Rejection Letters are Opportunities

I’ve been rejected from every type of writing professional possible. Agents, beta-readers, publishers, contests, magazines, blogs, awards, fellowships, graduate programs, friends, mentors, and readers. Do not give up!

Writing is creative and artistic. But as soon as you package something with a cover letter and send it out for someone to review, you are now marketing. That is a very important distinction to make. Always remember when you step back and fourth over this line.

The worst possible rejection you can get is a non-response. You don’t know how or why the rejection happened, it was just a “no”. But if you can get something in writing, then you are gaining. You can use these rejection letters to help shape and sharpen your novel or story vision. And get it in front of the right reader.

Listen

When you get rejected, listen to the advice or reason for the rejection. I know it is frustrating, but it helps to read a response a few times. I have misunderstood comments when I first read them because I was frustrated or angry. Read them over and take stock in what they are saying. Good comments are not a stamp, but something that will give you insight. For example, “This story seems original, but it doesn’t fit our audience.” That is actually a tell that your writing was fine, but it wasn’t a good fit for the magazine. That is research and marketing. I’ve gotten feedback like, “While the book is mysterious and has a Hawthorne like tone, in the end, I didn’t feel we could represent this book.” This is worth keeping in the file. This is helpful feedback that can be used to rewrite your cover letter.

No Immediate Reactions

It is important for me to temper any immediate response. I get frustrated and have a knee-jerk reaction. But after a few hours, I always come back to it and think about my writing. If an editor says something like, “This didn’t fit our magazine, but please send more of your work.” It doesn’t mean immediately, it means we like the writing style, but we don’t like this particular piece. I’ve worked on the other end of that response and received more work from a writer in a few minutes. Part of the job, in terms of the writer as a seller — is to be professional and continue to play the percentages. Don’t respond with a nasty-gram. It is a small world and you may connect with them again at a different journal or at a different event. Assume and prepare for rejection. Not because you deserve it. Not because it will always happen. But don’t take a rejection personally. They don’t know you. And the decision to cut your story might be simply not enough space or time to get your story in. Accept that you will be rejected.

Use Terrible Gifts

After you have stewed on your rejection, licked your wounds and feel like you can reread it – it is important to look for a specific take away. For example, above they said, “mysterious” and “Hawthorne like tone” now you are ready to start pulling some of those ideas out of your rejections and craft them into your new query letters. Publishers, writers, and agents know the value of a good blurb for their book covers, and these are like blurbs for your query letters. Perhaps someone caught the essence of your book or story — and now you have the words to craft something you may have missed or didn’t think about. Now you have tools. Use these ideas to help you shape your market and your plan. Agents and publishers want something they can sell without too much work, and know specifically how they are going to market it. So, if you can frame and shape your query accurately and with some polish, they might want more.

Think

We edit and revise our creative work all the time. It makes sense that you will continue to rewrite and edit your query material. If you are writing in a genre, there are specific guidelines to follow. If you write literary work, then it is a little more nuanced.

Use those arrows that have been flung at you and sharpen then and add them back into your quiver, add them in your rewrites and queries. It isn’t all the time we get an agent to discuss your book or writing, so use their words to shape your vision and direction. Eventually, you will get in front of someone who gets it and will publish it.

Your Creativity Needs a Side Hustle

Writing a novel or poetry is tough work. And sometimes, things aren’t going as planned. Not sure what to do? Maybe your creative process needs a side hustle. For most people, a side-hustle is an extra job or skill that makes some extra money. But sometimes, your creativity needs a side hustle, too. To figure that out, you have to stop and think. What inspires you? What motivates you? What can you do to see the world in a different way? Once you start thinking of ways to activate your creativity, you might find a good creative side hustle. Your creativity is flexible, but often we don’t put a lot of faith in that. Don’t think that if you try something different, your creative writing skills are going to dry up. That isn’t really how it works. Finding new ways to engage your creativity is vital. I ran a craft sign business for awhile and really like working with my hands. I learned a lot about the craft industry and made some cool stuff. Another side-hustle that doesn’t make money is playing my violin. It is a different way of connecting with the world and it has allowed me to some fun opportunities in music. Why not try being a blacksmith? Why not be a DJ for a night? 

Creativity Needs Inspiration

Your creative side hustle doesn’t have to cost a lot of money or demand a lot of time, but it needs to push you into new ideas, new ways of thinking, and bring about a change in your writing process. It might be long walks, it might be a bowling league, playing video games, deep dive into something you always wondered about. There was fifteen minutes when I wanted to raise silkworms and see if I could spin silk. Nope, not doing that. But, I thought about it. I did some looking around and once I got into invasive caterpillars, I knew this wasn’t for me. But it did inspire some good premise for anyone who has obsessed about a hobby.

Don’t Go Too Far

If your creative recharge is so epic that you never come back to writing, it isn’t a side hustle anymore – it’s a life change. I do things to keep writing and thinking moving forward. I don’t need to sit and stare at the screen when I am not ready to write, but I may need to think. Go for walks, read books you admire, and remember that this is part of the process. Just because you are not typing, doesn’t mean you aren’t working. Sometimes, that means you appear (to normal people) like you aren’t doing anything. Maybe you sit in a café and listen to conversations. Maybe you watch movies, research something strange, take a road trip, make a cheesecake or whatever crazy think you need. But when you go back to the writing you will be recharged, focused, and informed.

Niche Experience

It might be important to you to immerse yourself in a vocation or skill to better understand and write about things. If you are writing about horses, take a riding lesson. If you are writing about sailing, at least go to the sea and stand there for awhile and get the essences. Maybe you want to shadow an accountant for a day and see what they are like. Some people spend a lot of time trying and practicing some of the ideas that they end up writing in their creative work. What does a geologist do? What’s culinary school like? What’s it like in a drain pipe? With Youtube, you can see stream experiences into your living room without really leaving your house. If you are a fan of DIY videos, why not see what it is like to investigate an airline disaster, or watch a documentary. These experiences and fieldtrips into the world will help you connect with people, ask questions, and give you some things to consider when you return to your work.

Write for a Different Audience

If you are not really looking for inspiration outside of the life you have now, why not make your side hustle a different way of writing. Start a blog, write for a topic or section of a website, and get some perspective on writing and thinking. Sometimes, these projects turn into new challenges and you begin to forget what might have been trouble for you in your other writing projects. I need to be busy when I am productive, so jumping into articles (like this one), or reviewing books is a good way to structure my time and realize that I don’t have time to be stuck. I need to write the next article, plan the next creative writing workshop, and get back to my creative writing. If you can’t write that novel right now, write something else that might help you along the way. I write book reviews because I read a lot. Why not turn my reading into conversations, social currency, and spotlight what is not being seen. I wrote a boxing blog for a few years that landed me an interview at ESPN. I wasn’t hired, but then again, it was a cool experience. Creative side hustle can surprise you.

Tactile Vision of the World

Sometimes, it is important to just feel or be in a moment. There are some things that can’t be explained until you do them. I learned how to juggle when I was about fifteen years old, and I can still juggle, because it is a feel thing. Have you ever wondered what it is like to land a big fish? Go fishing. Maybe you need to understand the pressure of being an independent business person: work for someone who doesn’t have a choice to call out sick. Do you know what it feels like to canter a horse, scuba dive in the ocean, punch someone (not for real but punch a bag), or climb a tree? Sometimes, your creative asides should also be about how things feel and look. It is something that is important in the writing process and it is important in conveying those elements to the world. I understand that we can’t try everything we write about, but bridging that experience gives you confidence, vision, and inspiration.

Finding “that” Person in the Room

If you go into public or try out new things, find that person in the room who can speak to you about what you are curious about. I like to walk into a room and find the person who 1) is the one who stands out the most, or 2) the person who looks like they want to flee at any moment. If you can get them talking — you may get some insight that is important. Talking to scuba divers, you can ask a few questions and get a sense about their diving immediately. You can sense their ability, their knowledge, and their preferences really fast. You don’t have to ask them a list of questions but balance the questions to the way they operate around the boat and the diving. Telling someone you are a writer is like telling someone you want to use them. That is not a good idea. Just meeting someone and understanding who they are is enough. Let them tell you what is important. Let them open the door to understanding.

Get Back to Writing

The creative side-hustle is more than just a distraction. It is the action (the hustle) that will inspire, connect, and bring new things to your writing. It is easy to become obsessed, it is easy to get distracted and lost. Use this time away from the keyboard to think, to experience new ideas and challenge different parts of your life. Then get back to the work. You will feel better. You will feel like you aren’t missing too much of the world – in fact, you have reconnected with it.

In 2020, it is worth mentioning that because of the Covid-19 experience, getting out and doing some of the things mentioned here isn’t easy. But it makes them more valuable to know that you need them. Keep making lists of things you want to experience, things you want to find out, and keep looking for ways to make that happen. You will be happy that you created a little creative side-hustle, but you will also be a better, more thoughtful writer.

“My God How Did I Get Here?”

Video Games Series: A Historical Introduction

I was born a long time ago (early 1970’s) before there were even a thing called video games. I thought Pong as a concept was amazing and eventually played it all the time. We were playing a game (only one) on the television. It was epic! Before Atari and the world of cartridge games came into our living rooms in the early 1980’s we played in arcades, elaborate coin operated centers of noise and confusion, where kids learned to focus on one thing for as long as possible – or until their three lives ended. Eventually, it all came to our living room, some awesome, some terrible, but it all came flooding in. From classics like Pac-Man to some obscure titles and connections, video games where the future. I also had a Texas Instrument TI-99 computer where I cut my teeth on computer coding (a lot of work for little output). The coolest part was when I got a speech synthesizer and made my computer talk. That was an epic moment.

