Category Archives: Articles

Women of Courage: Malala

Malala Yousafzai, Human Rights Warrior

In some respects, 20-year-old Malala Yousafzai is just like any other college student. She blushes at talk of dating, finds the curriculum at Oxford University challenging, and can’t resist teasing her younger brothers at the dinner table. But don’t let this soft-spoken Pakistani girl fool you: she’s a lion-hearted, Nobel-prize-winning champion of girls’ education.


Malala was born in the picturesque Swat Valley of Pakistan in 1997. The child of a school owner and educational activist, her father wanted her to have every opportunity a boy would have. He vowed his daughter would attend school and be treated with equality.

“I tell my story, not because it is unique, but because it is not. It is the story of many girls.”When Mullah Fazhulla’s radio broadcasts first echoed down the concrete and steel canyons of Malala’s hometown of Mingora in 2004, the people  believed the changes were for the good. But, as the Taliban’s influence grew, their order affected every aspect of the citizen’s lives. The Taliban blacked the women’s faces from billboards. They burned televisions, computers, and CDs in the streets. They murdered policeman and bombed police stations. They staged public executions. And, in December 2008, they issued an edict banning girls from going to school.

By Southbank Centre [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

While other students stayed home–fearful of school bombings–11-year old Malala became an undercover BBC blogger. By age 14, the otherwise demure girl was publicly campaigning for girls’ education.

Her courage did not escape the Taliban’s notice. In 2012, they targeted the 15-year-old activist. Masked gunmen boarded her school bus, demanded her by name, and attempted to execute Malala with a gunshot to the forehead.

Her story could have ended there, but it was only the beginning of more influential work. Not only did she recover from traumatic brain injury, she went on to address the United Nations within the year. In 2014, she became the youngest recipient of the Nobel prize.

Humble and hardworking, today she balances college life while still leading the fight for girls’ education via the Malala Fund.

How She’s Courageous

“With guns, you can kill terrorists. With education, you can kill terrorism.”As if standing up to the Taliban were not enough, Malala remains an unflinching champion of good.

When sitting down with Barack Obama in 2013, she politely thanked the United States for all they’d done to support education for women and girls. She went on to inform him that his drone attacks were fueling terrorism, and that the US should instead focus efforts on education.

How Her Courage Affects Others

When girls are deprived of an education, the world is deprived of their gifts.Worldwide, more than 130 million girls do not attend school due to war, violence, and poverty.

Educating girls can end the cycle of poverty. Educated girls live longer and their own children live healthier lives. Education boosts overall economic growth and contributes to restoring peace and stability.

The Malala Fund is dedicated to every girl’s right to 12 years of free, safe, quality education. The non-profit foundation and has helped girls from Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Nigeria, and Syria.

How She’s Affected Me

Malala’s courage makes my own heart swell with possibility. If one brave girl can do this, what can any girl do? What can all girls do?

You can learn more about Malala below:

Women of Courage: Brené Brown

Brené Brown, Ambassador of Vulnerability

Dr. Brené Brown wrote the book on courage. Literally.

Actually, she’s written five of them, including four New York Times #1 bestsellers. Her latest, Braving the Wilderness, was just released this September. In addition to bestselling author, she’s also a public speaker, scholar, leadership guru, and research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work.


“The difficult thing is that vulnerability is the first thing I look for in you and the last thing I’m willing to show you. In you, it’s courage and daring. In me, it’s weakness.”Brené Brown’s journey into courage began while working as a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She set out to understand the anatomy of connection. After conducting hundreds of interviews with subjects from all walks of life, she uncovered the concept of wholeheartedness. This wholeheartedness was an essential talent in accepting oneself, and had a positive correlation with life satisfaction and healthy relationships. Her gift for storytelling has brought her groundbreaking work to millions. Key concepts which she explores include empathy, shame, vulnerability, and creativity.

How She’s Courageous

Brené Brown

Ironically, Brené got into research as a means to avoid vulnerability—not that she would have admitted it at the time.

She set out to prove what she knew to be true. Instead, she found that wholeheartedness sprang from vulnerability, a trait she was fully opposed to expressing at the time. So, she did what any researcher does when they discover everything they believe is wrong:

She totally lost her shit.

