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

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 Amazon.com

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).

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 

https://www.hollihock.org/single-post/2019/07/19/What-is-a-Writers-Journal

Tangible Text

Ron Samul 

A writer likes to tell stories, connect ideas, and bring about their vision of art. Writers like to use words to make something. And bound with that is the desire to have a tangibility to their texts. Books can have a physical sense to them, including their feel, the sound of the turning page, and the way they smell in different states of repose. Holding a text can be a preference. Some people just like to read physical books. But when an author holds a copy of their own book – does it suggest something more?



There is a lot of data on preference, but it doesn’t speak to the creators of the content alone. Thousands of articles speak to research that finds more people still prefer print to electronic versions for a myriad of reasons. If you follow the money, according to the 2014 Pew Research statistics, the print book will garner higher revenues when distributed to bookstore outlets by $5,000 – $9000 per title, to that of printed books not sold in physical bookstores. “Similarly, although the difference was not as large, self-published books in the sample that were sold in bookstores – only 12% – earned a median of $500-$999 compared to $1-$499 for those that weren’t.” Writers with the resource of a publisher to distribute the book to bookstores gained substantially more than non-distributed writers.


Writers are constantly considering audience. Maybe not directly, but writers are thinking about the people that will read their work, and how they will digest their work. But should a writer think about the form that their readers should be reading? Maybe this is a marketing question and not an artistic question. That is fair. Yet, many writers have become artist, agent, marketer, and speaker all in one package. At some point, a writer may ask – how should this digested? Do they prefer a book to hold or a cheaper, quicker to arrive, electronic version of work?


Tangibility in a book is something that writers come to desire. They find that reading and the ideas that connect to that act is all about things that are unseen. So, it makes sense that the simple foundation of the book, pages, and binding be tangible, perhaps to ground them. In fact, bibliophiles relish the idea of holding, touching, and reading books. In some cases, like S. by J. J. Abrams, is a homage to the way books can be the setting for a conversation. Inside the books, tucked in the pages, you will find margin notes, letters, pictures and all kinds of paratext.

But is their prestige in a print book? Further, is there an inter-social class system to publishing based on print and electronic formats? Does print books symbolize the backing of a big publisher? Does it connect with the idea that the writer’s work is distinguishable enough to catch the eye of an editor or agent? Anyone can send a file to a Kindle, but when it has an ISBN number does that mean something more?

Perhaps it is merely permanence. In the world of digital connections, we may remain skeptical of the transferability of media through systems. Considering how well my VHS collection survived the shift into the new millennium, I would say that is a fair concern. But it is more than just concerns about transference, but permanence in the face of time. The book a writer creates has the potential to out-last their body and their place in the world by hundreds of years. It also has the potential to be lost into obscurity with other volumes in discarded warehouses and book repositories. There is a sense of permanence in holding a book. When I hold a book published in 1898, I feel like I am not only accessing ancient knowledge, but I am also digesting it in native form. That brings about reverence for the past. It is a grounding for those lost in the ethereal connections on the page. A timelessness that is as much a mystique as it is a reality. In Josh Catone’s article Why Printed Books Will Never Die, he mentions that “People who need to possess the physical copy of a book, not merely an electronic version, believe that the objects themselves are sacred,” he wrote. “Some people may find this attitude baffling, arguing that books are merely objects that take up space. This is true, but so are Prague and your kids and the Sistine Chapel.” Thinking about this concept, I can’t help think of all the trinkets I’ve discovered in reading other people’s books. Your Kindle won’t have recpeies and four leaf clovers tucked away in their digital pages, but then again, maybe some people don’t like those little surprises.


Looking at the numbers, the tangibility of books still seems to dominate the market. But do we value the object or the ideas contained inside of it? I personally find myself torn between the tactile elements of owning a book, and the desire to read it instantly, right now. If it is a book I deem important, I will buy it and shelve it when I am done. If it is one read and gone kind of book — then I buy it electronically. I am constantly balancing immediate want to how I plan on interacting with the book in the future. And in some ways, how I’ve interacted with them in the past.


Why do writers want to see their book in print (not just on a screen)? And if the writer was told they could make as much money electronically as they do in print, would they still want to be a writer? Why?