Texas Instrument TI-99

Console and cartridge games continued through my middle school and high school days. I switched over to the classic Nintendo console and the games were more intense and fun to play. My best friend and I played hockey, Tecmo Football, Top Gun, and Mike Tyson’s Punch Out. I also enjoyed the long and complicated Metal Gear, where hiding was just as important as coming out with guns blazing. That brought us into the early 1990’s and the emergence of the personal computer. Games shifted and we played solitaire and loaded games into our computer. They expanded, but I also disconnected. Games were getting harder and more intricate, and my life was about work, finish college and adulting. I didn’t really pay attention to video games until 1999 when my parents bought a PS2 for me to play games and to watch DVDs. Eventually, I was introduced to Grand Theft Auto III and other massively complicated and visually epic games. What attracted me was the stories, the immersion, and the art work. In terms of a visually thinking person (me), it was a connection to worlds already created. I liked reading (or playing) the next chapter, the next thing — and like reading it was less labor intensive and more about achieving, gaining, and exploring.

As body enhanced games like the Wii came out, it was interesting to play video games and expand the way we played. Bowling and Dance Dance Revolution were cool ways to get moving in front of the game. I didn’t play a lot of video games during that time, but I watched as PlayStation and Xbox emerged into the culture of gaming. I started reading articles by Jane McGonigal and thought about how video games can change the world and shift thinking. I immersed myself in Second Life during an election cycle to see if politics and augmented reality was really working (it wasn’t). I was reading books like Extra Lives by Tom Bissell, and reading about this thing called WikiLeaks where people could upload information and get it out into the world without persecution. AR headsets emerged and we were getting dizzy with the world of immersion. Our phones become smart, our watches were refined Dick Tracy devices, and I was playing more and more games on my phone. Everything from Candy Crush and puzzle games, to Subway Surfer and every other game I could try. Clearly in the last few years, I was looking for something, but I didn’t understand what.

Divsion 2 / Stadia

In the last few weeks, I jumped back in with Stadia, the Google based cloud driven game system that I can play on my TV, computer, or phone. And I am now playing video games again. And I feel like Stadia, for all its quirks, is great for me because I constantly shift from game to game, lose interest, or just don’t have time to play. For little investment (one time $100 and good internet), I can play really good games, and when I disconnect because of writing, teaching, and life — I can hit pause and come back when I am ready. This isn’t an endorsement for Stadia (although I do like it a lot). But it is a reconnection to things that are shifting and changing. I like the stories, and I do have my favorite games. But I also like the connection I have with my step daughter when we play. As I wait for new games to release, I feel like I am back into a culture of creatives, problem solvers, and thinkers. I feel like I am not far from the coders, the artists, and the social currency of video games. Gamers know how to solve problems. (I was reading an article the other night about game engine mechanics and how designers lacked the vision to have or not have the character crouch in battle. That’s an argument that was clearly thought out.)

I am a reader, and I continue to read a lot for work and for my own vision of creativity and writing. But I also like the option of playing. Video games have become an extension of the things I like, movies, stories, creativity, and to play in them is still a bit awe-inspiring. As I approach the halfway point of my life, I am glad I still like video games, I still like Star Wars, and I still think that these ideas have influenced the way I think. I am also a video game lifer. I played Pong in 1979! So, I know the thrill of video games. But I also know that they are part of the way people think and explore the world. Right now, young people like to be retro by playing 80’s music and watching the Breakfast Club. It was cool. It was amazing. And there was that day, in August right after I came home from working nine hours at a food stand that I knocked out Mike Tyson. And for a few minutes, I was the champion of the world.

 

The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili

Are all epic novels worth their weight? Not always, but this novel is worth every page. When I came to The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili, it was clear that it was long, but it didn’t feel like traditional historical fiction. It was something else. This book has been reviewed as a new lens to see the turbid relationship with Russia and Georgia. Some have discussed the brilliant weaving of time and space over generations, where favorite characters move from power to poverty, innocence to experience, and navigate the twentieth century in stunning twists of fate that not only break the human spirit, but also touch something personal. The “Red Century” as the books refers to the time frame has become concepts and vision that we only understand in terms of socialism, fascism, and communism. But this book makes these terrible and complicated social and historical elements and turns them into personal, emotional, and sometimes terribly tragic moments in a vast timeline. In an interview with the New York Times (April 2020), Haratischvili, “who writes in German, has said her book is personal rather than autobiographical.” And the book does one important thing — it shows how devastating it is to live in a social experiment that was constantly breaking off the rails.

The one thing that no one has really discussed in other reviews is that this is a story told from the vantage of women. There are men in the narrative and we see them clearly, but this novel is significant, personal and vivid because it is framed through the vision of the women of Georgia and Russia. The story line follows the most important characters as they evolve and shift through the generations. Not only does the story create a sense of idealism at the beginning but masterfully shows the interwoven stories, history, and vision of a family. This is a personal story, one filled with curses, breath-taking beauty, betrayal, war, addiction, faith, and loss. It feels like we are in an epic struggle with intimacy, with empathy, with looking at the next generation and being terrified or hopeful. It is a significant and brilliant refocus of history through the voices of women who endured the violence, the change, and the constant uncertainty of family, love and loss.

This book feels epic and long because it covers a vast amount of time. Every time I picked up the novel, I was quickly immersed back into the story of family fates. Haratischvili needs to bring intimacy and personal vision to her prose, but she also has to capture the big picture, the epic visions of what history was doing to this family and how they chose to move forward. The prose style isn’t a lesson in history and historical details of what it felt like. It is a different, personal narrative that feels modern, but doesn’t get bogged down in historical notes and ideas. Those changes in history are inherent in the characters as they navigate their lives, their desires, and their hopes to carry on. The writing style creates a devastating accumulating effect.

This book is highly recommended, not because we need another long novel about Russia, but we need a great novel about the life of women in Georgia woven over a century. You will not only long for these characters after the book, but you will long (with them) for a different time and fall into the dream like vision of history, place, love, and hope from these stunningly powerful women. This is a long novel, but time brilliant spent with such a vivid and beautiful story of one hundred years. 


Article Cited Below

The Secret Life of a Writing Journal

Do you use a journal when you are writing? Do you find long-hand writing helpful? I have been using a writing journal for a long time, but my journal is a complex work space — and it can be a disaster. It is filled with the hundreds of issues, connections, successes and visions that go into my creative writing. My journal is a historical snapshot of my thinking and learning at any given moment. The more intense and focused I am, the more I write in my journal. This is my work world, this is where connections are made, research and quotes are entered. It is where I store new ideas and feed them along.

The Journal

First let’s just be clear about the journal. It is a place to write when you aren’t writing. That idea sounds silly, but I believe journals are private places to make mistakes, create an ideas, let them crash. It is a place to think and not worry about the world outside. For me, it is an electronic document. It is a running document with the date. I write what I am doing and thinking in terms of my creative writing and influences. It is aesthetically more pleasing to write in a nice leather bound journal and keep them as an artifact on your shelf. I have some of those (I wrote an entire novel that way), but they aren’t practical. You can’t copy and paste your ideas into your current work-in-progress, you can’t key word search five years of creative thinking. Some even use hashtags to organize and connect material together. 

I have termed my journals and my thinking in this space “journals of disasters.” These entries are all the things I’ve been thinking about, puzzling over, and eventually formulating into creative projects. They aren’t magical at all. Some are slightly concerning tirades over something I am working on. But in the end, they are part of the process. If I can’t write, I write about why I can’t write — and do it in my journal. Typically, after a few minutes of journal writing, I can shift. I have written whole chapters in my journal and then copied them into my work-in-progress because I went from thinking to creative writing. I also mark important passages from books I am reading, important articles, and quotes that I may need. Sometimes, I want to capture my initial reaction to a book before I lose touch with it. Sometimes, I just think of an idea and stick it in there to go back and find later. All my writing life can be connected back to this space. This is the place where accidents, failures, and vision of creativity are mine alone.

The Secret Chamber of Creativity

Isolation and privacy are stereotypes of being a writer. Some of the best project I’ve worked on have been among good writers and editors. But I think this creative journal is very personal and very private. Writers need private spaces to write. They need to say things for the first time on their own terms. If the journal is a place for your own thinking, then it should be your private vision of the worlds you are creating. We live in a social media driven life where posting pictures of your meals, capturing social currency with friends, and making a video in your car is a might go viral. If you follow the hash tag #writingcommunity on Twitter, you will find people talking about their writing, polling other writers, and prompting their books. That is marketing, that is socializing; that is not deep thinking and creative intimacy. What is in your journal is a private matter. You will eventually reveal your work to the world, but they don’t have to see what was left aside, they don’t have to see your rough drafts, your fledgling ideas. Hemingway was very private about his process. He thought the book in your hand was all you needed to know about his creativity. I need to create in a personal and private space. I need to open my creative visions in a place where I won’t be judged, where I feel safe, and where I feel like the creative person I imagined. That is not on social media, that is not in writing conferences, not in classrooms, it is not in public spaces (digital or physical), but in a journal, in a closed document, within my creative purview.

Social media is marketing tool to sell our creativity, but it isn’t a place to foster it, to begin the creative expression. Writers are born when they sit down and earnestly begin telling their stories. To be a storyteller, writer, creative thinker, you need the freedom to write in a space where deep thinking and your vision can flourish. Socrates said “The unexamined life is not worth living.” As writers and creative artists, I believe that the process and the history of that vision isn’t wasted. Journals are not for everyone, but it can be part of the complex act of writing a novel, a story collection, or connected project. And we need to alone. We need to define our story, then let other people influence it and suggest changes. But it starts alone, as a writer. 

Being alone for a writer shouldn’t be unsettling. But it can be isolating. That is what is required of anyone who needs to create. Creativity is a solitary, contemplative world. We are afraid of that word because we feel like that could become a permeant state. We are afraid of disappearing and being lost. But that is what is required. Alone, you must find all those stunning disasters and occasional epiphany we call stories. These are places where the artist and the words create emotion, vision, and redesign the world. It isn’t a public examination, but a private and constant reminder that art is worth creating. The emotional cost of creativity is that we can share that emotional purpose with other people. We can live different lives, and connect them with other people. It takes patterns, reading, disciple. It takes someone who is brave enough to write when it is the last thing they want to do. Some day, it might be the only thing you need to feel alive.

