The Secret Life of a Writing Journal

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

The Journal

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

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

The Secret Chamber of Creativity

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

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

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

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

 


Other Articles About Writing Journals 

What is a Writing Journal?

Journal of Disasters

Journal of Disasters – Problem Solvers

 

Eco-Fiction and the Emerging Writer


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

Significant Details: Proof

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Journal of Disasters – Problem Solvers (Journal Series II)

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

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

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

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


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

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.

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.

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

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.

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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Middle of the Night

The lines are breaking down and that means I’m going crazy or I’m humming with energy. Edges are like the sea to the shore. Rachel Carson said this boundary of sea and shore was where change was abundant and significant, where elements of land meet with the volatility of the sea.

But I’m up late not because of the sea, but because in the last few days – all the edges are interchangeable –  things falling away. Every page I read brings a significant idea or revelation, real moments stand apart like dreams – and like tonight, dreams so real that I woke up disappointed and broken… so I write. I’m hopelessly in love and have moments of overwhelming heartbreak, happiness, choking on an expression, laughing hard because I need it.

I slip between books like I’m searching for my words in between the covers of others – moving between philosophy, into nonfiction, to articles, to ideas. I can’t settle my reading. Today, I stole Sula by Toni Morrison from the library and I feel like I’ve slipped across another edge, swept away to something more. Why did I wait so long to read this? There is a clarity to life when it is free from boundaries – because you have to feel and drawn in your intuition as to where you might be and why.   

Music speaks clearly – dreams make sense, and I am so tired that I fall asleep in my own dreams – only to wake up in another dream so simple and intimate that when I am drawn from it, I wish life would disappear so I can go back. Who cares where it is and what it’s called.

Maybe this is the realm Coleridge described when he woke up from a troubled dream to write down  a stunning poem, only to have it dissolve in his mind as he was writing it down on his bed side.

Is this all just creativity held back – waiting to explode? Is this a break from reality? Or a refinement of my life? This life of being a chimera of creative thinking does feel crazy and thrilling, like I could sleep walk or speak fluent Russian off the cuff. But it also feels like power, like I’ve been waiting to feel like this and now it has arrived. I’ve been thinking about my last post and the idea of a young writer – writing because I had stories to tell – stories that weren’t being told. A step further is that this is not some creative spurt or moment – this is a refined skill, a refined moment where creativity is fostered through blurred edges and connections. And here I am a skilled and seasoned writer ready to accept all the wildlife that I’ve been looking for.

I sit here in the early morning and listen to the distant fog horn. I’m not amazed by all this and I don’t feel like this is a fleeting burst noticed because of a silly dream. This is a life that I’ve created – the life I deserve, and have worked desperately for. I’m owning it and I don’t want to go back. I want my dreams to surprise me and even scare me all the time – I want the world to be as shifty and crazy as my stories. This isn’t a call for recklessness – it is a moment of refinement, understanding that this is not only a good life, but imagine the great things not yet born by the words that are waiting at the end of my pencil. Imagine.

May 2014 / Ron Samul

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 

#Rhizo15

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been connecting and interacting with Rhizo15 created by Dave Cormier and an ever expanding group of thinkers, educators, and creative people. The idea behind the collaborative connective course is to discuss the topic proposed every week. How and what that conversation looks like is something that is defined by the people involved.

On Dave Cormier’s blog, he explains that “Rhizomatic learning is a way of thinking about learning based on ideas described by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in a thousand plateaus. A rhizome, sometimes called a creeping rootstalk, is a stem of a plant that sends out shoots as it spreads. It is an image used by D&G to describe the way that ideas are multiple, interconnected and self-replicating. A rhizome has no beginning or end… like the learning process.”

During this course, there have been some fascinating conversations, connections, and interdisciplinary ideas that have really changed the way I look at learning. Two projects that inspired me to action was the idea of subjective learning. I took two students in my writing course who were doing really well. I asked them to take the last two weeks of the course and explore and create a subjective learning experience. I wanted them to advance some idea or work they started in the course and bring it back to me. I wanted them to have the freedom to explore, work, and change their vision of learning and hard work. The results of that experience are coming in a blog post that will end up HERE. The other creative idea was to write a story about a student that is involved in a rhizome course. It is a strange story about a girl who begins a class that never starts and ends up realizing that she isn’t the student, but the teacher, the student, and the curriculum. Check it out in its rough draft form here.

The most impressive and exciting part of this experience was the complete and utter uncertainty I felt entering this very open and creative group. It wasn’t that I was fearful, I simply didn’t understand how it worked. I didn’t understand how to get in, how to participate, and how to give people feedback. It seems that social media (Facebook and Twitter) were the nexus, and people established blogs to expand their ideas and post different kinds of media (photos, video, articles, and even radio). There is so many good reasons to jump into the world of unconventional learning. It is in this type of experimental thinking and change that we can develop some of our most significant and unseen drivers to push our learning, thinking, and connections to one another. Check out my blog and read some of my thoughts on this world of unlearning and subjective ideas in and out of the classroom.

Faith & Art – from Litergical Credo

To have faith is to believe something that has no tangible proof. Why would we believe in something we couldn’t prove? Is it a leap of faith? Is it a deferment of what we know to be fact in the hope that a spiritual influence will intervene? If faith comes from within the literature of religion – the Koran, the Bible, the Torah — is there a particular mechanism that can define a document of faith? Great novels are similar to the great religious documents in the stories and connections they make with the human condition.  If I can believe that Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden or visualize the enormity of the Tower of Babel, I can imagine Kafka’s bug and Ahab’s white whale. Does the concept of “willing suspension of disbelief” play as great a part in faith as it does in reading and analyzing literature? – Read More.