Tangibility and permanence may be a generational thing. For writers who value the printed book as a symbol of completions, a symbol of success and value – these writers are catching a glimpse into the past. The thought is: I admire printed writers so I should be printed. Perhaps for older writers, this is a dream fulfilled. This is the crowning achievement. Does that mean that a whole new generation of writers, currently attending MFA programs and writing first novels will value printed books the same way? If it is a matter of increased income, and the current publishing model endures, the answer is yes they will value it. However, Millennials may not see the value in filling their apartments up with books, but building a 2.0 audience based on social media and smaller micro-interactions with readers.



As writers, people want to see their books printed and published. Perhaps their dream has always been to see them on the table at a chain bookstore. And perhaps we have created a kind of hierarchy where printed writers are prestigious and e-book authors are struggling to make it to the market. When I walk into a bookstore, I am often overwhelmed and find myself quickly moving to authors or sections I can find something close to my preferences. Like streaming video services, where people can watch anything they want, books, too, are becoming more specific to a generation (with little or no reading time) who needs to read specific and meaningful books without the privilege of browsing the shelves or finding someone they prefer. Perhaps we all still desire to hold on to those stories, really hold them in our hands, to remember why they are important. Perhaps we all should just have a few books that changed our lives and remember that it wasn’t just words and ideas, but they were things that changed us. Perhaps we aren’t that far from the past. We still need to hold on to those books, to ground us in our own tangible texts. 

Book Review – A Field Guide to Murder & Fly Fishing: Stories by Tim Weed

A Field Guide to Murder & Fly Fishing: Stories by Tim Weed. Green Writers Press. 2017. 978-0-9974528-7-7 ($24.95) Hardcover.
Diving into this collection of short stories by writer and travel expert Tim Weed, you might want to pack your bags and roam the continent in search of great harrowing adventures. And in some ways, this collection delivers on that. But embedded in these narratives, is a deeper longing, a desperate, and sometimes frustrating relationship, between his protagonist’s fraught desires, fears, and dreams. The depth of emotions reveal subtle, dynamic, and often stunning revelations.  
In stories like “Tower Eight,” “Mouth of the Tropics,” “Diamondback Mountain,” and “Keepers,” Weed moves the physical world to the forefront where nature, mountains, fish, weather conditions, and the reality of nature itself become antagonistic. These stories echo the Hemingway tradition of fronting raw power and natural uncertainty as a means to test a character’s fate. This can end in a lesson learned or life lost. But his complexity is not limited to this “surviving nature” theme.
Tim Weed’s balance of emotional connection and physical space is always true to the lyrical sense of his prose. At times, the physical locations: Cuba, Grenada, Colorado, the slopes of New Hampshire, Spain, Italy, all play roles in the narratives that balance the emotional depth to the physicality of these locations. Each story hinges on a moment where physical space and emotional connection criss-cross. In “Diamondback Mountain,” a field guide who has fallen for a movie actress finds himself caught up in such emotions it feels like it materializes into a great collapse of his life on the side of the mountain.
“At first he is frantic, but he can’t move more than a twitch, and gradually a feeling of serenity washes over him. When he thinks about it, he’s known for a while that this or something like it was coming. In a way, the pressure of the snow is soothing.”
The balance between falling in love with an actress and the collapse of any kind of his dreams come down on him, catching him in a balance between the physical world and the metaphorical realm that Weed strikes. “Six Feet under the Prairie” connects to the physical and emotional conflict of utility linemen working on the open prairie, fraught with two men at odds with one another, while mourning the loss of the open wilderness for that of suburban development. This harsh and sometimes majestic landscape is constantly fluctuating between a lyrical lesson and a very real and hard-won place in the world.
Beyond the natural battles and the lyrical vision of his prose, Weed is at his best when he is pushing the edge of obsessions. His stories connect when we feel the misguided love, the vision of beauty, and the hope that love will follow from one continent to another. In “A Winter Break in Rome, the narrator (Justin) is obsessed with Kate, another student on winter break in Europe. In the hopes of connecting romantically with her, Justin gets into a fight with local Italian boys and he is beaten for his troubles. In the aftermath, missing a few teeth, there is a deeply moving moment where Justin asks Kate to join him in Greece for the remainder of the trip. Instead of giving him an answer, she says, “Crete should be beautiful this time of year. Also Mykonos. You should definitely go there.” And the dream of being together is dashed in one allusive phrase. His physical beating and now his emotional loss cohabitate across the table. It is desperate, sad, and classically romantic.
A Field Guide to Murder & Fly Fishing is more than a collection of adventure stories. It is a significant and moving collection of ideas, snapshots, and visions that leave a lasting impression. Tim Weed’s masterful approach to the opposing forces of his character (nature and emotions) always reveals well-crafted moving stories. It is clear that his experience as a travel expert, educator, and writer has honed his craft to transcend adventure writing to an emotional experience that is timely and deeply moving. Never predictable, this collection is a must for travelers, adventure seekers, and anyone who cares to examine the depth of his varied and flawed characters. Tim Weed is the author of the historical fiction novel Will Poole’s Island (2014) and is available in e-book and print format.