Check out more writing and ideas at www.RonSamul.org 

 


Other Articles About Writing Journals 

What is a Writing Journal?

Journal of Disasters

Journal of Disasters – Problem Solvers

 

The Question & Letters to Humanity

“Write a letter to someone dead, alive, or otherwise. It can be someone from the past, the present, even the future. Sometimes, it helps to start with a question.”

First, do the writing prompt above. Think about it and take seriously. And when you are done, read the rest of this article. It will make sense. To feel the power of these ideas, you should spend the time and write the letter. (I will wait.)

A long time ago, I was inspired by Tim O’Brien’s letter to his infant son. A Letter to My Son is a beautiful letter to his son about life with and without him. When I read this letter to a class, I always choke up because it just hits me harder every year I get older. 

From this emotional letter, I began a project called Letter to Humanity, a writing prompt that asked writers and students to write letters to people who would never read them. The writer could send it to people who have died, moved away, have disconnected, or simply just want know the contents of the letter. This proved a powerful tool to reaching writers who were waiting for a place in their lives to say something personal and meaningful. In some cases, it was so powerful, I often felt like it was out of control. People cried, people shouted, people wrote to an emotional place that was literally breath taking. Simple, but powerful when handed to people interested in releasing emotional stories or ideas.

I’ve done this exercise with more than one two hundred writers, and the results have been impressive. For some, writing the letter is easy, but reading it is terrifying. For the sake of completely understanding this, I would recommend writers try this and see what comes from it. And of course, I would love to read your letters and see what came about (ronsamulwriter@gmail.com). But I also want you to see a few samples if you are doing this on your own. Sharing is important. 

This letter was from a graduate student sharing her work in a workshop: 

 


Dear Deanna,

I think about it more often than I want to, and maybe that’s my penance.  I find my mind drifting back to that day, that morning when, in all my bitch-tastic preteen glory, I accused you of stealing my mail and then slammed the door in your face.

You were what, nine?  Maybe ten?  You had only come to give me a letter that landed in your mailbox by mistake.  How could I have done that to you?  Where did I learn that I could treat people like that?  I think about that day because it scares me to know that I have that brand of cruelty in me.  I don’t want to be that person.  But maybe I am, and I hate that.

I remember this day because I know that you remember it too.  I had no idea how much I hurt you until you told me a few years later.  And now that knowledge haunts me. – Lisa Nichols


Writing a letter like this is more than just a discovery, it is something more.

Recently, I had been pushing on the “it helps to start with a question.” I asked all students to ask a question when they started this prompt. It changes the context when you ask the receiver to recall something, to become part of the conversation. There are a lot of reasons to ask questions, but it brings about a different context for writing a letter. Why did you tell me? Do you remember? Do you think of this as much as I do? It brings the urgency and the moment closer to the surface. 

In June, things shifted again. I was reading an article about titled How ‘One True Question’ Will Clarify Your Life’s Purpose by Marjorie Hass. In this article, she mentions “When we look inward to discover our own question, we are looking for a core dissatisfaction that animates our thinking and that drives us intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.” And it started to make sense. When I ask these questions in this letter exercise, I am asking them to cut deep and quickly into something big. That is why the letter reading is fully of emotions and energy (positive and negative). 

This was important and I was impressed. But she went on to explain something so clear, that my vision of this whole experience, something I did as a writer’s warm-up – is really heavy and significant lifting. She says: 

“Badiou describes the intensity of an individual’s question as a “wound” or a “thorn” in her very experience of existence. There is likely a truth here for many of us. The ordinary traumas — of loss, grief, anger, and desire that are inherent in human development — leave each of us with our own idiom of yearning. And many among us live through traumas of a more significant and destabilizing kind. But the negative language of “wound” isn’t enough. Whatever its origin, the gap or opening that our question reveals is also an invitation, a wellspring for creative imagination, and a promise of infinite possibility and beauty.”

And perhaps in its small contribution, this work, this idea of writing a letter into the abyss, not intended for reading, but for writing – is an opening. It is that moment, sitting in your subconscious waiting for a door, waiting for an invitation to arrive into reality.  Not only was this a significant moment in the evolution of my ideas, but it made perfect sense. This is not the warm-up, this was the main event. This was what we should be thinking about. 

What’s next? Write a letter and send them my way. I just like to read them. I may not really know you, but I will see something profound, and something meaningful. It could release you, it could save you, it could just change things – just sit down and write. 

Please send me one of your letters, I would love to read them. I have no intention of publishing, just fascinated with the ideas.

ronsamulwriter@gmail.com

Intimate Conspirators


It is hard to explain the process of writing a novel to people. There is so much brain power that goes into writing a novel. You have to be constantly planning and thinking. A novel takes over your head-space and it becomes an obsession. And once you write one, you know you can write more — better. It is frustrating and beautiful and it is the ultimate test to finding out if you can tell the story without looking away or giving up. With the creative power comes complicated spiritual, mental, imaginative, and ethical moving parts that move perpetual. These are just a few of those parts, but they are a good place to start. 

The Great Disappointment 
The novel not yet written is everything to a writer. Characters, plot, twists, language, the work, writing in coffee shops all seem so honest to the writer who has yet to write. There are endless possibilities to writing when you’ve committed nothing to paper. This is a visionary place of repose. The writer is all at once a visionary and a complete bull-shitter. The potential of what could be is limitless. And then the novelist begins to write. And you begin to make choices. 

In a book titled Why They Can’t Write by John Warner, he says, “A significant part of the writer’s practice – maybe the only part that matters when it comes to attitudes – is recognizing that writing is difficult, that it takes many drafts to realize a finished product, and that you’re never going to be as good as you wish.” Once you commit your ideas to real words, real chapters, real things, we see the talent collide with the dream. As far as the writing goes, you may do well for a few pages, but you are still making choices. You may even make a run to page fifteen or twenty until you hit your first problem. It’s a crucible, a test, a moment. And then it gets hard. This is where the writing begins. You may skip over this issue and write something else. But when you get to the next problem — you will begin to doubt your novel and wonder why it is all falling apart. You may even wonder if this is worth it. Janet Burroway in her book Writing Fiction also mentions “the idea, whatever it is, seems so luminous, whole, and fragile, that to begin to write will never exactly capture what we mean or intend, we must gingerly and gradually work ourselves into a state of accepting what words can do instead.” We must “work ourselves” into accepting this novel and that it will not be easy. 

I should mention that when the rough gets going in my writing, my craft journal gets a lot of new entries. The journal is made for solving and dealing with issues and problems. It really is a journal of disasters because all I do is work on what I am thinking and why it isn’t working. I highly recommend keeping one and showing it to no one. It is your personal space. More importantly, this is your running thought process as you write. In a few months, this journal becomes your archive to what you were thinking and feeling at the time. (More on journals here). 

As we write, we make choices, and I’ve used this word intentionally. Every time we make a choice in our novel, we are slowly moving the characters and the story to its completion (like a giant game of chess). Creativity is choice (what color, what effect, what do we want to say, is it enough, is it too much?). When we begin to choose we begin to resign ourselves to fastening our ideas into place. And like building a good foundation, from there we will hang more things on what we’ve already created. If your writing hold up through the great disappointment and survives, it is likely that you have a novel worth writing. Keep writing. And there’s good news. 

The Act of Writing 
In Why They Can’t Write, Warner explains that “a writer’s practice involves discovery, previously hidden things revealed by doing…. They will only reveal themselves to me as I write. This is not something mystical; it is merely a semi-organized, semi-systematic way of thinking.” And while I really like the clarity of this idea, I think it is semi-organized because in writing novels we can’t possibly know hundreds of details (choices) and concepts all at once, but pulled along a plot, built scene by scene – we can see an emerging design. Discovery in the act of writing is the lifeblood of my writing — it is why I write – to find things out. And it is completely undersold in writing books, courses, and articles on Medium


And to that point, writing produces more writing. And more importantly, the process of writing and making those “choices” into a powerful tool. I know there are a lot of writers and books that discuss knowing everything before they sit down to write. But that isn’t why I write. The greatest moments of creativity, vision, and emotion don’t come from some half baked outline on my computer. It comes from the very act of writing.  

Writing is a process of discovery and you have to be there, eyes wide open and really paying attention. You will come to see where a story takes on a life of its own, where it moves off script, where it blossoms out of words and into eloquence. You have to find it, write it, become intimate conspirators with the words. And then one day you will have an epiphany and realize, “that’s it, I found what I’ve been looking for.” You will know it because it will take your breath away, it will fire off neurons that have been waiting for a decade to fire off. It will create an emotional response. It is a feeling like falling in love, it is a feeling that you have tapped into something bigger than you, it is a feeling that you have created something new and emotionally important. And then you have walked into the light of artistic prose writing. 

Your Trophy
As a novelist there is no trophy. I would even go a step further and ask you a question that is raised in Why They Can’t Write — that writer’s seldom know or even have an clear process or effective gauge to measure their writing skills. “This is true for every writer regardless of experience and regardless of past success. There is no such thing as terminal proficiency.” Do you really know when you are done editing? Do you think if you rewrite the book again an agent might change their mind? Do you think — why isn’t this good enough? Maybe you are holding up your writing to something already written, a great novel, or something like a great novel – is that terminal proficiency? 

Look at the submission guidelines and ask yourself, am I all that? Should I jump through all those hoops to get someone to read my work? What if they don’t like it? What if they don’t answer? Is your work good enough? Are you at terminal proficiency? No one is going to tell you you are a writer. The hardest part of writing is the open ended, seemingly never-satisfied world that reads your book – I liked this but didn’t like that. It’s not right for me. Doesn’t fit. And there will be every reason to believe you are not ready. 