With the help of a therapist and loving family and friends, she came back, armed with strategies for wholehearted living that the research backs up. To date she’s helped millions to live more fulfilling lives.

“I spent a lot of years trying to outrun or outsmart vulnerability by making things certain and definite, black and white, good and bad. My inability to lean into the discomfort of vulnerability limited the fullness of those important experiences that are wrought with uncertainty: Love, belonging, trust, joy, and creativity to name a few.”

Anyone who has ever tried to create lasting change–whether it’s losing ten pounds or quitting a bad habit–knows it’s never as easy as flipping a switch. Lasting change demands a deep look at who we are and what we truly value.

Wholehearted living is no exception. The practice demands continual self-evaluation, honesty, and a support system of friends and/or family that accept you for who you are.

Brené walks the walk—living as she inspires others to live. Humble and hilarious, she’s the first to admit her teachings can be tough to follow, and freely admits to stumbling. Her efforts are continuous and evolving and she shares these struggles openly in her books and speeches.

How Her Courage Affects Others

Brené Brown has won fans including powerhouse Oprah Winfrey, author Elizabeth Gilbert, and even her own idol, the late Maya Angelou. Her TED Talk on Vulnerability has had over 30 million views.

When Brené Brown started her research on connection, she had no idea that she’d begun a journey that would change everything, including her own way of life. Nor did she have any idea how many lives she would change in the process. Her work on shame and vulnerability has had a positive impact on leaders, creatives, and anyone seeking a more fulfilling life.

How She’s Affected Me

I first came across Brené in the form a video: Brené Brown: Why Your Critics Aren’t The Ones Who Count. If I remember right, it was my partner in Braving who brought her to my attention (thanks Michelle!). As a creative who tends toward pathological shyness, the video reached me on a deep level and I became an instant fan. Since then, her audiobooks have landed a permanent spot on my playlist and I’ve got her TED Talks on speed dial for low days.

You can learn more about Brené Brown below.

This has been the first of my articles on Women of Courage. Check back every Sunday at 3:00 pm CDT for new articles celebrating real and fictional heroines to inspire you.

Women of Courage

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Go to any mainstream movie these days and you’ll likely sit through a half-dozen movie trailers featuring all sorts of male superheroes kicking ass and keeping the world safe for…well for whatever it is we have these days. However, it wasn’t until my daughter and I went to Wonder Woman earlier this year that it hit me how rare it is to see women in these roles. I mean I always knew it was that way. But it wasn’t until I witnessed it with my daughter beside me that I thought about how much that sucked. And how empowering it was to see these portrayals, and to read about real-life heroines.

And so, I’d like to honor all the real and fictional heroines who inspire me by sharing their stories with you. In the coming weeks, look for tributes to Women of Courage, like the groundbreaking Oprah Winfrey, the badass Sarah Connor, and the woman who quite literally wrote the book on courage, Brene Brown. These women inspire me daily. I hope they inspire you too.

Is there some badass, brave, and wonderful woman that you’d like to see recognized? Let me know in the comments.

Nothing never started gets better.

Or, what flash fiction can do for your writing life.

Nothing never started gets better.

Look, you should see some of the crap I’ve written, including the above.

As a writer who has all too often marks progress with decreasing word counts, as one who has a black belt in self-sabotage, and as one who will snag on a single word choice and spin myself silly, I have managed to learn something, in spite of myself.

Nothing never started gets better.

(You would think by now I would have found a better way to say that.)

What I’m trying to say is here’s what writing’s like:

Most of the time, finished work is a hard-won collage of brief inspirations, grueling transitions, struggling metaphors and delicate passages that shine upon the polishing. At least once every eon, I’ll write something that I love. I grab a pen, scribble something down, then sit back and read it and think: Yeah. Then, I’ll read it again and probably twelve-dozen times, and then aloud at whisper-level, and then to a chair, and then to the cat, and then to my spouse, and still manage to think: Yeah. And if I’m really, really lucky, I can even read it myself again a couple years later and think: You know, that was all right.

This almost never happens.

Okay, it maybe happened once.

