11 Things I learned at My First Grown Up Writing Conference

11 Things I learned at my First Grown Up Writing Conference

I was lucky enough to be sponsored to attend the Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference last week, and I had a great time. Here’s a few of the things I learned from a week of workshops and great conversations

1) There really are male, straight romance writers. I met one, and he was incredibly interesting and dynamic. Check out his website at aragrigorian.com, or better yet, read his new book, Game of Love

2) When you think a poem is pretty good and a Guggenheim fellow reads it and gives you feedback, you learn it really wasn’t, but it could be, if you work on it.

3) Once you work on it, the Guggenheim fellow will tell you it is “better.” Not great, or even good. Yet. Because it isn’t done. He does not mean this to be discouraging, and you should not doubt your entire artistic promise because of this comment

4) Staying in a critique group until 1230 at night really is fun. When you text your friends and tell them this, they will doubt you. This is understandable, because to most people, sitting in a room listening to people read their words and reading your own for 3 and a half hours probably wouldn’t be.

5)Stephen Chbosky, author of Perks of Being a Wallflower, is a humble, smiley man. I might even go so far as to say jolly (No, I didn’t meet him, unfortunately. I did hear him speak, though!).

6) When you read a feminist essay in front of a critique group of older white men, you may be surprised by their responses. I received very insightful, helpful feedback—from people who had obviously thought about feminism and considered it important and also happened to be cisgender Caucasian men over the age of fifty. It was awesome.

7) Travel writers get to do some amazing things. Like interviewing George Lucas, and getting trips to Australia paid for. They mention these things offhandedly, as if they are not terribly important details.  This makes them infuriatingly glamorous

8) At a Writers’ Conference, the first question people ask is not “What do you do?” but “What do you write?” I found this incredibly charming.

9) The Free Book Table isn’t as great as it sounds. It is mostly trashy paperbacks with hot pink covers or bad illustrations. You will, nonetheless, take a book from the Free Book Table, because it is there.

10) Paranormal Historical Fiction is a genre, apparently. I met a woman writing a book in it.

11) Finally, importantly—at a writers’ conference, you will be reminded why you love not just writing, but people who write. Writers are so wonderful to talk to. Just to sit and chat with. There was such a remarkable flow of ideas at the conference that I often felt as though I was buzzing, like my skin was electric.  I look forward to many more in the future!


Hi Inkstained Readers! Below is a poem written about a week ago, before I finished out my first year of college, one of the most amazing of my life.  This piece is about  processing the ‘summation’ of that experience, and all the mixed emotion involved. So far, summer has been a wonderful break!



Sun paints bittersweet moments golden bright,
And life feels shockingly
Six days from now, I return to a homeland of ocean and wine grapes,
My mother chopping heirloom tomatoes for salad,
My father laughing at my stories as he grills chicken.
My best friend writing in a notebook,

Pushing her hair from her eyes.
Six days from now I close a chapter of one of my greatest adventures to date.
You see packed boxes always make me feel like crying,
And I’m not sure why, exactly.
Bare walls always make me feel incomplete.
Six days from now I will face an empty room and I will have to turn away and close the door.
I will go back to a beautiful homeland and leave a land of discovery behind
And for three months I will soak in my childhood.
But for now,
Acoustic songs play into the late afternoon sun,
The soft sound of fingers tip tapping on keyboard  gentle background music
My friends have fallen asleep, curled into one another like kittens. Their dark hair blends into one another, and I want to kiss their foreheads as I would a drowsy child.
I feel a stab of restlessness, of desire for something, someone. For life here and for the faraway life I lead in California.
A homesickness for adventure,
A wanderlust for comfort.
I feel a collision of sadness and joy,
Like the end of a good book.
I am nostalgic for newness, for long nights that glow in memory
I am ready to go home.
Ready to replenish.
And then I will be ready to return.
Instead of flying home for the winter this little bird heads south for the summer,
And she is prepared for flight.10731172_10202905325093531_6601776300577912028_n

Context–A Mother’s Day Inkstained


I want to write a poem for you.

I am afraid I can’t.

I wish I could distill all you are to me onto paper but the truth is it isn’t possible.

I have started it a thousand times over.

So much of who I am is because of you.

When I was eight I spent all summer reading Little Women because it was your
favorite at my age,

And I fell in love with Jo,

Just likeyou.

It was you who showed me how to put on mascara, shop for bras, read great literature, have good conversations, heal from heartbreak.

It was you who made me love fall afternoons, travel, heirloom tomatoes, Spanish, long novels.

It was you who made me love intelligent people, social justice, politics.

It was you who made me love stories and it was you who listened to me tell them.

You showed me the importance of loving others and loving mysef.

You told me I was beautiful, and I believed you.

