First drafts stink


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How are your stinky first drafts doing? 

This week I completed a stinky first draft of a new play. I felt victorious. I felt defeated. I felt nauseous. 

This is always the case for me.

My brain understands that the stink is part of the process. (I assure you that the stink is part of the process.)

And yet, I’m always surprised and a little disappointed when the first draft does actually stink. 

This is always the case for me. 

Despite a multitude of examples to the contrary, I thought maybe this time it would be different. Maybe this time my play would spring from my mind in fully-formed perfection. Maybe this time I wouldn’t have to grind out five gazillion drafts just to get it to an acceptable shape for a reading around my kitchen table with my three kindest friends.

Oh well, not this time. (This is always the case for me. Is this the case for you?)

Friends, I don’t have a problem with a blank page. I have a problem with what I write on it. 

Anyone else feel that way?

This is what helped me accept the reality of writing the despicable first draft:

  • Pep-talks from my friends
  • A spirited sixty minute walk
  • Advice from Ian Finley (more on that below)

Ian and Tamara look happy because they are talking about writing and not actually writing.

I accept that writing is work. Writing is revision. And more work. And more revision. 

I accept.

And I turn to one of my favorite podcast conversations with playwright and 2012 Piedmont Laureate, Ian Finley. Ian tells it like it is, and I find a lot of comfort in that. 

I find comfort in knowing that we all go through this.

Solidarity, writers! Make a stink! Carry on! 

When you have 50 minutes, listen to Ian tell it here: 043: What good is a bad first draft? Playwright and arts educator Ian Finley extols the power of revision.

For now, take a look at the transcript below and revel in his wisdom about revision. 


Timestamp: 10:00


Let’s talk a little bit about revision because I know this is something else that you have strong opinions about. And I’m in agreement. Your assertion is that revision is 75% of the work in writing a new play. 


Yeah. So I hate Lord Byron.  I love his poetry. What I hate about him and all the Romantics was this belief that they put forward that is still so prevalent – that art is just given to you. Like the muse reaches down and you’ve got this great idea and you’re inspired and you go off and you write it and it’s done. And it’s a lie. It’s a gigantic lie. And it’s a destructive lie because it makes people feel that when they don’t get inspired that way, that they can’t write, that they can’t create.

Timestamp: 10:53


And it’s a lie because that’s not how Byron wrote. Byron wrote and then he revised, he put the work in. Again, it’s a craft, not an art. The art comes out of the craft, right? The working of the pieces….

Timestamp: 11:38


The first draft really ought to be quite horrible. Because if it’s not, you’re not trying anything, You’re doing the safe, easy thing if it’s any good in that first draft. Greatness is next door to awful. It’s like 10 miles away from good. Right? if you’re ever going to be really great, you’ve got to allow it to be just miserable in that first draft. And then you can fix it later on. Anything can be fixed once it’s done. And it’s an iterative process, right? You learn about the work by writing it. You don’t learn about it by researching. You don’t learn about it by outlining. Those are important things. And you do need to do some degree of them.

Timestamp: 12:27


But you learn about the characters. You get to know the characters, you get to know the world by spending time in that world, which means piling up pages, and writing. And then once you’ve written it, you realize that 80% of it is crap and has to be thrown away, but it’s not wasted time. It’s how you got to know what you are actually writing. So the first draft is what is really your outline, right? The second draft is like your deeper outline and then maybe by the third draft you get something that’s sort of your first draft. Right? The process of revision, I would say is 75% of the work, that first draft maybe outlining all that is 25%. Revision is 75% because anything can be fixed if you’re willing to do that.

2020: we begin with love for writers and writing


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Mark Steward, Adrienne Kelly-Lumpkin, Tamara Kissane, and Charles Phaneuf with big post-event smiles at the 2020 State of Arts and Culture in Wake County event.


Hello, friends!

This past Wednesday, January 29, 2020, I was formally introduced to our community at the State of Arts and Culture in Wake County event. This was a beautiful gathering that included performances by Black Box Dance Theatre and the Raleigh Boychoir, as well as inspiring remarks from our local arts leaders and awards bestowed for Business Support of the Arts.

And…guess who got an award for Arts Education?

The 2017 Piedmont Laureate, Mimi Herman! Wonderful and well-deserved. Congratulations, Mimi!

