Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

18.32: The Kirsten Vangsness Expansion Pack

We have a special guest episode! Kirsten Vangsness, Criminal Minds star, joins us to talk about her experience as a writer, actor, and playwright. She taught us how she deals with imposter syndrome, and how she uses performance as a writing tool. We also talk about self-actualization, cats, and filling your metaphorical art well.


From Kirsten: Record yourself, stream of consciousness, talking about one of the big questions that crops up in your work. Then write a scene that asks this question.

From us: Prepare for our next Deep Dive, by reading through Howard Tayler’s Schlock Mercenary.

Thing of the Week:

Kirsten’s Agenda Season 2

Blue by June Carryl

Credits: Your hosts for this episode were Mary Robinette Kowal, DongWon Song, Erin Roberts, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler. It was produced by Emma Reynolds, recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Imposter syndrome, and the expansion pack you bring from your life, from your experiences. Expressing is cathartic. Love the art in yourself. Everybody has the right to create. Anyone gets to play with the great creative gods. Honor what the audience brings. Imposter syndrome? First, agree that you are an imposter. Second, if you want to write, you are a writer. Avoid gatekeepers, including yourself! We have already gone through some gates, look back at those, and use that to get through new gates. Take care of your personal well and your art well first, let the commerce well fill when it can. 

[Season 18, Episode 32]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses, The Kirsten Vangsness Expansion Pack.

[Erin] 15 minutes long.

[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry, and we’re not that smart.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Erin] I’m Erin.

[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Mary Robinette] And we are with our special guest, Kirsten Vangsness. Kirsten, would you like to introduce yourself to our listeners?

[Kirsten] Sure. Hi. My name is Kirsten Vangsness. I am most notably seen [garbled] in my hair and a keyboard. I have played Penelope Garcia on Criminal Minds coming up on its 17th season. I am a Los Angeles-based playwright, I have written four or five… Oh, shoot. I’ve cowritten five episodes of Criminal Mind. But I’ve written a few one acts… I’ve written a one person show that… I mean, he’s my friend, but Neil Gaiman has been quoted as saying this is his favorite one person show. I took a couple of plays to Edinborough in 2019. I am the host of Kirsten’s Agenda, which you can find on YouTube. I make stuff. That’s me.

[Mary Robinette] Fantastic.

[Kirsten] I have a cat…

[Mary Robinette] We are so excited…

[Kirsten] [garbled]

[Mary Robinette] Yes. That was also… For our listeners who are not watching the video feed, Kirsten has an extremely adorable tuxedo cat behind her. Whose name is Atrao.

[Kirsten] Atrao.

[Mary Robinette] So I… Atrao. I was delighted. Delighted to meet both of you, actually.

[Mary Robinette] So what we’re going to be talking about is the idea of imposter syndrome and the expansion pack that you bring from your life, from the experiences that you have. So, Kirsten and I both have a theater background. Longtime listeners have heard me talk about puppets, like, a lot. What do you find yourself, like, pulling from your performance experience when you are writing?