You told me I was smart, funny, worthy, and I believed you.

Because of you,

I am beautiful, smart, funny, worthy.

Because of you I am a fighter,

Because of you I am a lover.

I see the world through the frame you built for me

You are my context,

My starting point.

And for all this,

All I can say,

All I can ever  say,


Thank you.

Secret Stories

Tell me your story.exposed4-large

I want to piece you together, all the layers that make you up.

You, left of me in Sociology class. Always wearing flip flops, even on rainy days.

You, friend of a friend I met late one night in a dorm lounge. You mixed my name up with someone else’s. We talked about the representation of marginalized identities in popular art, and then we talked about how pretentious we felt for talking about that.

You from last semester’s anthropology class,  short pixie cut and lego earrings, long peasant skirts, high tops. Big smile.

I want to know.

I love stories.

Stories define me.

Stories are the weave of me.

We all have them, hiding behind our ears or in tucked away strands of our hair.

Stories flow along the lines in our palms,

Bounce from summer freckle to summer freckle of our faces.

I want to hear as many of the world’s stories as I possibly can.

Not the worn ones that get told over and over again, the party line stories.

I want to hear the other stories

I want to hear the stories we hide away.

I want to hide the stories tucked in the folds of your winter scarf,

Woven into your braid.

Knotted up in your shoelaces.

In all your secret places, there are secret stories.

Can I hear them?

I want to hear the not quite funny stories, comically tragic stories, the bad day stories, the unfinished stories and fragmented stories. The stories that are the stuff of us.

I want to hear

I want to patch you together.

Are you willing to tell me? Are you ready?

I’m listening.

Here with my ears and my pen,

I am listening.

Seeking Sublime


“Doesn’t it just make you want to fly away?” my mother says, smiling at the sunset before us, the ocean lapping at the shore.


I want to reach into it and touch the blazing red horizon,

Wrap lavender clouds against my skin.

I want to climb into the sky.


Every time I see something beautiful I want to breathe it,

Want to get close enough to taste it

Sunsets would taste like  summer-warmed nectarines,the  juice dripping down my chin.  Of this I am certain.

Some beauty I know is dangerous.

Powerful beauty, frightening beauty.

Thunderstorm beauty, busy night  city street beauty.

Some beauty is tenderly painful, aches at the touch.

Tears lingering in eyes, slow songs, loaded gazes, near-kisses.

These too, these too I love.

I cannot help it,

I dive in with all five senses, I reach and reach for the exquisite .

I inhale salt air at the beach and let icy water pool at my ankles

Rub satiny fabrics against my cheeks

Bury my nose in the  delicate jasmine plants that grow along the path where I walk my dog,

Stroke rain-wet leaves with my finger.


My mother told me once that I love big, my heart on my sleeve.

Big and beating and exposed

Vulnerable to breaking

But I wouldn’t close my soul back up in the cage of my chest

For it’s out here,

Out in the light, the chaos,

Open to the the cold and the heat, the wind and the rain  and the wildness,

It is here where the beauty is.


Patient, Casey O’Brien, 19 yo female, DOB 12/19/95

Woman, Casey O’Brien, 19 years young.

Woman, thrill seeker, forest wanderer, theater lover , novel reader, poem writer, movie watcher, hand holder, world traveler, vivid dreamer.


Warrior,  never accepted defeat easily, willpower starting to wear thin.

Chronic illness  is a worthy adversary and sometimes I wonder if I won’t just bend under its pressure

No dramatic end, just a slow steady surrender.

Xeroxed lab sheets piling up on the desk, appointments crowding my calendar.

A blood pressure cuff packed in my suitcase alongside the sundresses,

A life spent walking florescent-lit hallways leading to too hot waiting rooms, crying babies, snoring old men.

But then I remember

The best soldiers are the ones that know when to retreat,

That backing up isn’t backing down,

And no battle was ever won alone

I am not a one woman army,

And I refuse to be a martyr


That’s when I slip a novel into my purse for the waiting room,

Because my mind isn’t sick,

My mind never will be.


That’s when I think of the future.

I stack hours until they turn into days and months

And  I climb them until I reach my destination.

That’s when  I remind myself

This too shall pass

Soon I will be back to long nights in the rehearsal room,

Typing essays on quiet Sunday afternoons,

Soon I will be back to laughing with my best friend over nothing at all.

SoonI I  will be strong again.


This isn’t a battle lost or won,

This is a war that isn’t over.

This is a war I will win.

I may be armorless, soft hearted, vulnerable, exposed,

Tears  burn my eyes red.

But they never close,

For I am aware,

I am ready,

I am watching.

I am determined.

Deep in my core is a fire that burns ever brighter

And with this,

I am forging a future in shining colors.



