What is one small thing you are taking comfort in right now? Maybe it is a song, a person, seedlings, or the days getting longer. What is it that is bringing you a little bit of solace?
Describe this thing bringing you comfort in great detail. What does it look like, feel like? What does it remind you of? Why is it bringing you comfort?
Then draw connections between this thing and the current situation. In what ways are they similar? How could the thing that is bringing you comfort signify your current state? Can you turn the thing that is bringing you solace into an extended metaphor for your experience, or create a story centered around this comforting thing?
This post is part of a series I am doing that includes 30 prompts for 30 days of sheltering at home. You can read more about my reasoning and also find other prompts here. I would love to see what you come up with. Feel free to share here or to tag your work #shelterandwrite.
Find someone who is affected by COVID-19 in a different way than you are. It might be someone who is taking a different approach to protecting themselves, someone who is quarantined, a local teacher, someone who had plans that have now changed.
Get their story. What is interesting or notable about the way they are handling the situation?
Use this interview as the inspiration for today’s writing. Perhaps you want to juxtapose your own experience with the interviewee’s experience. Maybe you want to take key words and phrases from the interview and use them in a poem. You could use one detail from the interview to base a story around, or something that was said as your first line.
This post is part of a series I am doing that includes 30 prompts for 30 days of sheltering at home. You can read more about my reasoning and also find other prompts here. I would love to see what you come up with. Feel free to share here or to tag your work #shelterandwrite.
Create a Written Collage: Think of ten small, concrete things that are different in your life because of COVID-19. You want to choose some things that you can experience with your senses, and that you can describe in exquisite detail.
It could be empty hand-sanitizer bottles, a work project left unfinished, an unused plane ticket, the pile of books you now have time to read, etc.
Describe each one in as much detail as possible. How has this thing changed in recent weeks? What specifically has brought about these changes? How have you noticed this thing in a new or different way?
Arrange your descriptions to create a written “collage” of current life. Look closely at the small differences around you. Together, they tell a story. What’s yours?
This post is part of a series I am doing that includes 30 prompts for 30 days of sheltering at home. You can read more about my reasoning and also find other prompts here.
I don’t know what quarantine has been like for you, but I have spent the last several weeks huddled under the covers, unable to look away from the news, and sanitizing my child like crazy. There has been a great grief, a great helplessness, and the overwhelming feeling that I should be doing something — anything — other than just staying home. I understand that I’m doing my part by hiding under the covers. But it also seems like I should be doing a lot more.
There have been a lot of tears. I might have gotten in a non-verbal argument with my toddler. And the things I say to my plants these days makes me wonder if they think I am crazy. The anxiety is real. And I know it would make me feel so much better to do something for others, to connect with others.
Are you feeling this way, too? Both paralyzed by anxiety and seized with the need to do something useful, something helpful?
But still, I felt that nagging feeling deep in my chest that begged for me to write. Maybe you have been wanting to write, too. Maybe you have been feeling like writing is a luxury right now and something you shouldn’t be spending time on. But I want to push against that idea.
I personally could really only do the work that was absolutely necessary in the past few weeks, and that was teaching. So I started thinking about how I could be useful to the writers taking my course, which also led me to think about how we could be useful as writers.
As my students returned to our little online portal after an extended spring break, I asked them what would be useful for them as writers right now. Overwhelmingly, they wanted to journal about this time and overwhelmingly, they wanted prompts.
I wanted to make prompts that would really be helpful for my students. Prompts that encouraged them be present, to look at the little things, to imagine a better future. But also prompts that allowed them to voice their fears and stare down their anxieties. I wanted to make prompts that they could connect over, draw insight from, and use to document what they saw and experienced. Basically, I wanted to make prompts that were helpful in making my students helpful.
And I thought, maybe it will also be helpful for others, too. So I wanted to share it with you.
Here is the thing: you can help. You can help by writing. Think of all the ways that the writing is useful.
On the most basic level, it is important to have a historical record of this time, and multiple perspectives will be important to get the history right. We need to know what nurses were doing, what patients were doing, what it was like to go to work, and what it was like to stay home. The more information and perspectives that can be gathered will help those in the future see what worked and what didn’t, and how the world changed in response.
