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

Poetry Review: Before the Big Bang Makes A Sound

by Carolynn Kingyens

Publisher: Kelsay Books
ISBN: 978-1-950462-69-8

In a stunning debut Before the Big Bang Makes a Sound, Carolynn Kingyens unravels a modern day dialogue between those things we savor and those things we despise in ourselves. The collection of poetry is all at once a still life to understanding the complexity of the past and present woven in lyrical phrases, vivid moments of tactile emotion. This collection feels like snapshots across a postmodern canvas capturing a woven vision of the world that shapes a new paradigm and then builds around new ideas and visions. From lost memories to moments on the train – the poetry shifts and moves across texture, thought, and social construct like a serenade begging the world to slow down. There is something sweet, something new, and something truthful in places not expected. 

In the poem The Abyss, it demonstrates the dynamics of her language to that of leaving the reader in the desire of the moment. The poem starts with a woman who sparks Nietzsche’s warning: And when you gaze long / into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you. The poem then takes its time meandering away from this vision of warning and foreboding and into moments of stunning clarity and interconnectedness. 

In New York, 
we have salves, oils, 
candles and trinkets – 
a cure-all for bad vibes, 
the evil eye, 
generational curses. 

And then develops into instances that are pulling back from the abyss and into the web of interconnections. Kingyens has mastered the balance between imposing a vision of the world and seeing it acted out unexpected ways. 

Today, I will meditate 
on Muhammad – 
the kind bodega owner 
who calls Lucy, 
his sweet tabby, 
up from the dark cellar, 
where she’s been sleeping
or killing, 
so my daughters
can pet her;
so my daughters 
can smile. 

Kingyens builds tension with thoughtful and tactile visions of a world that is constantly in flux, dancing on the edge of kind bodega owner, a cat, those happy daughters. The passage of time is measured in the opening of this poem with the “Once on the A-train,” marking the past. “Today, I will meditate” marks the present moment in time. And then towards the end of the poem, we have time pushing out in a hopeful vision, away from the void with “Tomorrow I will open my eyes …” This arc of time across this verses are a striking compass of time and methodology that moves the reader away from the void into a new hope – a “new morning.” 

I will turn and marvel 
at your eclipsed soul-body
still sleeping”

This collection is rich with thought provoking ideas that pry into the complex modern way of life, while bearing credence to the unseen shifting of time, memories, passion, and uncertainty. This kind of poetry makes it possible to live in a complicated and harried life, and still believe in the metaphysical vision of the world. Kingyens has created a poetic serenade that pulls us away from what seems random and apathetic, and draws us into poetic compassion and understanding. Before the Big Bang Makes a Sound is a stunning vision of our haphazard lives, pulled back from the abyss by lyrical vision, irony, faith, and the desire to connect.   — December 2019

Available through the publisher and

Fact and Philosophy in Novels

When Tolstoy begins Anna Karenina, he begins with “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It is a classic opening for this epic book. The next line is “Everything was in confusion in the Oblonsky’s house.” What is the difference between these two sentences? One feels like a fact or a truth from the author, while the next sentence sounds like story. It is clear, Tolstoy is opening with this for a reason and it will be clear in a few more sentences. But he opens with an authorial fact, and then begins his story. There is a debate that Tolstoy was a master of omniscient point of view and did in fact weave his own visions of the world into the narrative. That being said, when we discuss the concept of truth and literary cognitivism, are we learning something attached to a story here or from the author. And does the opening line hold more weight if it isn’t woven into the story yet?

At the beginning of a novel we are playing with the edge of immersion and there, often, we don’t hear from the characters or the plot, but we hear something that holds us above all else. A fact, a concept, a philosophical idea hangs there, and then we are dropped into the novel. When you look at American Book Review 100 Best First Lines from Novels (other than Tolstoy) most writers drop you into something that looks like story or conflict. But what happens when we are told something that sounds like a fact or truth? Are we to assume that this is the voice of the author? Or someone else? Tolstoy, like all writers who start with a statement of fact or truth, quickly move into the stories to contextualize the fact that they are giving us. Do we see them as truth or do we see them as a set up for the next few pages (or the entire book). 

An authorial insertion is something that plays on the idea that we are definitively hearing from the author. It is an idea that sits outside of the story. Victor Hugo was famous for philosophically meandering between history and the stories he created. It gave context to history and his story. It requires a trust that the reader is willing to understand that philosophical element and continue to learn facts, and resolve the story that we are reading.  

In James Harold’s paper titled Literary Cognitivism, he suggests authoritative truth can be difficult. “When I read William Styron’s historical novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, I might come to know a handful of specific facts about the 1831 Virginia slave rebellion; more importantly, I might learn how even acts of kindness can be cruel in context to slavery; and perhaps I can even come to know something about what the life of a slave might have been like in that era. Styron’s book is carefully researched and gets a great deal of history right, but he employs inventions and speculation as well. Without consulting historical sources, I cannot be sure what is invented and what is not. Or consider the claim that I have acquired knowledge about kindness in context to cruelty; this is not a historical claim, but perhaps an ethical one. And we might wonder whether, if we read literature in order to acquire knowledge, we are reading it as a work of literature. More worrisome still is the possibility that rather than increasing my stock of knowledge, this novel, written by a white author trying to imagine the mind of a black slave, may reduce or corrupt my understanding of American race slavery”(2). This article brings deep thinking into what we want to know in terms of facts and what we want to understand in the terms of art. And there is some significant questions if you are thinking in terms of reading literature as a finder of factual things. Tolstoy’s opening line in Anna Karenina is a philosophical statement that most agree with. It isn’t a fact to be proven — but to be thought about. 