[Kirsten] One of the… I started writing… Writing became a gateway drug when I was in fifth grade and I got a huge crush on Harriet the spy and I started keeping a journal. Then, when I started to audition for things, I realized there weren’t any parts for me that I could do in a monologue way that really showed what I wanted. They were too narrative or… I don’t know. Like, you needed to kind of get in there in one short period of time and you realized, “Oh, it needs a conflict, it needs something fun to do.” So, writing, I would kind of walk around my room and be like, “Okay. If I was coming up with the perfect monologue, this is what it would have.” I would kind of talk and do it, and then write it down, and talk a little bit more. So that was actually how I started to write. Then I would go and do the thing that I just sort of barfed out of my mouth, and it would be way more successful and get me way more attention, or… I used to do these monologue festivals. It would cost like $50 to do, and you would get $55 if you won. I didn’t have any money. So, like, I need to win this thing. So it became really important. Because then you got seen by casting directors and stuff. Then, as I… I always knew, just from writing in my journal, how cathartic expressing and necessary… Expressing. Period. I think that’s true for every single human being. But when I was performing, it engages the brain, the writer brain, in a different way, because… And I’ve noticed this when I’ve written the Criminal Mind scenes I’ve written for the character that I play. There’s the writer Kirsten, and then when actor Kirsten is doing what writer Kirsten wrote, she’s like, “Holy goodness. I’m discovering something over here that…” So you get to have a different perspective. Especially, I think, if you’re willing to come… Which is how I do, from any kind of creative standpoint, where I believe love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art. I’m not special. My job is to stay out of the way and let… Be the muse, let the muse come, blah blah blah. Everybody has the right to create. Everybody has the right to make something. You get an award or people like it, that’s great. But I think that if you’re willing to stand in personally from the work, you can kind of interact with it in a way that isn’t so, like, “Look at this thing I made. Look at this thing.” It’s like you’re here and I… I’ve actually… I’m going to name drop again. I actually learned that a little bit, or I learned to take ownership of that, from watching Neil Gaiman. Because I’ve been around him enough times and watched him sign books. Obviously, he’s such a meaningful writer for many of us. The way he is able to engage with people who say to him, “This book is so important to me,” and he can honor it, because he stands outside of the work. Like, he understands, like, that’s something that I get… I get to play with the great creative gods, isn’t this wonderful. I know the secret, which is you get to play with them. Anyone gets to play with them. Any of us who know that secret should share it. I do think that there are people who are gatekeepers, and act like you need to have some sort of rights to do it. I don’t believe that. I can’t believe that, because I’m not good enough of a writer to believe that. I… Sometimes I am and sometimes I’m really, really not. I have to make that very clear as we… I have written very good scenes in things that have been televised where I have literally started the scene like, Person One says something important.


[Kirsten] Person Two says the opposite thing. Person Three comes in with an anecdote. Like… It’s so… Did I answer that question?


[Kirsten] Talk about expansion packs.


[Howard] [garbled] you absolutely answered the question.


[Howard] The best of us, and the rest of us, do that same thing. I cannot count the number of times I’ve flipped through a script that I thought was ready to be illustrated and realized that there is a dialogue bubble that says “Punch line goes here, Howard.”

[Laughter. Right. Right.]

[Mary Robinette] My current novel has a thing that says, “Bilbert makes funny joke here.”

[Yeah. Yeah.]

[Mary Robinette] unfortunately, it’s actually really bad joke here, which is much easier to fill. The thing that I especially like that you were talking about is honoring what the audience brings to it. I think that that personally is something that I brought out of my theater experience, is recognizing that only half the show exists until we get in front of an audience. They… Each person in the audience brings their own thing, whether that’s the people on the set or the people who are watching it, or the reader. For me, like, when you talk about the great creative gods, that’s the audience is actually that, because that’s who I’m writing for, that’s… That meeting in between us is what I’m looking for.

[Kirsten] Absolutely, because that energy, the gods and goddesses in non-binary gods and creatures of power, they are… There’s an energy that happens between you and the audience. I’m doing this thing I just started in LA called Bits. By the time this airs, I will have done a couple of them. The whole idea [garbled] are these really incredible writers who write things, but we don’t finish it. Sometimes the thing that makes you finish it is to do 10 minutes or less of it in front of a room, and say, “I’m making this thing,” and take that terrible, disgusting, horribly apathetic to your insides leap of I’m reading this in front of people, and I don’t even know if it’s good, I don’t know where it’s good. I’m hoping that these parts make sense. You know, as you start to do it, because you’ll feel this wave of energy coming at you. Whether that wave is apathy or joy or curiosity, you’ll feel it. It is really interesting. Because it does teach you what you’re saying to the audience.

[Howard] The wave of apathy is kind of like the sound of one hand clapping.