Also, taking care of your own mental health is helping. I can’t stress this enough. Look, no one is going to be served by letting anxiety, depression or any other mental health issue take over. Practicing isolation and social distancing are terrible for all kinds of mental health disorders, from anxiety to eating disorders. If writing is making you feel better, you should do it. If it helps you get through the day a little kinder or with a little more ease, it is important, and you are helping others by doing it. It’s also a great way to ease the sense of isolation (see below!).
Think about all the reading you are doing. We are all trying to make sense of what is going on right now. There are numerous conspiracy theories, constant live news updates, and people sure that this will change life as we know it forever. All of these things exist because people are trying to understand a situation so unlike what most of us have experienced. Writing about it is trying to make sense of it. Sure, you might not figure out the answer to the pandemic, but even coming to one little way of thinking about it that is helpful to you might be also helpful to others.
And if you aren’t writing about the pandemic, but are writing something totally unrelated, like ancient alien dinosaur erotica or whatever, you are helping too! People are looking to artists for distraction, for escape, because we can’t exist on high-alert all the time.
This brings me to a last way you can help: share your writing.
Share your thoughts and the ways in which you are dealing with it. There is a need for connection right now, and one of the ways we can connect and still be socially distant is to share our thoughts in writing. So share your writing. Even if it doesn’t have anything to do with COVID-19, it could help someone find a few moments of calm and connection. Maybe you send your mom a letter with one of your journal entries that you think she would like, maybe you share it on Facebook, maybe you share it completely anonymously on a forum. But let other people learn from your thoughts, and allow them to connect back with you. You will both be helped by it.
So this is my small way of sharing with you. You can use this with #NaPoWriMo or #CampNano or on your own, day by day, or when you feel moved. I hope you find this helpful and I hope you also know that you are helpful.
These are some of the prompts that I created for my students. I’ll post a prompt a day and you’ll find a little sneak peak below. I hope that you can use them to be helpful, to yourself and to others. I hope that you can use them to share your fears, your hopes, and your thoughts. And most of all, I hope you can use them to connect.
Thank you for connecting with me by reading this <3
Reposting this book review of one of the scariest books I’ve ever read in honor of the approaching Halloween/Samhain holiday! Get lost in the literary haunted house that isHouse of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski and enjoy a little bit of Reading for Writers to get you spooked and in the mood!
House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski is a stupefying maze of a book. It is a story within a story within a story which defies the conventions of traditional page formatting and linear narrative. The strengths of this book lie in the way that its strangeness and its narratives come together to leave the reader with some very strong overall impressions.
The main text of House of Leaves is a faux-academic examination of a non-existent film entitled The Navidson Record. The film is a documentary(?) that deals with the Navidson family, who moves into a house which begins to expand, shift, and change dimensions as they live in it. The academic exploration of the film is written by Zampanò, a blind man (yes, who is writing about a film) who dies while writing this treatise. The text is then found by Johnny Truant, who takes it on to try to complete it, inserting his own life as footnotes alongside the academic footnotes of Zampanò. Truant goes insane while working on the book, which is then found, edited and published by nameless editors, who also add their own footnotes. This is presumably the status of the text when it reaches the reader.
The theoretical examination of The Navidson Record is a clear riff on academic writing. It is written formal language and is footnoted with hundreds of academic articles to back up the theories that Zampanò espouses. The problem with this is that try as Johnny Truant might, he cannot find evidence that the film being theorized about even exists. Some of the footnotes come from sources that do actually exist (thanks to the comps list, I was familiar with Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air), but most of the sources do not. Danielewski (or Zampanò?) even goes so far as to quote actual people supposedly giving their take on The Navidson Record, including such well-known people as Anne Rice and Susan Sontag. This makes The Navidson Record seem like a notable film and the reader must constantly remind herself that not only are the theories and quotes mostly made up, the film itself does not exist.
