, and some I met that day. I’m glad you came out to enjoy the sunshine and talk books with me. Many thanks to Lisa Reid for hosting me and being a champion of my work. (Thanks for the wonderful reviews and Lucy’s Books bag too!)

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I wanted to share a new excerpt from Sunset Empire with you. I hope you like it.

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From high above the forest floor, the hunter watched the girl. She was pretty, but she was too busy talking on her cell phone to watch where she was going. He had to suppress a laugh when she almost stepped on the deer carcass. That would teach her to hang up and walk.

Where had she come from? He glanced down the path—probably from one of the houses on the edge of the forest. The more pressing question, however, was where was she going? He doubted she knew. She seemed to be wandering the path aimlessly, with no idea of the trouble she could get into.

From his perch, he could clearly hear her side of the conversation as her voice echoed among the trees, even though she wasn’t speaking overly loud. With dismay, he realized this was because the forest had gone eerily silent. The wind picked up, and in the breeze he could smell death.

Go back, he thought, as if he could will her to hear him and take his advice. Wherever you came from, go back. She didn’t, of course. She just kept walking, chatting on that stupid phone of hers.

He narrowed his eyes, irritated. What was this girl’s problem? Surely she could sense that something was wrong in this part of the forest. All the birds had flown away. There were no squirrels chattering from the trees, or any other sounds of wildlife. But no, she was too busy talking to notice. She had barely given the dead deer more than a glance.

He checked his weapon. He couldn’t just stand by like last time—not now that he was sure it worked. He was going to have to reveal himself. He was going to have to save her.

Then, something curious happened. The girl stopped and looked around. “I’ll have to call you back,” she said. She hung up her phone and slipped it into her pocket. She turned a slow circle on the path, staring into the forest. Then, she shivered and wrapped her arms around herself, starting back the way she had come.

The hunter followed her with his eyes, and then surveyed the forest. The smell of decay was fading. Maybe the creatures weren’t coming after all. Silently, he inched his way down the tree, watching for trouble. Six feet from the bottom, he heard a scream.

He dropped the rest of the way to the ground and ran up the path after her, ducking behind a tree when he saw she had stopped and wasn’t dead. She was staring at a spot on the ground, her delicate features contorted with disgust. Whatever was on the ground was smoking. She shuddered in revulsion and then took off down the path, back to civilization.

When he was sure she wouldn’t see him, the hunter emerged from his hiding place. He approached the blackened thing on the ground cautiously, toeing it with his boot. A banana slug. The only reason he could identify it at all was because he could see the piebald yellow and brown markings on the end of its tail. The rest of the six-inch creepy-crawly had been burnt to a crisp.

Who was this girl?

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© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2017


Signing at Lucy’s Books

One of my favorite spots on the Oregon coast is Lucy’s Books, a jewel box of a bookstore, owned by a lovely friend, Lisa Reid. Lisa has curated an awesome collection of books and makes great recommendations. She’s been incredibly supportive of my work, even letting me include her store in my novel, Sunset Empire.

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I knew my characters would be exploring the tunnels under 12th Street, and the windows in Lucy’s provide the perfect vantage point for watching a gang of teens up to no good, sneaking across the street to enter the basement of the fictional Chinook Bar & Grill. I asked Lisa if one of my characters could work in her shop so he could observe the mischief. She said yes, and gave Phantom a job.

That’s why I’m excited to join her on Saturday, July 8, from 5-8pm for the Second Saturday Art Walk in Astoria. I’ll be signing copies of Sunset Empire and Pitcher Plant, both of which are set on the Oregon coast. I’ll also be doing a drawing for a book-themed prize, so stop by and say hello.

Here’s an excerpt from Sunset Empire, an exchange between Phantom and his boss (who may or may not be based on the real life owner of Lucy’s–you’ll have to ask Lisa).

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“I know that look, Sean Hughes.”

Phantom turned to see Lucy eyeing him from the cash register. “What look?”