It is through the novel that we acquire experiences and come to understand the world. But in the end, we can say that a novel gives us undisputed facts. But I still believe that we come closer to human truth as a philosophical reckoning in the novel than we do in other forms of art. We play the game of “imagine” so well, and play along the idea that this could happen to someone; and in turn we can imagine that it has happened to us all, every time we open the cover of a new book and begin a new story. 

Harold, James. Literary Cognitivism. Noël Carroll and John Gibson (eds.), Routledge Companion to the Philosophy of Literature (forthcoming).

Literary Cognitivism: Is Truth in the Proof? (It’s Complicated)

As a teacher I have always found some of the best conversations were based in looking at how things in writing work. And if we don’t understand what dialogue, action, setting, character, motivation, desire – if we don’t have an understanding of those things, writers lose the ability to analyze what they think and believe about their writing. For example, if a writer doesn’t understand conflict in a story, they may not be able to analyze the conflict pitfalls in their writing. Writers then end up writing more drafts, and believing that their is some kind of superstition or creative muse at work because they just don’t know what to work on. That has led me into the concepts of traditional and evolving narratology, (the study of narrative and narrative structure and the ways that these affect our perception). A big portion of that thinking and pedagogy comes from Mieke Bal and his work in understanding how we look at stories. 

Immersion into narratology can be overwhelming, but literary theory, the more time you spend with them, the more it makes sense. As I’ve tried to absorb narratology, I also dove into the concept of literary cognitivisim and what that means. According to Jukka Mikkonen’s Truth in Literature: The Problem of Knowledge and Insight Gained from Fiction, it is a terms “of how literary works convey truth and insights.” Can literature teach us truth and insight into who we are even though it is fiction? My immediate answer was: yes, of course. But it’s complicated. Some even defend the fact that art can generate something like moments of revelation, understanding, and empathy — but is it truth? 

If we do gain insight from reading a novel – what the heck is it that we gain and is it factual, experiential, or something else? In James Harold’s writing he explains how different cognitivts see these theories. Some of these perspectives are epic and some are just confusing. This is one of my favorites — 

“Another strong cognitivist, Peter Kivy (1997), attempts to solve the problem of evidence in somewhat different way. He argues that in some cases, the reader treats the thematic statements in literature as live hypotheses to be tested.While Kivy does not insist that the evidence against which these hypotheses should be tested is found in the text, he does insist that the testing is part of the appropriate experience of a literary work. The extended experience of engaging with literature – including the hours and days spent with the bookmark in place as well as the days and weeks after one has finished – give the reader opportunity to test the claims in the text against her own experiences and the testimony of others. Thus the work of literature makes a claim that is supposed to true, and the experience of the reader’s engagement with the work provides the evidence for the claim. What is distinctive about Kivy’s view is that he thinks that the literary project of reading includes much more than the ordinary conception of the time spent looking at the page.”

The fact that this perspective puts into play the idea that the writer (through the novel poses the hypotheses) and “the experiences of the reader’s engagement with the work — provides the evidence for the claim.” This concept involves the complexity of a writer / reader cycle where an author-based novels, stories, and constructs in novels (ethics, morality, ideas) are handed off to the reader. While this is a complicated idea, it makes sense that the reader is the one to validate whether a story brings fourth a focused ethical truism based on the writer’s vision and the reader’s own experiences applied to the work. 

Immersing into this concept, it seemed offensive that people took up issues with the fact that reading a novel doesn’t transfer truth and empathy — or at least some experiential understanding of the world through literature. In fact, I couldn’t believe anyone would think otherwise. But it isn’t the transfer of something that is in question. Every theorist and conceptual plan agrees something is transferred with the reading of a novel or short story — the problem is defining what exactly is being transferred. 

Clearly this is the edge where conceptual literary analyse and philosophical meanderings circle one another. It is hard to even think about. Yet, it is important to know what we gain (philosophically or practically) when we read a novel. Are we gaining another experience – living another person’s adventure and assimilating it? What have we gained from reading novels? Have we merely sampled the human condition? And how has one reader’s experience varied from other readers and experiences? 

It reminds me of when I was younger, and I posed to my creative writing class that we are creating (in stories and novels) an approximate version of what is in your head. In The Tao of Physics Fritjof Capra describes the distortion of a map based on the round sphere to a flat surface. And how while it represents the same concept, it is distorted because of the transference from a round shape to a flat shape. He shows the example of “drawing a square on a plane and on a sphere” (64). I called this an approximate map (accurate to a point). They are distorted, but they are still maps transferred to different versions. And therefore, what is created in fiction is not the writers vision, but an approximate vision, story, novel, idea. And people will see it based on their lives. Writers know they have to edit and revise their work and make every sentence count. Yet, the subjectivity of those ideas just have to be convincing enough for the reader to believe them and buy into the story based on their willingness to apply it to their own vision of it. And that transfer of the approximate map is exactly what James Harold is explaining above when he says that the writer creates the hypothesis — while the reader solves the equation on their own set of proofs. 

Capra, Fritjof. The Tao of physics: An exploration of the parallels between modern physics and eastern mysticism. Shambhala Publications, 2010.

Harold, James. “Literary Cognitivism.” (2015).

Mikkonen, Jukka. “Truth in Literature: The Problem of Knowledge and Insight Gained from Fiction.” Narrative Factuality: A Handbook (2019): n. pag. Print.