This academic writing completely falls apart as the book progresses. The text itself spins out of control, the words of Zampanò’s theories literally turn upside-down, go down staircases, and run across the page. He begins writing nonsensical footnotes that appear in boxes in the middle of the page, run on forever in lists, and bleed through to the other side so that the reader is reading the text both forward and backwards. German and French litter the pages, sometimes untranslated. There is braille, musical notation, and ASCII pictures. Each time the word “house” is mentioned in any language, it appears in blue and slightly askew.
The footnotes also refer the reader to several “Exhibits” and “Appendices” in the back of the book. These contain photographs, lists of things that Zampanò plan to include but which are never found, and collections of poetry. The most notable of these contains a series of letters to Johnny Truant from his mother. She writes these while in a mental institution and they range from traditional-seeming letters to letters with scattered text to letters in secret code. The reader is referred to these letters early on and this helps the reader understand how to read other parts of the book.
The main reason that all this is tolerable is that it fits so well with the story itself. Like the house in The Navidson Record, the book folds in on itself, containing story within story. It is a maze, just like the house is, and the reader must navigate it in the same way that Will Navidson must navigate his house. It is impossible for the reader not to get lost in it. This mirrors the experience of both the people in The Navidson Record and Zampanò and Truant, who, as they are writing about the film, get lost in the darkness that the theoretical explorations suggest. Instead of being alienating gimmicks, the nuances of the book pull the reader in, making her feel like one more layer in the maze of stories that make up the book. The only way this effect could be more effective is if the book left space for the reader to footnote her own experience of researching the film (which I will admit to attempting, even knowing it didn’t exist) and reading the text. For my own part, I was so engrossed in House of Leaves that I felt nearly compelled to add footnotes that recounted what was happening in my world, that the leaves were falling, darkness was multiplying, and my house, like the Navidson house, seemed to be emitting a low growl.
*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers. This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing. May contain affiliate links.
National Novel Writing Month is quickly approaching. They say there are two kinds of NaNo writers, the plotters and the pantsers. Is it possible for Pantsers to prep for NaNoWriMo?
Let me get this off my chest right off the bat: I am the epitome of a pantser. My writing style is that I write a sentence or paragraph that belongs in one scene, and then my mind flits to another scene for just a paragraph, and then I get a flash of character description, and then I can see the setting so I need to get it down and suddenly I have 400 words, and they each belong in a different place in the book. This means that I end up printing everything out, cutting it up, and trying to sort it into some kind of order before having to fill in gaps that I missed or expand on scenes. Sometimes I even have to cut sentences in half in order to sort them. Here is what my writing process looks like:
Ugh. I have always hated those people (I am looking at you, Husband) who just sit down and write the next scene like they have a map of where their book is going. Writing is fun and easy, they say. Writing is my escape. Like a movie in my head. You just sit down and write what comes next.
Get out of my face, you people who can just write what comes next. My muse obviously has such terrible ADD that she can only tell me one image at a time, which leaves me swimming in beautiful words that I have to somehow make sense of.
Ok, rant over.
I am eager to do NaNoWriMo this year. I have done it a few times before and never won, but this year, I have no thesis to write, I am not moving to another country (that I know of), and I am not pregnant, so I figure this year is my year. (Friend me on the Nano site: I am JaclynMaryLuke! Let’s inspire each other!)
Because I am so gung-ho to actually follow through this time, I decided that I needed to do some Nano Prep. But guess what, I am not a plotter. How do you prep for NaNoWriMo other than plotting out your story, or developing your characters? To me, the things that most people do to prep for NaNoWriMo are things that I discover and uncover in my process of writing, so it feels like cheating to start those before the big November 1st kick off.
I have, however, tried a few things so far this month that have definitely helped get me in the mood, and so I wanted to share them in hopes that some other pantsers out there could use them too!
I don’t mean this to be an infomerical for NaNoWriMo, but it can be really helpful to sign up ahead of time, meet some other writers, and kick off the month with a bang. Community support is what NaNoWriMo is all about. You could choose to write a novel any month, perhaps an easier month than one which has only 30 days and several holidays. But doing it in November gives you the support of thousands of writers who are doing it along with you.