You are.  

Creative Writing: The Map of Interpretation and Perfection

In the Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra, there is an interesting notion about the abstraction of physics (specifically in the formulation) and what is really happening in sub-atomic space. Capra’s insight brought about a problem that I have been thinking about for years. It is based on my fiction writing and my relationship with the reader.


The Tao of Physics is a creative correlation between eastern philosophy and subatomic physics published in 1975 and reissued in the 1980’s. He has some fascinating insight into the connections and the problems that philosophy and physics share. He went on to write a book called The Web of Life based on system thinking of environments, species, and humans. Most of the Tao of Physics is based on the ambiguity of language and symbols in writing and math. He defines the world of symbols and expression as an approximate map or reality. 
“Since words are always an abstraction, approximate maps of reality, the verbal interpretations of a scientific experiment or of a mystical insight are necessarily inaccurate and incomplete”(Capra 41). 
 
What does that mean in physics? Well “we know a square has four side with each corner turned at a 90-degree angle from another. Simple geometry can help us draw a simple picture. Now “go to a globe and draw a square onto the round ball. Pull the page off the globe and lay it flat, the square doesn’t have its 90 degree corners any more. The box is altered. What that means is that maps are not exact because they are all based on the curve of the earth. Look at the top or bottom of a map and see how the Arctic and Antarctic looks like vast continents, but it’s a distortion of putting a round ball on a flat surface. The representation changes when it is produced flat.
 
So, that is the concept of the “approximate map of reality” that even in science things are always what they seem. That isn’t to undermine science, it just shows that we have to use a variety of ways to explain science with the tools we have. If we look at symbolic language and expression, we never have exact, measurable data, but certain understanding and correlation to thoughts, ideas and mental images. No one sees “the elm tree” the same way, we all have context to our lives, reading, thoughts, and experiences.
 
As a younger writer, I always assumed that my writing would be envisioned and captured in the mind of the reader just like I see it in my mind. But as I think about the approximate map and the act of creativity, I was wrong. We are sharing an approximate experience between writer and reader that may only be loosely connected to my vision of the art. Of course we know this as interpretation and understanding of abstract words into images.
 
This “approximate map of reality” is what we work in as a medium for creative expression. It starts at a micro-level and moves up the entire chain of creative writing. Words are the building blocks of what we do, however, every person has different mental images for different words. That is the first level of approximation. Yes, we all have a universal understanding of what a “tree” represents, but everyone pulls up their experience with the word “tree” when they see it. This concept of “approximate maps of reality” is why I don’t watch movies that come from my favorite books. Why would I alter and change my images and mental correlations to the characters, plot and themes by having someone else push in on my creativity? It is always a disappointment. It is like layering two or three maps over one another until it gets really hard to see what made this work so important to us.
We can not give a reader an exact copy of our imaginary world because as soon as it is read by someone else, we have shifted from the perfect geometrical square to an “approximate map of reality” in words and expression. But, this shouldn’t be discouraging to a writer. It is inspiring. I have always wanted readers to see the same images I see when they read my work; however, lately I feel that the “approximate map” is a connection where readers can now tell me what they see. Themes, plot and character development works better when each reader can connect to different elements of their lives. There is no perfect, there merely an artistic rendering of words that has meaning to people. 
 
Seeing this idea was letting go in editing and crafting words. You won’t find the perfect word, just be concise and meaningful. At some point, in those lines of writing, people have to read them and make their own connections. Over the years, I needed to let go of the controlling idea that the reader must see what I see. Why? Because maybe they see clearly something new, something insightful, collaborative. Our language is too ambiguous, and our craft is too porous for that. What comes from the “Approximate Map” is an understanding of the human condition, the world and the exploration of universal truth. We are not drawing clear and distinct lines on paper, we are casting direction to our approximate maps giving the reader illumination to explore our expressions and sail constantly towards the equator of our creative soul.

Writers with Imaginary Friends – Part One


Did you ever have an imaginary friend? What do you recall the most about them? When did they disappear? In an article I was writing about isolation and disappearing in a world of Covid-19, there was a section in the book How to Disappear: Notes on invisibility in a time of transparency by Akikko Busch. This is a fascinating book in terms of the how we (as a society) perceive isolation and disappearing. With the recent world wide effect of social distancing, it is a good time to take lessons from the best social distancers in the world: writers. Beyond that, Busch does mention the idea and concept of what to make of “invisible friend” of childhood and why they often seem to disconnect from our lives and become memories. We know the concept of having an invisible friend is common and often a novelty of childhood. But I was interested in how those experience shape the writers of the world now. Is it a shift from invisible friend to characters in a novel? Or a shift from an open imaginary vision of childhood into a maturity that diminishes and veils dwells in words and pages? Or is there something to the type of person that can hurdle real and imaginative lines to incorporate these personas as avenues to creativity?  


While I was at a writers conference a few years ago, poet Eileen Cleary was asking me about my daughter (10 at the time) and I mentioned how my daughter doesn’t want to talk about getting older, that she wants to stay a little kid. And Eileen said something very poignant to me, that she was still grieving the loss of her childhood. She said it was very common. I was amazed at how accurate, enlightening, and sad I felt all at once. It made me think if we all go through that loss of our childhood somehow. How does that loss of childhood connect to the disappearance of our imaginary friends? When do we stop believing that life can be casually lived between reality and the personas living in our mind?

The fascinating element of the imaginary friend concept is the ability for children to create a seamless and focused narrative that is shifting all the time. Do children have parents and family that are compassionate to this idea? Or is it driven away by people who think it is a sign of issues in development? Sophie Elmhirst wrote a great article for Aeon Magazine titled Two Land In My Mind and it speaks to imaginary friends and where they eventually go. According to the article, “Most were simply companions, there to help populate their pretend worlds, play games or offer comfort.” She also gets into the flexibility of the childhood imagination and how kids know they are not there and yet use them to try out things, feel like they are not alone, and even creating significant details that are uncanny and specific about their imaginary friends and safe spaces where they dwell.” She goes on to explain that perhaps those uninhibited visions of imagination, “just change shape and finds itself played out in adult unrealities – in the diversions we seek through novels, films, art.” The article extends this idea into the life of a writer and the life of adults as we move away from the imaginary and into reality. 

Where do our imaginary connections go when they aren’t needed? Many of the studies in the Elmhirst article point to a place in their adolescence where they just don’t need those imaginary parts of their lives. And they just fade. Some hang on and still think about that presences in their lives. The article mentions that “Kurt Cobain of the band Nirvana had an imaginary friend called Boddah when he was a boy, and it was Boddah to whom he addressed his suicide note at the age of 27.” Perhaps we are all destined to mourn the loss of our childhood imaginaries at some point in our lives. We will come back to that idea in at the end of the article.

There are two kinds of article in the world based on imaginary friends. The first, your child is fine if they have imaginary friends. And the second, as an adult imaginary friends can be important. But in the article by Sophie Elmhirst, she mentions something relevant to writers. The study quoted in the article, “the percentage of writers in the study who reported that they had imaginary friends as children was more than twice the average. These people have been pretenders all their lives.” While we mature, most people may internalize these free and wild imaginations and find an outlet through reading novels, watching movies, and other story based art. It does suggest that they are willing to use those skills of wild and unabashed imagination to continue to create a world that they find unique and important to them. From this way of seeing the world, writers know and trust their imagination. I often picked some random fact to help ground me in places and with characters. Where is someone likely to keep the tape they need to wrap a gift? It is a simple exercises, but I was constantly ruminating in my mind where I might find things in places in my imagination. I still have dreams of looking for things in places I’ve never been. It explains a lot about me. With this skill of knowing things immediately, comes the skill – dare I say an intuition that connects to the moment, with the character, with the scene. That is what making stories is all about. You may know where to find the tape, but you also know why the scene is important and how to find your way into it and back out. It is significant details, it is little things that make up a bigger pictures. And this creative and imaginary world can be refined into something like art. And that is a kind of superpower for writers.  

My idea was to get to the connection between writers and their imaginary friends. You may think, of course writers have imaginary friends (how would they work otherwise), but the sad reality is that people who don’t still use this intuition have cast away their imaginary friends at some point. Is that something people long for? Busch mentions in her book that “Alison Carper suggests that one function of the invisible friend is to serve ‘as an imaginary witness to our internal experience.'” In writing terms, that is a narrator, a character, the beginning of the story. 

I leave you with these ideas as way to remember why you are creative. There was a time when you didn’t write, but you may have been seeing your imaginary friends and developing complicated and (to you) important plots and stories. Then you started to write and you began to the power of transferring them down on paper. Maybe you lost some of the raw magical spirit of your imagination, but you didn’t lose the instinct to be creative and refine the empathy and emotions in the characters you’ve created.

Challenge: I suggest that any writer who has the time, should write a letter to their imaginary friends, and tell them things they might like to know. Maybe they know all about you and you want to talk about their relationship. Maybe you want to catch them up on all the ways they inspired you. Or maybe you just miss them and want to tell them that. 

P.S. If you write a letter and want to share, please email them to me. I would love to see what happens in those moments between the there and now. ronsamulwriter@gmail.com 



Two Land In My Mind by Sophie Elmhirst from Aeon Magazine 2013


Busch, Akiko. How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency. Penguin Books, 2019.

Isolation and the Writer – A Social Distance Essay


If you think of yourself as a writer, you probably think that this time of pandemics and quarantine is just the thing you need to start that novel or maybe finish. Writers are moving into a period of unprecedented history. Writers know the value of their time and the space they need to write. The rest of the world – is anxious. 

