#weekendcoffeeshare: Missed milestones

If we were having coffee, I would tell you that today would have been the induction ceremony for my university’s chapter of Phi Kappa Phi, a national, all-discipline honor society. It looks like a beautiful day for it, too, and I would have loved the chance to go out, dress up a little, take pictures on campus around Iowa State landmarks near the Memorial Union. As someone who has been told she’s an overachiever all her life, but has never felt like she’s actually achieved much, being chosen to be part of an honor society feels like a kind of validation.

And I know that something like this might not matter in the grand scheme of things. I know that being part of PKP isn’t necessary or sufficient to be a good person in the world. But when I got the invitation to join, I was on a high for a while. When I’m on that high, I feel like I can be my best self, and my best self is good. My best self is on top of her to-do list, writing things she loves, being helpful to her community, and generally reveling in having a good time.

When I’m not on that high, I try to be softer, accept messiness, and take things step by step. In other words, I still try to be good, and I try not to let my thoughts linger on the ways in which that good falls short of great.

An honor society induction is one small, niche milestone of the many milestones people will be missing due to isolation and quarantine. Graduations: cancelled. Thesis and dissertation defenses: done over video conferencing. Birthdays: celebrated at home. Weddings: postponed at best. Coming-of-age traditions: perhaps creatively reimagined, but it’s not the same as gathering loved ones together.

And underneath these milestones are cracks in more foundational aspects of living: people losing jobs, losing livelihoods, having to put enormous effort into making a switch in skills as some jobs have to switch to digital spaces. People putting their lives on the line as they work essential positions that keep the rest of the world running. In that grand scheme of things, missing a milestone doesn’t feel that big. There’s a greater shift that is happening. The benchmarks that used to matter will be radically redefined.

That doesn’t make missing them any less disappointing. That doesn’t make it easier to pick up and continue on, when that milestone would have been, maybe, some kind of respite, or at least a foundation from which to leap.

Are you missing any milestones because of the pandemic? Let me know in the comments; I’d love to celebrate them with you.

Header image is from January 2020.

To-do list

I had a poem published yesterday in Backchannels Journal‘s Pandemic Issue, an instant publishing opportunity. I’ve been trying to write a poem every day in April, and the poem published was the one I wrote on April 1st.

The poem is sort of a to-do list, or it contains to-do lists that are a little glib, but a little serious. As I deal with staying at home all the time, I have been trying to keep up certain routines. Make a to-do list. Reflect on the week every Sunday. Schedule the days, even if the even is as simple as “Eat dinner.” And so on.

But sometimes these routines dissolve. Sometimes I make a to-do list and don’t do anything on it. I am trying not to beat myself up about this, try not to get too bogged down in a remembrance of who I was before staying at home. I used to pride myself a little on the fact that I could stay on task, that I could fill up the boxes of my planner and do every. single. item. I could sit for hours in the library knocking out several thousand words of a novel. I could, I could, I could.

Right now, though, it feels like there are a lot of things I couldn’t.

Anyway, for you writers established or emerging, if you feel moved to write about this current pandemic moment, I hope you submit it to Backchannels Journal.

Header image from Pixabay.

The follow-up

I’ve been looking at my list of current submissions out to various literary magazines. Duotrope has a handy feature that indicates when a submission has been out for longer than usual, and so it might be a good idea to follow up with editors and check in on the submission.

I will definitely not do that.

As an editor, I don’t mind getting those follow-up emails. It’s a reminder to me to stay on top of the work and do right by the authors who submit. But as an author who is also an editor, I know the kind of anxiety that that follow-up, as kind as it may be, can cause. This isn’t to say that authors shouldn’t follow up; they definitely should, especially if they think that the submission has been lost somehow, or they’ve had other correspondence with the editors.

But I’ve very rarely sent a follow-up; I know that the editorial team of whatever magazine I’ve submitted to is doing their best to get through all the submissions. In this current pandemic world, it feels like sending that follow-up would be an extra layer on top of the underlying thrum of despair that this whole situation is causing.

It does make me think about what creative writing and publishing might look like when this is all over. Online journals, and free/cheap ebooks are helping the world get through their isolation. It seems that everyone now understands the value of artists and the work they produce. And I can only hope that the positive changes will remain. That accommodations and accessibility services disabled writers and readers have been hoping for (virtual events, subtitles on everything, more audiobooks, to say the least) will remain. That people will continue to understand why we need funding for the arts, so it won’t be the first thing on the chopping block when budgets are being made and remade.