Mimi also had the task of introducing me and tee-ing up my 4 minute talk.

Kermit the Frog as Tamara the terrified Piedmont Laureate.

As you might imagine, I spent a significant amount of time considering how to officially begin my year as Piedmont Laureate. What was my message? What do people need? What can I offer? [Side note: This can be a slippery slope into a psychological quagmire.]

Ultimately, I decided to KISS it — Keep It Simple Sweetheart — and extend an invitation to our community to amplify love and joy for local playwrights and the writing process. Not overly complicated, not sophisticated, but definitely genuine…and hopefully, relatable.

[Besides, it’s an election year; we need to infuse our conversation and interactions with as much love and joy as possible. Let’s start today.]

You’ll see my remarks below as they were spoken to the supportive audience at the State of Arts and Culture in Wake County event. I hope they speak to you and that you join me this year.

Piedmont Laureate events and programming are already in the works. I’ll be in touch when I have dates and venues. Stay tuned.

With gratitude,



Piedmont Laureate remarks

Thank you Mimi. Thank you to the City of Raleigh Arts Commission, Durham Arts Council, Orange County Arts Commission and United Arts Council of Raleigh & Wake County for this appointment. I am thrilled and honored. This is a beautiful event and we have much to celebrate.

Let’s start with some audience participation. I’m going to ask you 3 easy questions — all three are about love. Love is easy, right? You raise your hand if your answer is YES.

  • First question: Have you ever been in love with a place? (I see from your faces there are lots of stories there!)
  • Question 2: Have you ever felt love for a piece of writing — whether it’s fiction, nonfiction, poetry, short stories, novels, a script — raise your hand if you have been moved in your heart-place by writing? (Yes!) 
  • Final question; Can you call to mind a writer you just love and appreciate for their work?

(My spouse is out there. Where are you babe, is your hand up?)

Let’s take a few seconds to feel some gratitude together for that place, that writing, and that writer you love. I’ll count to three. You emit gratitude. 1, 2, 3. (Oooh, that was lovely with an unexpected sound effect!)

Thank you for your participation.

I applied for the Piedmont Laureate position because I’m in love. In addition to my spouse, I’m in love with North Carolina and our growing region of the world. I’m in love with the people who reside here, including a multitude of creatives, artists, and writers of all genres and mediums. 

I’m in love with writing plays and audio fiction, and what’s more I love encouraging others to experience the soulful benefits, the exquisite struggle, the gentle bliss, the crucible of putting words on a page…and then sharing them…and then hearing them performed by others. Playwriting has transformed my world internally and externally. Experiencing a powerful script — whether it’s powerfully funny, gut-wrenching, or thought-provoking — is one of the greatest joys of my life. 

This year, in 2020, Piedmont Laureate programming will certainly include readings of new plays, panels, interviews, workshops, podcast episodes and events I haven’t even conceived of yet. There’s much to look forward to. But more than anything… quite simply, in 2020 I hope the Piedmont Laureate programming will continue to spread the love for the bounty of local playwrights and collaborators, and share the joy of writing including the process, the product, the pitfalls, and the promise.

If you weren’t able to put your hands up at the beginning when I asked you about the place, writing, and writer you love, then by the end of this year, I hope you’ll be able to raise both of them high.

It’s my great pleasure to serve in this capacity and I hope you’ll join me. Thank you.


Dollars, cents and sense of book-publishing


Something I always tell people: Don’t go into writing books for the money, because there’s a lot less of it than you’d think. Sure, books are worth writing and publishing, enough so that I put a lot of effort into both writing and editing them. But for those of us who aren’t J.K. Rowling, say, you’d be amazed at just how little money can change hands over it.

Case in point is the annual royalty statement from University of Texas Press that hits my mailbox every year around this time. I have a small back-end interest in the books I’ve brought in to the American Music Series at UT Press, and a few of them have “earned out” — sold enough to recoup their advances and generate back-end royalties. Valhalla!


It comes to a few hundred dollars every year, which is good to have and I’m happy to get it. No, it’s not a living or much of a contribution to the retirement account, but every drop in the bucket helps here on Planet Freelance. The work is still fun to do, and it’s satisfying to feel like I’m involved in putting good things out into the world. That’s still more important to me than money.