Most of the time, finished work is a hard-won collage of brief inspirations, grueling transitions, struggling metaphors and delicate passages that shine upon the polishing. And the things is, if you are writing novel-length works, this takes a vast amount of time (or, if it doesn’t, I hate you). This is time spent alone, in a far land, with no destination in sight. Which is why I’ve learned to love flash fiction.

Flash fiction is creative crack

Flash fiction is creative crack, a palette cleanser, a weekend getaway crammed in a morning. Instant gratification. A quickie in the shower. And in spite of all the fun of that, it’s also a refresher course on writing you can fit into any given morning.

I write scads of them. In spite of the radio silence on the blog these days, I’ve been filling up my personal cloud with the stuff. Generally I’ll write at least one a day. Just because. Because I am a slow and recalcitrant learner in need of constant reminder how this works—how to feed and nurture this writing beast.

Here’s a secret: Ninety percent of the time when I look at the photo prompts on Rochelle Wisoff-Field’s Friday Fictioneers or Al Forbes Sunday Photo Fiction, I blank. I can’t think of anything.

The sacred act of taking an intangible thought from the space between your ears and committing it to a page does something. It’s a promise, it’s a vow, and once it’s out there, stuff happens.But still, I push myself and think no one’s watchingjust do a sentence, and so I do. And it’s almost never any good and doesn’t wind up in the final piece. But still, that act is magic. The sacred act of taking an intangible thought from the space between your ears and committing it to a page does something. It’s a promise, it’s a vow, and once it’s out there, stuff happens.

Because once it’s out there, it makes me think of something else, and maybe it’s completely unrelated but it’s enough to make me scrawl down a few more sentences.

This is the point where I usually decide it’s hopeless. I go take a shower or walk the dog. And that’s when it gets amazing. Because while I’m doing the other shit, the real story happens. All of a sudden the whole thing pops into my head: how to fix what I’ve already written or an even better concept that never even thought of. And while I’m standing there dripping, I scribble down notes on that notebook that I keep just outside the shower for such emergencies. And by the time I’ve done four or five rounds of revisions I actually like it: find some merit or something to be proud of and presto—another edition of Friday Fictioneers.

Most of the stuff I write is pure crap. Clumsy, trite, awkward, stupid, half-formed, grammatically incorrect and painful to read. You probably noticed. But the thing is, I have managed to learn something, even in spite of my attempts to do otherwise:

Nothing Anything you never started gets any better.

Like thinking you’ll win the lottery without ever buying a ticketI used to think ‘I’ll write’ when it’s all fully formed in my head and good enough to commit to the page. Because god forbid I write crap, that it’s wrong, that I have to change it, because well, I thought that’s how it worked. Like thinking I’d win the lottery without ever buying a ticket.

So my writing friends, lost in the wilds of your novels (and you know who you are), if you’re not on flash fiction yet, give it a try.

Whatever it is you need to learn, it’s in there. Flash fiction is the crash course on the thing that’s missing in your work, that thing you need to learn. And if it’s not, it’s at least entertaining. Sprint-training for the creative heart. So come on, you—yes you. Give me twenty words, or a hundred or two or three and see where you wind up.

You can’t improve what you don’t write.

Happy writing.

Epitaph for a Neighborhood

Lion Bridge, looking at the west bank of the Cedar

Lion Bridge, looking at the west bank of the Cedar

There is a ghost, beside the river, behind Czech Village.

If you go there now, you’ll find tree stumps marooned in pools of yellow sawdust. You’ll find haphazard stacks of logs, and a litter of branches too small to collect. You’ll smell pine resin and see broken streetlights and find curb-cuts to phantom garages down roads that end mid-block. You’ll see abandoned houses with windows full open to the winter air.

And if you come this spring, you might find crocuses to split the snow on scrubby vacant lots, or daffodils sprouting from now-defunct gardens. You might spy Hungarian tulips volunteering from the sides of vanished sidewalks, or remnants of flower beds in these lost lawns.