Between The Lines: Slaughterhouse Five Opening

Truth and fiction is a strange world. Writers are constantly invested in the vision of living many lives – some on paper while others are in real life. The complexity of writing fiction and understanding truth runs parallel to the idea that we can talk about truth and find its mirrored in fiction. In terms of writing, true stories and real accounts have a value to the general readership. We see labels splashed across book covers and movie posters that profess that they are based on a true story. And yet, the layers of fact to fiction can be complex and run deep into the story. 


Does it matter? Does fiction have to hold truth? Does a true story shift into fiction as soon as it is captured and told from different voices?  

It is important to write about these lines and ideas as they relate to both sides of the issue. It isn’t black and white, truth and fiction, but a combination of millions of possibilities and connections that make truth stranger than fiction. This series continues to discuss this concept. Sometimes, these entries will be brief notes and connections, while other articles will a bit more elaborate. 

In Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, we are faced with the kind of strange world that I want to continue to explore – perhaps for the rest of my life. I want to be the truth expert in fiction… whatever that means. 

“All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his. Another guy really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunman after the war. And so on. I’ve changed all the names.” 

In looking at the way this opening reads, it is clear that fact and fiction are coming together. Most of the sentences in this section have disclaimers to the truth. “All this happened” is very declarative until it is disqualified with “more or less.” This builds the uncomfortable relationship that is being established. 

He moves on to the next idea, “The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true.” Alluding to the idea that “pretty much” covers enough. As we move to the next sentence, we should acknowledge the emphasis on the words. “One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his.” This is a moment where you feel like the writer wants to look you in the eyes, look, this happened. Notice there are no names here. The next sentence continues this serious tone, “Another guy really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by a hired gunman after the war.” In these phrases, the narrator wants us to realize that there is truth, even fact in these words, but they can’t be verified. They can’t be questioned. You will have to take his word for it that they happened.

In the last two sentences, we have “And so on” as if we would just carry on with more of his stories. And then he forfeits it all by saying, “I’ve changed all the names.” The obscuring of the names isn’t at all a surprise, the narrator has teased out the balance between truth and fiction here, but to it does remind us – I will tell the truth by obscuring facts and leaving you merely with truth. Of course, this is merely an interpretation, but it does a back and fourth of reality that is being played one aginst the other. 

This work is considered semi-autobiographical which alone strikes at the heart of the matter. Half true, half something else. Part of what we are seeing here might be an answer for the mass destruction, the death, and the insanity of war. It can’t be shown to the reader without cloaking it in imagination, shifting the reality away from the reader, intentionally block the brunt of the evil so that the readers can begin somewhere. This novel was written twenty-five years out from his personal experience. Perhaps it is this distortion that helps define the balance between right and wrong.  – #


Ron Samul is a writer and educator. For more information or to contact him, reach out at http://www.ronsamul.org

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Fixing A Fatal Flaw / The Novel

by Ron Samul 
In this post, I would like to consider what writers should do if they realize that there is a considerable problem with their novel. It happens and sometimes, it can cripple the way you look at the novel or short story. At some point, it all went to crap and you have to either drop it in the wastebasket or deal with the issue. Writing a novel is hard work and it takes time and creativity to make it work. Part of what sets good writers apart from the rest is how they face adversity. Here are some things to consider. 