[Erin] I think one thing that’s cool is you feel it from yourself as well. Like, you get things from the audience, but I… I do not really have as much of a theater background, but I’m a big karaoke person…


[Erin] As some of you folks…

[No, I can tell]

[Erin] In Writing Excuses land know, and, like, what’s funny is you can be at home and, like, maybe your practicing your song, but when you get up in front of people, you sing differently, because they’re there.

[Yeah, that’s right]

[Erin] I think the same thing when you read your work. Like, sometimes I’ll go… I like to read unfinished things that are just like those little bits that you’re talking about. I’ll start to read a sentence and as I’m reading it, I’m like, “Oh, that’s not right. Actually…


[Erin] Like, that word is not the word that I should be saying.” Sometimes I’ll try to revise it, like, on the fly and try to like remember what did I just say, because that was the thing, because in the moment of being in front of the audience, being there and seeing them brought something out of me as a creator that I didn’t get in the same way when I was reading to my cat, as lovable as she is.

[Kirsten] That’s right. I think it’s two separate things. To write on your own in your privacy, to create in your private world, that has its own trappings, right? Like, I destroy myself when I write. Like, I have to know that there is a person that lives in me, that is just going to constantly tell me what a failure I, how pointless it is, or, like, why are you doing this? You’re already on a show. You’re already successful. Like, just… It will do anything it can to get me to stop. Then there’s another… Is another kind of risk you’re taking, like you said, when you’re at home, doing your karaoke, and then when you go out in the world doing it. It’s like the Heisenberg principle. The observed object is going to change by the act that it is being observed. And we at least all say we want our work to be seen and heard, so we have to get it observed. But it’s so terrifying to have it observed, too.

[Mary Robinette] Yes. Absolutely. When we come back, we’re going to talk about imposter syndrome and how to take these pieces of our lives and use them. But right now, let’s take a quick break. Do you want to tell us about your thing of the week, Kirsten?

[Kirsten] Oh. Here’s my thing… My thing! I asked if I could do plural things, and you said I could come so here’s my plural things. I have a show on YouTube. I highly recommend Season Two, Season One’s a little dated, because it was pandemic time deeply. But it’s called Kirsten’s Agenda, and it is about art and self-actualization. I don’t remember most of it, but I do know that I made stuff during… I wrote things, I wrote songs, I interviewed a bunch of smart people. I have heard that it is helpful for stuff. So that is something that I would like to plug. Then, this is not something that I made, but it is a thing, it is my thing of the week, because I’m deeply invested in it. If you happen to be listening to this and you’re going to the Edinborough Fringe this year, there’s a show called Blue written by a wonderful playwright named June Carryl. It is about the insurrection, it is about the George Floyd incident, it is about… It’s so beautifully told and so smart. It’s an hour long and it’s wonderful. It’s called Blue by June Carryl. If you happen to be in Scotland in April, go see that at [garbled assembly room]. That’s… Those are my things.

[Mary Robinette] All right, listeners. You have your marching orders. You’re going to go listen to Kirsten… Or watch Kirsten’s Agenda on YouTube and obviously you need to buy tickets to the Fringe festival in Edinborough. It’s in April. You have plenty of time to make those plans.

[Kirsten] It’s in August. It’s in August. August! It’s in August. They have a little time.

[Mary Robinette] They have some time.


[Mary Robinette] Fantastic. So, now that we are back, I want to talk about imposter syndrome, because that’s something that I think it’s everybody. One of the things that you were talking about before the break, Kirsten, was why should I even do this? I don’t even have… But also, your already successful. So there are these multiple parts of everyone’s life, where there is an area that you have success, and then there’s the new venture that you’re trying. For a lot of our listeners, that new venture is writing, where they’re very early in their career and maybe you haven’t finished anything yet. What are the things that we can… I talk about with my own life that I came into writing with an expansion pack from the theater that I already knew how to deal with character. Because I had already been inhabiting characters, but structure was a hot mess.