Let’s Talk About The Staff: Meta-Writers

Part of being a creative writer and a teacher is working on process and what makes storytelling and sharing important. From topics like plot, conflict, character building to philosophical constructs and patterns in narratology and hermeneutics it is easy to dive into the world of writing and get lost. The two sides are (1) the work and creating it and (2) process and purpose. I think of these two elements as my never dying metaphor of the coffee and the cup. The coffee is writing, stories, books, and output. And the cup is the aesthetic purpose for containing that content. All that being said, let’s talk about The Staff. 

In the novel The Staff, there is a lot of brewing in the village society.  Taska is shunned and honored at the same time into taking in a prisoner and keeping him and protecting him all at the same time. This is, of course, the main thread and plot of the story. How will she deal with him and how will the village allow her to deal with him?
But during the course of the story, Taska is working on these brittle parchments that are stacked on a shelf in the corner of her cottage. This is where the novel gets a little meta in that she is writing the story of how she sees the world (in a novel about a woman and how society see her). She speaks openly to her parents on these pages and eventually she begins to forge something new there. In the oppressive nature of this story, we have the social constructs and the hidden rules that don’t make sense in the beginning. Then we start to see how the village operates and who pulls the strings. It is through many of the other characters that we (as readers) start to accumulate some of the treachery around our main character.
But it is there in Taska’s writings that we start to define two possibilities (1) she is totally crazy and that there is a reason for her being isolated and shunned; or (2) that she is rewriting her story, putting it forward and creating hope and vision. This is where we find one character rewriting her story, breaking out and changing the way her narrative appears.
Meta-stories in fiction can be extreme and can be found in experimental fiction. They can also be more mainstream. But this isn’t a case of breaking down the fourth wall (finding the author as a character in the story somewhere), but more a case of a character rewriting the path or the plot. The concept resonated with me that the main character is writing her own story. I didn’t plan that but felt she needed a conduit for speaking to her parents and eventually seeing the future. I actually considered early on to have her pray in the church, and her verbal discussions to God would act to deliver the same information. Yet, Taska senses (if she doesn’t know) that the church is helping to make the rules that she really doesn’t understand. That is why she has the exchange with the reverend about the bells not tolling in the morning. And he mentions that no one can hear them. When she says she can, it doesn’t change his mind. She knows they never saw her as a believer, a member of their society.
What other books or stories have writing or storytelling built right in? I am fascinated by The Arabian Nights because of the different variations of stories and themes, but that is like a collective compilation. Nobel Prize winning Naguib Mahfouz wrote an updated version called Arabian Night and Days which in a novel form is more focused on linked stories. Probably the most effective use of writing in a novel is Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. Through this epic story we see Zhivago and his world changing and shifting. And we often see him writing, but we never read the out put. It is suggested and mentioned that he is writing, but we don’t read it at the moment of creation. However, at the end of the novel the poetry there. And as you read those poems, it is a brilliant retelling of the story through a poetic lens. It was very emotional for me to read the poetry at the end of the book.
Keep track of people who write in novels. They may be telling you something, or sending out a lifeline. They may be plotting, sharing, confessing. In some cases, they may be trying to break out of the narrative altogether. — #
Let’s Talk About The Staff is a series of discussion articles based on the novel The Staff by Ron Samul. For more information, check out the novel and read other linked articles.
#narrative #metafiction #writingcommunity #Coffee&Cup

Finalist / Best Book Awards in Literary Fiction

The Staff is now “Award-Winning Finalist in the Fiction: Literary category of the 2019 Best Book Awards sponsored by American Book Fest.” American Book Fest has announced the winners and finalists of The 2019 Best Book Awards on November 13, 2019. Over 400 winners and finalists were announced in over 90 categories. Awards were presented for titles published in 2017-2019.

The Staff, a literary parable, was also a Finalist for the International Book Awards earlier this year. Called “a novel with the rarefied atmosphere of ancestral myth, The Staff unfolds in a time and places that feels ancient and simultaneously apart from history.” Ron Samul’s debut novel is touted as “an intriguing, skillfully constructed plot about the darker side of human nature,” according to The Book Life Prize. This novel is available on Amazon and Barnes &Noble online book sites. 

Winners and finalists traversed the publishing landscape: HarperCollins, Penguin/Random House, Simon and Schuster, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, TarcherPerigee, New World Library, Hay House, Rowman & Littlefield and hundreds of Independent Houses contribute to this year’s outstanding competition.

What Are We Waiting For?

I don’t have enough time in a day, but I always find myself in new groups, searching for new ideas and new ways to see things. I am a writer who finds form and function to be such a fascinating way to think about art and creativity. I like how things are made around stories, how innovation can change the way we see things. Sometimes, that means looking at thing that are experimental. Sometimes, that means trying something that doesn’t make sense – to try to find out if it makes sense at all. 

This week, I’ve asked myself this question a few times: what are we waiting for? What is the ideal group of writers? What is the best digital writing space? Is there one? What is the best way to operate? What are the standards and are the standards working? 

Back to the writing group. I joined this group that functions through Discord, a cross-platform for gamers. And it becomes the central hub for people to post and respond to work. This is not a commentary on the group, but on the amorphous way that people connect. It is clearly designed by young people and using a gaming platform. A lot of the work is a variety of fantasy, horror, and other speculative fiction, but it is fascinating to see how the group interacts using #hashtags and emojis. How they work and how they function is a fascinating glimpse into the future of community, connection, and online writing space. In fact, a lot of the writing is on cloud based platforms, and this spaces directs writers and commentators to the pages that are scattered around the cyber world.  It begs the question — is this what we want? Is this what we are waiting for? 