1) Can you identify the problem? 
This can be a challenge. Sometimes, the problem is complex or compounded by a few things. So, it is important to value your creative process, but it is also important to look for the flaws in your writing. Is it a character? Is it a plot twist? Is the location (setting)? Is it motivation? Conflict?

If you want to go with the gut check – go back to the pages where you were happy or felt like you had something special. Find the place where that feeling stops. And that is where you need to look. 

I remember writing about 90 pages and cutting all the way back to page 30 because I was just frustrated with the direction. I went back and tried it again. 

It also helps me to keep a writing journal – a log of my writing thoughts. It doesn’t have anything but the project. These entries help shape my next moves, my ideas, and connects my own motives for adding and subtracting things. This might be a good way to create low-stakes writing when you are stuck or looking for an issue. 

Sometimes, you just can’t define the problem. It is around this time that writing goes from the creative, inspiring art that you love, to the hard and sometimes oppressive work that you dread. Every novel has those moments of complete hopelessness. This is where lesser writers hang it up. This is where your talent, creativity, and your perseverance needs to master the art of writing. The craft starts when inspiration is gone. 

If you are stuck, then you need to find someone to help you find the problem. 

2) Have a core reading crew that you trust. 
If you can’t find an issue or where the story went south, then create a small group of readers who can look around for you. This is akin to working on a car for awhile and getting stuck. You invite a few buddies over and they look over the engine and sip a few beers. Then they say, you do have gas in the tank right? And that panic

cuts right through you. If you aren’t ready to show your work, then you have to find your own issues. But if you have a few reader that will take the time and give you good first impressions, they might be able to define some issues that will guide you back. 

Pick readers who are versatile. You don’t want readers who are the same. You want a good plot person, and a good character person, maybe a good line editor, and one crazy person who gets your view of the world. They all don’t have to read it, but pick the readers who might help the most. The hardest part: listening to their advice. 

When a reader takes some time to read pages for you — then listen. Don’t defend, don’t get bent out of shape about the feedback. It takes some practice but listen. More importantly, ask good questions. What did you think might happen after chapter one? How did you see the antagonist by the third chapter? Where did you disengage? 

Once you have the feedback, don’t make changes right away. Take the feedback. Sit on it for awhile, let it bake in your head. Reread their comments, think about what they said. Try to be objective and don’t take it personally. (Harder than you think, I know). Then start making shifts and adjustments. In the end, you don’t have to change anything, but if you know you have a problem and you are looking for a solution — change is coming anyway. Why not hear it from the most trusted readers you know. 

3) Read books like your book. 
This may not solve your problem, but it might inspire you to see how other writers deal with some of the issues you are working on. For example, if you are writing murder mysteries, you might seek out books like yours and see where you liked the moves that were made. Maybe you like the protagonist and you want to rebuild your character a bit more. 


I also read those silly MasterPlots books in the library. Basically, they are overviews of novels, plays, and short stories. I read them and listen to the simplicity of some of the great novels and stories. I look for the twist or the elements that are important. Similar to Occum’s Razor – often the simple and refined stories are the stories that make the most impact. By looking at them objectively in a reference book, you can see the refined simplicity and see if you can boil down your own ideas to one or two simple strands. 

You are writing a novel and you are stuck – this is where it gets good. You have skills, the ability, the support, and the internet to resolve your issues. Use the tools out there and keep writing. When you leave something for too long, it is hard to get back into it. Continue to think, write, and create even when you are stuck on something.  Don’t give up. Even if you can’t create new pages, work on research, find readers, or write in a writing journal to document what you are thinking. It is all important and it is all very serious. It should be very important for you to get on track again. Get to work and use the tools and abilities that you have worked so hard to acquire. 

— 2016 Ron Samul 

On Mentoring / Only Connect…

This week, I’ve been thinking about the role of the mentor. I understand my official role as a mentor. But I feel like it has taken me some time to develop what I can do for students who connect. I am not the line editor, although I can pick out places where I think the writing needs work. I am the mentor who connects. Perhaps it is partly from the obsession I have with E. M. Forster’s epigraph at the beginning of Howard’s End that says simple “Only connect….” and he adds three pesky ellipses that just don’t connect. Ugh! That idea is like a hand grenade in my brain. It is such a simple puzzle: elegant, beautiful, and sad. This relates to my mentoring philosophy. I want to find ways to enhance the likelihood of the writer writing. That is my job. 