[Ha ha!]

[Mary Robinette] What are ways that you can look for the skills that you already have and find out what your expansion packs are?

[Kirsten] I would say the first thing is to… I heard this… This was a black woman talking about imposter syndrome in business. It applies hugely with her, much less for me… In different degrees, depending upon the privilege in which our society has endowed us at this period of time, but she was saying, in terms of imposter syndrome, to get an agreement that you are an imposter. She was saying that where she is, the spaces in which she goes through life, it wasn’t designed for her to be there. So she is an imposter. When you look at it like that, it’s kind of cool, meaning, like, good for you for getting in there and doing it. So, I mean this in a different way obviously, because I want to make that distinction very clear, I am not trying to say that I’m going into the same situations like that, but I’m saying internally, get into agreement that you feel like an imposter, I think, is always the first thing that can end that argument. I’m a big fan of ending arguments inside myself. So, okay, I’m an imposter. Number one. Number two, I want to write. Because I want to write, means I am a writer. End of conversation. I wouldn’t want to do it… I wouldn’t have… I have a right to do it, because I want to do it. That’s it. End that conversation. So there’s some of these things that just need to be just stopped, and you need to let… Like, you need to do an act of spirit. Right? Like, don’t go into your reptilian brain, just act of spirit. Then, I think, in terms of like, we all have what we need. I mean, we all have in our little hobbit bag of tricks what you need to do it how you do it. How I write is totally different than how other people write. So when I… Yes, it might be nice to read how other people do it, to give you freedom. But, like, I can’t… Like, the way I write, I have to go back and edit every two seconds, which people say is terrible, you should never do that. But sometimes that’s how I have to do it to make it work for me. I think that, like, you can pride yourself once you know and take pleasure… And I need to learn how to do this… In what you don’t know. Like, I cannot learn to outline if my life depended on it. Like I… Literally, if my life depended upon the outline, I would be dead on the ground.


[Kirsten] But… Because I don’t know how to do it yet. But it’s going to feel so good when I do. But I still don’t know. I think that that’s part of the… It’s called expansion pack for a reason. It’s going to expand. So boring if it was just like the pack. You know what I mean? That’s it… That’s all you have. So I think that you just know what you’re built with and then you go forth.

[Howard] Kirsten, I think in the first half of the episode you gave us a critical tool here. You talked about how we want to avoid the gatekeeping of any of this. Hey, get the gatekeepers out of the way, you should be… Hey, don’t gatekeep yourself.

[That’s right]

[Howard] Just stop that. We can all see ourselves doing it. Oh, I shouldn’t do this because I’m… No. Week. I’m gatekeeping. Why am I gatekeeping? Because I’m afraid of failing. Because I’d rather go get a sand… I don’t know. But figure out why that gatekeeper’s there and then show him the curb.

[Erin] Yeah. I also think, like, what you said about feeling like… Understanding where the world is kind of working with you or the world is working against you is, like, you have… Everyone has gone through some gates already in your… Whether it’s in your personal life, in your professional life, like, you know how to get past gates, like, you’ve made it somehow. So, sometimes I think we look at the gates in front of us that are closed, and we forget to look behind us at the gates that we’ve already unlocked, scrambled over, dug under, however you got through it, you got through it. Maybe you left a little bit of yourself behind. Maybe you got a scrape in the process. But you did it. I think going back and acknowledging that is a great way to take power forward for the next gate in front of you.

[Mary Robinette] I literally got chills when you said that, Erin. Just FYI. Yeah, that’s… I think that that is absolutely important is to honor the experiences that you have had, whether they’re positive or negative, for what they can teach you about the road ahead of you. In one of our other podcasts, I talked about the fact that I cannot tell you exactly how to navigate through the experience of being a writer because I start from a different point. So the experiences that I passed through our different. But, to Erin’s point, to Kirsten’s point, I can look at the things that I have gone over, and that can help guide me forward. I have… actually, have a conflict that I’m going to resolve after I get off this podcast. In fact, thank you.