Lucy smiled. “Your girl-trouble look. Who is she?”

Since the professor had lost his mind and Phantom’s mother had fallen into a chronic state of depression after his dad died, Lucy Rose was the one person in town he could count on. As his mother’s best friend, Lucy knew what he’d lost, and she’d looked out for him over the years, making sure his fridge was stocked and giving him a job at her bookstore.

Phantom spared a last look at Chinook’s, but Elyse had disappeared from view. He went back to stocking shelves. “Her name’s Elyse Pthan. She’s new at school.”

“Have you talked to her?” Lucy asked, coming over to tidy the front display.

Phantom smiled. “I bought her dinner.”

“That sounds promising. So what’s the problem?”

“We’re friends. I thought we could be more than friends, but then things got complicated.”

“How so?” Lucy asked.

“She’s a Legacy girl. And the granddaughter of Evangeline Porter, chair of the Sean Hughes Sucks Society,” Phantom said.

“That is a problem,” Lucy said, nodding. “But, you know, as much of a force of nature as Ms. Porter might be, I doubt she controls her granddaughter’s mind. Or her heart.” She reached into the box at Phantom’s feet and pulled out one of the new books. “This one will go in the window, I think.” She rearranged the books in the window to include her latest find. “Does Elyse know about Jenna?”

“I told her about the accusations against me,” Phantom replied. “Didn’t want her hearing it from someone else.”

“That’s wise,” Lucy said. “But does she know how you felt about Jenna?”

Phantom shook his head. “I don’t think I can go there yet, Lucy. Wound’s still fresh.”

Lucy put her hand on his shoulder and gave him a sad smile. “I know, sweetie. Give it time.”

© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2017


Writing Place

I can write anywhere—coffee shops, planes, waiting rooms, standing in line. I usually carry a journal with me in case I’m stuck somewhere, waiting, and then I type what I’ve written later. My preferred place to write, however, is my desk at home. It’s a minimalist, stainless-steel table with a pretty wooden box placed on top to hold office supplies. I’ve set out a few mementos to inspire me: a chunk of amethyst purchased at the gem and mineral show in Tucson, a ceramic owl to hold pens and pencils, a paperweight I created when I took an art glass class with my mom, a vase full of objects found along the seashore—shells, rocks, and a toy elephant. A special place—no, a sacred place—dedicated to creativity.

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Over the past year though, my sacred place to write became increasingly cluttered. Papers kept piling up and I kept putting off organizing them. In my defense, I’ve been busy: taking on a new job as a full-time academic advisor, teaching a writing class, completing nine editing projects (two of which were full-length novels), and releasing two books of my own. My place of inspiration became uninspired, which didn’t stoke the urge to create.

Finally, this weekend, I made time to go through the piles, tossing outdated and unnecessary documents and filing important ones. Why did I keep all this stuff? I guess I thought they were important at the time. It’s hard for me to be creative when I’ve got things hanging over my head, whether they are deadlines for other projects or piles of paper begging to be sorted. Purging was good for my soul, and my newly organized space is inspiring me once again.

My characters have been chatty lately, and I’m ready to see where they want to take me as I transcribe their adventures. I’ve got at least two novels in my head that are ready to hatch, and several others are still incubating. Finishing a book is just a matter of writing every chance I get, chipping away until I’ve got 90K words or so—a novel. My goal for this summer is to complete a first draft of one of the books I want to write. We’ll see how far I get.

I’ll have to be stingy with my writing time. I may go on hiatus from the blog from time to time if I’m on a writing stint, but I’ll surface with news about upcoming projects and events. If you’re on the north coast of Oregon and want to talk writing, stop by Lucy’s Books in Astoria for the Second Saturday Art Walk on July 8. I’ll be there from 5-8pm talking about my recent releases. I’ll also be at the Book Warehouse in Seaside in August and Klindt’s Booksellers in The Dalles in October. More news to come about those events.