When I lived in Fairbanks, they had a midnight write-in on October 31st, so you could really get going from the moment the clock struck November. They also did word wars on Facebook that I found useful, and of course write-ins at coffee shops. This year, I’m in Anchorage, so I’m excited to see how it works differently in different places. The point is that you don’t want to spend your November writing time poking around the website, lurking on the forums, and stalking other NaNos. Do that now and get it out of your system!
This is one I found on the NaNoWriMo Blog. Basically, the idea is to collect images that you can use to inspire your story. You can create a physical board out of newspaper and magazine clippings, or you can create a Pinterest board. Here’s mine, as an example. What I love about this prep is that it feels like I am steeling myself against future writer’s block. After just a little bit of time, I have inspiration for days. Author J.M. Ralley has a great post on using Pinterest for both inspiration and connection with readers. Suddenly, on my Pinterest feed, there are pictures that are reminiscent of my story, which both inspires me and also tells me that I should be writing and not on Pinterest. One word of warning, though. Pinterest is excellent procrastination, so be careful with how you use your time.
If you are going to make room in your life for writing, you need to make physical room in your life for writing. This can be as big as creating a whole office for yourself, or as small as transforming your dining room table. In the summers, the hubs, the toddler, the dog and I live in a one-room, off-the-grid cabin that is 12 feet by 16 feet. You can image that there is not room for anyone to have their own writing studio in this situation. But for me, the space is important and so when it’s time to write, our little table transforms into this:
I have my special writing fabric, my special writing candles, my special writing mug (Thanks, Maeve!), and my special writing plant. They all come out and transform the little table where we eat into my own space. The point is to have a physical space that gets you in the headspace — and to make sure you have it set up before November 1st so that when NaNoWriMo comes around, you can just sit down and immerse yourself in your writing. Bonus points for also displaying your mood board from above!
In a similar vein, I need to get in the mood for writing. I find it extremely helpful to have a writing ritual that helps get my head in the game. Personally, I make myself some coffee, set up my space, and water my writing plant, reminding myself that I am helping my creativity and my story grow. Maybe you put on some music to write to, make yourself some tea, watch a NaNoWriMo Pep Talk, read some poetry, meditate, pray, do yoga, or draw a tarot card to inspire your day. Whatever your ritual/routine is, you want to make sure that it’s short and sweet and that it actually supports your writing. I personally start to get sucked in if I meditate or watch a pep talk, so these are not for me. It can take time to find a routine that works for you, so now is the time to do it. Don’t wait to figure out what works, or you might spend half of November testing out routines.
5. Create a cover.
This can be as easy or as involved as you want. I’m not talking about creating the final, be all, end all cover with the blurb and everything. Put your name on it. Pick a working title. Heck, even tag it with some Pulitzer Prize or “Best-selling” stickers. The idea is just to have some visual representation of the book you are writing in its complete form. I used Pixabay to find appropriate photos (which can also go on your mood board!). Canva actually has book cover templates that are super easy to use and free! You can print it out and put it in your writing space, or leave it on your computer desktop. Just make sure that you see it often and let the inspiration of seeing your book (YOUR BOOK!) get you through those difficult days in November when the sun is slipping and writing feels too hard. You got this!
6. Plotting for Pantsers
This one comes straight from the NaNoWriMo Prep Workbook. They call it the Jot, Bin, Pants method. This is the first time I’ve tried this and it’s working well for me. The idea is basically that you find a little time each day leading up to NaNoWriMo to sit and conjure up the scenes in your book. You can do this by meditating, just thinking over a cup of tea, scribbling what comes to mind before you go to bed, working on your mood board: whatever gives you ideas for scenes and images. You DO NOT WRITE THE SCENE (this is the most difficult part for me, because I see details that I want to hold on to, so they have become sub-notes). Instead, you just write a one-sentence summary. And then, conjure more, and write another one-sentence summary of the next scene you see. Once you have 50-100 scene ideas, you can begin sorting them. Which scenes need to come first? Which scenes don’t belong? Which scenes really strike your fancy? This is a way to get some semblance of order and some ideas on the page before November starts, but still allows you to go by the seat of your pants!
