Monthly Archives: July 2012

On Revision


I had the opportunity to share some thoughts on novel revision over at Necessary Fiction where my good friend and excellent writer Matthew Salesses has launched a month-long series on revision as their July 2012 writer in residence.

I talk a little about my process, and my approach to revision–here’s a little bit of an excerpt to get you started:

“Starting over and rewriting is revision, at least for me. Saying I am rewriting gives me more creative freedom, less of an obligation to retain old words, much of which while beautiful, did not work inside the whole. The word revision, for some reason, made me more unwilling to recreate worlds.”

Hope my experience and perspective on rewriting/revision helps you out.

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Filed under Revision, Writing

Dopefiend Book Giveaway


I’m giving away a copy of my friend Tim Elhajj’s debut memoir Dopefiend. It is, as the title suggests, a drug recovery memoir, but with the added theme of of Elhajj’s relationship with his son. (And Scarlet the Wiener Dog as you can see above, is thoroughly engrossed. She just wishes she had opposable thumbs so she could hold the book herself).

I first got to know Tim Elhajj after reading his essay in the NYTimes’ Modern Love column. I googled him. Came across his blog…And then of course, we became blog friends.

Dopefiend is available now…and I’m giving away a free hard copy of the book, along with a bookmark and postcard inserts, gifted to you personally by Elhajj, whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Guernica, and Brevity.


As always, I will sweeten your intrigue with the opening lines of the giveaway book, because I think readers deserve the opening lines.

Opening lines of the novel:

“After getting booted from high school three times, I joined the military. Three years into my enlistment, the Navy cut me loose. I moved back to Pennsylvania and got married, but soon after our first child was born, my wife split, taking our baby boy with her.

I was a twenty-four-year-old cyclone of poor decisions.

In time, I landed in county jail. At least nobody gets thrown out of jail. Drug treatment followed, but even that didn’t work: I went to recovery meetings high. One night a woman named Wendy R pulled me aside and hissed: “You are going to die!”

I told her the obvious, ‘We’re all going to die, Wendy.'”


Here’s how to enter:
1) Leave a comment below. You can say anything you want–e.g., you can choose to tell me why you want a copy of the book, or share an anecdote in which you overcame great odds, or a time you signed up for something about which you later changed your mind. Do fill out your email address when you fill out the fields in the comment box (it won’t be published to the world, but I will need it in order to contact you in case you win)!
2) 1 entry per person. If you tweet about this giveaway (please include/tag @czilka in your tweet so that I can track it), you get an extra entry.
3) The giveaway is open worldwide.
4) If you win the contest, I will email you for your mailing address.
5) Winners will be chosen by a random number generator.
6) I will be announcing the contest winner on the blog. None of your personal information will be posted, aside from your first name and last initial (or the nickname you choose to list in your comment). If you see that someone else has entered the same name as you, please try to pick a different nickname to call yourself, so as to avoid confusion.
7) If you are below the age of 13, please ask your parents to fill out the comment field with their information.

The deadline to enter a comment/tweet is Monday July 30, 2012 12:00pm PST. The winner (picked at random) will be announced Tuesday July 31, 2012 by 9:00pm PST.

GOOD LUCK! And I hope you all find your way to a copy of Dopefiend soon!

UPDATE: Winner of the giveaway!

There were 13 entries in the order received–two of you tweeted the giveaway, so two of you got an extra entry. Each of you had a corresponding number as follows…

If you entered into the drawing, remember your number/s!

I used a random number generator to determine the winning number.

And *drum roll*
*drum roll*
*drum roll*

The winner is number 12!

Aka Hope Rohde, whose entry reads:

“Tim and I went to the same small high school in the same small town. I’d love to have his book not because I’ve dealt with addiction but because I work for Children & Youth and come into contact with so many youth with addictions. What a testament this book would be for local children to see how a local man overcame and became someone’s hero. Bravo Tim and blessings to you.”

Thank you, Hope (if I don’t hear from you, I’ll be emailing you for a way to contact you). Thank you *everyone* for your interest and support. I hope all of you find your way to a copy of Dopefiend soon!


Filed under Giveaway

R is for Rabbi

Eldridge Street Synagogue

It took three tries, as expected, for him to return my call.

“Hello, this is a message for Rabbi F. My name is Christine, and I want to convert to Judaism, and study with you. I would like to discuss next steps. Thank you.” I was nervous and overeager.

