Aug 17

Dollar Tree Drug Test Kits: Comparison is the Bringer of Joy

Comparison may be billed as the thief of joy, but yesterday because of Dollar Tree drug test kits, it became my reason for it.

I saw a girl buying some Dollar Tree drug test kits, and this is that story.

Original photo by Brooke Cagle

Let me explain.

Firstly, if you know me in real life, then you know that I’m catty. I gossip too much, and I’m mostly not a great person. I’m working on that, but I felt I needed to say that to give you a frame of reference for why the following story would bring me so much happiness.

Because I enjoy getting a good deal AND buying cheap plastic crap, I like a good trip to the dollar store. My local Dollar Tree is a treasure trove of paperbacks, personal care products, and cheap Sour Patch kids. Naturally, I shop there often.

After reading Tracy’s post about watercolor Skillshare classes, I decided I was going to sign up for Skillshare, and try my hand at some painting. But I didn’t want to buy expensive watercolors in case I absolutely hated the process. So I figured buying garbage paint from the school supply section of Dollar Tree would hold me over until I decide to pull the trigger on some real paint.

And naturally, I needed tea light candles and a vase for my grocery store hydrangeas I was planning to buy, and I can’t leave Dollar Tree without at least three paperbacks. (I wound up buying 5 yesterday. SO MANY MAINSTREAM FICTIONS GOODIES!)

Anyway, I went at a great time because it was quiet and chill. I hate going to Dollar Tree when granny has all 7 of her grandchildren in the store to purchase candy before going to the movie theater, or when unsupervised teens try to casually steal the hair dyes. And let’s be real: The only time shopping is good is when there is no one else in the store. That’s why Mondays are the best days to do your combo Dollar Tree and grocery store runs.

I grabbed my items and briefly considered picking up some Hot Tamales and Twizzlers. I didn’t though, because I’m trying this new thing where I don’t eat like a toddler that was locked in a candy store over night. So I made my way to the line. And that’s where I got my moment of clarity.

In front of me stood a young woman. She was a college student, and I could tell because she was wearing the requisite short running shorts and an oversized Delta Omega Pi Theta Alpha Kappa or whatever shirt. Her nails were manicured, her tan nearly perfect, and her hair was very clean and freshly styled.

Did you know Dollar Tree sold drug test kits? Click To Tweet

And in her hands were 3 Dollar Tree drug test kits.

Yes. Dollar Tree drug test kits.

I know. I thought they only sold pregnancy tests which they stock right at checkout, like the one impulse purchase you can’t leave without is a hella cheap pee stick.

She was quite fidgety. Though, I suppose it’s hard to play it cool when you’re buying drug tests.

A cashier opened up a new lane and she darted over. As soon as the cashier dragged those boxes across the scanner and dropped them in a bag, she slapped $4 on the counter, grabbed her merchandise, and sprinted out.

She didn’t even wait for her change, which really confused the cashier because you can buy like three-quarters of an item at Dollar Tree with the money she left behind.

And that’s when comparing my life to the lives of others brought me immense joy.

Don’t get me wrong. I wish this young woman the best. I hope everything turns out for the best, and I hope that she gets the answer she wants from those drug test kits.

But comparing my life to hers brings me immense joy because I will never have to be that age again. And because of that, I will never find myself in a position wherein I need to purchase Dollar Tree drug test kits.

(We’re all where we’re supposed to be, and I don’t gotta be there no more.)

Though being a 30-something in a college town can make you feel old ALL THE TIME, sometimes it makes you feel super grateful.

With age comes wisdom, and jobs that no longer test for drugs because they require so many other credentials and have such a low turnover that they know you probably won’t do anything harder than the occasional Benadryl. With age comes the realization that no matter what is going on in my life, I never have to relive my twenties again because they were THE WORST. I will never find myself in the position where I put my faith in a $1 drug test.

So, to the young woman who I saw at the Dollar Tree on 12th and Alameda, I hope your week improves. I hope you get the result you need to get, and I hope it means you get the job or whatever you were testing for. We all had summer indiscretions in college, and I hope you aren’t punished for partying the way that a vast majority of people do at your age.