This same week, I’ve been thinking about Brian Clements and his Every Atom: Reflections on Walt Whitman at 200. This project reaches out to “200 poets, writers, artists, critics, scholars, songwriters, leaders, journalists, public figures, and citizens. Each of the respondents will select a word, a line, a passage from that opening section of the 1855 Leaves of Grass that later, Whitman would entitle “Song of Myself,” and each will offer a brief annotation.” This project is not only a visionary use of poetry, literary review, and creativity – but it is also a new vision of poetic creativity and connection. When someone read an entry on Facebook mentioned that this should be a book that is collected, Clements mentioned that it already is a collection accumulating and shaping the vision of this American poetry bringing into the digital consciousness of the poets and visionary of contemporary poetry. It is clear that this innovative and visionary project captures some of the complexities that makes America a constant revision. “If ‘The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem,” as Whitman asserts early in his Preface to the 1855 Leaves of Grass, then the greatest poem is both a dirty mess and a surviving promise for the possibility of renewal, justice, and reconciliation. Contributors are vast and have a stunning effect of accumulation over the course of this fascinating project. 

The last writing community that I’ve been working on for some time is, a community that is closed, but very much an open space for creativity and vision. It is hailed as “a unique space, a vibrant hive of responsiveness that operates on the theory of reciprocity and empathy — to get feedback, give feedback; if you get feedback, say thanks. It is a private space, meaning that only members who are logged on can see your work. We believe that this privacy releases you from worry about your digital reputation or identity.” This is a place where we find visual, musical, poetic, and creative storytellers bring about vibrant, rich vision of art. But it can be more playful as members launch quick writing prompts, jump-in style projects, and elaborate and creative connections between creative visions and digital environments. Many of the members are visionary creatives from other digital connective places. And it is here that people are welcome to come and join to continue the vision. Joining is easy, and with your membership comes the vision reciprocity. When I joined, I felt like I was privileged to be among innovative creative people. But now, it needs to expand and grow. It more mass and more connectivity. Not because it is failing, but because it needs to keep rolling as people weave in and out of the community. It is not clear where the edges are in this community, but there is always room for more. Check it out and join if you have the time and will to give what you create. 

What are we waiting for as creative people? What are we looking for that is better than what here and what is happening? Connecting with creativity is still about creating connection with amazing poets, writers, artists, and visionaries. But while I am still bitter that G+ failed – writing and creating in this digital world can be inspiring, motivating, and connective. Jump in and see what innovations are already waiting for you in the creative and connective world. What are we waiting for?

Let’s Talk About The Staff / Chapters: Give Me a Break

Chapters are funny things when you are a writer. During the editing process of writing The Staff, the connections and relationships between chapters was an evolving thought. I started with writing numbers. However, during editing the numbers were so jumbled and disconnected I didn’t even see them there. I progressed to replacing numbers with lines or breaks. It started with a centered line, then a series of asterisk and eventually a mix of different versions. Finally, during the last few revisions, I took out all chapter breaks, lines, and anything that resembled a specific stop. Then I replaced it with a double space and left it. 

And then I read the novel and I really liked the fluid motion that was created. If people wanted to stop, they could stop at any one of those breaks and stop. A few people have asked me about chapter breaks and the fact that I don’t have chapters. My response has been, why would I want you to stop reading? 

Conceptually, chapters and their history is an often overlooked element of writing. There are a variety of approaches for chapters. In spy novels, location changes are highlighted in chapter headings. Sometimes, a writer will add a quote to the beginning of a chapter to add some kind of esoteric quality to what is coming. Sometimes, that is intriguing to me and other times it is a distraction. 

Nicholas Dames wrote an article The Chapter: A History for the New Yorker in 2014. And he outlines that “The first authors who wrote in chapters were not storytellers. They were compilers of knowledge… who used chapters as a way of organizing large miscellanies.” He goes on to explain that complex religious or philosophical texts required an almost index quality that was created for the purpose finding the location of important passages and areas to refer. 

Later, as novels developed, chapters became manageable nightly moments that were framed for the reader. “Laurence Sterne’s “Tristram Shady” insisted that “chapters relieve the mind,” encouraging our immersion by letting us know what we will soon be allowed to exit and return to other tasks or demands. Coming and going – an attention paid out rhythmically – would become part of how novelists imagined their books would be read.” 

It makes sense when Dickens and others were writing their stories in serials that chapters were like short story titles and that when collected together, it makes sense that we are reminded about what is happening as the story unfolds.

In modern novels, chapters have become flexible. In the age of Netflix binge watching, where the credits are not even consumed when a new episode starts, are modern readers looking for a break or time to digest the story — or are they reaching for the next moment of conflict, action, and storytelling. Just keeping reading.

Read more articles about The Staff 

Pride of Eden by Taylor Brown / Book Review

What happens when environmental activism and the passion of a group of outsiders come together? Taylor Brown explores this idea in his book Pride of Eden, as we move closer and closer to the cataclysm that is our natural disaster. It is clear that not only is this a political and social issue, but is now finding its way into fiction. And no one is better suited to take on this task then Taylor Brown and his visionary style that merges melodious prose with the stark reality of our natural calamity. This novel examines the extremes of protecting apex predators and the people who live on the edge to save them. Wrought in stunning vision of the natural world and the tainted reality that has oppressed the great animals that are now prey to poachers, land development, the black market, and hunting fanatics. 