If I’d known better at the time, I might have, among other things, winced when saying my name, Christine, the most Christian (i.e., non-Jewish) name out there. I certainly winced for the next several years when introducing myself at shul. And sometimes the congregants would also wince and add, “Do you have a Jewish name, dear?” No, I did not. You don’t have one until you finish your conversion.

I called two more times.

After the third message, Rabbi F invited me to meet with him at the synagogue. I sat outside on the steps, intimidated by the doors of the synagogue. I couldn’t bring myself to knock on those huge wooden doors, or to open them. Eventually the rabbi came out looking for me. He wore black slacks and a white short sleeved shirt. He had a large white beard and wore eyeglasses and a kipa. “There you are,” he said, and introduced himself. His voice, the tempo of which was of someone who chose his words carefully, was higher than I’d expected. He did not put out his hand to shake. This was an Orthodox rabbi, and touch between men and women is forbidden. That much I knew. Thank goodness.

He led me inside. It was an old building, and his office was a small room off of the main room, steps from the wooden bimah. The three walls without a window in the office were covered floor to ceiling with books. The window faced north, so that the office was covered in the cold blue northern light I love.

I’d just graduated from college, and the bookshelves were familiar to me, even if the synagogue was not; I’d sat in offices like this before in Wheeler and Dwinelle Hall, during office hours with professors. Throughout my five years studying with Rabbi F, he would often stand up and pull a book off those shelves to seek answers.

He expected me to ask questions. This was a major paradigm shift for me. I was coming from a culture in which learning occurred by passive listening and memorizing what I was told. In which authority should not be questioned.

What do you mean? I asked. I was scared. Intimidated.

He replied by asking me a question. He asked how I expected to learn if I didn’t have any questions. He also said that by coming with my own questions each week, I would direct my own learning.

It made sense.

So each week, I came up with questions. I felt self-conscious coming up with questions, and even more so when I dared ask them. But I was rewarded; these questions would lead to lengthy and enriching discussions with the rabbi. And over the next few months and years, the questions begat more questions, and I began to feel more at ease with my curiosity. I became an actively curious person.

Years later, when I started teaching freshman comp, I remembered going through this paradigm shift. And I channeled the rabbi and shared the above anecdote, in hopes that my students would take the leap, dare to ask questions, and become more active learners.

And when I came across challenges, Rabbi F’s advice was always three dimensional, sometimes quite literally so. When it came time to consider meeting the Beit Din, he told me something that sticks to this day. “Identity is not just one thing: it is comprised of legal identity, community identity, and self identity. The Beit Din will approve your legal identity, the community, which includes your family, will define your social identity as a Jew, and last you have your self identity as a Jew. If you self identify as a Jew, that is the most important of all.”

Rabbi F changed my life in so many positive ways. He was my guide into Judaism (a world that did not always welcome me with open arms–and a world in which I often stumbled, like the time I saw a salmon fish cake and before I could think asked, “Is that a crab cake?” I had already hung my head by the time the cook uttered a disdainful “No.”), and I will be forever grateful to him for his wisdom and kindness. In so many ways (maybe all ways) my conversion process was a major paradigm shift–not the least of which was turning me into a more active student. I am a bolder, more curious, and more confident woman today having studied with Rabbi F. And perhaps I would not have become a writer if had not unearthed an adventurous and curious self.


Joining Heather’s Abecedary, Fog City Writer, and other writers like Susan Ito in working through the alphabet with short, memoir-like pieces. Except I’m going to go in reverse, beginning with “Z.” It’s called Alphabet: A History.


Filed under Alphabet: A History, Life, Memes, Reading, The Personal

These are the things I do in order to sabotage myself (and because I hate feeling helpless, I propose solutions)

karate sidewalk graffiti

When I write, my aim is to unleash my inhibitions and thus my imagination. On the very very best days, I am able to explore new worlds and write them with courage and truth. On the very very very very very verrrry best days, I write many words with courage and truth. On these days, I am elated. I would take these days over the most delicious cake. That’s saying a lot. Because I love cake.

Unfortunately, when I unleash my inhibitions and imagination, among the many things released include insecurity and fear. If I channel and examine my fear in a positive context, it can help produce the very best writing. Under certain circumstances (and I’m no scientist, but it’s kind of like the optimum conditions for bacteria proliferation), my insecurity and fear rocket. Fear is a very very selfish and abusive state of mind that demands the entire floor. Fear’s best friends are helplessness and insecurity and together, they often plan out acts of self-sabotage.

And sadly, I occasionally enact self-sabotage as a writer. I do so because I am afraid to fail, afraid to (yes) succeed, afraid to confront my feelings, afraid to confront the page, afraid to write the words, afraid my words are not good enough and will never be good enough, afraid to tell the truth–the list goes on.