And to myself, I remind you that everything is coming up Millhouse, and you ain’t gotta buy no Dollar Tree drug test kits.

Dollar Tree Drug Test Kits: Comparison is the Bringer of Joy Click To Tweet

Am I a terrible person for sharing this story? Have you ever seen a stranger that reminded you how good you had it? How accurate do you think those drug tests are? What is your favorite item to buy at Dollar Tree?

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Aug 17

How to Start a Big Writing Project

One of the questions I get all the time is how to start a big writing project. Admittedly, big is a relative term, and means something different to everyone. But whether you’re a middle school student working on a five-paragraph essay or a doctoral candidate trying to crank out that thesis, getting started can be a stumbling block.

Tackling a big writing project can be tough! But I've got 5 tips to help you get through your next big writing project right here.

Original photo by Kari Shea

I feel right here is a good time for me to make a disclaimer.

If you’ve seen me on Twitter, then you know how prone I am to procrastination. There isn’t a week that goes by that I’m not putting something off by looking at all the tweets. So, if you feel that I may need to heed my own advice that I’m about to give, you wouldn’t be wrong.

Do you struggle when it comes to starting a big writing project? Click To Tweet

And while I admit that there is a fair amount of procrastination to my process, there is even more getting down to business. After all, I’ve completed more than one big writing project in my day. Whether it was my master’s thesis or books for ghost writing clients or the syllabus I’m working on now (HOW IS IT AUGUST ALREADY?!), I have a tried-and-true process to get you started on that big writing project that you need to crank out.

001: Minimize distractions.
This is when we close that Twitter tab on our browser. In fact, we shut down the whole browser. We close out everything that isn’t the word processing software we happen to be using. And we put our phone in the other room. And make sure the notifications are off.

I’m not trying to be jerk here, but you can’t write if you’re distracted. There is literally no such thing as multitasking, and if you think you’re succeeding at doing two things at once, you’re really just half-assing those things. (If you’ve got three things going, you’re third-assing. I could go on forever with the fractions.) Multitasking is a great way to make minimal progress on multiple things at the same time. So do yourself a favor and focus in on writing. That will make you get through your task a lot faster, and it won’t seem as daunting.

002: Get in the right headspace.
I know exactly what I need to create the perfect environment for writing. It’s taken me so much time to figure this out, but I’m glad that I finally have. I know I need quiet. I know I need to minimize external stimuli. I know that I need to be as far away from people as possible.

For that reason, I NEVER post up in a coffee shop. In fact, I can barely read in those places. Maybe there is an ideal, quiet coffee shop in an alternate universe that would be perfect for me, but for now, I live in a college town, and every cafe is chock-full of loud-ass students.

When I picked a new place to live, I made sure I found a place that had a space I could use as an office. I know I need the dedicated space to catch all my paper clutter associated with teaching as well as a place where I could sit and do any big writing project that came my way.

I know not everyone can have a dedicated space to work on a big writing project, so you gotta work with what you got. I highly recommend Ambient Mixer to help you tune out the world and get shit done. Invest in some headphones that cancel out other noises. And let everyone around you know that you are not to be disturbed. Because every time you stop to acknowledge a distraction, it takes you that much longer to get back into that headspace, and even longer to get your writing done.

003: Create a road map.
You aren’t going to remember all those brilliant points that you thought about when you originally conceived this project. In fact, if you haven’t written any points down before you begin, congratulations on creating the hardest project of all time. I’m not saying you have to create a full-fledged outline (though, depending on the project, you probably should because it can only help), but you need to know where you’re going.

I used to work with a kitchen manager at this professional wrestling-themed barbecue restaurant in the parking lot of a Walmart (real long story for another time), and every day he’d grab an index card and write out what he needed to do. And with that card that he kept in his front shirt pocket, he never missed a food order or delivery. He kept his crew tight, and the kitchen ran like a well-oiled machine. We’d open the restaurant together, and he’d say, “You can’t get where you’re going if you don’t have a map.” Then he’d flick the corner of that to do list, and go about his day.