Anse Caulfield is a retired racehorse jockey and Vietnam veteran who rescues exotic big cats, elephants, and other animals to bring them to his wildlife sanctuary Little Eden on the Georgia coast. When his prized lion escapes and meets a tragic end, Anse becomes obsessed with filling the void in his life. He is joined by other outcasts and animal activists. Malaya, a former solider who spent time in Africa hunting poachers, comes to the sanctuary with a vision of helping Anse fulfill his dream. A few others join the team, a veterinarian and a falcon expert spend time in this strangely idyllic and sometimes frightening world. Among the great lions, ancient crocodiles and other exotic animals, it is clear that the sanctuary is the only place for these souls to comprehend what is happening and what they can do for these animals. Each of these well developed characters has a primordial sense of the world that they are trying to restore. They see the world through the eyes of their rescued animals. For some it is means taking care of these rare and exotic creatures. For some, it is a more extreme vision. As this team begin to rescue animals, it is clear that they are moving into dangerous territory. 

Taylor Brown has created a visionary sense of a decaying natural world where the apex predators have been cast into sideshows and trinkets for collectors. This band of outsiders, with no place to go but to sanctuary are the vanguard of something lost in a culture that has turned its back on the natural world. Brown uses language to slip between the reality of teeth and claw – to a lost past where the natural apex creatures were mythical apparitions that are all but gone. Moving Brown’s tension filled prose to mythical vistas, this book is very hard to put down. As we herald in an era of environmental extremism, this novel speaks to the men and women who are on the front lines willing to save these beautiful and dangerous animals at any cost. To pull this off Brown has created memorable and deeply moving characters.
Brown’s previous novel, Gods of Howl Mountain remains one of my personal top picks last year. Pride of Eden is another epic novel that draws you into the fears and hopes of people living on the edge of the world. Once again Brown proves that this is a great place to tell compelling and visionary stories. 

Pride of Eden: A Novel
Taylor Brown
St. Martin’s Publishing Group
288 Pages
ISBN 9781250203816
Available March 2020

Review for Gods of Howl Mountain

Ron Samul is an award winning author and educator. His novel The Staff is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Let’s Talk About The Staff: Jumping Boy

This post may contain spoilers. 

The Jumping Boy is a unique and probably the most memorable character in the novel The Staff. The Jumping Boy plays a strange and often comforting role in the novel. He first appears around the church when a meeting happens, and while it explained that the Jumping Boy was always around, it was never clear which family he came from. He is just a runt. This shows that even in a small village, there is a sense of casting out things that people don’t want. And the child lives feral. In this small hamlet it is better to not claim this daft young man than embarrass a family name. 

“There was a boy in the village that nobody spoke to because they all knew he was an imbecile. He never spoke or laughed when someone would try to amuse him. He would wander the village and do things that seemed like that of a curious child, but he wasn’t playing as the other children did. He would never go and explore the woods, or walk around the rocks and look for crabs by the ocean. The only thing he truly seemed to enjoy was jumping up and down.”

The second time he appears, it is a meeting with Philip and Emmit concerning a box. Philip watches the Jumping Boy as he plots his next move concerning his political and personal relationship with Emmit. 

The next time we see the Jumping Boy is when he shows up around Taska’s cottage. This scene is intentionally created to play Cain’s blank mind to that of a feeble mind. Cain is weary of this child and perhaps looks down on the silly boy. But the child’s behavior is contagious. And seeing how much fun he brings to the three of them, even Cain can’t help but join in, even if he doesn’t understand why. 

“She hadn’t felt this light and easy for years and year. So many difficult and tragic events had belabored her sense of happiness. It had been so long.”

And the scene ends with the boy jumping out of the doorway and into the darkness. 

“Taska let out one final laugh as he disappeared into the falling twilight. For a long time they sat in silence. Words would have only interrupted and trampled the ardent happiness that the heart held captive for the rest of the night.”

After the Grounding of the Fleet, he is there, standing with Taska, reminding her to be brave and face the village head on. He becomes a tailsman for Cain and Taska. He reaches out for her hand and holds it while they wait on the Grounding of the Fleet.  It is noticed that he is calm, he is just a boy. When Taska push the child away and ignores him, Cain shows emotions. Something that has been vacant in his life. 

“He saw the boy’s reaction. Watching the child’s face wounded Cain greatly with a pain that he felt through his chest and down to his legs. Not like the pain of the glass triangle, piercing into his hand, but that of something incomprehensible. It was a deeper pain that emerged from the pit of his chest and spread all over his body, dissipating into numbness at his fingertips. The concussion of his feeling broke him. It was cold.” 

Clearly, this symbol of innocence shows up as freedom, simplicity, and happiness. But Cain now realizes that this feeling of togetherness, their past fun, now feels like something broken and changing in him. 

He shows up when Sophia tries to stop Taska from going to Old Lady Gertrude’s house. When that scene ends, the Jumping Boy is just spinning around like a wild animal. “The jumping boy ran after Taska and Cain, laughing and spinning in a surreal dance, mocking the severity of the wounded souls.”

Just before the Annual Visit, it is mentioned that on cold nights, the jumping boy would sleep at the base of the blacksmith forge. He takes the men from the boat to the door of Philip and his family. 

Finally, it is Cain who tells the Jumping Boy to “Jump!” and the boy smiles and laughs at him has he is marched up to the tree at the end of the novel. 

It is not clear when this strange kid was born in the novel, but I wanted to add more complexity, more depth to the village. Looking at the length of this article, he played a significant role in the book. The boy is Cain’s alter-ego. He is innocence born from guilt and neglect. And while Cain knows his fate at the end, he still thinks that the jumping boy should be jumping. 

Let’s Talk About The Staff is a series of discussion articles based on the novel The Staff by Ron Samul. For more information, check out the novel and read other linked articles. 