And these are my acts of self-sabotage (self-sabotage meaning things you do that hamper/damage your writing) as a writer…

1) I don’t do this very often anymore, but when I do, it’s the most destructive thing ever: I compare myself to other writers. It’s a sick act that’s covered in the goo of jealousy. I think it was Craig Ferguson who said that envy is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die. It’s so exactly like that. And I avoid it.

I avoid it by surrounding myself with supportive writer friends, and by supporting my friends. A mentor once told me that a writer who helps other writers will be blessed. The more I support my friends, the less I compare myself to them. Because in a way, I am participating in their success, as opposed to being a bystander.

When I was a kid, I took swimming lessons. I was horrible in swim class, and I was a horrible swimmer. I was horrible because when we swam, I always stopped swimming to look around to see where I was relative to my classmates.

Of course, as soon as I stopped swimming, I would sink. And I’d come in dead last (not that it was a race just like writing isn’t a race, but it sucks to come in dead last). I didn’t learn, because I was comparing myself to others more than I was doing the act of swimming.

I didn’t know I was doing this at the time, but in hindsight and through my mom’s anecdotes (“You keep looking up and sinking. Why aren’t you swimming?”) I was able to synthesize this lesson.

So when I compare myself to other writers, I also think about my swimming lessons. If I’m comparing myself to other writers, I’m not writing. I’m sinking.

2) I psyche myself out and tell myself I’m not good enough. And then I wallow.

This is the thing with which I struggle most. My waning self confidence kills me. It really kills me. It is rarely brought on by others’ achievements, but the lack of my own. Or a feeling of lack of progress.

This is when I often do some low-stakes writing, like blogging. So I keep writing without pressure and without judgment. Or I call a very good writing friend (they are so important). Or I call a very good non-writer friend (they are just as important).

Most important, I just go heads down and write again. Because I’ve gotten to a point in my life where I know that I won’t stop writing. And the act of writing is the ultimate cure.

3) I am not honest about my writerly needs.

In my case, this is one of those “room of her own” situations–where I do not have a proper psychic and physical space for me and my writing. This is when I’m not honest to myself, and I insist on writing at home, even with a houseguest not understanding of my life as a writer–instead of going to a café to write. It’s been difficult to admit, but I’ve learned that I cannot write in my own home on a regular basis. There is too much temptation to be distracted. And if I cannot write–see #2 above: my confidence starts waning.

Instead of writing at home, I write at The Writers Room in NYC, or at the San Francisco Writers Grotto. Both spaces have been very kind for my writing, and I’ve learned what I need from my time at both.

For others–your writerly needs may mean other things, like sleep or a writing residency. Learn what they are, and make it happen.

4) I allow myself to be distracted.

There is a fine line between meeting up with friends for your psychic health and doing necessary chores….and meeting up with friends and doing chores in order to procrastinate on writing. You know what they are. What matters most in a year? What will matter most for me in a year is a finished novel revision. So get on it.

5) I allow myself to become too isolated.

Haha. On the flip side of socializing-as-a-form-of-procrastination, I often allow myself to become isolated. You gotta get out. Meet like minds. Get support. Crack a few jokes.

I’m on twitter–sometimes, I feel like if I didn’t have twitter, I’d be a total writing hermit. And I love my community there, and in real life. It helps to keep a real conversation going with someone other than my characters. It helps me energize. It helps me gain new experiences and new ideas. It helps me realize there is a world outside my novel.

6) I don’t read enough.

I totally self-sabotage by not taking time out to READ. It is the most important thing I can do for my writing (other than write). And I mean read the good stuff. When I do not read, it gets bad.

7) Seek approval from those who will not understand or approve. Or seek approval from those who will never tell you the truth and will too easily give your manuscript their approval.

Know who your audience is. If you’re writing a memoir about being a left wing liberal radical, think twice before showing your manuscript to someone who is staunchly tea party (or vice versa. Giving your manuscript to heavily biased people who will guaranteed-criticize your work is self-sabotage. What are you doing it for? What kind of feedback do you expect, and how will it help your writing?

Also, don’t just show your manuscript to people who so easily approve you will never learn. Again, it’s self-sabotage and over-protection. Will your manuscript improve?

I made these mistakes often in my earlier writing days–and all it did was lead to feedback that rarely helped me.

What things do you do as acts of self-sabotage, and what things do you find helpful to keep yourself in a healthy writing state?


Filed under Writing