I still follow that advice. It’s not uncommon for the screen of my laptop to be surrounded by Post-Its with the nonsensical ramblings of a mad woman. But I need those because they have my ideas, and those ideas are the map.

004: Don’t overestimate your potential output.
If you wouldn’t go to the gym after a long period of inactivity and try to max out your squat, then don’t do it with writing. Sure, you’re probably not going to tear a muscle writing, but your brain and body aren’t used to it, and you’re going to do more damage than good.

Writing is like a muscle. You have to exercise it or lose it. And while I’m not one of those militant writers that believes in working on projects every single day, I do believe that you have to work most days. So, if you’re a student who has spent all summer doing nothing besides eating processed food and watching YouTube videos, you aren’t going to go back to school in the fall and suddenly be able to bash out a 10-page paper in one night.

Writing is like a muscle. You have to exercise it or lose it. Click To Tweet

(You might be able to. But, it’s going to hurt like hell. And you’re setting yourself up for failure. Even if you pass this one paper, know that some professors won’t put up with shitty writing, and at some point, it will come back to bite you in the ass.)

So if you haven’t written in a while, maybe set yourself a small goal. Maybe on the first day, all you do is create that road map for the paper. Then, on the second day, you organize your research and pull the quotes you want to use and create your reference list. Then, you’re already familiar with the topic, and you’re ready to go. Sure, it will require hours of work and revision, but you aren’t overextending yourself in the beginning.

005: Stop tongue kissing boys.
One of the biggest mistakes my students run into is not managing time. No one writes all day long. (I mean, maybe on occasion, but not all day every day.) There’s a lot to life that’s way more fun than drumming your fingers on a keyboard while your eyes stare blankly at a screen. And that stuff will always come before writing if you let it.

When I was an undergrad, a particularly folksy professor of mine asked the class of junior-level creative writers what we were reading for fun. As creative writing majors, we had to take so many writing classes in addition to literature classes, and our nights and weekends were spent catching up on Tolstoy and Milton and Brontë. Surely none of us had time to read for fun too!


As my professor so eloquently put it, “If you got time to be tongue kissin’ boys, you got time to be readin’.”

(I feel I should state for the record that at that time in my life, I couldn’t figure out how to get a boy to tongue kiss me. Also, I had never heard the phrase “tongue kissing” in my life.)

Here's the thing about writing: It's a lot more fun to do other stuff like tongue kissing boys. Click To Tweet

Here’s the thing about a big writing project: It’s a lot more fun to do other stuff like tongue kissing boys. But the writing will still need to be done. So, if you’ve got time to gallivant around town with any ol’ fella who will kiss you, you’ve got time to write. Be honest about how you’re time is spent, and plan out how you will be using your time when you’re in the midst of the big writing project. It will save you so much hurt at the end.

Now let’s say you’ve followed these five tips.

And then what? Well. Okay. Here’s the thing.

You still have to write.

That’s the thing about a big writing project. It’s still a lot of work. But, if you follow these five tips, I promise you that it will become easier for you to complete. That’s not to say that it will be easy. But you’ll learn how to approach a big writing project, and honestly, knowing how to do that is half the writing battle.


What about you, fellow writers? How do you attack a big writing project? What are your keys to success? On average, how many hours a week do you spend tongue kissin’ boys?

Thanks for sharing!
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Aug 17

A Photo Session with Kathryn Trattner

Y’all. Book a photo session with Kathryn Trattner right now. You’ll be glad you did.

Here’s a fun Marisa fact: I absolutely hate having my picture taken. I think I get it from my mom, who probably has only actually appeared in like 10 pictures in the past 30 years.

Kathryn Trattner is a great photographer, and she took this picture.

Just having impure thoughts about Beorn, my dream man, a shapeshifter who feeds his guests honey.