And as a writer, I must think not only about how to adapt to that new publishing reality, but also think about how to be part of the movement that helps those positive changes remain. What can I do as a writer? What can I do as an editor?

Right now, as a reader, I can share some things I’ve been enjoying recently that are available for free online.

Mineral Lit Mag recently released a Hozier-themed issue; if you love that man’s music as much as I do, you’ll really enjoy these poems: https://www.minerallitmag.com/issue-15-hozier-inspired.html

“Welcome to Iowa: Letters to Carp and Other Immigrants” by my MFA colleague Kartika Budhwar came out a few months ago in Blue Mesa Review and it is gorgeous. https://issuu.com/bluemesareview/docs/bmr_issue_40_issuu/50

This piece by Mary Annaïse Heglar, “We Can’t Tackle Climate Change Without You,” which has struck the perfect balance between individual action and pushing for larger, systemic change: https://www.wired.com/story/what-you-can-do-solve-climate-change/

Header image from 2016.

Time again

Coping mechanisms abound during isolation and quarantine. Though Iowa has not issued a shelter in place order yet (WTF, Kim Reynolds), I have been acting as if the order has been given. Because safety. Because health. Being at home all the time now means that I am levitating between on and off, a light switch halfway flipped, and the light bulb is flickering.

I started tracking my time a few years ago when I got a job as a contract employee. The end of the month meant invoices for my hourly work. Even after I became a salaried employee again, the time tracking remained, and I started tracking my writing time as well. I used to post charts of my writing data. Those charts showed me that I was very optimistic about writing Nonfiction (though I never, ever did). My average writing session was half an hour long. I had more writing sessions per month than days in a month; I used to write while on my lunch break, and for hours before and after work.

The time tracking habit was put on pause over this past summer when I switched phones and didn’t have the time (haha) to find a new app that I trusted as much. But now, with isolation and remote learning, I’ve turned on my old phone and started tracking again. It gives my days some structure. It forces me to reflect on what I’m doing, and remember what I want to be doing.

The past few days I have felt a bit lost. Immersed in distractions, because distractions felt like the best way to cope. That flickering bulb at the beginning of this post? It’s hard to tell if it’s flickering because the switch is always mid-flip, or if the bulb is starting to burn out.

I know I have it better than most. I live with a partner I love, and people reach out with the occasional text to check in. My stipend checks are still coming in. I have a job, and I can do it remotely (though the experience has changed significantly; online learning is not really the same thing, and even as a tech-savvy person, this is all very new to me). But there is still a pressing weight of, “What happens after this?”

I have some thoughts, but I don’t know for sure.

Header image is from February 2020.

Moment to moment

Two thoughts that I feel should be in a blog post, though I don’t know how to make them cohere:

Write the days; record this moment as if we were living through history.

Because we are. I’ve seen tweets that implore the necessity of starting a journal now, of recording daily life now, because years down the road we’ll all need to look back and learn and remember. The historians will thank you.

In my mind and in my journaling practice, I have been combining this with writing advice gleaned from Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream. Here is a passage:

But here’s a certain kind of journal that might be useful to you: at the end of the day or beginning of the next day, return to some event of the day that evoked an emotion in you. Record that event in the journal. But do this only—only—moment to moment through the senses. Absolutely never name an emotion; never start explaining or analyzing or interpreting an emotion. Record only through those five ways I mentioned that we feel emotions—signals inside the body, signals outside the body, flashes of the past, flashes of the future, sensual selectivity—which are therefore the best ways to express emotions. Such a journal entry will read like a passage in a novel, like the most intense moment-to-moment scene in a novel…

Robert Olen Butler, From Where You Dream, p. 28

This method of journaling is mostly meant for creative writers trying to improve some element of “craft.” But it’s useful for others, too, who are just getting into the habit, who maybe feel that same impulse to record something about this moment in time. Do it moment to moment. Focus on emotions, and let the events and facts fall into place from that.

After this, there is no going back to a world from “before.”

The world before is what led us here. Why should we go back? This is something that has been personally frustrating for me, and has pervaded my life, from my politics to my personal goals. Why should the world go back to the way it was? Hasn’t it been made abundantly clear that business as usual is a recipe for failure?

