Step by Step, Word by Word

I have sought counsel from eight separate people regarding a fairly difficult situation in my life. Despite their words of “I’m sorry,” there are is always the saddening “I wish I could help,” which is exactly the opposite of what I wish I could hear.

When my parents were both diagnosed with cancer several years ago, I felt a similar sort of melancholy and loneliness. Despite friends and teachers and neighbors rallying around my brothers and I, all they could really say was “I wish I could help.” It wasn’t that their hugs and prayers weren’t welcome, it was that I was so desperate for a solution, for something better, and the people I relied on couldn’t provide me that.

I turned to writing, delving into fictional worlds in my head where I could control what happened. I didn’t have to wait around for doctors or on blipping heart monitors to tell me what was going on, I could simply write and choose what happened. Most of what I wrote didn’t deal with cancer. Most of what I wrote had nothing to do with my personal life at all, but it felt good to finally have a say in what came next. It didn’t fix anything with my parents’ health (which eventually got better, by the way, and they have both been cancer-free for several years), but it did help in a way that hugs never could. It let me shut off the depression that was my world for a few moments and transfer into a new one. It helped me get through to the other side of the time I affectionately call the Dark Years.

For my job now, I write all day long. I write tweets and news releases and snippets for an upcoming magazine. I spend my day typing away on a computer, stringing words together to tell a story (sometimes even if that means it’s only 140 characters).

So when I get home and open up my laptop, my fingers hesitate more than they did several years ago. My eyes and my hands are tired, and my brain could use a break from being creative. I want to shut off—and I do. Cue the binge-watching world of Netflix. It’s great for my work life, I come in renewed in the morning and ready to work. But as far as the conflict that’s occurring in my life that I’m continually wrestling with in my head, I’ve never really stepped away. In TV land, I can’t control what happens. I watch as tensions flare, and am seemingly more restless when I come out the other side.

I desperately need the reprieve of sinking my teeth—or fingers, rather—into a world commandeered by me. I want to be the maestro so that I can actually fix a problem instead of just living in one. And, as they have been known to do lately, my words are failing me.

When writing/life fails you, I think the best thing you can do is to take it as it comes. I can’t control everything, but I can control how much effort I put into solving things. I can sit down daily and try to write, even if I only ever muster a sentence or two. I can brainstorm of a peaceful solution to turmoil in my life, and actively pursue those options. I can try to remind myself that I won’t be on the struggle bus forever. Sometimes even that’s hard to remember, but then I just think of the words of John Lennon, who once said:

Everything will be okay in the end. And if it’s not okay, it’s not the end. 

And so trying to march on and attempting to write I shall, one word at a time.

Lauren is a social media professional, writer, and editor. She spends too much time talking about Game of Thrones and the Oxford comma. To be insta-best friends, follow her on twitter.

Musical Accompaniment For Your Everyday Writing Needs

Between all of the writing that we ladies of VALCANA do, sometimes silence just won’t cut it. While silence is golden, it can also be as distracting as a cacophony of sounds. Now, I can’t speak for everyone else, but for me, sometimes it helps to have a bit of background music. Here are some of my personal favorites.

Broadway/showtunes – Stephen Sondheim. Rogers and Hammerstein. Jason Robert Brown. If it’s been on Broadway (or even off-Broadway), chances are I’ve heard it. I would suggest a word of caution with this particular genre — I have caught myself typing lyrics (or even singing them aloud). Not a bad thing, but it can be a touch distracting if you aren’t concentrating.

Vitamin String Quartet – I don’t know about the rest of you, but I am a sucker for string arrangements. String arrangements of pop music in particular are a thing I didn’t know I needed. And if you don’t feel like shelling out money to buy music, you can try the magical world of YouTube (they have numerous playlists on their channel), or give them a listen to on Pandora.

Movie Soundtracks – I defy you to write anything mundane—an email, a Google calendar entry, a grocery list—whilst listening to the soundtrack to the Lord of the Rings or The Last Of The Mohicans. It can’t be done—you will feel like you’re soaring, I guarantee it.