Czech Village is—Czech Village was—a small neighborhood. It was roughly fourteen city blocks nestled next to the Cedar River levee. The neighborhood was populated by last-century single-family homes and one single strip of commerce along the northwest border. The commerce is still there.
But the one thing you can’t do in Czech Village—at least not any more—is live.
It looks like Main Street USA—as long as you squint and aren’t too particular about the peeling paint and mismatched park benches. It could be small-town anywhere, but for the Slavic lettering and Czech flags. You can still go there and find a dark bar stool at a neighborhood tap and hide out for an afternoon. Or, you can sample the local hipster brew while your bike is at the bicycle recyclist. There’s a bandstand, an Artists’ Sanctuary and enough junk shops to satisfy just about anyone’s flea market itch. And before you head out, you can to pick up a dozen kolaches and a loaf of marble rye from a bakery that’s been under the same name for nearly a hundred years. But the one thing you can’t do in Czech Village—at least not any more—is live.

It’s not our fault.

2008 was a year of walking away, a year for final visits and unsaid goodbyes. In Cedar Rapids, 2008 was designated the Year of the River, and our river—well, she rose to the occasion. 31.12 feet to be exact, which was nineteen feet above flood stage and eleven feet higher than anyone had ever seen.

It stunned.

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Maybe you saw us on the news—our downtown a full story deep in swift current. Our river swelled to more than 20 city blocks wide for miles on end. It was a few years back and it’s hard to keep track—what with the natural disaster of the week competing for your attention—so we’ll understand if you’ve forgotten. We haven’t.

It was 2008 and all of us as a nation were in the depths of the sub-prime mortgage crisis. And then—here in Iowa—it started raining.

People who meant to carry out a few things more things from their Czech Town homes had to be rescued by boat.A wet spring ramped to a drenching finale in early June, when the storms began dumping inches at a time across the Cedar River basin. The active weather pattern flung hail, tornadoes and thunderstorms at us daily. On June 9, 2008 seven inches of rain fell in the northern Cedar River basin. The record crests made their way downstream: Cedar Falls, Waterloo, Charles City. Vinton. Urbana. Palo.

Tuesday, June 10th, people in Cedar Rapids were optimistic: we’d been through floods before. The USGS called for a crest of 21 feet on Thursday. Floodwater spilled onto Edgewood Road.

Wednesday, June 11th, Cedar Rapids ticked past the 1993 record of 19.27. Folks snapped photos from the bridges downtown until the city came out and closed them. The Weather Service upped their prediction to a Friday crest of 22 feet and the Czech Village was evacuated as water creeped up out of the storm sewers and made its way up lawns.

Thursday June 12th, heavy thunderstorms dumped three inches of rain on a weary and water-logged town. Revised predictions called for a crest of 24.7. Then, a railroad bridge weighted down with gravel-filled cars snapped. Water that had been creeping up inches an hour raced up by feet. People who meant to carry out a few things more things from their Czech Town homes had to be rescued by boat. Someone called the National Guard and by Thursday night, sandbagging efforts at one local hospital (nearly a mile from the river) ceased, and the hospital was evacuated.

The river crested Friday the 13th at 10:15 am. Czech Village would never be the same.

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In the late nineteenth century, an iron bowstring bridge was constructed at Fourteenth Avenue, and the homes and commerce of the east bank spilled onto the western shore of the Cedar. Immigrant families, letters in hand, came to join their kin in a chance at a better life. Old women in babushkas, babies with moon faces, women with their work-chapped hands; barrel-chested men with ruddy faces, swinging lunch pails stuffed with goulash as they crossed the bridge to their factory jobs. They were working folk, with names like Sokol and Jiruska: hardy people with strong frames, proud cheeks and easy laughter.

The neighborhood became the sort of place where an industrious type could grab a rung in the American dream and start their climb.The years went by. Some stayed for generations, raising their families in the black-earth flats of the west bank. Others moved on, and the neighborhood became the sort of place where an industrious type could grab a rung in the American dream and start their climb. Kids grew up in the ever-growing shade of the city landfill, climbing the levee barefoot to skip stones on the river. Young mothers hung laundry with babes on hip. War widows put kids through college on the wages from factory jobs. Nickel by nickel, folks bought back the title from the bank and meant to live their lives out there. Old folks tended gardens in their mortgage-free homes. They were small houses sure, and the windows leaked winter and the list of to-dos was never done. But they were theirs.

And then the flood—and who knows where all those people went? Perhaps some were lucky enough to snag one of the affordable-housing remixes that sprouted up in Oakhill-Jackson. Folks moved out, moved on. Even those that meant to stay, one by one gave in to city pressure, or to the desolate feel of living in a ghost town.