Let’s Talk About The Staff / Lucifer’s Wing

In a lot of my writing, I am captured by living close to the ocean, traditions, and the essences of living on the edge of the world. I don’t live on the edge of the world, but I do live near the sea, so the wind, the waves, the fog, the atmosphere of my life falls into the writing easily. 

In The Staff, they live in a small village by the sea. While it isn’t a seafaring book, it is based on living near the ocean and even some of the traditions they keep concerning the sea and the fishing fleet. Beyond that, there is an ominous nautical reference in the arrival of a large ship. This ship is not only imposing, but it is called Lucifer’s Wing and the bowsprit is a devil with its arm raised out reaching for the soul of the village. Thinking back, I saw that image somewhere. I think it came from my dictionary. I have an old 1950’s Webster New Collegiate Dictionary and I adore the book. It was always the book on my desk and even in the digital age of spell check, I still use it. Yet, when I looked through the dictionary, I can’t find that black and white spot image. 

DaVinci’s sketches 
When a tall ship came in this month and I saw the ships prow with a great face on it, I thought about my novel, and where that image of the devil on the front of a ship might be? I still don’t know where it is – if not on the pages of the novel. I was also inspired by Da Vinci’s portraits of old men. The senior council members were inspired from drawings and visions of things like the images below. This is how I imagine Langston and the boys. They always seemed tired and sketched. They felt like old bas-relief, scraped from a stone or some tree bark. 

Tall Ship in New London
It makes sense, I suppose, that all things in this book seem elusive and shifting. Perhaps that is the nature of lives built on lies, deceit, and desperate want for freedom. The last point of all this – is that seafaring culture is clearly evident in museums in New London, New Bedford, Nantucket, and all along the Atlantic seaboard. It is a culture of lighthouses, whaling, fishing, and living on the edge. A place so eloquently captured by the likes of Steinbeck and Rachel Carson. But there is little mythology (other than the overarching elements) that define the fables and the curiosity around the sea. The mythology is often generic, Poseidon orientated, or it is superstitious and linked to random things. My question, I suppose is where do we house the mythology of the sea? And how much of it is still emerging. 

Let’s Talk About The Staff is a series of discussion articles based on the novel The Staff by Ron Samul. For more information, check out the novel and read other linked articles. 

Hollihock Notes For August 24, 2019 Presentation

It was nice meeting all the creative writers at the conference this weekend and I feel luck to share ideas and work around so many thoughtful people. 

These are some resources from the presentation Hollihock Writers Conference 2019. 

Clickable Links Here:

If you would like to reach out and say hello or you have some writing that was based on the concepts in the presentation, I would love to hear from you — 

How to Get the Most Out of A Writers Conference

Check out my quick guide to attending a writers conference. If you are serious about writing, then you will be serious about attending. Use these skills at Hollihock Writers Conference 2019 or at your next event.

Writing conferences bring together like-minded, creative people who are seeking inspiration, education, and community. While all these readings, workshops, presentations, and social events may be exciting, don’t forget that what you put into your experience here is what you’ll get out of it. Here are some things to think about when you attend – Read More

Reading List / What Inspires

Haruki Murakami said “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” He makes an interesting point. So, simple advice would be wander away from the books everyone is reading and try something different. But it comes with a catch – you might have to work harder to understand the books and the ideas. It is okay to not understand a book or an idea. Research it, try to understand why you don’t get it. And make that a project. I know that seems like a lot of effort for a summer beach read, but the challenge comes with critical reading skills, the ability to not give up when it gets hard, and you will feel like new ideas and visions of the world are shifting. That is a good thing. 

As people have finished my book, they have reached out to me. Some people mentioned that they wanted to go on read a new book as soon as possible. In one case, a reader went on to classic literature (win). I thought I would list some books that are some of my favorites in the hopes of inspiring a new pathway of reading. This list is an alternative to some of the mainstream reading that is hyped in the media and in book clubs. There is nothing wrong with best-sellers – if you like them – read them. They are popular and you can probably find someone in your social circles to talk about these books. These books on this list are likely available in libraries and used bookstores. If you don’t want to spend money on the titles, find them cheaper or through your library. I have an amazing used bookstore nearby called The Book Barn, but there is also an online retailer called Thrift Books that can find used books for you.  

Some of the titles here are directly inspired books that connect closely with The Staff as a story. They are also stories and connections that resonate with me as a writer. They may not be your favorite books, but they should move you into the hinterland of your bookstore, away from the prepackaged  lists, and into your own vision of the world. Find a writer that you love and read ALL their books. I just finished reading Erich Remarque’s collection of work and they were brilliant (All Quiet on the Western Front, et al.). Challenge yourself and you will find that reading is like binge watching a show on Netflix, you will want more. These aren’t in any order. 

Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter 

The Black Obelisk by Erich M. Remarque 

Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin

The Lottery (short story) by Shirley Jackson

The Birthmark (short story) or any Nathaniel Hawthorne

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles 

Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea by Yukio Mishima 

A Gracious Plenty by Sheri Reynolds 

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk 

The Familiar (experimental fiction) by Mark Danielewski 

1984 by George Orwell 

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

The Death of Vishnu by Manil Suri

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

If you are someone who likes a particular area of history, explore writers in that time. Don’t be afraid to look up writers from 1800-1860 and find out what is available. Give in to what you want. If you find a writer that moves you, read all of it. And then find out who inspired them and read more. I tend to read writers; not books. I know I like Murakami so I will read whatever I can find. Be passionate and find your own amazing journey through books. 