Socializing and being connected to people is a part of our jobs, our friend groups, and family. As people begin to rethink their lives around this outbreak of flu, social distancing and selecting to live a quiet, remote life for a few week (forced or not), will be a difficult proposition for the people around you. In our culture, we have used isolation as punishment. Leaving people out or creating a cancel culture is considered terrible social terms to live in. People who violate the terms of Twitter are put in Twitter jail or facebook prison for a period of time. This is all social isolation. We don’t value sitting and reading a book for three hours (because no one really has the time anymore). In the book How to Disappear: Notes on invisibility in a time of transparency, Akikko Busch so aptly discusses visibility and invisibility in the world. It is a brilliant discussion of why being invisible is just as important and relevant as being visible digitally and physically.  “It has become routine to assume that the rewards of life are public and that our lives can be measured by how we are seen rather than what we do.” This visibility that makes us public isn’t just a physical space, but a technological presence of posting our food pictures, sharing social gatherings, and posts about travel. But that is changing and writers are good ambassadors to help people understand the value of reading a book that will change their perspective, share the value of working on something (anything) uninterrupted for a long time. 


Fiction, poetry, and storytelling are fostering an understanding of imaginary inter-relationships in our imagination. We know that we can be deeply moved and changed by watching a good movie or reading a book we really are excited about. Sometimes, those stories are meant to change us, and sometimes they do it slowly, without an immediate impact. Busch talks about the value of imaginative conversations, ways we talk to ourselves as a way to practice speaking at an interview, discussing relationships, or just trying out a new idea. “We can have simulated discussions with real people who are not in the room. We can be deeply effected by fiction we’ve read. Something that is not real can have a real impact and foster a real emotion reaction.” In terms of your imagination and your ability to think and interact – these isolated practice sessions are just as important to your brain and your ability to see the world. 

Writer may feel better about thinking in terms of life as an invisible playground. They may even have a massive set of skills for this kind of interaction. Writers can manipulate and change scenes and find the moment things are relevant, important, and new. They can practice (in their minds) scene that change over and over again until they find the optimal vision that will draw out emotion and change the way people see the world. Do you have that power? I do, and I use it ALL the time. Anyone who says they have their best ideas in the shower are practicing this power in the known isolation of the shower.  

Maybe it is trite to pull out book like Love in the Time of Cholera, or Albert Camus The Plague, but it is also assuring to find writers moving through these ordeals, (real or imagined) and finding out something universal about solitude, isolation, and the human condition. In Pale Horse, Pale Rider, a short novel by Katherine Anne Porter, she experience the Spanish Flu and the result is a significant shift in the world as she knows it. It is stunning, beautiful, sad, and perhaps one of the most moving statement of shifting from innocence to experience in literature. 

As writers, we may secretly relish this time of sequestering ourselves, more time writing, more time dreaming. It isn’t the writers of the world I am worried about, it is all those who have yet to discover how enriching it can be to settle, to focus, and to create. We have to continue the process of introducing friends and family into deep reading, critical thinking, field walks, beach explorations and all the magical ways we find inspiration through solitude. From our worries and our vision of the world – will come great stories, great vision, and a sense that we are all capable of great things even in solitude and with some social distance. 


Busch, Akiko. How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency. Penguin Books, 2019.

Eco-Fiction and the Emerging Writer


As an educator, I work with a lot of students emerging as writers. Most of these students are moving through undergraduate and graduate courses and finding their path through storytelling. In the last few years I’ve worked with more and more writers in the genre of speculative fiction, particularly in the genre of fantasy. Students are emerging in a culture of immersion into video games, graphic novels, video games, books, role playing games, cosplay, and other elements. It makes sense that the concept of world building is an important vision for fantasy writers. With these trends, we see writers take on these genres because of their experience, passion, and ability to write alternative experience. A few weeks ago I read an article about fiction around nature, the concept of eco-fiction. And while I wasn’t surprised by this genre distinction, it related back to the emerging writers I work with and thought, why aren’t they writing about this. 
Eco-fiction is a branch of literature that is nature oriented (non-human) or environment-oriented where the impact of humans are the central tenet of the story. Not surprising that it emerged in the 1970’s environmentalist vision of the world that hearld in Earth Day and other important values around conservation and natural preservation. It makes sense that a book like Overstory by Richard Powers is a high profile title with the vision of eco-fiction at its core. 
This makes sense as a crossover genre for writers who have worked in the realms of fantasy, to move into the concept of eco-fiction. Typically, fantasy writers are really good at creating hybrid characters or concepts for their stories. Fantasy writers are really skilled at showing irony and societal change through a slightly different lens. In our time of environmental concern and activism, the emergence of eco-fiction as a speculative tool, a social activist tool, and a near future vision makes sense. I don’t think all fantasy writers should be writing eco-fiction, but it is clear that so many of the skills honed in fantasy could transfer into the world of eco-fiction. In the preface to Where the Wild Books Are: a field guide to eco-fiction, Jim Dwyer mentions, “Dana Stabenow, for example, is an Alaskan Inuit ecofeminist author who has written both mysteries and science fiction.” It is clear nature and ecology as a mode to represent storytelling is diverse. When you think about the poetry of Mary Oliver and her natural vision of the world, Annie Dillard’s vision of nature brings poetry and essay creativity and vision into the view of literary and the general reading public. He defines in his preface that eco-fiction covers the focus of Lawrence Buell — that “non-human environment is present not merely as a framing device but as a presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural history. The human interest is not understood to be the only legitimate interest. Human accountability to the environment is part of the text’s ethical orientation. Some of the environment as a process rather than as a constant or a given is at least implicit in the text” Some of the elements that we would think about in terms of an alternative universe is growing. Dystopian and natural cataclysm has been an emerging vision from a variety of writers, but because of the emerging prevalence in the studies of how we are affecting the environment, literature is moving along with those trends. While Overstory is a great example, the eco-muder mystery Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk won the Nobel Prize in 2018. 
Being a storyteller or a novelist is about defining the world you write in. It is clear that the escape and visionary worlds of fantasy are important to emerging writers. Diversifying the skills of writers to work in a variety of themes, different modes (plays, poetry, novels), genres, and other professional writing opportunities. This gives writers a dynamic and visionary approach to their own work, their own ideas, and the possibility of having their work appear in a variety of different ways. That starts when we realize how valuable and skilled writers can be and make small adjustments and changes to the way they see the world.  
As we consider what we read and what we are interested in writing, it is important to trace the emergence of genres that are moving to the forefront of our bookstores, our bestseller lists, and into our conscious reading habits. In the end, it may not be what we thought we would write, but it is what is important now. Check out reading lists of eco-fiction and read a few. And then think about how those ideas fit into your vision of writing, thinking, and creating. 
 
Further Reading

Significant Details: Proof

One of the best comments I received about my book (The Staff) was – how did you come up with all of this? It is all in the details. The book was placed in a natural setting, so the mood of the environment was always the mood that spilled out around the characters. And while I always felt like their lives were simple, it was always enough to make the world oppressive and remote. That being said, I often tell writers that details are important, but significant details are critical. But what does that mean? Significant detail, according Writing Fiction by Burroway, is important to detailing. We know that details can be concrete (appealing to the five senses) but it also has to convey the value of idea or judgement.

Details not only give us textual minutiae of the moment, but it also gives us proof. John Gardner calls it “proofs” in that, in the end according Burroway, “we cannot help believing that the story he tells us must be true.” We, as writers, must create description that balances the tactile five senses and may even create a sense of judgement or idea, but not at the expense of experiencing it as a reader. We can allude to the idea that the last falling leaves of fall is the end of the season and that something is in change, but we don’t want to say – “the falling leaves meant this was the end and death was coming.” The whole point to the narrative is to get readers to feel it, not be told that this is the judgement of the writer.

In fiction writing workshops, it feels like “show, don’t tell” is a popular catchphrase, but how does it relate to significant details. Clearly, we can shape the way writers create immersion by way of being thoughtful and craft a good description so that it is meaningful but experiential all in the arc of a few paragraphs. This is a refined version of “show, don’t tell” and by creating a tactile element and nudging it toward an idea or a judgement without overtly explaining it, means a lot. Janet Burroway makes an interesting point, the writer isn’t there to make generalized, overt judgement – the reader will do that when they understand the subtle nature of your concrete and significant detail. That garden must be important because we spent so much time there. That house is why they are all back and that is clear because we know it so well. It shifts perspective in terms of the heavy lifting doesn’t all belong to the writer — but the work and the detailing should be specific and meaningful enough for readers to generalize into themes, ideas, plot, and character.

The final step for significant detailing, like dialogue, is when the significant detailing then becomes a motivation or an agent of change for the character, turning the character’s motivation or plot line into something more. We see this all the time in mysteries. We found this thing and it changes everything. Discovery and clues are what often drive these kind of stories. So, it is important to think about how details can shift stories. Many of my stories are about finding something. Typically, it isn’t a physical thing – or it is but it isn’t the intention of the story. I think that ties into the idea that we all “want something” which ties into a character’s desire and when we find things or search for things — we are trying to fill that desire. Of course, when other people are looking for different things and have different desires that is the classic set up for conflict. And that is when the stories start to become meaningful and filled with tension and purpose.

It is meaningful and important for us to practice description. But not just in basic terms, but in how – through our details we can shift something from a thing to a human quality or category that is meaningful to the reader. What it looks like (feels, smells, tastes, sounds) is good practice, but that has to be connected to some kind of motivation or desire based in the realm of the character and how they are living their lives. The first part is exposition in many ways, the second element is where the creative writing becomes nuanced and crafted. Push too hard and it feels like you are telling. Don’t push enough and it feels like a simple description. Balance it and you have a sense of time and place with the detailing.

Our role as writers is to immerse the reader in an experience that will accumulate with experiences, it is important to not tell the reader what you are doing, but show them. I know that is something we hear a lot, but in terms of significant details, it is another place where we can practice immersion and allow the reader to interact with those great moments of realization, those moments where we are not sitting on our couches reading, but we are there smelling the wood smoke and the tension we create with our great prose.