I have very little patience with the idea that change must come incrementally. This pandemic is a wake-up call; we cannot put radical change on a ten-year timeline. It must be done now. Action must be taken now. And while that inspires its own kind of anxiety, I think that the people who think that incremental change is necessary in order to give us all the time to adapt underestimate just how resilient we are. We don’t need time to “get used to” a new world.

We also just don’t have the time.

Header image is from July 2019.


The curriculum for the English communication course I taught this semester emphasized regular reflection. After each major assignment, the students had to write about their writing and editing process. The reflections were low-stakes assignments worth only 5 points each, and they were meant to help the students learn the nebulous, elusive concept of progress and continual growth. In a way, the main takeaway of the class was the idea that communication is not just a product, but a process.

As a writer, I know the benefits and enjoy the act of reflecting, perhaps too much. I’ve been journaling since 2009, have been blogging for the majority of this decade, and in some way I feel vindicated when pedagogy texts tout the benefits of such practices. When I explain to my students why these reflections matter, I hope my enthusiasm is contagious (though I know that that’s not exactly always the case).

But the way my students are taught to reflect is not the way I reflect. Their way is better. The reflection prompts give a list of questions that serve as starters. They are told to be specific, to quote directly from their assignments, to provide evidence of their thinking. When I reflect, my sentences are often vague, describe a series of events rather than demonstrate metacognition, and I’m not reflecting on anything in particular, just writing about my day in order to satisfy my craving to put ink on a page.

As I write this blog post, my desk has a copy of The New Yorker open to an essay I want to analyze in preparation for teaching rhetorical analysis to my students next semester. My winter break plans include doing the major assignments that are required of my students so that I’m familiar with the work and questions they may have. The main textbook I’ll be teaching from, Everything’s An Argument, outlines skills I need a refresher on. There’s a reflection prompt after each assignment, which I will also complete so that I can remember the challenges and joys of writing a rhetorical analysis of a David Sedaris essay.

But I have yet to figure out a way to reflect so specifically on everything—on all of life, on this decade.

In the final essay I had workshopped in a Nonfiction class I took this semester, I wrote about the journaling habit I started during my senior year of high school, ten years ago. My areas of concern felt sprawling when I was seventeen, though I imagine that they were actually very tightly circumscribed to immediate topics: friendship drama, the college application process, and whatever pop music sensation I was a fan of at the time.

I say that I imagine what my concerns were at the start of the decade because I don’t yet know; I haven’t really revisited that first notebook. Ever since I started journaling, I have left the last page blank, reserved for ten years after the completion of that notebook. My first ten-year “anniversary” is coming up on January 5th, 2020.

In a way, the 2010’s have been a decade of gathering material, and the next decade will comprise regular reflections where I’ll be confronting concrete evidence of my thinking and learning and living.

I’m not sure what to expect. When I think about the moments that feel personally monumental in the past ten years, I may find them unconsciously (or consciously) minimized in my journals. Or I may find a fixation that I don’t remember, or misremembered. I will feel embarrassed at times, and will definitely feel an occasional frisson of shame at some of my past actions.

The final reflection prompt my students had to answer this past semester had, essentially, three parts: look at who you were at the start of the semester, summarize how you have changed to reach your present moment, and create a plan for continuing your progress in the future. A good reflection has all three parts, and I often find difficulty in balancing all three. I linger in the past (sometimes too much), and I’m happy to meditate on who I am in the present. But who do I want to be? What shame do I want to eliminate, or minimize if I can’t erase it entirely? How do I want to be better than who I am today?

Because that’s the only thing I know for certain about the past, my present, or future: I just want to be better.

#weekendcoffeeshare: Circles of control

If we were having coffee, I might tell you how I’m in my second year of my MFA program, have just started NaNoWriMo, and I’ve been generally thinking about burnout.

The past few weeks I started doing something that I first learned about in a book called Embarrassment and the Emotional Underlife of Learning by Thomas Newkirk. It’s an exercise where you think about a goal that you want to achieve and you draw a circle on a blank page. Within that circle, you write all the things that you can control. Everything outside the circle—even, to some extent, whether or not you achieve that goal—is outside of your control, so focus on the things that are in the circle. It’s one of my favorite things to do right now. The tension between my expectations and my reality have often caused me the most emotional strife. By drawing the circle, I at least manage my expectations.