But yeah, this is the time of year I pay attention to the money, especially since I have an even more direct rooting interest in one of those UT Press titles — because it’s a book I wrote, “Ryan Adams: Losering, A Story of Whiskeytown.” It was published way back in 2012 and did pretty well; sold decently by university-press standards while picking up mostly (but not unanimously) positive reviews and even winning an award.

Losering.JPGNaturally, I still feel like it could have done multiples more in sales if I’d caught a break or two — a review in the right place, the right person tweeting something about it at the right time — but that was not to be. All of which is to say that, while I’m still proud of “Losering,” it has yet to earn out and get to the promised land of back-end royalties.

But man, it’s close. By my back-of-the-envelope calculations based on this statement, it needs to sell only around 40 more copies to get there.

Seems like a sure thing, right? Guess again.

In the wake of that bombshell New York Times feature back in February, which accused Mr. Adams of various #MeToo misdeeds, his career pretty much came to a full stop. He was to have released three albums this year while touring the world, but that was all canceled.

It’s hard to tell if this is going to be a temporary lull or a permanent ban for Ryan, or if he has it within him to do what needs to be done for him to resume his career. I’ve not been able to bring myself to listen to his music since the news broke, which leaves me with profoundly mixed feelings. But in the grand scheme of things, the fate of my little university-press book on Ryan is an insignificant little blip. This time next year, I kind of expect it will still be in “Unrecouped” purgatory. So it goes.

Meanwhile, I’m just about done with my next book — this one for UNC Press, a history of North Carolina music — which has been my main side-hustle project for close to three years. There have been times when it’s felt like a sanity-keeping labor of love, others when it’s felt like an anchor I’m lugging around. But it should be done and dusted by the end of this month, with publication to follow in fall 2020.

The advance is just about the same amount I was paid to write “Losering.” Maybe this one will take less time to earn out.

Raleigh’s bluegrass festival: A fan’s notes

MeIBMA.JPGIt’s coming up on seven months since I left the News & Observer, and the week just past was my most bittersweet yet. Late September is when the International Bluegrass Music Association’s annual World of Bluegrass shindig returns to Raleigh, and it looked like last week’s 2019 edition went just fine other than lightning shutting down Friday night’s outdoor shows an hour early.

Near as I could tell, the usual huge throng turned out, although it will take a few weeks of number-crunching to determine if 2019 set another attendance record. But for the first time since IBMA set up shop in Raleigh six years ago, I won’t be checking on that in any sort of official capacity.

This was the first Raleigh World of Bluegrass where I was just another attendee rather than the N&O’s coverage point person. I did some previews elsewhere, but no live coverage during the week. And on the surface, sure, it was nice to just go and enjoy it rather than have to work it. But there were also intermittent pangs of strange, disorienting feelings.

I actually made a point of not doing my customary early-morning-to-late-night marathon, and there were even a few days when I put aside my FOMO and didn’t go down at all. The paper has moved on from me, farming out coverage duties to others. So it seemed like I should do the same and put a modicum of that effort into other things.

LABF.JPGAll the same, the place the festival once occupied in my professional life was very much on my mind, never moreso than Saturday morning — when I was actually all the way on the other side of the Triangle. Piedmont Laureate emeritus James Maxey (who held the post in 2015, in the area of speculative fiction) helped organize a Local Author Book Fair at Hillsborough’s Orange County Public Library, and I was first up to read.

Since the last book I published came out in 2015 and my next one won’t come out until the fall of 2020, I didn’t really have an obvious work to focus on. So I chose to look forward by reading a few selections from that next book, a history of North Carolina music. Wish I could tell you the title, but right now that is still being debated.

Along with the book’s introductory preface, I read the concluding epilogue, which I only recently finished. It’s a coda that ties the whole thing up with a scene from Raleigh’s first World of Bluegrass in 2013, bringing together different threads of the story, and reading that aloud in public for the first time was an unexpectedly emotional experience. I’m going to have to work on my composure if I read that one out loud in front of people again, because I’m afraid I got choked up enough for it to be a bit of an embarrassing scene. I am thankful the attendees were kind about it.

Why was it so emotional? Probably because it made leaving my previous life at the paper, which had been home for 28 years, resonate on more of a deep-down unconscious level. Intellectually, I don’t really miss life at the N&O because it hadn’t been the same for a long, long time. Nevertheless, parts of my lizard brain still seem to be processing my departure from newspaper journalism. And if it was kind of a shock for that to come roaring back and leave me awash in the feels, it felt like a good thing. This cycle is probably akin to grieving the death of a loved one, a process that involves peaks and valleys rather than straight lines.