Lastly, when you read something you are excited about, tell people. Shouted out on social media. It isn’t that they don’t care, they probably just don’t know about the books you are reading. Talk it up and compare notes. It is a great way to share books and ideas. 

Let me know on social media what you are reading and what is inspiring you. Click the share buttons below and shout out what is important in your reading. 

What Is A Writing Journal?

New Writing for the Hollihock Writer’s Conference 
“Your writing journal is a record of your thought process through time. It will evolve as the months and years pass, and it will become a powerful tool. Not only can you think and process your ability on the page, you can also see the history and the arc of ideas as they develop. It can be very powerful to see where you’ve been and realize where you are all at once.” – Read More Click Here

The Staff / Finalist in the 2019 International Book Awards

The Staff, a novel by author Ron Samul, is now an Award-Winning Finalist in the General Fiction Category of the 2019 International Book Awards. Jeffrey Keen, President and CEO of American Book Fest, said this year’s contest yielded over 2,000 entries from authors and publishers around the world, which were then narrowed to the final results. Awards were presented for titles published in 2017, 2018, 2019. 

Ron Samul is a writer and faculty member at Mitchell College in New London. He is also a Writing Mentor in the Western Connecticut State University Creative and Professional Masters in Fine Arts. A native New Londoner, Samul said this novel is based on living in a small community where everyone knows about each other. Some of those interactions are for the better and some for the worse. Samul enjoys talking about the book with writers and book clubs, and said, “Talking to people, I always find new ways to look at the novel. Books don’t work unless the writer and reader are working together to make it a shared experience. And to hear what people think of the novel, in their own terms, it is just as exciting as writing it.”
Samul’s work has appeared in Liturgical Credo, Outstide In Magazine, SNReview, Inquiring News, Library Journal, and other online media. He has presented his work at the Associated Writers Program Conference, The Northeast Popular Culture Association, and the Hollihock Writers Conference in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

In 2017, The Staff was short-listed for the Del Sol Press First Novel Prize. Don Snyder, author of Fallen Angel and Of Time and Memory explains, “Samul tells this story with such luminous prose and immense imagination that the reader is transported to a place beyond the borders of the known world where new meaning attends our longings and our fears, and where we discover a deeper understanding of ourselves. I believe this is the requirement of literary fiction.” The book is currently on Amazon for purchase in print and e-book.

A Privilege

In my previous post about creating Misfit Manifestos in class, it occurred to me that over the course of the semester, I give a lot of writing assignments. Not all of them are a lengthy research paper, but they are intentionally designed for the continuous practice of writing. It is important in my class to understand that writing is a practiced skill and they should be writing often. 

Yet, as I was writing about their experience with the Misfit Manifestos, it occurred to me that sometimes, students connect with assignments in a way that opens their ideas, and changes the way they see their own lives. The point being is that through a variety of writing opportunities, it is very hard to tell which assignments are going to connect with the students in the classroom. But what comes with experience: is knowing that something will connect with the students.  

It is clear that the writing assignment was a needed break away from writing about Virginia Woolf and modernism. And it was clear from their writing that they wanted to say something important about who they are. It reminds me of the letter writing assignment I work on with my creative writing students. They write letters to people that they can’t send them too because of death, or distance, or something else. Every time I do that creative writing exercise, it is clear that they have something that they need to say immediately. It is almost like writers are just waiting for the right idea, the right acceptance and permission to say those things that have been waiting there for the right moment. That is what it felt like with my students, particularly with a student who said, “This will be the easiest assignment so far, I’ve been screwed up my entire life.” And that was the release he needed to explain it all to me. 

Are we looking for permission to write these stories about ourselves? Are these stories just waiting, just under the waves of our everyday life, waiting for the right prompt or the right group to share it with? This type of writing is where your story can be a superpower. This is where you sit in class and awe at the struggles, the humanity that comes from writers, and you see something so brave – the act of writing down something that has always been kept from the world. And there it is on a desk, so common place, like a pen, a notebook. Among those things, you know what a privilege it is. 

Literature is Filled with Misfits

I work with college students, more specifically, emerging college students, so they are constantly on the cusp of things that are coming to them. We develop skills, we tell them that they need to improve just to cut it in college. We also tell them about what it means to have a traditional college experience. In reality, a traditional college experience is a myth. We aren’t going to live in some kind of strange 1950’s vision of academics. 

Our emerging students are not traditional at all. They have had to fight, push, and work much harder than the people around them. In fact, in most cases the students are satisfied just blending in, just being around a higher education experience. They can be self-defeating, battered, wounded learners. 

I’ve read The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch and I admired her unabashed honesty and the focus of her writing. It was one of the first memoirs that changed the way I think about the form. More important, her writing has connections to failures and finding the most unlikely paths to success. Having followed Lidia Yuknavitch on Twitter, I received a message from her that we all should post our misfit manifesto out to the world and diminish the voice of abusive people. What a great idea. They need to do this. They need to tell me more than what could be gleaned in college writing. They need to write a Misfit Manifesto. They need to write about how improbable success is to them, and how terrifically they have failed. 


When I wrote the assignment sheet for the students, I felt like I had to give them some really good examples of this idea. I used samples from The Mistfit’s Manifesto, and I also spoke about specific stories where people feel different and why they may feel this way. Not only was I asking them for specific misfit moments in their lives, I was also asking them to be introspective and thoughtful about their place in the world. 

It was really interesting to hear the reactions to this concept. Some students really didn’t understand how this idea would fit into their lives. They had spent so much time assimilating that to think about those misfit moments or times was really part of their lives they didn’t want to reveal. But my favorite response was, “Shit, this is going be the easiest assignment you’ve given us. I’ve been a screw up all my life.” I couldn’t wait for that essay. 