What are you doing to prepare for NaNoWriMo? Do you have any advice on how to prep for fellow pantsers? Ideas are greatly appreciated!
Have you been neglecting your blog but want to get back in to it? How do you come back gracefully after years away? Here are a few tips to try!
Give it a facelift. Maybe you are excited about restarting your blog, but scared of that first post. What do you say after two years of radio silence? Maybe you spent hours updating the look of your blog months ago and you are just now ready to start writing again. But in those months since you redesigned your blog, it’s been swirling in your head, so that finally, you are able to write again.
Give some reasons. Or you could also call them excuses, I suppose. Maybe it’s been a really crazy two years. Maybe in those two years, you got married, moved to the Bahamas, got pregnant, moved to Florida, started a business, had a baby, had major surgery, spent six weeks in the NICU with your new baby, moved into a new house on the day you brought her home, drove across the continent with your new little family, and then moved back to an off-the-grid cabin in Alaska and started a blog about it. I mean, for example. Surely your readers can forgive you for not writing in the midst of all that chaos.
Give an apology. But are you really sorry? Maybe your readers were disappointed when your posts started trailing off, but that was years ago, really. They probably haven’t thought about it since. Maybe no one even noticed. But you noticed that your blog was going downhill. Maybe this form of comeback would be better phrased as I’ve missed you. Our connection has been important for me, and I hope it’s been just a little bit important to you. Can we reconnect?
Just jump right in. Or maybe you just want to get started. Maybe no one will even notice you’ve been gone. Maybe you can just pick up where you left off and act like there was no absence at all. Maybe if you start with a particularly useful blog post, something about writing and blogging and connecting with people. Something like, Four Easy Ways to Revive Your Blog. Because actually, something like that you could write very authoritatively about. You’ve been thinking about that very subject for the past two years.
A former Tamil Tiger in an Australian detention center. A transgender grandmother in New Orleans. An Australian woman trapped in an abusive relationship in Uganda. With this wide, global view, Maxine Beneba Clarke’s collection of short stories, Foreign Soil: And Other Stories, examines issues of identity and displacement across an expansive swath of space and time. Clarke uses a poetic attention to vernacular to bring her readers past the narrative, offering an immersive experience with each story.
From the epigraph of the book (“Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English, for we intend to do unheard of things with it.” –Chinua Achebe), Clarke sets high expectations for her readers and she delivers. Throughout these stories, Clarke uses nonstandard English to tell nonstandard stories. The first story of the collection, “David,” follows a chance meeting of two Sudanese women in Australia, one who is Australian-born and one who was born in Sudan. Each woman’s voice mirrors the life she has known. These two voices side by side highlight the ways in which language shapes one’s view of the world but also the connections that can happen despite linguistic differences. From the outset, Clarke is playing with language. It’s no surprise that she is also a poet. Her attention to the smallest details of accent and sound are evident throughout the collection.
Clarke’s use of nonstandard English goes beyond dialog. For example, in “Gaps in the Hickory,” the narration is in third person but affects a dialect of the Southern United States that would be comfortable for the characters. “Ain’t no buckin up gon cover up how much Carter miss his gram,” (131) Clarke writes. Though the dialect is not always authentic (most Americans would use the term “bangs” for “fringe”), it nevertheless adds to the ambiance of the story and sets it more firmly in place. The use of dialect also requires the reader to set himself into the language and world of the characters, instead of trying to put the characters in a vernacular that is not their own.
Her most poignant use of language happens in the story “Big Islan.” In this narrative, which is written in a Jamaican dialect, we follow Nathaniel Robinson as he learns to read English. The language gives him a sense of place as he can find his home of Jamaica on the globe, but the language is inaccurate for his experience of the world. Nathaniel learns “E is for Inglan” (182) and “A is for Owstrayleah” (188). The letters don’t match his own speech. His newfound ability to read is a mixed blessing, giving him both H, which “always gwan stand fe home” (185) and “E fe envy” (189). In the end, his ability to read the newspaper makes “de city im grow te love so-so dear, Kingston, feel insignificant small” (191).