Is the state of being in betweenSAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

But it is also the state of

Dual existence

The state of being in two places, two phases, two worlds.

I am


This is 19, this is standing on the threshold between girl and woman, free to be both.

Staying up late but still sleeping in the flannel pajamas Daddy bought me.

Red lipstick and cozy socks

High heels and pink thermals.

Bare feet on forest floor, and yet not quite


Knowing how to write an essay but not how to sew a rip.

This is aching to hold babies I see asleep in their mother’s arms

And aching just as much to be held myself.

Flirting with boys and cuddling with girls

In love with the idea of love but

more in love with feminism.

This is pop music and social justice,

Big dreams and no one to tell me they can’t be reached.

This is a body in stages

I have woman hips,  a woman chest

But I have child’s hand’s, big brown child eyes.

I wear my hair long and hide in its comfortable softness,

Dress in grownup dresses but also bright patterns, tight jeans, big sweaters.

I have left the nest but am still learning to fly.

I have strong opinions I know will change,

I have seen just enough o know how blind I am.

I make mistakes every day, but often help others mend theirs.

I am taken seriously and allowed to be ridiculous.

I am unfinished.

I am blissful.


For a long time my body was a language I didn’t speakIMG_2453 edit
I kept hoping someone could translate it
Kept hoping those needles could tell them something
Every week, regular as church, worshipping at an altar I didn’t fully comprehend I’d hold out my pale arm.
Cheery women in scrubs told me I could look away but I always thought I might miss something important
So every week I’d watch syringes fill with blood that looked too bright an alive to be mine
To belong to this sick kid with her hair up in a ponytail, no time to brush it anymore

For a long time my body was a cage I had to live in
And I couldn’t see past the bars
Couldn’t comprehend that someday this collection of organs could be an orchestra playing in harmony

My body was ropes holding me back, my body made my life a series
of cannots.
Cannot dance
Cannot work
Cannot explore
Cannot get out of bed in the morning.
For a long time, my body was the end of my story.

For a long time my body was public property, a place for what felt like a thousand doctors to analyze me, pick me apart,
Trying to find
where God had gone wrong
Where I’d been put together funny

For a long time
I wondered if I’d be tired forever.

But this is not a poem about
This is not a poem about being
because God makes no mistakes

This is a poem about a girl with long lean legs like young saplings
Wild hair that escapes its braid to float around her face
This is a poem about a girl who hiked the Andes, stood on mountains taller than the clouds
Who loves to walk in the rain
with no coat on,
just to feel it seep into her skin
Who loves to dance in
empty studios
This is a poem about a girl who loves to study the high arches of her feet,
the crease where her hips meet her legs,
Her little bird hands, white belly, hourglass waist.
Who kisses her knees in yoga class, just so they know they are loved.
Who loves to fall asleep in somebody’s arms.

This is a poem about a girl turning into a woman,
Brushing her hair in the mirror
Putting on red lipstick and black eyeliner and blush the color of roses
Growing curvy and beautiful into the rest of her life
This is a poem about waking up and feeling strong, so strong.
This is a poem about having a future
About imagining without limitation
This is a poem about forgetting what pain feels like.
This is a poem about finding a home again.


Bolinas Beach bathed in winter sunlight, soft and rose-toned. One of those magical days that makes you think that Heaven must look like California.  Easy laughter. Long stretch of sand, open, free.  We have come home, and here we are, on a Saturday where the light looks like a fairy tale, remembering one another again.

My friend turns to me and asks,

“It’s funny, isn’t it? The way everything is different, but also—also exactly the same?”

I smile and nod, because I understand.


Yes, she lives just outside Boston now, studying engineering, and I couldn’t tell you what her days are like.  Couldn’t tell you who she eats breakfast with or what time she wakes up or what her bedspread looks like.

And the girl next to her, the one I stayed up with until 5 am the day after we graduated high school? The one I say  “I love you” to whenever we hang up the phone? That girl? She lives in British Columbia now. She sends me pictures of her bundled in a big winter coat, looking surprised.

And yet.

Looking into the engineering student’s bright brown eyes, wrapped in her borrowed sweater, I see too that she is right.

In some ways, some essential ways, things are still the same as they have always been.

Still we walk along the water, and still the dog runs ahead of us, oblivious, content. We share a picnic of goat cheese and bright Satsuma oranges, their fragrance like perfume. We swap stories, comparing and contrasting our months away. We ask after each other’s families.

We still love those families.

I still take long hikes with my mother, wandering through the forest in happy silence.

I still help make dinner, mixing salad dressing and chopping cucumbers.

I still watch movies with my family, laughing at my little brother’s running commentary.

When I do the laundry, I still know just where everything goes, whose shirt is whose.

The fabric of my being, the memories I am woven from, they remain.