I think it is interesting that John Gardner called significant details “proof” because all those small and tangible moments make these stories live in our imagination and provide the proof that all this possible if we can see it, taste, smell, and reach out and touch it. That is a significant part of our accumulative storytelling.

Note: All of the cited or mentioned material mentioned in this article is from Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway. Read this book. She is the definitive guide to understand the tools and elements of fiction. There are plenty of great books about writing and specific titles around specific elements. But overall, Janet Burroway is the comprehensive methodology that I prefer as a writer.

Is This Funny? Navigating the Confusing Space of Ironic Reality

 

If you know me and read some of my articles, you know I am a big fan of Atlanta (two seasons on FX with more to come), and what makes that show so innovative and creative is that it’s funny until it’s painful. And when it becomes painful you realize that you stepped into a reality that is dark, ironic, and telling of our times. Recently, I’ve been asking myself: Is this funny? On purpose? And is this a means to access something darker, something realistic and fatal in the commentary?

I grew up loving slapstick comedy of Faulty TowersMonty Python, Steve Martin, and Chevy Chase and because of these comical influences, we were kids who cited lines from movies. And from there we liked watching offbeat humor like The Young Ones and even Twin Peaks because it was strange, kind of funny, and scary all at the same time. These elements shaped my sense of humor (along with my family) and it made me look for the humor and the irony together in comedy. And sometimes, it wasn’t all comedy, but there was enough silly or quirky parts to keep me invested. Eventually it brought about great movies like Fargo, Quentin Tarantino films, and other odd movies that were hyper real while being funny. We all remember Mr. Pink in Reservoir Dogs because no one wants to be Mr. Pink. And frankly this style of absurd humor and stark reality was also absorbed into David Foster Wallace and Chuck Palahniuk. Is it meant to be funny?
Eventually, off beat movies like Fargo (billed as a black comedy thriller) would begin the absurdity of storytelling with hyper-real lives dealing with realistic and dark stories of murder and mayhem. Eventually, that would become a television show that lends itself to the same conceptual point. Some of these films and shows lend themselves to a comedic format and others feel like dramas with some humor sprinkled in. Is Pulp Fiction funny when two hit men blow off a guy’s head in the back of a car and have to have the cleaner come out and deal with their mishap? Marge Gunderson is funny as the police detective, not because she is telling jokes, but because of her character and her vision of policing in the Midwest. Is it funny?
And then Wes Anderson comes along and changes the way we see the world. His innovative style and creative flair changes the way we see things. In his “coming of age” film Moonrise Kingdom, he creates subtle and cartoonish elements to set his story into a brilliant narrative that is constantly in the hand of a creative visionary who sees scenes and setting as complicated and meaningful experiences. In my personal favorite, The Grand Budapest Hotel (comedy drama), we are taken on a journey that is both profoundly silly and stunning. And at times, you don’t know what to think until you see the purpose and vision of this storyteller. Is it just damn quirky? Or is it funny?

 

I find that I am constantly reading books that I don’t find hilarious, but I think are humorous in the ironic sense of their circumstances. I rarely read and laugh out loud. But if you read The Black Obelisk by Erich Remarque and watch the complicated, funny, silly, and often sad vision of life after World War I, you get the sense that the world is crazy. The story and the vision of the lost generation after this carnage is both funny, endearing, and often down right sad. Which brings me to Jojo Rabbit which is billed as a comedy-drama. This film is complicated, endearing, and hard to watch. Is it funny, sometimes? Is it pushing back on the darkness? Yes. But I feel like I am struggling between the laughter and the stark reality of the film. Even Parasite (a black comedy thriller) had some funny parts to it that drew me in and kept me watching. But in the end, I didn’t think the film was really that funny at all. It felt like a strange, twisted version of American Beauty, a drama on the notion of middle class values in America as they refocus beauty and materialism. Don’t get me wrong, it was an interesting movie to watch, but it wasn’t funny in terms of a comedy. But it was ironic.

 
I go back to Atlanta (comedy-drama) and think: there are parts of this show that are funny. And that is why I watch it. I watch it like I love to watch Monty Python episodes to catch the lines, recall the skits (I would like to have an argument. No you don’t.) and to see how they created that interconnection for me. There are a lot of cultural connections to Atlanta that I see all the time. But more important, there are also connections that were created in the show, like Teddy Perkins that was brilliant, kind of funny, and very creepy. The cast is funny, endearing, and they show you life through different lens, but there is a stark reality in the shows. Someone is killed by the police wearing Earn’s jacket. Drugs, poverty, violence, and cultural misunderstanding. Allison Keene of Collider said, “Atlanta is a deeply specific portrait of a certain way of life, one that’s often desperate but that’s tempered – for our benefit – by a casual, sometimes even caustic humor.” That caustic humor is where irony and social commentary linger. And in creating that broad emotional response to humor, we also have the response of gravity, the response of hitting bottom.

 

The shows and films that I’ve been discussing fall into a hybrid mix of comedy and drama. As we see complex plots and stories evolve in the binge worthy world of streaming services, we also see hybrid version of the stories we are telling. These labels (genres) we use begin to shift and misrepresent the work. Atlanta is funny, sometimes,  Some of these stories lean heavy on the comedy or push hard the reality of the drama, but they are deepening the way we see good storytelling. In the world of books, some of the best conflicted labels that we’ve slapped on novels have been the most intriguing for me. And in thinking about the philosophical
adventure of Moby Dick (Herman Melville), or the picaresque A Confederacy of Dunces (John Kennedy Toole) have created slow to arrive visions of humor, irony, drama, and stories that emerge in our culture. This is now coming into the stories we see in video and film. When humor and drama blend and shift, we don’t see one thing or one color, we see the complexity of our evolving vision and expression in the medium. Some of the best books and films are not clear, no funny, but not too serious. And that brings about this complex sense of humor along with a vision of irony and social commentary that is moving us forward.

 

 

Let’s Talk: putting your dialogue to work

My characters are just place holders in my writing until they actually open their mouths and speak. Then they come to life. That is why dialogue should be doing some heavy lifting in your novels. Dialogue is the best action that can be given to a character. Their ability to speak can bring to life a sense of who they are, what they are saying, and why they are saying it. But it doesn’t take a lot of telling to make that happen. Dialogue reveals once you start writing it. And when you begin to really develop good dialogue, it can change the way you see the writing.


There is a lot of focus on writing convincing main characters that may live on through a series. And while we spend time with the characters, what they look like and how they function, eventually, they will need to speak. But creating a character is far from using a D&D profile sheet and creating whatever makes sense in the moment. Characters often develop with the writing process, and they sometimes bend the story to their emerging will. Their conflict and desire (as Janet Burroway clearly defines it), can shift and create opportunities in the story that will change the fundamental scope of how you see the story and a characters role in it. It doesn’t until they speak.


Dialogue isn’t just about talking and making conversations, it is about action and this is probably the most important use of dialogue in a novel. In the book Writing Fiction: a guide to narrative craft by Janet Burroway, she discusses the concept of dialogue as action. She explains, “Speech characterizes in a way that is different from appearance, because speech represents an effort, mainly voluntary, to externalize the internal and to manifest not merely taste or preference but also deliberated thought. Like fiction itself, human dialogue attempts to marry logical to emotion”(45). Dialogue should be working for you on multiple levels. It can reveal a characters manner or impulse, it can reveal their needs and desires, it can show their apprehension to talk at all. But the most important element that dialogue can do is create action. “Dialogue is action when it contains the possibility of change. If in doubt, ask yourself: Can this conversation between characters really change anything?” This is where you can weaponize your dialogue from chatter to action and make it feel like when the characters speak, something is coming. That intensity and foreshadow is where the characters move from chatter to important and meaningful advances in the telling of the story.

It is important to value planning and vision when it comes to your writing, but I don’t think there is enough value placed in the flexible act of writing itself. Some pragmatist just rolled their eyes. Writers should listen to the characters speak. Shifts and changes in what they say and do are important to creating credibility, vision, and putting the reader into a state of active listening. This will lead to important dialogue and action points along well crafted interactions with characters.

Controlling dialogue and the way characters speak is important to understand the character, but it is also an opportunity to affect the story. In writing a story about a mother-in law, I wrote about her coming to the house staying with her children. It wasn’t until she finally got to a story about her husband that story broke open and began moving. As a writer, there is no better revelation than writing dialogue that shifts everything into place. Sometimes dialogue is meant to give the reader what is expected, i.e. this is the part where she is going to tell him she loves him. But sometimes, just a turn of phrase or an unexpected line will ignite action and story. Often is can’t be planned. It has to be developed through the story process and the developing understanding you have between your characters.


In the television show Atlanta (FX), Darius is by far the character who tosses off dialogue that challenges the other dynamics. Every time he says something, it changes the balance of things. Writing unexpected dialog isn’t just about opportunity or humor, but it is giving the reader something to think on, something to watch for. Don’t get me wrong, plotting and allowing for the audience to understand and predict some of the plot is valuable in buying in for reader. But sometimes, it is the dialogue that sets something into motion that a reader didn’t see coming.


Technical elements of dialogue are skills we develop and copy. How dialogue looks and work is important. But what is more important is getting the exchange down. Sometimes, it is better to forget all the formatting and write out dialogue like a play that is simple and concise. Then you can add format back into the traditional narrative that you are creating. When two people are speaking, the tags with names and attribution should be minimal. It get complicated when more people are involved. Practice and look for examples in book you admire. I prefer indenting dialogue when shifting speakers, but some writers prefer to embed their narrative into longer paragraphs. That is a matter of preference and vision for the sake of the writer. Lastly, I think it is important to discuss the outliers in dialogue. Cormac McCarthy doesn’t use quotes and other standard formatting elements, but the reader can understand the conversation once the reader understands the system has changed. Faulkner and others have mastered dialects but that can be tricky, forced, and offensive. Sometimes, it is best to suggest and then leave it alone. I also think in historical context, simplified or neutral language is better. Using contraction in the 1700’s just doesn’t sound right. Historical fiction is about being neutral with language. And if you aren’t sure what the voices should sounds like, look to the masters to see how they handled the speaking voices of history.