The Assessor’s website tells the story in three acts. Pull up any property from Seventeenth to Twenty-first, from A Street through the low-side of C. First photo is a fresh house, the bushes lush and the white paint glinting in the sun. Next, the same house with horizontal stripes, like a convict on death row: the porch askew, the windows boarded. And then, nothing but a skinned lot, the grass worn away where they filled in the basement and tossed on a handful of grass seed.

In January, the City came out and sentenced every living tree with an orange X. In the span of a week, they flattened them—left the trees lying on their sides, their sections strewn across the vacant lots. A truck picked up the haphazard cords of the more valuable cuts. And then they were gone: A diesel belching black smoke rolled in, and in the space of a day, a wood chipper and erased those century-old trees, log by log. Every last one: Sugar maples and walnuts,  pin oaks and blue spruce, and one graceful white locust as elegant as the May queen. Crows held protest on the ground where the trees were supposed to be, blasting black complaint at the passing cars.

2016-02-15 07.51.22

It’s going to be a levee. And trees have no place in levee plans, or so I’ve heard. But not until 2018 or 2019. I guess how it all plays out remains to be seen. It’s brought to you by the same planners who masterminded the one-way dead end streets in the downtown and the whole back-in-angle parking debacle.

Until then, there’s still time to see the ghosts. Look for tulips to volunteer this spring and resurrection lilies in high summer. The city will mow, but determined hands planted those flowers. They’ll come back—at least for as long as they can. As long as they can find the light.

To my youngest, the flood is prehistoric. But I’ve been around long enough to know: sooner or later, everything is lost.“I used to live right there,” I tell my kids whenever we drive down old Lincoln Highway. They nod, bored, because I say it every time. It’s a medical building now—what used to be a 1900 Craftsman-style home with a giant field-stone porch. Stuff like that, it happens more and more, the older that I get. Homes and buildings and even neighborhoods now exist in only memory. To my youngest, the flood is prehistoric. But I’ve been around long enough to know: sooner or later, everything is lost.



The Working Parents’ Guide to Winning NaNoWriMo

I’m gearing up to officially do NaNoWriMo this year–that November Wordfest where writers commit to writing 50,000 words in a month. I’m planning to finish my novel The Kwan Factor once and for all. For all working parents contemplating a similar feat, here is a reblog from last year with seven tongue-in-cheek tips on finishing NaNoWriMo,

k. Rawson

It’s November 26th, do you know what your word count is? If you’re competing in NaNoWriMo you undoubtedly know what it is now, what it was yesterday and what you are aiming for tomorrow.

NOTE: if you’ve already won NaNoWriMo, congratulations! This post won’t be of any interest to you. January is just around the corner so you’ll want to get busy polishing that manuscript for Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel contest in 2015.

Okay, great. Now that the overachievers are gone, let’s talk.

Writing is hard. Work is hard and so is that overtime job turning runny-nosed static-urchins into productive citizens. But we love a challenge (obviously) and so here we are: X days left of NaNoWriMo and XX,XXX words to go.

So, in the spirit helping frustrated and exhausted writers everywhere survive the 50,000 words in November challenge, I’ve pulled together this concise list of handy tips:

  1. Unplug. Completely. Unplug your internet…

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If You’re Like Me, Then You Hate John Green or How to Quit the Deadly Comparison Game

aka My Manifesto to Aspiring Writers

Confession time:

For me, reading merits hazard pay. I have to steel myself. And not because I hate reading–heck, before I started writing, I often devoured a book a day. But since I started writing, reading has turned into something else entirely.

And when I’m not busy hating him, I like to imagine his characters would hang out with my characters, when my characters weren’t being expelled.

John D. MacDonald said it best—and not as Travis McGee, but in a preface to Stephen King’s Night Shift collection. I first read it more than three decades ago, but I hear the echo to this day. It was one of those moments when a writer rose off the page, cupped a hand to my ear and leaned close enough for me to feel his breath as he whispered. It was lightning clear. A bolt, a connection, a current passed. I sat up straight, eyes wide. Because when that sort of thing happens—when you know that writer has reached you—it’s wondrous. That thing writers can do—climb off the page and grab you, tickle you, caress you…to understand you in a way that no one else ever could. That’s what it’s all about, baby.