[Mary Robinette] So, one of the things… I’m going to circle back to something from the beginning part of the episode, Kirsten, when you were talking about your gateway into writing, which is that you started it by monologueing. By trying to find monologues. Where you are now, what tools are you still using from that?

[Kirsten] Oh, I still… I mean, look. I am a… I think that there are people that move in a linear fashion, and there are people like little onions that just go in a little circle. I’m the circle kind. So, like, I’m doing the same… I dress the same as I did when I was five. So, it’s like… I just go a little more provocative, a little more provocatively. I’m going down a road and I’m stopping the road because it’s not going to make any sense to anybody but me.


[Kirsten] But I think that the things that I use, luckily for me, the way in which I speak to myself, the way in which I externalize, a lot of stuff I write about is about all the people who live inside of us. I do a lot of like persona stuff… Very easy for me to write dialogue, just based on the various things that I combat with inside of my own person. So, dialogue is really easy for me, because I can do it based on what goes on inside of me. If that makes any sense. So I think just journaling… To me, you know how you know you’re a writer? You know how I know I’m a writer? I write. If you wrote a sentence today, I will argue, that by dint of recording yourself saying something, writing something down, drawing something out, you are a writer. That day. Check the box. You might want to be more of a writer, by writing a little longer. But if you don’t right, are you a writer? Like, who’s the actor? The one who has the nachos commercial that’s running all the time, making money by just sitting on their couch, or the person who is doing day to day today scene work and monologues and plays for two dollars a night? Like, who’s the actor? Like, who’s the writer? So, like that’s… To me, the act of doing it creates more moments of success. Like, I… You have to make the gross stuff, and then through all that gross stuff that you’re puking out, there’ll be like a little bit of gold.


[Howard] I had a friend, years ago, said, “Lots of people will tell you you can’t write. Don’t let any of them tell you you don’t.”

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. I will also, just to layer onto that, continuing to use theater as the metaphor, that sometimes you go through slumps. Where you cannot find a gig. At all. Or you can’t even get in the room to audition. That doesn’t make you stop being an actor. It doesn’t… Likewise, as a writer, just because you don’t make a sale doesn’t mean you aren’t a writer. Then, also, one thing I want to say for mental health. If you have to take a break, surgeons go on vacation, they’re still surgeons. So if you have to take a break from writing, you’re still a writer, even if you’re not actively doing it because of mental health or other health things.

[Kirsten] Yes. I would say, though, that creativity is one of those wonderful, terrible, jealous mistresses. That once you open Pandora’s box, if you try to shut her again, you will feel pain. Your body will scream at you. So maybe not writing… Maybe you can take a break from writing, but your creativity is something… It’s there, and it’s there for you, always. It’s always there for you. That’s the thing that I find so touching about it. I can leave her forever and she’s always there. She might be, like, “you forgot about me and I feel lonely and you need to tend to me more so I’ll wake up to you. You’re going to have to be nice because I’m not just going to drop pearls of wisdom at your feet right now because I’m a little mad.” But she’s always there. If I can impart this to everybody, if I could give… I want to share this with the world, that’s how important this is. Because I am very… Like, I have a successful job. People can point… Look! There she is. She must get paid for that. She’s… Like I do the thing.