Electronic (Ratatat) – For those days when you want something a little funkier than strings or orchestras, and I’m not suggesting dub step by any means, but something like Ratatat or Daft Punk can add a harder (better, faster, stronger) edge to your writing (and you may find yourself having a mini dance party at your desk—always a plus!).

Opera – If you like some soaring vocals with your orchestral arrangements, look no further! And if you think you don’t like opera, deep down, you probably do, at least a little bit. And what’s nice with this as compared to musical theater, is that I’m less likely to sing along (mostly because my vocal range is not nearly large enough to pull off the typical aria, and in most cases these divas and their men are singing in another language).

So, there you have it! But enough about my favorites—what sorts of music do you all listen to?

Noelle is an email copywriter (yes, that is a thing) and occasional freelance writer. When she’s not typing or running, she can be found eating, sleeping, quoting a movie, or curled up in an easy chair with her nose stuck in a book. Sometimes she tweets too.

Hang In There, Folks

In the last couple of weeks, two of my favorite actors passed away. All hell broke loose in a Missouri town after an unarmed teenager was shot by a police officer in broad daylight. I began the process of moving to a new apartment. My older sister is now engaged to be married. My parents are in the process of putting the house I have spent the majority of my life in on the market as they prepare to move to Grand Rapids. My baby brother is about to be a senior in high school, and my younger sister is entering her final year of college.

In short, I’ve had a lot on my mind lately. Most of it good, some of it not-so-much (I could write an entire post about my feelings about just the loss of Robin Williams or Lauren Bacall, and don’t even get me started on what’s happening in Ferguson). My family is on the brink of quite a bit of change (again, most of it good), and I consider it very typical that all of it should occur within the next year or so. As with most big changes in my life, I’m turning to writing to sort out my thoughts and make sense of what I’m feeling.

Here are a few things that I’ve found so far:

We can try to change the conversation about mental illnesses such as depression, and stress the importance of seeking help and treatment. We can be supportive, and non-judgmental. Everyone is going through something no matter how they may seem on the outside.

We can continue paying attention to what’s happening in Ferguson (and in other areas of the U.S. where this type of flagrant disregard for human decency continues, sadly unchecked in most cases). We can offer sympathy, donations, offers to help in whatever way we can to those affected by the violence and strife.

We can remember that sometimes it’s necessary to reinvent ourselves, to pick up the pieces when our lives are shaken up in some way, and to continue finding work and causes that mean something to us.

We can plan ahead, but we also need to be able to take things as they come — you can still be expected to make big changes no matter how old you are or what your position in life is.

We can continue to learn and stay curious about what’s going on around us, whether we’re in a classroom setting or about to leave one for the first time.

And we can always remember that no matter what is going on in the world, life goes on.

Of course, many of these things are easier said than done, and nothing can be completely fixed or righted overnight. But (and I know this is naive and probably foolish for me to say), I have to believe that it will all work out in some way. So, hang in there, everybody. We’re going to be fine.


Noelle is an email copywriter (yes, that is a thing) and occasional freelance writer. When she’s not typing or running, she can be found eating, sleeping, quoting a movie, or curled up in an easy chair with her nose stuck in a book. Sometimes she tweets too.

Interview Insight and My New Job

Yesterday, I had my first day as web developer at WNET, New York’s PBS affiliate. The interview process took about three weeks, and started several weeks after I submitted my application. I had passed it off as a long shot, such a big company with that big title I’d been hoping to achieve: “web developer.” After applying to new positions for what seemed like forever (though, in reality, it had only been a couple of months), I was ready to give up on that dream. I was ready to go back to searching for community manager positions and digital marketing. I knew I was good at it, and I knew that my resume could really show those skills off, despite hoping to break out.

Wow this GIF is actually relevant now that I work for a PBS producer.

Wow this GIF is actually relevant now that I work for a PBS producer.