It’s NaNoWriMo and I am participating as I have been since 2015. And I’ve been thinking about this blog post I wrote on the first day of December of 2016, the last year I “won” and wrote 50,000 words in a month. At the time I wrote that post, I felt submerged in all the despair that swept through my personal and professional spheres in the weeks after the 2016 election. I wrote about a quotation that I carried with me that entire year:

Art can’t save you from pain, but the discipline of hard work can drag you through it.

Molly Crabapple, Drawing Blood

I haven’t thought about that blog post or that quotation in a while, and in a way, I’m lucky to be able to set that strife aside. But this past week I have been reminded of the ways in which I have internalized the idea that the discipline of art has helped me through pain.

So far in my second year I have been trying to prevent burnout. It’s a fine line to walk between working hard and taking care, between being ambitious and being too ambitious. I’ve been trying to keep sight of the things that matter, and maintain balance between work and play. When I feel out of control—from pain, frustration, worry, doubt, anything—I draw my circles. I recommit myself to my vision. And it’s NaNoWriMo—I intend to write in a fury.

If we were having coffee, I’d invite you to write with me.

Header image from Pixabay.

This post was created as part of #weekendcoffeeshare. Check out more posts in the hashtag.

When I take my shot

I sometimes actually hit the mark.

At the start of this year, I set the goal of submitting at least one hundred times in 2019. It’s a realistic goal, and one that many writers take on at some point in order to increase their chances of publication.

I haven’t been keeping pace to meet it, but I have been submitting way more than I have in the past.

And I’m happy to say that the effort has been paying off.

I entered the Iowa Poetry Association’s annual contest. Though I didn’t win one of the prizes, I received word that my poem, “When I start paying attention,” will be appearing in the annual Lyrical Iowa anthology. You can order the anthology here: https://iowapoetry.com/orderbooks.htm

I recently had my very first poetry publication in an online magazine called From The Edge. My poem, “Sonnet Feeding Friends,” was included in the Autumn 2019 issue. The editor included this note in the Editorial description:

…and Caroliena Cabada handles with sensitivity marriage  with an enviable extended metaphor that shows a great knowledge of the bible.

From The Edge poetry magazine editor Fiona Sinclair

And finally, a flash fiction piece I wrote around this time last year, called “How To Grow Basil,” was accepted for publication twice (after initially being rejected 16 times). The story will be appearing in Issue No. 11 of Barren Magazine, and will be subsequently reprinted in the anthology Heat the Grease, We’re Frying Up Some Poetry published by Gnashing Teeth Publishing.

There is more to say about determination, resilience, and taking chances, but that’s another post for another day. I’m grateful to the publications that have given these pieces a home, honored to be included in the company of so many talented writers, and excited to be able to share my writing both online and in print.

Header image from Pixabay.

Being green (with youth, with envy)

When I was stressed out about my schoolwork and wanted to take a break this semester, I started re-reading the Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante. When I first read them in 2018, I read them faster than I’d read pretty much any book in the past few years. I couldn’t stop thinking about them. I loved (and still love) the books so much I’m trying to emulate the narrator’s voice in writing exercises in my journal. I recommend them at every possible moment. I evangelize these books so hard.

And I feel like the novels are a cleverly-disguised grab bag of ideas; everyone finds something in there that’s tailor-made for them. Based on the Goodreads reviews, readers grasp the intricacy and complexity of the novels, but they also subtly highlight the defining quality that held the books together for them, whether it’s the strong connection to a place, the intensity of the central female friendship, or the turbulent political atmosphere that’s more explicit in the later books.

For me, what holds the story together is the narrator, Elena Greco, and not just because the books stay in her point of view. I feel that I am Elena, especially during her early adult years. Her relationship with her mother is tense and rife with conflict, but also contains moments of affection. Education is her way of advancing her status, but when she does succeed in that new arena, she is still dragged down by an intense self-doubt. And then, probably the characteristic I felt the closest to most of all: Writing eventually becomes the lens through which she sees the world.

In the novels, Elena Greco publishes her first book after graduating from university, around the age of 22.

For me, I have not yet experienced that kind of success.

Throughout the past few years, I’ve absorbed all kinds of advice on writing and publishing. (I’ve even sometimes dispensed my own, somewhat meager, advice on the former.) And there is a certain kind of combo advice and motivational speech that published authors dispense when asked to give some words to the aspiring: “Never give up.” “I was rejected a hundred times before I published my first piece.” “You never know if the thousandth attempt is going to be the lucky one.” Et cetera. And I feel like I have taken this advice to heart. I have my rejections, and I have even flaunted them in a way (i.e., occasionally in my Instagram story where it will disappear in 24 hours). But it is still hard to take sometimes, especially when so many success stories seem to emphasize youth and vitality.