[Kirsten] Also, you see my name on it. Write… Cowritten by there’s my name. That is great and fine. But if I don’t… If I knew a lot of rich successful people that were happy, I would… If money and success made you happy, I would know a lot of rich and successful happy people. And I don’t. I would say equal, but maybe not even that. There’s your art well and there’s your commerce well. They are not the same well. Very rarely can I say that I have… put… my commerce well is the thing I make money doing. Your art well is your art well. You hope that the art well becomes a commerce well. But it becomes a commerce well, it’s kind of, now, it’s a job to make you money. You can’t… To put all of this into this isn’t fair. Like, so we have to also look at the joy of the doing of it and the deep, deep important cool value of the doing of it. The fact that you are writing, that’s cool. The fact that you’re writing and that no one’s paying attention to it, no one’s giving you money, that’s even cooler. That’s what they write songs about and make movies about is you. So, like the second you become successful, you’re just like, “Whatever.” You chew up gum. You’re going to get attention for that. But, like, I want everyone to know that coming from someone whose commerce well is very full, I always have to keep my art well full. That’s my responsibility, and our responsibility as people to our own inner artists that needs tending. The world will become progressively a more kind of place you want to live in if we each just tend to our own pleasure, tend to our own art well.

[Erin] Just to feed on to that, and to add to what Mary Robinette was saying earlier, the most important well… I love that, by the way. I love the art well and the commerce well, and there’s also, like, your personal well. Like, your actual I can exist as a person well. That is the well that you really, really must feed the most, because if that well goes dry, you lose it all. So, sometimes you have to… I have found that, literally in the last week, that I was struggling, staying up late, working on a project, not doing very well, and then I was, “You know what? I’m going to go get eight hours of sleep. I’m just… It’s going to put me back, but I’m just going to try it.” Then I woke up, and the next day, my art well… My personal well was refilled, and so my art well was moving much faster than it was when I was, like, struggling through the art and letting the personal go. So, it’s really about making sure you feed yourself so that you can feed your art and then hopefully we all become rich and happy and successful at the same time.

[Mary Robinette] Amazing. I think that that is a great point for us to move on to our homework, which will give you, dear listeners, something to fill your art well with.

[Kirsten] Ooo. Okay. So I came up with this. I’m going to try to make it concise. Brevity is not my forte. I have these big questions that I always write about. I always write about time. I’m fascinated by time. What is young, what is old, who lives inside of us? That Madeleine L’Engle quote we are every age we’ve ever been. These are things I think about all of the time. I also think about the female sexual response cycle all of the time. These are two things I constantly think about. So I end up writing about them, because there my big questions. Now you might know what your big questions are. You might be like, “Oh, these are the things I think about all of the time.” I’m talking about big [contemplations?] Like what do we do after we die, or, I really, really, really am this political affiliation. This is why and I feel deeply about it because… What are your big questions? If you don’t know what they are, or even if you do know what they are, get a recording device on your phone, whatever. I like those voice to text things very much. I use that almost all the time. Record yourself. You can hear yourself, because I think cadence and the way things you’re stressing on is important. And see the words. Go on a rant. Rant about your philosophical big question or questions. Then, sit down, make it easy on yourself if you can only I feel stressed out, I can’t do it for too long. Like, make a timer. Like 10 minutes. Do it… Do a little mini. Mini task. Now make a scene based on that philosophical idea. Don’t write about the philosophy. Have the people doing the thing. Make a thing where you try to avoid talking about the concept. But show the concept. Maybe even don’t even have any dialogue, if you don’t want to, just by their behavior you see it. That is my homework.

[Mary Robinette] All right. Fair listeners. Your task is to identify what your big questions are, and then write a scene in which you have characters living out and embodying that big question.

[Kirsten] I would expansion pack this and say do all that while making sure that at least all three wells are filled up as high as you can get them. The other two, the personal as Erin was talking about, and the commerce, as high as you can get them at that moment, before you get to this. That would be my… Be gentle with yourself. Give yourself grace as you do it. That would be the expansion pack part of that.

[Mary Robinette] You should maybe do that by taking a break and go watch the Kirsten’s Agenda.


[Mary Robinette] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.

[Howard] To stay up-to-date with new releases of upcoming in person events, like our annual writing retreats and Patreon live streams, follow Writing Excuses on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. Or subscribe to our newsletter.