Category Archives: Advice

What is Literary Fiction and Should it be a Requirement in Writing Workshops?

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What is Literary Fiction and Should it be a Requirement in Writing Workshops?

Epic_of_GilgameshThe first form of fiction was, arguably, fantasy, what with mythology going back to 4000BCE and the first written fiction, The Epic of Gilgamesh written circa 1200 BCE.  Some of the first English fiction  were also fantasy, such as Le Morte d’Arthur written c. 1470. Yet fantasy not still not considered “literary” merely because it’s fantasy.

Somewhere in the mid 1800’s, realism took over the halls of academe, and anything which took part in the fantastical was deemed “less than.”  This might have been the logical extension of the “age of reason” or the “enlightenment” where science began to supplant religion.  Fantasy was kicked to the corner and designated as children’s literature or inferior “genre-fiction” (as if realism itself wasn’t a genre – but the true natural state of literary fiction). Despite this, fantasy and science fiction’s popularity persisted.

Eventually, in the 1960s, the academy begrudgingly allowed some science fiction to be taught, but almost exclusively from male writers, and fantasy was still disdained. While many science fiction and some sci-fi fantasy anthologies are published by textbook publishers, no fantasy anthologies are.

A few years ago, I was attending a session on teaching creative writing at AWP (the Associated Writers and Writing Program conference – one of the largest of its kind in the US). Teachers were saying they routinely forbid their students from writing “genre fiction.”  They bewailed the fact that student writers of science fiction and fantasy wanted to spend a lot of time on “world building,” as if this was somehow an inferior pursuit to character building, which is one of the core criteria of literary fiction.

My contention that what makes fiction good or bad literature has nothing to do with genre (including regionalism, romance, westerns, as well as science fiction and fantasy).  It has nothing to do with whether or not life is portrayed as “real” or “fantastical.”  After all,  the tension between what is real and what is unreal is inherent in “real life.”  Some good fantastical literature can be recognized by how well it employs that inherent tension, such as the work of Karen Russell an Aimee Bender.  I allow my students to write whatever they want to write, and I encourage experimentation, but inevitably, the question arises, what is good literature and how do we steer our students toward it?

I contend that we call things literary if they meet three or more of the following criteria:

1) They generally put character before plot

2) they have more ideas per page

2) they push deeper into the incomprehensible aspects of life

3) they don’t offer easy answers or neat endings

4) they make us think and wonder

5) they use language originally and precisely,

6) When they make use of characters (as not story forms do- such as allegory) — the characters are real and complex.

7) Their structure is inherently congruent with the content

The more a writer resorts to clichés and truisms, the less their fiction reflects the complexity, beauty and surprising contradictions of life. This doesn’t mean that all literary fiction need be dense. There’s beauty in a great plot.

But this is not something you should ever think about when writing a rough draft.  Save these thoughts for the end of the writing process.

I do not condemn that which some consider mainstream or genre fiction. Having written a few novels, I applaud anyone who makes it to the end with something resembling coherence. It’s hard work.  Also, a lot of people don’t like what we, in academe, call “good literature.” It’s often dense, plodding, demanding, esoteric, and downright boring.

All kinds of writing is needed in the world, and each have their place. Some of my students are absolutely besotted by their fantasy, romance, and horror fiction, writing many novels.  I would never want to squash that enthusiasm.

gilgamesh

Here are some links to what others have said about this:

What Is Literary Fiction & What Sets It Apart?

Why Isn’t Literary Fiction Getting More Attention?

Radio Interviews

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I think I forgot to announce this on my website.

Here is the most recent, only eight months ago:  Writers Forum on Vox Pop, “Writers on Writing. Me and Barbara Chepaitis.

And here we are with“Family Stories,” on the Vox Pop’s Writer’s Forum. Not sure of the date. 2016?

WAMC.org

How to overcome reading resistance

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IMG_2880I never afford myself enough time to read. Yet it’s integral to good writing.  Guilty confession? Netflix is my nightly addiction.

However, when you truly give into an addiction for a good 25 years, it finally gets boring. I noticed this when I began to eat while watching… clearly the watching experience just wasn’t filling me up, so I was seeking other ways to connect.

So, why do I persistently resist reading when my bed is surrounded by stacks of books that I genuinely want to read?  I often buy a book thinking I’m buying the time and dedication to read it also. During the school year, I need most of my time to read for school, but I have no excuse for not reading in the summer. Actually, I have a long list of excuses.

First of all, reading is harder work than watching. The eye muscles have to do a complex activity of focusing, tracking, converging and using peripheral vision. The brain has to do a complex decoding process, then you have to create the images yourself, all the while managing your inner dialogue in response to the reading.