So about Mr. MacDonald’s preface: among the many wonderful things he wrote to aspiring writers, he said, “You read everything with grinding envy or weary contempt.”

Grinding envy: check

John Green writes contemporary YA. Mildly gritty, authentic YA, and when I’m not busy hating him, I like to imagine his characters would hang out with my characters, when my characters weren’t being expelled.

John Green also writes shimmering, emotional, compelling YA, with gracious good humor and effortless aplomb. My kids have caught me laughing hysterically at one of his passages, only to find me sobbing four pages later. And it’s times like that when I think what the fuck, dude. What did you just do to me? I mean have enough trouble keeping forward momentum, what with the mom-gig and the day job. Did you have to make it so hard by making it look so easy?

John Green probably doesn’t mean to crush my spirit (maybe that’s just a perk, or why else would he keep doing it?)

And maybe it’s not John Green that sparks that ache in you—the one that kindles that envy-measure: maybe it’s Faulkner, or Maya Angelou or even Dan-fucking-Brown.

You close their book and think: It’s hopeless.

I can’t do that.

Cause they had that voice-thing going, and that lovely translucent metaphor, and that heart-pounding tension and then you pull up your own manuscript and—


The cursor blinks.


So you poke at a few words from that scene you wrote yesterday, but the shine has worn off. And was that the most tired line of dialogue you’ve ever written or what? So you delete it and try to think of the next scene, but then you remember you really have no idea how you’re going to pull it off—how to get your protagonist to the intersection of plot and plausibility, and just as you’re about to slam the lid of your laptop closed—Stop.

You’re doing it. That comparison thing, and it does you no good. And even if you don’t believe me, you have to stop because you have a duty.

Don’t compare apples to oranges

And you’re not Hemingway. Because he’s an orange. And you’re an apple. A very special apple.

You heard me right. There’s a reason you feel called to do this, why you get up early or stay up late, why you keep putting words down in the face of astronomical odds. Why it itches like poison ivy between your shoulder blades if you don’t just friggin’ write.

It’s because your own unique set of circumstances and your particular talents are going to enable you to say something that no one has ever said before. Or, at the very least in a way that no one else has said it.

The Great Gatsby has been said—but your story hasn’t.

If you are called to write, it’s because you have a unique message for someone. A message as myriad as the sum of the days of your life that have brought you to this moment. A reason for doing as unique as any random collection of 100,000 words.

What message you have, I don’t know. And maybe you do. Or maybe you only think you do.

But in the meantime, you have a duty to be there, be present, try hard and do your best. And doing your best means reading other writers. You have a duty to challenge yourself, to be brave. Just periodically vomiting words on the page doesn’t make you a writer any more than being a drunken, self-absorbed womanizer makes you Hemingway. And you’re not Hemingway. Because he’s an orange. And you’re an apple. A very special apple.

Now stay tuned for the second part:

Don’t compare apples to apple pie

You’re going to reach someone

When you read Joe Bestseller of the NY Times bestseller list, or N. Ational Bookaward, remember you are reading something that has been through 1, 2, 3 drafts. plus forty-eight revisions; a book that has been vetted by industry professionals, including multiple editors and proofreaders plus a literary agent or two.

Look, if your first draft doesn’t suck then you’re doing it wrong. And if your second draft doesn’t suck then you’re probably still doing it wrong.

The odds are (n)ever in your favor

And since we’re being all honest here, there’s one more thing: if you’re aiming for the bestseller list, or hoping to crack a six-figure advance on a debut novel, the odds are not in your favor.

However, the odds are very good you’re going to accomplish the real reason why you’re doing this. Which you probably don’t even realize. And it’s small and it’s simple:

You’re going to reach someone.

You’re going to reach out through the page, take one reader by the hand, and lean in close enough to for them to feel your breath tick against their ear as you whisper…

Because that’s it.

That’s all there really is. The point of everything, the purpose of every collection of words written since the beginning of time. That’s what writing is: a vessel. A vessel to pass a message from one person to the next.

So stop with the comparing already. They have their message and you have yours.

Read more, compare less. Write and repeat.


Chop chop darlings—you have work to do.