Also, there was a time when taking a picture wasn’t a harrowing experience. And that’s because if the picture sucked, no one would see it. But now the second a photo is snapped, it’s on social media. So, I have what I call Facebook anxiety, and it stems from all the hella unflattering pictures my friends have tagged me in over the years.

(I would like the record to show that I don’t post unflattering photos of my friends, and yet they INSIST on posting terrible pictures of me.)

How many unflattering photos have you been tagged in on Facebook? Click To Tweet

So, here I am, living a life that’s been relatively uncaptured on film. Will history even remember me?

(The answer is no.)

I knew I needed to fix that, especially since I’m trying to be the type of person who loves my body. (That’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish and a story for another day.) Suffice it say that I’m not there yet, but maybe I’m a few steps closer?

(I can’t say yes or no for sure.)

Kathryn Trattner is a photographer who can capture the tiny details that may get lost when a less careful photographer is behind the camera.

Anyway, I have a friend named Kathryn Trattner, who is an amazing photographer, genius writer, adorable person, and probably some sort of fey creature who dwells under mushrooms when no one is looking.


I asked her to come take my pictures so I could have some updated photos for the blog and social media.

Kathryn is an awesome photographer. She does a great job of making you feel comfortable in front of the camera, and she gives great direction when it comes to poses.

Though, I feel I should state for the record that she refused to photoshop pics of Selma Hayek over me in these photos. She said something like “that’s not actually photography” and “why don’t you just get pictures of Selma Hayek from the internet and leave it at that?”

She’s pretty wise, even if she won’t help you pretend that you’re Selma Hayek.

I’m sure her business cards now say “Kathryn Trattner, Photographer, not a Selma Hayek photoshopper.”

Apparently photoshopping celebrities over your face isn't photography. Click To Tweet

We took these photos in my living room, and in my tiny backyard on what felt like the hottest day that our little parcel of Hell has ever had. But Kathryn knows the good angles, and that’s why you can’t even tell how sweaty I am in all of these.

(Side note: My mom knew that there had been a photo session at my house, so when I posted this, she assumed that Kathryn had caught some orbs or whatever in her photos. Then she was real disappointed by my real life ghost pictures.)

I’ve captioned these photos, just so you can get a better understanding of what was going through my head.

These photos were taken by Kathryn Trattner, a great photographer in the OKC area.

Are we still doing white manis?

Sometimes I just stand in the middle of my living room and hold a mug because I was raised by a Sear’s catalog.

The one drawback of wearing red lipstick when you intend to smile is that you look like Heath Ledger as the Joker.

I’m standing in the woods. Do you think Beorn will find me? I mean, he can change into a bear, and surely my period will attract him.

Rosie Puppins, stealing my thunder with her effortless poses.

Say, fellas, do you come around her often? How’s about buying a lady a drink?

I farted.

No, but like, seriously, Beorn. Wherever you are, I want you to know that I love you and I’m not just saying that because I want to eat honey-slathered bread for the rest of my earthbound days.

If you’re interested in booking a session with Kathryn Trattner, you can contact her right here. And if you have a super artistic photoshoot in mind, you should ABSOLUTELY CONTACT HER. Seriously. There’s going to be a day when we find ourselves a pond and I wear a creepy witch dress and take pictures in it like I’m some sort of wraith Lady of the Lake.

A Photo Session with @K_Trattner Click To Tweet

(Please don’t steal that photoshoot idea. You can do your own creepy shoot with her instead.)

Thanks for sharing!
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Aug 17

Transitions are Hard

Transitions are hard, y’all. And my job is full of them.

Transitions are Hard

Original photo by Sam X

Sure, I do the same thing every semester, but the way the school year works is weird. There’s so much build up to the fall semester where you get everything set and then power through, and then you push through to Christmas. You get a month off, and start it up again. I taught for the first time this summer, and it was like a third round of the same cycle.

Transitions are Hard Click To Tweet

I feel like I’ve reached a point in my job where I’m not only capable, but so many things are running on autopilot now. I’m able to anticipate what kind of questions my students will have, and head ’em off at the pass, so to speak.