There is so much to think about as you begin your first draft, and like actors it isn’t a bad idea to get them talking early and try some scenes in your journal to see if they can open up a bit and share some of the dialogue created insights that can be captured when your characters start talking openly in your writing. It is often the defining moment between telling a story to the reader, and showing them something meaningful, important, and connective.

 

Journal of Disasters – Problem Solvers (Journal Series II)

In a Paris Review interview with James Cain (1978), among his conversation, he mentions two points that help us examine the journal of disasters. He says, “But novel writing is something else. It has to be learned, but it can’t be taught.” The focus being on the experience of going through the process and writing them. The hope is that you write one and think: that was really complicated, hard, confusing — but I can make the next one better. That is a hard pill to swallow for writers who finish their first novel and expect to send it off to the agents and begin their book tour. What it suggests is that you may have to write more books to get to that moment of acceptance. I know when I was younger that would have been the last thing I wanted to hear when I completed my first book. Yet, many of the craft books that you read discuss the idea of pipe-lining novels, working on a book and getting feedback and editing — but then work on the next one. 

The next bit that James Cain mentions is closer to the idea that your journal is meant to be a place for all your mistakes and ruminations. He says, “Writing a novel is like working on foreign policy. There are problems to be solved. It’s not all inspirational.” I appreciate his tempered vision of the novel here. There is the inspiration that moves a writer to research, think about form, and finally get motivated to write. But after some page accumulation and some decision making, the shine wears off and you have to sit down and work. This is where your journal moves from a series of ideas, to a series of problems that need to be solved. Your journal now becomes your map of poor decisions. That is not to say that you will use these poor decisions, but you pose them and you build ideas around them. 

“There are problems to be solved,” is something that should probably be on my tombstone. If being a writer is about seeing your work on the page, discussing books, and sharing the literary culture — I am on the wrong floor. My life has been about solving problems. Not just solving problems in my novel – i.e. what happens next, but also solving my own problems of dyslexia, lack of focus, grit, and just not seeing what is right in front of me.  In the end we are all problem solvers, from the first decision you make in your novel to the last, you are constantly solving the problems. That is your job. Your journal, your place in the world that no one sees, is not only a place to write these solutions and connections, but they are also a place to try them and see where they take you. Sometimes, it feels like I write three novels to get one good one, meaning, that I write in my journal, write the novel, and then write more in my journal. Between cut pages, silly sidelines, writing in my journal, and everything else, I probably take on 700 pages of writing. But it is also a way to refine the pages that people will see. It is a way to think and be creative. It is also a way to generate things that won’t make it into the novel, but will come back to your writing life. Nothing is wasted. No good idea will go away, it will just be set aside. That is what the journal is for. 

I realize that I am being hyperbolic when I say it is a journal of disasters, but it makes the point that we are problem solvers. My journal isn’t for rumination, it is to solve things and figure out how I got here. It makes the point that when the inspiration wears off, the work is hard. What can you live with? When is it right? What solution to your characters can you live with? What’s the right answer to a question that only you know about? How can you live this way? When you come to these questions, you are emerging as an artist. You are emerging as a thinker and a problem solver. We don’t get a chance to watch a Youtube video on how to solve the problems in our novels. We don’t always have someone to immediately ask. We have to read other novels, we have research, study, think – deeply. And this is deep and meaningful work. And when you get there (if you are not there yet), it will feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders. But isn’t this where you always wanted to be? You are a writer. And as long as you have a problem to solve, you will constantly move back to the process that has crafted you. 


Prologues and Prefaces – Let’s Consider Paratexts

Gerard Genette 

Building a novel, a writer would begin building scenes that interconnect. You create characters and conflict and your drive these elements to something that is powerful and meaningful. So, it feels strange to suggest that writers want to say something or create something outside of the narrative, before we even start reading the novel.


Prologues seem to off set the beginning of a narrative. How many prologues have really been first chapters and things that need to be woven into the narrative? In the book Paratext: Thresholds of interpretation by Gerard Genette, he explains, “The term prologue, which in ancient drama designates everything that, in the play itself, precedes the entrance of the chorus, must not mislead us: its function is not to make a presentation, but still less to comment, but to provide an exposition in the dramatic sense of the work, the most often in the form of a character’s monologue.” He explains the history and purpose of the prologue in terms of the shape and style of the “paratext” elements. And the fact that he discusses this so much as a paratext (text outside the principle text) suggests that he sees these prologues and prefaces as something hard to handle. 


The most important point that he makes is once we make an impression upon a reader, or we create a signpost, we are imposing upon the reader to see the story one way. An example is an introduction from Borges, which “is offered somewhat as the key to a riddle… it is Borges revealing, in the prologue of Artifices, that “‘Funes, the Memorious’ … is a long metaphor for insomnia.” Impossible after that to read the story without having the authorial interpretation hang over your reading, compelling you to take a position, positive or negative, in relation to it.” (224) Are we positioning the reader? Are we blatantly telling the reader that this will be purpose and point without allowing the reader to form their own interpretation of the text? This is an unfair position to put a reader into before reading a book.

Explaining or bringing out the meaning or vision of the story in a kind of preface or prologue has other issues. When I am sitting in a reading the writer (before reading) has this long preamble about the story, I feel like I am hearing about something of a patch or a fix that isn’t clear in the writing. I don’t mind if they pick a chapter in the middle and have to explain what happened before. But to have a writer create a caveat to the story: warning, you will need to have some stipulations and conditions placed on you so this will go better for you. That doesn’t work in a reading and I think the preface or the prologue can fall into caveats. “The main disadvantage of a preface is that it constitutes an unbalanced and even shaky situation of communication: its author is offering the reader an advance commentary on a text the reader has not yet become familiar with.”(237). Sometimes, new writers are simply telling us that the novel will be about this theme or about this idea. This undermines the purpose of the novel, to building something that reader must connect from beginning to end. 

It feels like some of the modern versions of prologues and prefaces are based in a sense that readers can’t possibly understand this amazing world that I’ve thought up, so I need to tell you some interesting things. Again, lazy writing. If a novel is an immersion into something new — why are you telling me something that you can’t show me in the novel. Many people will say, because it came in the novel before. If your novel speaks to previous novels — do the work and weave that information into the stories. 

Part of the fascination with prologues and prefaces might come around the idea of film making, and visual storytelling. How many times have we started a show or film and they show something — a scene, a weapon, the wreckage and then run the titles, only to go back in time and tell us how we got there. Common film technique and speaks to the way stories are told. But it is still an element of the story. When prologues and prefaces get confusing, it is because they are outside the narrative or forcing ideas on us before we even get into the story. Assuming a reader is paying for your book, has the ability to read critically, and wants to immerse into a novel — then why force them to see it your way before the story starts?

In some cases, (nonfiction, short story collections, anthologies, and translations), there may be a specific need to an introduction, prologue, or preface in terms of the design and collection of what is in the book. Some writers create a preface as a response to printing or publishing the book after a long period of time. Or perhaps it is a slightly different version and some discussion around that is important. I will leave introductions out of this conversation because most of the introductions to books I’ve read a written by scholars as reference to the book. I typically leave the introduction until I finish the book and then go back and read the scholarly context of the introduction. There are exceptions and if you read (please do) the experimental novel House Of Leaves and don’t read the introduction you will never figure out what is happening. Some of the content might be historical context, translation notes, or other para-text information. I am referring to focused story elements sitting outside the novel. 


Agents and publishers who looks at thousands of proposals and samples don’t tend to like this preamble. And many readers would say, just make this the first chapter. Are these elements inside or outside the narrative? Are they unnecessary fixes or tools that just make writing easier? What if we all wrote prologues and then when we finished the book, took them out, like a metronome for a musician. We don’t hear the tick-tock of time keeping because it is inherent in the music, but it might have been there to help start the shape and vision of the music.

Lastly, I am not a hater of these elements, but I feel like they should be discussed in terms of outside or inside the narrative and how we should be trusting readers, trusting good storytelling, and trusting people to understand the dynamic vision you have. Question those things we set up to get started and maybe we can just turn them off like metronome now that we clearly know and hear the music.


Genette, Gerard, and Jane E. Lewin. “Paratexts: Thresholds of interpretation (literature, culture, theory).” Cambridge: Univ. Pr (1997).

Note: This is a fascinating book about things that surround the main body of the books. I have referred to this book a lot. 

When Things Disappear: Books On Memory and Loss

I’ve noticed an emerging theme. In the last six months I have read books that deal with the disappearance of things. In some cases, the lost things are things we never thought we could lose. In other cases, it is the act of losing that is so devastating. These books have been fascinating and terrifying all at once. Here is a look at some of these books and why this type of idea is emerging in literature. 

The oldest book in the group is a very innovative and probably the most upbeat book titled Ella Minnow Pea, by Mark Dunn (2002), the deals with the disappearance of language. In the book is described as “a girl living happily on the fictional island of Nollop off the coast of South Carolina. Nollop was the named after Nevin Nollop, the author of the immortal phrase containing all the letters in the alphabet, ‘The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.’  Now Ella finds herself acting to save her friends, family, and fellow citizens from the encroaching totalitarianism of the island’s Council, which has banned the use of certain letters of the alphabet as they fall from a memorial statue of Nevin Nollop. As the letters progressively drop from the statue they also disappear from the novel. The result is both a hilarious and moving story of one girl’s fight for freedom of expression, as well as a linguistic tour de force sure to delight word lovers everywhere.” This book not only shows the absurdity of how we define rules and social construcut, but it also physically oppresses the reader. Each letter that is dropped from the language, gets dropped from the prose, making it harder and harder to understand. Until it becomes absurd, it feels complicated and oppressive. This brilliant short read feels like a silly parable, but the implications of the novel are deep and meaningful in terms of who makes the rules, who follows them, and the absurdity of principle over common sense. 