Clarke’s use of dialects makes her reader feel acutely the theme around which the stories in this collection rotate: displacement. Clarke does not stick to any one vernacular or voice. Instead, the stories cycle through some of the myriad Englishes that have evolved around the globe. Because of this, the reader can never settle in to one style of writing, but is constantly recalibrating her reading in order to adjust to the narrators.
The variety of characters, voices, and places in Foreign Soil underscores the variety of forms of displacement. One of the most compelling aspects of Foreign Soil is its “globality” (181), to use a term coined by the character Nathaniel in “Big Islan.” Clarke does not focus on one people or one part of the world. Nor does her exploration of displacement end with being in a new country. The collection explores racism, gender identity, immigration issues, and religious intolerance, to name just a few themes. Far from feeling scattered, the range of stories brings home Clarke’s point: that displacement in a global world can happen to anyone, anywhere.
The newest story in the collection, added for the 2017 edition, is “Aviation,” the tale of a Sikh child, Sunni, in need of emergency foster care. Sunni ends up on the doorstep of Mirabel, whose husband was killed in the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center. In her attempt to provide a home for a child in need, Mirabel comes face to face with her own prejudices. In the end, the reader does not find out whether or not she fosters Sunni. This story, like many in the collection, is a story of people who find themselves in impossible positions. The narratives resolve and feel complete, but they also often leave their main characters and their readers to sit in the discomfort. Nathaniel, of “Big Islan” is left restless in Jamaica. The eponymous main character of “Harlem Jones” is left holding a Molotov cocktail. Sunni is left waiting to be fostered. These stories are not about how displacement dissolves or is overcome, but about the displacement itself, about being in the thick of it.
Her final story, “The Sukiyaki Book Club,” feels strikingly autobiographical. The struggle of a young single mother trying to make it as a writer, told in first person, is juxtaposed with a story she is writing about Avery, a girl who is stuck upside down in an impossible position on the monkey bars. Once again, Avery and the writer are characters displaced. These narratives side by side highlight the constant question throughout the book: can Clarke’s characters find a way down, a place to land?
*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers. This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing.
Do you have stories that have been hibernating over winter in the caves of your computer files? Poems that have sleepily spent the dark months hiding from the cold snuggled between the pages of your notebook? Blog posts or essays that are destined to fly in the summer breeze and see a new audience?
Here in Alaska, the new, green life is taking shape. The air feels fertile and full of possibilities. Birds are sending their songs out into the world and all this makes me feel like I should follow suit. With the start of summer, there’s the reminder of the possibilities that exist and the importance of our art seeing the light of day, stretching in the sunshine and basking in the warmth of the outdoors.
Two years ago at this time, I began a Submission Bonanza. It was an attempt to start getting my work out in the world, which I had been terrible about doing. It had been a long time since I had submitted anything anywhere, thinking of myself as not-a-real-writer, as someone who just wrote to make myself happy. At some point, I realized that writing, for me, is actually about connection and the real reason I was not submitting my work anywhere wasn’t because it was “just for me” but because I was afraid of the rejection. I mean, this poem is my soul; how could I stomach someone saying it wasn’t good enough?
Two years and hundreds of rejections later, I am stronger. I know now how to take the rejection letters. Being an editor of a magazine myself, I see how subjective the process can be and I know that it’s not a reflection of the worth of my soul.
I also have quite a few publications under my belt, because as subjective and harrowing as the process can be, there will also be moments when your work falls into the lap of someone who gets you, someone who connects with what you are trying to say. And they’ll want to share that with other people. Which, honestly, is kind of magical.
I have to say, I’ve fallen off the wagon a bit, been remiss in keeping my work flying out into the world and, thankfully, nature has reminded me that it’s time again.
So, I’ll be doing another Submission Bonanza this year, 30 submissions in 30 days. For the whole month of June, I’ll be keeping a running list of literary journals that I submit to, and I’ll highlight some of the best ones so that you can submit to them, too.