I finally got the call for a web developer position. After a phone screen with HR, I quickly met with Brian, director of technology, for an in-person interview. We went through the typical interview questions and a bit of minor code testing. The question I hadn’t exactly prepared for, though should have been completely expected, came up last: “What sets you apart from the other candidates?” As I answered, I realized how much it impacted all of my decisions. I realized that I couldn’t stop pursuing web development, and that I would do whatever it took to get this position.

What was that answer? What made me different from all of the other candidates?

At my core, I am a professional writer. I think about my work through an editorial lens, needing a strong backbone and support structure to hold up the work. I am consciously commenting all of my code to make it easier to read and to understand.

I did it! I'm a developer!

I did it! I’m a developer!

Being a writer gives me a strength beyond my technical skills. Yes, I need to be able to actually build. Yes, I’m tested to show that I can put the pieces together in a way that makes sense and functions. Beyond that, however, I can actually articulate what I’m doing. I can explain how the pieces work in a way that makes sense to those who haven’t ever touched the console or the backend of a CMS.

If you had asked me four years ago if this would be what I would do for my career, I think I would have laughed at you. No freaking way. Bold tags do not equal developer. And now, I couldn’t be prouder of myself. I have moved beyond my expectations of myself and to something so much better. My brain is constantly being challenged, and I’m pushing myself to learn more. I’m officially a woman in tech.

This also doesn’t mean I’ve stopped writing. I just write in a new way, in a different way. Spelling mistakes matter more now than ever before and structure is imperative.

I look forward to the upcoming weeks and months as I expand beyond my very specialized knowledge and become a full fledged front-end engineer.

Alexandra WhiteAlexandra is a WordPress & front-end developer who builds awesome things. She loves craft beer, apple cider cookies, and traveling to new places (especially when the trip is free). You should follow her on twitter and maybe you can become internet friends. Or maybe even IRL friends.

#Bookgate: Real Housewives Talk Ghost Writing

I moved to California about five months ago and have since become an avid Real Housewives fan. It started out as research for Southern California and now has expanded into something much greater and very unhealthy. This blog isn’t about self-shaming over low-brow entertainment, though—it’s about life lessons, people.

Part of the success of the Real Housewives franchise is it teaches all of us valuable etiquette: don’t gossip, don’t talk down to others, don’t throw wine glasses at people’s faces, and most of all don’t call yourself a writer if you use a ghost writer.

The latter resulted in a feud between two Real Housewives of New York City in this past season, something Bravo! was shipping as #Bookgate.

In case you weren’t up on the drama, Carole Radziwill recently published her latest book, A Widow’s Guide to Sex and Dating. The book received high praise (even from Oprah!) and served as a reminder to viewers that Radziwill actually had a journalism career pre-Housewives. Enter drama from stage right in the form of Aviva Drescher.

Drescher starts the season with a book deal and seeks out fellow reality star, Radziwill for advice on a ghost writer her publisher suggested. Drescher makes the poor (and unconfirmed) assumption that Radziwill must have had a ghost writer because everyone who is pretty and famous and ends up writing a novel / book has a ghost writer (i.e. Snooki and Lauren Conrad). Big mistake.

Radziwill’s proud of being a writer. It’s hard freaking work (as we all know) and it’s her career (she used to work for ABC producing documentaries for Peter Jennings). In essence, it’s like saying to a basketball player, so who’s your stand-in who makes all those shots?

The drama percolates and escalates into a full-blown Real Housewives feud perfect for the reunion episode (it’s all the Bravo producers could have wished for). It escalates because it becomes what makes all great Real Housewives feuds great: jealousy, ego, and “lack of support.”

But the real issue/philosophical conundrum this raises to me is, what categorizes a writer as a writer and who gets to stake claim to our coveted society? Obviously Aviva Drescher wants in (as she puts it in the reunion, “it takes a village” and she wrote the “first draft”) and in the age of reality TV and rise of celebrity culture, she’s not the only one. Many writers take offense to this, even though it is well understood how the book deal world and ghost writing profession work.