I hope you have a wonderful summer. Between work and writing, I’ll try to remember to make time for the beach. The ocean is calling, and it can’t hurt to have more inspiration—find some sand dollars, play in the waves with my boys, and build a driftwood fort or two.

© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2017


Just One Smile

One of my short stories, Just One Smile, was published in Rain Magazine, a literary journal released this week. I was excited to see the journal because it featured artwork from one of my students and stories from several friends. It’s a gorgeous edition, available from booksellers on the north coast of Oregon.

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I thought I’d share an excerpt from my story. It’s about a young woman using public transportation who is harassed. I wrote it because it’s a familiar story to a lot of women–many of us could offer our own versions, unfortunately. It’s kind of a horror story, to be honest. No, there’s no ghost in this one, but in writing it, I tried to convey the fear many women experience in these situations. I’m horrified that it’s 2017 and women still have to deal with this stuff. If you’ve experienced this, know that you’re not alone. I hope, if you see something like this happening, you step up and intervene. We’ve got to stand up for each other.

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The bus had been full at the beginning of the route, but as passengers got off, Janie noticed the man was still there, sitting at the back of the bus. Then, at Sunset Beach, he moved to the front of the bus—to get off, Janie thought, until he sat back down, close to her. She peered over the top of her book to find him looking at her, and quickly averted her gaze.

“I seen you before. What’s your name?” he asked.

Answering would only encourage him. Janie ignored the man and kept reading—or pretended to. She couldn’t focus on the words with him staring at her with those hungry eyes, as if she were a meal to be consumed.

“I asked you a question,” he said, his tone demanding. “What’s your name?”

Janie looked over at the bus driver. His eyes were on the road as he slowed for the stop at Westlake Lane. There was an open seat near the front of the bus, right behind the driver. Maybe if she sat there, this guy would leave her alone. She closed her book, then shouldered her backpack and changed seats.

It did no good. The man got up and followed her, gripping the metal bar overhead as he walked down the aisle. “What, you’re too good to talk to me? You’re smarter than everybody, reading your college book?”

Janie stared at the back of the bus driver’s head, waiting for him to say something. He remained silent. The bus gained speed as he accelerated, pulling back onto the 101. The windshield wipers swept back and forth, clearing away the rain. The driver probably couldn’t hear what was happening behind him, over the noise of the wipers and the motor. Or maybe he could, and didn’t want to get involved. Janie clenched her paperback in her hands, wishing it were a can of pepper spray instead of pocket Shakespeare.

“Aw, come on, baby,” the meth head said, taking the seat across from her. “That was a joke. Give me a smile.”

Janie turned away and scanned the back of the bus. There were still two other passengers on board—an elderly woman and a middle-aged man. She met the man’s gaze, and he gave her a sympathetic smile. She nodded, comforted someone was aware of what was happening. If the meth head tried anything, surely the older man would intervene.

Then, at the next stop, the man got off, and it was just Janie, the old lady, and the meth head, and the meth head wasn’t leaving any time soon.

“You’d be prettier if you smiled,” the man said, giving her a smile of his own, one that revealed a mouth full of rotten teeth. “Come on, baby, just one smile.”

He was going to follow her home. Janie knew it. Her stop was coming up, and he’d get off with her. Then what? What was he going to do? What was she going to do?

© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2017


City of Books

The best thing about playing tour guide is you see things anew through other people’s eyes. My brother had a business trip in Portland this week, so I made the two-hour trek from the coast to meet him for dinner. We drove over to the Pearl district, and as we were paying for parking, I heard the sound of bagpipes.

“The Unipiper!” I said.

“The what?” he asked.

IMG_1442“He’s this dude who rides around Portland on a unicycle, wearing a kilt and a Darth Vader mask, while playing bagpipes that shoot fire,” I explained. And sure enough, as we crossed the street, we ran into the man himself. The Unipiper was gracious, letting me take a photo with him and giving my brother a keychain before pedaling on his merry way. A pretty good ambassador for the city.