(Teaching is mostly a battle, and getting college kids to write a well-reasoned, CONCISE paper is lot like executing a ancient Greek-style phalanx. You gotta have the metaphorical armed men and the spears to basically prod students into doing the assignment correctly. All’s fair in love and war. And education.)

But even so, the school year has a lot of wear and tear. And the schedule is brutal.

With the starts and stops of the normal academic calendar, I feel like this one scene in Beavis and Butthead Do America where they’re escaping the trunk of a moving car. They’re able to pry the trunk open, but Beavis is scared to jump out because “that road is moving pretty fast.” Butthead says it’s okay, and that Beavis should just run really fast when he hits the ground.

I’ve cued up the movie here for you if you’re one of those productive humans who doesn’t often find themselves quoting Beavis and Butthead and using it at a metaphor for life.

(Side note: Not that I mind you coming around, but like, if you AREN’T the type of person to use Beavis and Butthead as a metaphor for life, what the hell are you even doing here?)

Beavis and Butthead: A Metaphor for Life Click To Tweet

The reason I bring all this up is twofold. Firstly, if you’ve never seen Beavis and Butthead Do America, you absolutely must. It’s a cinematic triumph. And secondly, I’m bringing this up because I FEEL LIKE I KEEP HAVING TO RUN REALLY HARD BECAUSE THE ROAD IS MOVING REALLY FAST WHEN I JUMP.

As I was saying, transitions are hard.

So, each semester, I change schedules. I go from grading EVERY PAPER EVER WRITTEN IN ALL THE HISTORY OF ACADEMIA (or so it feels) to posting grades and having so much free time. Because I need a break, I’ll take some time to just chill and slowly let my brain melt and dribble out of my ears while I watch Netflix. And before I know it, I haven’t used my time off for any of the productive things I intended to use it for, and I’ve already jumped into the cycle of powering through a new semester.

If I could power through the transition, this wouldn’t be a problem. But transitions are hard and I’m trying to avoid burnout. And because transitions are hard, I feel the need to make a small confession.

I’ve been misrepresenting myself a little lately. Sure, life is going well enough, and I’m happy, whatever that actually means. I’ve been keeping in contact with friends, and I’ve had some very good hangouts the past few months.

And I’ve been reading, slowly but surely. Some books move faster than others, and some books make me pause and think about my life, and sometimes that’s too much. But I’m reading still, which is something I have to do lest I go insane.

But here’s where I have to make a confession.

I haven’t been writing.

I have zero writing routine to speak of.

(Please don’t send me a link to one of those think pieces about how if you don’t write each day you should just get out of the game now. I AIN’T HERE FOR IT.)

Summer would be the ideal time to bash out a project — to outline a novel, or create new character ideas, or to formulate research questions for that Ph.D. I’m always threatening to get.

But here I am.

And so, if you thought I was hella good at productivity, know that I’m not. If my life were a car, it would be a primer-colored POS with a dents and dings and loud-as-hell muffler. Parts are held on with duct tape and zip ties, and no one is really sure what happened to the back bumper — that’s how long it’s been missing.

And what’s worse is that I’m in the trunk of said car as it barrels down the highway. I’ve just pried it open and I’ve got to jump. And I should be good at it by now because I’ve been jumping for the past two years.

But no.

Transitions are hard. And that road is moving really fast.

So I haven’t leveled up to writing daily.


Transitions are hard. And that road is moving really fast. Click To Tweet

And with that, I turn to you, readers. How do you keep up habits in the face of big transitions? How do you keep your schedule going when your work schedule changes about every 3 months? Have you ever jumped out of the trunk of a moving car?

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Jul 17

Writing Only Gets Harder

Paradoxically, writing only gets harder the more you do it.

Writing Only Gets Harder

Original photo by rawpixel.com

You can practice for years.

I’ve been actively writing since I was 8, and I can say conclusively that it’s harder to write now than it was then EVEN THOUGH NOW I CAN READ MULTI-SYLLABLE WORDS.