I am 26 years old now. This coming week, I’ll be turning 27. I’m still laughably, sickeningly young, and yet also worried that the youth card will be revoked soon. Who cares if I publish? I didn’t do it fast enough.

When I was 21, I had my first ever short story accepted by a literary magazine at my university. I was taking an introductory creative writing class while studying abroad in Australia, and the first story I had workshopped was the one I decided to submit, on a bit of a whim, the day before the deadline. A few months later, I ended up getting an acceptance, when I was expecting a rejection.

That early success went to my head in much the same way that Elena’s first invitation to submit a short piece to a magazine unleashed a torrent of daydreaming about writing. I started having grand ideas of submitting somewhere every month, of getting story after story out into the world. But, as you can see from my somewhat paltry publication record (at the time of posting this), that hasn’t been the case.

Here’s what I didn’t take into account in the throes of my immature ambition: I did a lot of writing to get that first story to a good place. I had written three different stories before stumbling on the one I would eventually take to my class for feedback. I edited. A lot. I sat at my desk for hours copying it by hand, making tweaks to it as I went, then spent more time marking it up, then typing it again, tweaking it again. I did this because early in the semester I had the energy for it. My other stories submitted to the class later on didn’t get that same attention. And it’s no wonder they ended up not going anywhere.

Since that first success, I’ve grown a little more realistic about writing and publishing. I’ve stopped seeing my twenties as this benchmark, this window of time when I can launch my career as a writer. And I’ve also become more familiar with the things I personally need to do to get my stories to a good place. Write. Rewrite. Edit. Become intimately familiar with every word of a story. Step back and give it time. All things that writers before me have said.

I revisited the Neapolitan Novels a lot this semester because I had a lot on my plate. I was in a Fiction workshop, a Poetry workshop, and a Science Fiction class that had a workshop component; I co-taught an undergraduate Creative Writing class; and I also took a class on climate change. I have felt euphoria in my writing and intense self-doubt on re-reading it. In those moments of self-doubt, I returned to a book I admired. On my second full read-through of the series, I am finding so much more in it than I had initially.

And this is the only way I know how to ripen from green to a full-flushed color: Reading and re-reading. Becoming familiar with every word of the stories (and people and places and experiences) I love.

Stepping back and giving it time.

Breaks and beginnings

Even-numbered years, for me, tend to be split in two. In 2014 I graduated from college; the first half of that year was characterized by my being a full-time student, and the second half of the year by my being a full-time employee. In 2016 I switched jobs from that first full-time job to a new one more in line with my passions and interests. And in 2018, I left that job to return to school and start my time at an MFA program.

Maybe it’s the nature of even numbers, cleanly bisected, that lends them to before-and-afters. Maybe it’s my pattern-seeking brain finding recurring themes in the even-numbered years (elections, Olympics, decades, etc.). Or maybe it’s the timing of my birth; born in the first half of an even-numbered year, my graduation milestones typically happen in even-numbered years, splitting them between one education level and another (with an interminable summer in between).

Whatever the reason, it’s the split years that have felt the most satisfactory, in a way. I feel like I’ve changed the most in these even-numbered years (before-and-afters, of course) that I’ve started to develop some nervous anticipation around odd-numbered years. On some level, I’ve already unconsciously decided that 2019 couldn’t possibly be as good for me as 2018 was, so I’ll save my energy for 2020.

Then again: 2011 was the year I got together with my partner (with whom I’m still in a relationship); 2013 I studied abroad and took my first creative writing class; 2015 I did my first NaNoWriMo; and 2017 I started pursuing creative writing and publishing again in earnest. If even-numbered years are characterized by before-and-afters, odd-numbered years are characterized by beginnings.

I can only speculate what beginnings are in store for me in 2019. One of my projects this winter break is to plant the seeds for summer vacation as much as possible. Apply for summer writing workshops, fit in as much travel as I can, and save money in the meantime for these pursuits. But the thing about beginnings, for me, is that they happen somewhat suddenly. I can never really plan for what next desire will derail me onto a whole new track.

Whatever it is, I’m looking forward to it in the new year.