“Okay, you’re done,” I told my brother. “You’ve encountered a quintessential PDX icon. You can go home.”

Then we walked into Powell’s City of Books, and I realized we weren’t finished yet. There was much more to see. If you’ve never been to Powell’s, you should remedy that posthaste. It had been too long since my last visit, and I’m glad we went. The first thing we saw was a display dedicated to all things Oregon: t-shirts, magnets, cutting boards, jewelry…whatever your tourist heart could desire. They even had Bigfoot air fresheners. What more could you want, really? Stegosaurus taco socks? Fine, done. They had those too. Along with posters, book bags, and all kinds of geeky accessories that made me want to blow my paycheck.

IMG_1443I managed to resist, and chose one book to bring home, after my brother recommended it. Ready Player One was a book I’d always meant to read, but hadn’t, so it was nice to have a reminder. He asked me for recommendations on books from Oregon authors. I was thrilled to point out books from writers I love: Chelsea Cain, April Henry, Ursula K. LeGuin, and more. It’s such a joy to talk books with someone and find out you adore the same authors. You love Jim Butcher too? No way! Powell’s is so huge we didn’t even make it to the upper floors. When his arms were full of books and my stomach started growling, we walked over to a pub to eat and chat some more.

Living 1,500 miles apart, we don’t see each other often, so it was great to catch up. Of course, I tried to sell him on moving north by gifting him a book on weird places in Oregon as well as a sand dollar from one of my favorite beaches. I stayed later than I meant to, and didn’t get home until one in the morning, but it was worth it to spend time with my brother.

Driving down the Sunset Highway in the middle of the night, surrounded by trees and patches of fog, I kept an eye out for Bigfoot. It seemed a good night for spotting him. There was a full moon and I’d had a fortuitous encounter with the Unipiper earlier, so why not? Alas…no such luck. My air freshener will have to suffice.

© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2017


Fine, We’ll Do It Ourselves

Last night I went with my book club to see the new Wonder Woman movie. It was great—really, really, great. Greek mythology, good story line, awesome fight scenes and special effects, and nice chemistry between the actors. I’ve got a bit of a crush on Gal Gadot. She was wonderful. She portrayed Diana as being strong, intelligent, funny, compassionate, fearless, and honorable. Diana Prince, a.k.a. Wonder Woman, grows up on an island in paradise full of fierce Amazon women and goes on to fight with a scrappy band of heroes in World War I, where she encounters all kinds of rules about what women are supposed to be, and how we’re supposed to act. What I loved most about the movie is instead of conforming to these societal expectations, staying on the sidelines, she makes things happen. She doesn’t ask for permission. She knows what needs to be done and she takes the lead. She’s not worried about what people think of her or if anyone will follow her. She jumps in and gets it done.

Maybe Wonder Woman is the hero we need right now. She’s a good example of a leader, no matter your gender. We need people to take the lead, to jump in and make things happen.

IMG_1421It’s not been an easy week for many of us. Our president decided to withdraw from the Paris accord, jeopardizing our relationships with other countries and sending the message that America doesn’t care about the fate of our planet. Most of us do care though—we do believe our world is in trouble and we want clean energy. Our leader isn’t listening to us and is not representing our interests. He doesn’t seem to realize that he works for us, not the other way around.

That’s why I participated in the #MarchforTruth. We were a small but mighty group—only about 70 souls in our community attended today, but there are many more of us out there. Not everyone can attend every event, but we are united in our resolve to resist the forces threatening the environment, education, healthcare, equality, and our democracy. I was disappointed and embarrassed by the president’s decision, but heartened by the determination at city and state levels to honor the accord, reducing practices that harm the environment and embracing environmentally-friendly technology.

Similar to Wonder Woman, progressive leaders aren’t asking permission—they are taking charge and moving forward. If we can’t rely on the commander in chief to represent our interests, we’re just going to have to save the world ourselves.

© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2017