In the infamous reunion episode that just aired last night, Carole Radziwill extended an olive branch to all of those who hire ghost writers saying it’s common practice and that, “there’s no shame in it.” But, is that just lip service? Are us writers sympathetic enough to those who just can’t write but have a good story to tell and excuse it when their books fly off the proverbial shelves? Or is it so demoralizing that Lauren Conrad of Laguna Beach fame has “written” bestsellers that we sip our black coffee in the corner and simmer with anger?

I fall somewhere in the middle of this continuum. I don’t think being a writer is a closed society and I have a pretty loose definition on who can call themselves a writer and what qualifies you as a writer. I do have a problem though when I see Lauren Conrad has a book and not just a book but a successful book series. Mainly because I see, know and hear of such talented writers who will never see a book deal in their life. This makes me more upset with the publishing world and socioeconomic divides than with Conrad. It’s articles like this that make upset with Lauren Conrad as an author.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on ghost writers (if Lauren Conrad or Aviva Drescher had one) or even your take on #bookgate. Because after all, we all know Harper Lee had Truman Capote ghost write To Kill a Mockingbird. #duh

Ashley HaglundAshley works in corporate, health care and non-profit communications. She loves starting new writing projects; is a media junkie; enjoys studying science, technology and patent law issues; and has a love/hate relationship with semi-colons. To see her face and be her internet friend, follow her on twitter.

On Finding Time

I have too many hobbies. I know this. I’ve been told, many times, that I need to stop spreading myself so thin and freaking focus.

It’s a problem—a real problem. There are too many things that interest me. Let’s talk about a few: I write novels, poetry, and short stories, and I want to someday make this my living. I love to cook delicious food and bake new recipes. I love and am very passionate about tea and how it relates to culture and society. I adore the French language. I really want to garden. I READ. I want to do more yoga. I’m super interested in herbs and natural remedies. I love craft beer.

Now, let’s talk about the things I have to do: work a 40 hour work week, make time for Jacob (and friends), freelance (2 – 5 hours a week doesn’t sound like much, but it is), and write book reviews (for

This does not include the much needed time to relax, scroll through Tumblr, and maybe watch a few (or 10) episodes of Buffy.

I have a lot of interests that I really wish I had the time to delve into more deeply.

So, how on earth do I find time to do what I do?


It’s pretty simple, really. Prioritize. I obviously have to work, so I work. But in the mornings, if I have time (and I do about 3x a week), I write a 10 minute writing prompt. I make editing and writing and reading a priority. I freelance. I cook. I get to see/talk to friends a few times a week.

I don’t do much else. So many people say, “I don’t know how you do it! You do so much!” I mean, sure, I do a lot. But I spread it out.

That’s the thing—I want to focus a lot of my time all of particular things, but I just don’t have the energy or time. By spreading myself out (and making sure not to spread myself too thin), I am able to find time to enjoy all of my favorite things.

Still not sure how I find time? Let me break it down. My main hobbies include writing/reading, cooking/baking, tea, yoga. Here’s how I fit them into my life (as an example).

Monday: writing/reading & cooking
Because it’s the first day back at work, Monday is usually no-freelance day. I come home, cook myself dinner, scroll through Tumblr, and then I write. I write and I edit. I catch up on bills. I usually stay at my computer. Sometimes I watch 2 – 4 episodes of Buffy before crawling into bed.

Tuesday: cooking & yoga & tea
I do yoga IMMEDIATELY when I get home (or else I lose motivation). After yoga, I cook, and then once I’ve eaten I make myself a cup of tea. I usually get a lot of freelance work done.

Wednesday: craft beer & writing/reading
I pick up my CSA (community supported agriculture) at The Community Tap, a local beer store. Sometimes, my old roomie is working and I will try a new beer, sit down with my journal, and do some writing or read.

Thursday: yoga & friends & reading
Yoga right when I get back from work, unless I am meeting a friend—in that case, probably no yoga. But definitely some reading before bed (or Netflix…). Freelance work, of course.