One thing I really wanted from them was a personal statement. Not a college application essay, but something unique to their own experience. I told them it is easy to find collective success, but mistakes and other missteps in life are uniquely their own. It reminded me of the Tolstoy quote at the beginning of Anna Karenina when he says, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” 

We also discussed what misfits look like in literature, what they felt like in words. We discussed movie characters, and experiences they saw in the world. We talked about Holden Caulfield, Of Mice and Men, and superheroes. We also discussed time and space for misfits. “Literature is the land of  the misfitted.” (The Misfit Manifesto).

Most of the essays were simple. They were small things that made them different. For some, it was a bully story or a changing school story. But the story I liked the most was the story from the student who said this is will be easy. And he wrote about being with a group of friends who all got along, and slowly they all turned on him. And for years he was picked on, beat up, and told that he was worthless. And through it all – he somehow, kept it together and waited out his time until he was able to prove himself to the world. That is what he is doing now. It was one of the deeper stories where something held him on a path that (amazingly) wasn’t beaten out of him. He never turned. 

As we got through the assignment, I asked that he had a few minutes, I wanted to discuss his paper. He came to the office and was nervous. He asked if there was anything wrong. I showed him the grade. He smiled and said thank you. I told him earned it, from year and years of not giving in. He didn’t say anything for a minute — he flipped the paper over and said, “all that shit’s behind me now.” 

As I mentioned, some writers played it safe, some played it with some uncertainty, but they all considered their lives with a different slant. In one student paper, it was clear that it might’ve put to bed some ghosts. Yuknavitch says, “If you are one of those people who has the ability to make it down to the bottom of the ocean, the ability to swim the dark waters without fear, the astonishing ability to move through life’s worst crucibles and not die, then you also have the ability to bring something back to the surface that helps others in a way that they cannot achieve themselves.” This assignment is difficult because you are asking people to look at their darker side, their past, their missteps, and wrong fits. The other paper that I really admired was a letter that a student wrote to his future grandchildren – explaining how screwed up the world is and how – if they are reading this – they should be in a better place. And that he was a good person who cared and wanted to right the wrongs of the world. I thought that was a noble approach to his life. 

My students did a good job thinking about this idea. And when you read Lidia Yuknavitch explain her life in The Chronology of Water, you can get a sense of how we have all lived our own misfit lives and why they are so important. It reminds me that we need to be brave, creative, and take risks with our students. Some will feel challenged and frustrated but think of those who needed it most. They’ve been waiting for a long time to say these things. 

Try it in the class, try it in your writing groups, write your own manifesto. It will change the way you see the world. 

Note: Another writing prompt that taps into some significant reflections is Letter to Humanity or this project I worked on awhile back. It is a great tool for reflective nonfiction. Letters to Humanity

In the Oven / Fictional Story via Technology

I teach a Digital Ethics and Citizenship course and some of the things we talk about is the automation of apps and the story they tell us even is it is merely to keep us busy. Tracking pizza is one of the apps we discuss. This came about as a writing piece but then with a little thought and time, I was able to move it into a visual format. While I like that I wrote it out first — the visuals add something to the story. The timer, the tracking bar, they all move the story along. The images and the collective look was fun to make and think about. Typically, I use words, but it was nice to enhance the story by way of graphics and design. It is fun to watch the tracker move to the green, when the whole thing goes sideways.

The Staff Now On Sale / Amazon / Paperback & E-book

In a remote fishing village, a well-known member of the village is murdered, and the suspect is caught and beaten. When he wakes up he can’t recall who he is or what he has done. The village council decides to invoke an age-old ritual that condemns the killer and a villager together for life. Taska Valimar is selected to be the warden to the killer in this draconian social contract. Scorned by her life of servitude, Taska begins to unravel the secrets of her missing family. What she finds begins a spiral of deceit and revenge. In the midst of the darkest hours, Taska searches for friendship, hope, and a way out. The Staff is a timeless tale of lies, treachery, and hope.

“In the tradition of Orwell and Huxley and Dostoevsky, Ron Samul has imagined a world in stunning detail where justice and human dignity are casualties of the fears that inhabit us. It is a terrifying world that exists beyond our reference points and yet it feels oddly familiar because the people we come to meet there, though strangers to us, give us an unexpected glimpse of ourselves.” – Don J. Snyder author of Of Time and Memory and Fallen Angel.
“A novel with the rarefied atmosphere of ancestral myth, The Staff unfolds in a time and place that feels ancient and simultaneously apart from history: a northern seaside village where the air holds the electric charge of prophetic meaning. Samul has written a dark, tension-filled allegory of crime, punishment, and transcendence that will appeal to fans of Hawthorne, Kafka, and Shirley Jackson.” – Tim Weed author of Will Poole’s Island and A Field Guide to Murder and Fly Fishing.
“An intriguing, skillfully constructed plot about the darker side of human nature.” The Book Life Prize.

Available through

Ron Samul is a writer and college educator at Mitchell College. He is a writing mentor in the Western Connecticut State University Masters in Creative and Professional Writing program. He has worked as a journalist, literary magazine editor and publisher, and book reviewer. His articles and stories have appeared in the SN ReviewLibrary Journal, Liturgical Credo, Inside Out Magazine, Inquiring News Hartford, and on other print/electronic media. He is the winner of the Connecticut AWP Fiction Award in 2005 for his short story Paper ThinThe Staff was shortlisted for the 2017 Del Sol Press Friest Novel Prize. Print and Kindle copies of the book release through on March 15, 2017.