Avid readers tend to read a lot of books and many of them are the same. If you read genre murder/mystery novels then you come to expect some of the same common techniques and elements in these books. Novels and stories that stick out to me are the novels that innovate. They aren’t experimental, but they do something I’ve never seen before in a novel or in the genre. Sometimes, that is just a small element of the story. Sometimes, it is the whole book. The Book of M by Peng Shepherd (2018) is a novel that innovates in many different ways. Not only does this book innovate in terms of plot and conflict, it also uses language in innovative ways to close the gap between the unthinkable and the possible. In Alison Walkers review of the book, she describes it as this: “What if your shadow inexplicably held memories? And what if, one day, shadows began to disappear? One day in a busy Indian market a man’s shadow disappears, and with it his memories begin to unravel. Soon, the affliction spreads across the world, as more and more people slowly lose their memories—and with them their ability to reason. We see this catastrophe unfold through the eyes of Ory and his girlfriend, Max, who have gone into hiding in an abandoned hotel. When Max loses her shadow and disappears into the forest, Ory pursues her and heads south, hoping to find Max before she forgets him.” The ideas and language in the novel are so innnovative and compelling that the novel seems like the only place that this idea can happen. While this book has been optioned to the screen (or television), it will be very difficult to handle the range of loss and vision without the narrative and language in the novel. The book is always better, but in this case, the best parts of the novel can never be captured by visuals on the screen. That being said, the loss here is fascinating, overwhelming, and catastrophic. As a result, everything is at stake and the book is filled with the tension of complete calamity, personally, universally, across all realms of thought and feeling. This book is innovative and so exciting to read. And the sense of loss is complete in its effect on the reader. 

The last book on our tour of things lost, is The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (2019). This book not only considers the loss of things to our memory, but it also implies that there is a task-force that enforces that loss. While all these books could fall in and out of dystopian literature, this one feels the most oppressive. The book is explained here: “On an unnamed island off an unnamed coast, objects are disappearing: first hats, then ribbons, birds, roses – until things become much more serious. Most of the island’s inhabitants are oblivious to these changes, while those few imbued with the power to recall the lost objects live in fear of the draconian Memory Police, who are committed to ensuring that what has disappeared remains forgotten. When a young woman who is struggling to maintain her career as a novelist discovered that her editor is in danger from the Memory Police, she concocts a plan to hide him beneath her floorboards. As fear and loss close in around them, they cling to her writing as the last way of preserving the past.” This book feels like the dystopian classics, but also has a pointed and ironic sense of our contemporary times of authoritarian vision of oppression in a interconnected vision of being seen through the eyes of the technology and systems. 

Over the course discovering these novels, I found a vision for dystopian novels and ideas. The layers of self-reflected irony is often an element that adds meaning and empathy in a novel. It is clear that classic dystopian novels have meaning because they are close to the surface of our vision of society, relationships, government, and power. Orwell’s 1984 is still a stunning vision. And we often feel like we are moving closer to it rather than moving away. There is also The Handmaid’s Tale by Atwood (now a television series), which envisions the darkest places in a society ruled by pain, suffering, and authority. Yet in these three novel, there is a sense that loss isn’t about moving through things that you can’t have, but the existential precipice around the idea that you may never know you had them to begin with. And that power, that fear of forgetting, or letting something go because it doesn’t mean anything any more is where the fear and anxiety derive. 

Is the world shaping these ideas through our vision of the world? Authoritarianism, war, refugees, and environmental disasters have shaped the last fifteen years. And with it has come a different way of seeing the world. But I also think technology has eroded the way we interact in the world. I think technology and the vision of the world is better. But, it also feels like technology is also scrubbing our brains from the act of deep thinking and retaining long term memories. That is not to say people don’t do these things, but we are pushed and shoved along the information highway and we are moved along from one devastating idea or construct to the next. We all know the exhaustion of just being overwhelmed by what is happening. That is also taking a toll on how we see the world. And perhaps these novels are a result of that idea. 

These novels represent some amazing innovation in writing. This article is meant to highlight these fascinating book around theme of memory and loss. But as a writer and someone who is constantly looking for innovation in novels, these book matter. In the end, these visions of what is possible should strike a chord. In terms of writing, we should be looking for the social messages that are woven in these novels. Writing novels are fascinating because they are complex and each element within the book has to connect with another. That being said, without context or memory, we couldn’t read novels. We couldn’t remember how parts connect (or who committed the crime), and these novels remind us through the innovation of memory, there is the unfathomable idea that we could, unknowingly, let it all slip away. 


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Fiction Writing Workshop

The art of writing is important and when you are writing, there is really nothing more you need. But when you are between projects, struggling to get started, or just connect with different ideas; a writing workshop might be the motivation that moves your writing forward. A good writing workshop also hold you accountable to your writing. I have a proposal for you. 

Writing Groups and the Personal Writing Workshop
It is nice to get together and see writers in person. It is nice to sit and talk about writing and handle pages. It can be very rewarding to sit among writers and really discuss the words on the page deeply. There is something important and satisfying to being there among writers that helps define a writer’s credibility and focus. This works in workshops, conferences, and classes. Most people have complicated schedules and often start strong but drop out because of schedules and family obligations outside the group. 

Online Writing Workshops 
Online writing workshops don’t feel intimate. In fact, in many ways, online courses are based on the idea that content and the work can be done, but in your own home and on your own terms. That is great if you are already busy and don’t have time to go out and meet with a group of writers. But you lose the intimate feeling of meeting writers and really discussing the work. However, online writing workshops can be productive and they can help push your writing, ideas, connection, and community. Some workshops are set up to work independently, while some are designed to build in Skype or conference sessions that connect with real people on the screen. 

Writing and working is an isolating and sometimes lonely endeavor but in many ways, we long for the room to get the writing done. But we also need meaningful and focused feedback. The two concepts that come up in writing workshops is synchronous learning which means everyone is working on the same pace and on the same topic or idea together. Asynchronous learning is when people come and go from the platform and get what they need – regardless of what time it is. There is not a focus on completion dates, but more on taking in the content and using it for what you need. Synchronous learning is more teacher focused and deadline driven. Asynchronous learning is more student driven and focused around the needs of the student. 

There is also the learning platform, website, or blog that can be influential in shaping how you interact and learn. There is course software, blogs, emails, and other options. But in the end, you have to feel comfortable with the way you interact with course and the other writes in it. 

Proposal
I would be interested in running a fiction writing workshop. And the goal would be to connect writers to quality feedback, pushing writers forward toward publishing, and creating a disciplined craft for the writers in the course. 

If you are interested in being involved in a possible fiction writing workshop, please fill out the survey and share your ideas. Names and emails are optional. If there is enough interest and focus, I would like to develop something that would be connective and important for writers. Please leave your ideas and get on the email list. I will keep you posted and you can decide if this is something that would help you as a writer. CLICK HERE for the survey.

Journal of Disasters

Over the years, I have been an active proponent of keeping a writing journal. This is typically a writing journal based on the writing in the moment. It is an on-going dialogue with the story or novel that I am working on. Not only do I think this resolves the concept of writer’s block, it also gives you space to type and put words down beyond the image of the writer. Some people feel like free writing or writing on the page is a place where perfection is the goal. But in the journal, things can be messy and incomplete. I often have my journal open while I am working on a novel so I can take notes, add something to write about and resolve.

My rules, if you’ve read “What is a Writing Journal,” creates some guidelines. 1) Only write about what you are writing. 2) Only write about what you are reading. And of course, they should intermingle. It is a place to write about books you like and dislike, it is a place to think. It is your mental workshop.

That is what I’ve always thought about my journal. It is a place to document where I am, what I am thinking, and how I feel about my writing at any given moment. It is part of the process. But in the last year, I thought about it with a different light. What if my journal is a workshop of problems that need to be solved?

When I went back into my journal and looked at some of the entries from places where I was writing, I was thinking out loud. What happens if this happens? Why does this happen now? Why this and not that? Does it matter?

That is when I realized that my journal is an accumulation of my failures. And I don’t mean that to sound hyperbolic or depressive. No, this is the process. Novels need to have a path and there are so many places to get stuck and draw out into something that doesn’t work. And it takes bravery to realize that you may have failed somewhere and it needs to be fixed. I see it all the time. So, why not map out some of those things and think about them in the journal? Why not run that vision through a test, not on the pages of your manuscript but in your journal. In that linear thinking tool that doesn’t judge because it is never seen by anyone.

There is also a sense that the pages we wrote, that came from the “muse” or at one brilliant moment – that those pages become sacred. I’ve heard people say, “I wrote those pages while my mother was dying.” And honestly, those are special and sacred pages. I wouldn’t want a writer to change them. But they also may not be the best element for your novel — a novel that will change and shift around you for months or years. Some people are often star struck by the words they create in a specific moment. And that can be a problem if you can’t or won’t change to innovate. That is the concept behind killing your darlings, pushing yourself and writing something new. Those sacred pages can be in your journal. You don’t have a word limit. You don’t have an idea limit. Annie Dillard said “One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. The impluse to save something good for a better place later is a signal to spend it now.” Just get it all in there and use it all. It also suggests and confirms the idea that we may have to stuff pages into a drawer and forget them for awhile. Sometimes, that is six months. For me, it has been years. And when I came back to the pages, I saw things clearly and was ready to make it something that I couldn’t tame before.

Your journal should be a disaster. It should be places to think and move, and try. It should be your muse, your tool, your guide. It can be a fucked up mess. And it can be everything you want your writing to be.

I would really enjoy teaching a class or having a discussion around this concept. If anyone is interested, reach out to the email in the contact section. 

Quoted: The Writing Life by Annie Dillard