Friday: writing & writing & writing
Because of writing group, Friday is usually ALL about the writing. Plus it’s the weekend, so I go to writing group, work hard, come home and watch Netflix. Or else go out with some friends. Depends on my mood, of course.

Saturday: what am I lacking?
Saturday is usually a “what did I not do this week that I really want to do?” Let’s be real, sometimes the answer to that is DRINK. Sometimes it’s read, sometimes I really want to meet up with some friends. Sometimes Jacob and I go out for bike rides, sometimes we try a new restaurant (or an old fav). Saturday is my DO WHAT YOU WISH day.


Sunday: food & reading
Ahhh, grocery shopping day. We like to hit up Whole Foods to feed my inner foodie. I love it. We buy little fancy cheeses, gourmet hummus, delicious macadamia nuts. Lemme tell you—this is when I really get my fix. That and preparing much of the food throughout the week. In the evening, there’s a lot of prepping food for the week to come.

So, there you have it. I am not miraculous. I am not amazing at getting a million things done. I prioritize. It all comes down to being organized and to knowing what I need and want to get done. Sometimes I take it moment by moment—what do I really want to do right now(could be Netflix, could be writing, could be those dishes I want to get done)? Sometimes I look at my whole week—will I have time to freelance tomorrow? If not, I better get it done today. Will I be able to write tomorrow? No? Work on some stuff today.

As I get older, I get better at knowing myself and accepting myself. I am better at predicting my moods (I rarely freelance on Monday because it is MONDAY). I accept that I do not need to force myself into doing anything—I do what I crave when I have free time. I read when I am dying to finish a book. I sleep when I want a nap. I make myself a cup of tea when I am feeling sad.

The more I know myself, the more I can do and the happier I am. Funny how that works, huh?

So—do tell. How do you find time for your hobbies? What are your hobbies? Any gems to share?


Vanessa is a digital media coordinator by day and a writer, novelist, and badass cook by night. She loves used bookstores, is way too serious about tea, and doesn’t give a damn if she wears the same outfit 2 days in a row. She totally wants to be your friend, so you should follow her on twitter & maybe check out her writing blog.

Happy (Almost) 1 Year Anniversary, GSL!

Has it really been a year? One whole year? 52 weeks? 365 days? 525,600 minutes?

Well, dear readers, it has indeed been roughly a year since a group of fabulous ladies from MSU’s Professional Writing program hatched a plan to create our very own blog, Grammar Style Life. If this is your first post, welcome! If you’ve been following us from the beginning, thank you.

It’s hard to believe how much has changed since this endeavor began—members of VALCANA have graduated from college, moved to far-off places, started/quit/excelled/failed at various jobs and tasks, and throughout it all we’ve written our experiences down and shared them with you once a month.

I had no idea what to expect when GSL started. I assumed it would be a chance to get a more personal style of writing out into the interwebz, and help me keep in touch with the other fantastic young women who have written, edited and shared via social media pieces of writing that are at times funny, informative, or just plain awesome. In turn, I have also enjoyed writing/editing/sharing things via social media, but I thought I’d include a list of my favorites from each VALCANA member so far:

Vanessa: On Failure and Optimism

Alexandra: When I Started Calling Myself a “Woman in Tech”

Lauren: Life, Edited

Chelsea: Summer Cocktail Round Up

Allegra: To my sixteen-year-old self.

Noelle: (honestly, I’ve enjoyed every GSL post I’ve written — I could never pick a favorite!)

Ashley: Giving Technical Writing A Reality Check

I have no idea what the next year of GSL will bring us, but I can only hope it will be as fun and silly and, dare I say, empowering as it’s been this past year.

Pat yourselves on the back, ladies of VALCANA, and here’s to another year!

Tina Fey


Noelle is an email copywriter (yes, that is a thing) and occasional freelance writer. When she’s not typing or running, she can be found eating, sleeping, quoting a movie, or curled up in an easy chair with her nose stuck in a book. Sometimes she tweets too.