Reading my book’s conclusion aloud and revisiting that first bluegrass festival, and how hard I worked to cover it over the years, really did perfectly sum up that chapter of my life. Put a period on it, and maybe even an exclamation point. I am curious if other people will find it moving, or simply overwrought. Either way, that’s okay. I wouldn’t change a thing.

There remains a mountain of detail work to do before this book is completely finished — acknowledgements, pictures, captions, permission forms, proof-reading and more. But now it feels like the journey it’s taken me on really is done, for better or worse. Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, the book will be out in the world in time for next year’s World of Bluegrass. My closing-address farewell to the daily-paper grind in all its good, bad and ugly glory.

I’m thankful to have had the opportunity.

Why I write

WhyWriteSeveral times during Piedmont Laureate events this year, I’ve been asked a variation of this question: Why do you write? I have tried to answer as best I can, kind of fumbling my way through it as I often do when put on the spot in a live-audience setting. But I don’t feel like I’ve come up with an answer that has satisfied anyone, especially one person who was particularly insistent at yesterday’s event in Pittsboro.

So I thought I’d take a crack at it here, in writing — which, come to think, is part of the answer. There’s a reason I communicate better via the written word, and it’s because writing isn’t just something I do, or even start and stop. I never stop because writing is who I am, a central part of my identity, and it’s been that way since long before I even became a writer.

From a young age, telling stories was an instinct that landed somewhere between impulse and urge. Even when I was in the middle of an activity, I’d find myself mentally arranging memories and facts in such a way that I could recount the experience afterward.

This tendency manifests as a number of characteristics, not all of them positive — crippling self-consciousness, for one thing, as well as an inclination to hang back and observe rather than plunge in and participate. I think it’s a big reason why I wound up writing about music instead of trying to play it myself. Well, that and the fact that I had no musical ability whatsoever. But I figured out early on that my place was out in the crowd bearing witness, and then recording the experience for others to read about.

Ultimately, though, it’s for myself rather than other people. Writing is how I process events and try to make sense of the world, whether or not anyone else ever reads it. I’ve been fortunate enough for that to add up to a living for basically my entire adult life (at least so far).

So yeah, that’s how I’m wired: Something happens, I write about it. Maybe it winds up in a publication of some sort, or on social media or the electronic equivalent of a dead-letter office. Going forward, it’s not clear how much of my writings will go where.

My life’s work has been as a scribe, primarily watching and recording others doing things. It made me a good newspaper journalist — and also made it wrenching to lose that identity when I left the daily-paper ranks six months ago. That’s something I still grapple with pretty much every day. Even though I’m still writing elsewhere, that newspaper mindset remains and I think it always will.

For good or for ill: That’s why I write.

2020 foresight: Apply to be next year’s Piedmont Laureate

CaseyIt’s hard for me to believe, but my year-long tenure as Piedmont Laureate is already more than half-over. This whole year has been something of a whirlwind, what with me leaving the News & Observer this past spring, and being Laureate has been immensely fun — a bunch of cool events already in the books, with more to come. I hope you’ll come out to one between now and the end of the year; here are some flyers about a couple of upcoming programs.

But now that I’m on the downhill run toward the end of my own Laureateship, the agencies that run the program (that would be City of Raleigh Arts Commission, Durham Arts Council, Orange County Arts Commission and United Arts Council of Raleigh & Wake County) are turning their attention toward next year. And they’d like you to know that the application process is now open for 2020. Every year’s Laureate has a different specialty, and mine has been the area of “creative non-fiction and biography.” Next year’s Laureate will come from the world of “writers of plays, musicals and screenplays (for film, television and video games).”

LewFlyerThere is an application and interview process, and it’s open to all qualified writers who are at least 18 years old and have resided in Wake, Durham or Orange counties for at least one year. Application deadline is Oct. 7. You can check all the relevant details on the 2020 Piedmont Laureate Application page.

Being Laureate is a lot of work, but I’ve found it to be immensely rewarding as well as a comfort as I make my way into life beyond newspapers. It’s an experience I’d highly recommend. So come out to a program or two with me before the end of the year, and consider joining me in the best fellowship I’ve ever been a part of.