I don’t want to judge a student’s creative move – I want to prove its worth. I don’t want to change the book, I want to strengthen the reason for writing it. It is in this realm that I’ve done the most prolific searching about the worth of writing, thinking, and creating. I’ve pushed myself to say something relevant and important about writing that I would never have considered without the help of the student’s work, ideas, and connections to the world. And the result is when the ideas flow back with the same intensity. 

Every student that I’ve worked with on writing, thinking, and creating has been a direct and formidable challenge to everything I know about writing and thinking. For that, I am grateful to who I’ve become as a mentor and teacher. But more importantly, I am amazed at how important it has been to value a good mentor as a student and turn that value system into something sustainable as a teacher. Being a mentor isn’t about control – it isn’t about the words on the page – it is about listening, trusting, and waiting. 

In May, when I went through the Rhizo15 MOOC and challenged my own teaching style, I gave some students a chance to find their own paths, their own challenges, and their own results. That is when I saw something I had been waiting for as a teacher for a long time – inspiration. Students went out to the world and took on roles bigger than their experience. They saw themselves as model students who were sent out to work in meaningful and thoughtful directions. And they were given a trust that was tacit between instructor and student. This forging of teaching relationship based on letting go, empowering students, and seeing immediate results gave me new hope for the way I see the world of teaching. I did it again this semester – and empowered the students. And they also impressed me. Not only did they show me how to be independent and expansive in their learning, they also attended every class (which they weren’t required to do) and participated in the classroom environment. Amazing. Give the students more freedom and they over perform. But is that freedom? Or did I merely acknowledge their potential and they stepped into that potential?

I’ve made an analogy in class to content and form as coffee and a cup. The coffee is the content of the paper, but the form and function is contained in the cup that holds the coffee. In terms of a metaphor, it has come in handy in sharing the idea of whether I cam discussing form or content when they are co-mingling in the rhetoric of writing. Yet, when it comes to mentoring and giving students freedom, I can make the same type of metaphorical statement. If we can value the work the student does as the coffee, what I think is more important is what that cup looks like. That is where I can see skills worth having – discipline, motivation, tenacity, perseverance, grit, and all those qualities that change a person through hard work. How you will make it through this project, this paper, this novel —  is the coffee. How you will change over the course of doing it – that is all cup. And it is the thing that I want to change. I don’t want to change the creative choices that student makes. That comes with practice, instinct, and writing style. But I can push a student to think deeply, and not settle. I don’t want to change the creativity, but the way they think about it. 

Sometimes, I think Forster posed the epigraph “Only connect….” as an ironic statement of the modern age. And I use to revel in that sense of tragic loss and disconnection. But sometimes, I wonder if he left the phrase unfinished because we never complete the act of constantly connecting. There is always more work to do. There is always more to discuss. No one enters into art because they aren’t thinking and processing the complexities of the world. And so, it would be ridiculous that mentors and teachers would recycle their pat advice from one student to another, without seeking out deep and meaningful connections to that of the student’s art. Giving meaningful and connective vision to a writer (seasoned or student) is some of the most important work. It might be the first time they have spoken to their art with such depth and focus. It might be the conversation they’ve been waiting for their entire life. 

I was sent an email this semester from one of the students that worked on an independent project for me in the spring. She moved to a bigger university, finding her path in a different realm. She asked me to read over her essays on the ambition of woman in the community based on interviews she did with them. The project was still moving forward, even when courses and life changed, it was still happening. “Only connect….” didn’t have to mean ironic wordplay, but a continued sense of perpetual motion – always connecting – one idea, one student, one vision at a time; never stopping. As a teaching philosophy – that is all I can be as a mentor and a writer. Simply complex. 


Historical Books Have Their Own Personalities

Those who are passionate about books know there is something intrinsic about reading, imagination, and living a kind of second life. In Historical Books and Their Personal Histories, appearing on the Poor Yorick: A Journal of Rediscovered Objects, I discuss how a reference book for a whaling ship is sent around the world and back again. This odd story and the history that these book contain aren’t in the printed matter, but in the covers, the wear, and the notes in the margins. It begs the question when a book shifts from being a book to being an artificial?