You can dedicate several years of your adult life and thousands of dollars to undergrad and graduate programs, but writing only gets harder.

Don’t believe me? Here’s why:

When you’re a kid, a story is any weird string of words. Have you ever listened to a kid tell a story? They start out telling you that their grandpa is coming over on Friday, and wind up at how much they love pudding. And while those things are probably true, the story itself, sucks.

(Sorry, kids.)

But that doesn’t diminish the kid’s ease at vomiting out words. It’s easy for them.

When I was in the first grade, I wrote books ALL THE TIME. I don’t think any of these tomes still exist to this day, as neither I nor my parents are particularly sentimental. But I sandwiched copy paper between sheets of construction paper, stapled those bad boys, and then went to town with a pencil and crayons. I wrote so many “books.” I was prolific.

It felt so easy.

(Probably because these stories were like 3 words to a page with a very intricate crayon drawing to illustrate the point.)

But then as I grew up, I started learning about story structure. I learned how to construct a sentence for maximum impact. I learned literary conventions and pacing and word choice all played a part in everything I wrote, and I made allowances.

Even so, this wasn’t the straw that broke the camel’s back. Writing was still pretty easy.

In middle school and high school creative writing classes, we had to turn in a short story once a week. That’s a helluva writing load, one that college classes wouldn’t inflict on their students. But I hit those deadlines. Sure, it was draining, but writing was easier then. I still have some of those stories (they managed to survive the great notebook throwing out of 2017) and they spanned topics like dystopian junkyards, a man going crazy in a grocery store, an unconscious father on life support mentally recounting life events as his family cries in his hospital room, a young girl posing as a squire so that she can become a knight someday…

I wrote all of that and so much more.

And it was really fucking easy compared to the writing I do now.

The ideas are all still there, disparate and diverse.

But writing only gets harder.

The ideas are all still there, disparate and diverse. But writing only gets harder. Click To Tweet

In college, I procrastinated. (In much the way I encourage my college students not to.) I waited until the day before a story was due for workshop, and then I’d bash one out. And, admittedly, it was never the best story in class. But it also wasn’t the worst.

And I could get away with that procrastination, because writing used to be easy.

Now, I can’t crank out a story in an evening. I can’t hear a song lyric and turn it into a plot line. I can’t watch a movie and use big chunks of it for my own craven purposes.

I don’t just sit down and dump my brain on the page the way I used to.

I have better taste now.

(Some of you who are more acquainted with some of my more colorful posts may disagree.)

I can’t write stories about dystopian junkyards, a man going crazy in a grocery store, an unconscious father on life support mentally recounting life events as his family cries in his hospital room, a young girl posing as a squire so that she can become a knight someday because these stories don’t align with what I want from my writing.

It’s not just writing anymore. It’s actually figuring out what I want to say, understanding the consequences and impact this will have, and how it will frame everything else I write from now until I die.

Writing only gets harder.

Sitting in a chair and bashing out words on a keyboard isn’t the hard part.

Sitting in a chair and bashing out words on a keyboard isn't the hard part. Click To Tweet

I’m saying that Writing, with a capital W, gets harder because it’s Writing with a capital W. It’s the bigger picture of what a writer does. It’s being aware of what writing actually means. It’s understanding who will take your words and how they will be used for years to come.

It’s not wanting your name associated with some garbage concept just because it’s popular at the moment or because it came to you or because it was easy to write.

(There are still things that are easy to write. Some things are so easy they’re out of my brain and on the page before I know it. But are they worth it? If you’ve been paying attention, you know they aren’t.)

Writing only gets harder because you know you’re capable of better prose, and pulling it out of yourself is like exorcising demons.

It’s looking back on the words that you put on the page, and making sure they mean exactly what you want.

This is why writing only gets harder.

The more you practice, the worse it gets. That’s what nobody tells you about practice. Sure, it makes it easier to complete the physical task of putting words on paper. But those words? They get harder and harder to bring to the page.

Writing only gets harder. Click To Tweet
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