For some people, this process has become so rote that they don’t even notice they are doing it, like the way you can touch-type without knowing where the letters are on the keyboard, or shift gears in a car without thinking, or feed the cat and forget you did it.

For others, there is a cognitive or eye muscle coordination glitch somewhere along the complex process that creates a hardship of varying sizes. I suspect I have a slight eye muscle glitch, so that I have to apply myself and reapply myself whereas my avid reader friends do not. For others, it can be an information processing issue or a slight or severe dyslexia.  It’s important to note that dyslexia is a developmental issue that can be corrected over time.

Then there’s the problem of focus. If all goes well, you get into a dialogue with the thing you are reading, but that can take you a million miles away. Fifteen minutes later, you find yourself in the middle of a paragraph you thought you were reading but totally failed to absorb. You have to backtrack to figure out where your mind trailed off.

Then there’s emotional reactions. Sometimes, you decide you don’t like the author or the main character, and that makes you angry at the book, unwilling to slog through and glean what you can or figure out what it’s really saying.

Then there’s the problem of a physical reading position. Reading in bed sends me to sleep, and I’m always amazed at people who sit in straight chairs and read with head bowed. Add to that, I’m a naturally fidgety person, and sitting still too long literally hurts my bones.

I think the biggest problem, however, is that I unconsciously regard reading as wasting time. I don’t know where I developed that idea, coming from a family of two English professors who read constantly. I worry about reading taking over my writing time. But we all know that reading is essential for life – for being a responsible citizen of the United States, and for writers especially, to learn how others have done it, to enrich our creativity pool, and to avoid cliché.

So yesterday, taking a page from my mother’s book (I’ve taken a lot of her pages from her book), I set up one of those zero gravity chairs in the backyard. Feet raised, back raised, head supported, I pulled out One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia MarquezI enjoyed every minute of it. When I needed to take a break and rest my eyes or brain, I’d stretch my neck and look up at the teardrop birch leaves or cast my eyes over daisies and purple cone flowers.

I have been re-reading One Hundred Years over the past month. I have a copy on Audible that I listen to while driving or walking the dog, and then at night, when I pull out the physical book, I have to reread passages to find my place, discovering I’d missed things while I was listening. The next day, I’d re-listen to passages to find my place in the recording, and in doing so, I pick up all the things I missed while reading it on the page. It’s a great way to read the book twice as you go, which helps with keeping things straight, perceiving patterns, and remembering.

The sun faded from the sky as I read last night, and my cats came to sit quietly around me, one underneath my chair, and the other nosing the flowers and contemplating a blade of grass. My dog appeared beside me, and I calmed her whenever she began to bark. A slight breeze stirred the humid air, the last Aureliano made crazy silent love to a woman he later found was his aunt while the world of Macondo whirled into oblivion.

Even after the sun went down and I came inside, I had the satisfying feeling that I had done something deeply beautiful for the last few hours.

Those darned submission guidelines

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Lit Mag 2Most literary magazines submission guidelines tell you to read their magazine to see what kind of work they publish.

This can be daunting when you are struggling to find enough time to write, let alone publish.

Furthermore, when you follow their directions and do the reading, it’s hard to decide which magazines to read (there are so many!), and it’s hard to extract their aesthetic. Finally, magazines often have guest editors and their slush pile readers often rotate, so it is certainly not an exact science.

Nevertheless reading broadly is a good idea not just for other writers, but for you.  It speaks to the fundamental reason you (we) write. While many of us started to write out of need to hear ourselves, to witness, or to express ourselves, in the end, that can’t be the only impetus or result.  It’s like going to a party and monologuing. As satisfying as that might be short term, we are social animals who need to be part of a larger community conversation.

Ultimately, we write as a way of interacting with the world, and reading is an important give and take in that interaction.

So, where to start?  I recommend that you go to Poets and Writers’ website, http://www.pw.org, scroll down to “Tools for Writers” and click on Literary Magazines. This is not an exhaustive list,and not all the magazines listed will survive or be well known, but it’s an easy way to browse.  You can also Google “Top literary magazines” and get a good list of the most famous ones– the ones that if you get published there will help others taken you more seriously by publishers.

Also, explore some of the many, amazing independent presses. Check out “25 Independent Presses That Prove this is the Golden Age of Indie Publishing.”

Remember, as the editor of Bellevue Literary Press said (publisher of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Tinkers by Paul Harding, if you’re not buying, no one is (especially if Trump has his way and defunds the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities).

With this in mind, I’m starting new Quick Take series. I’ll spot-read issues of various literary magazines and presses that come across my radar, and I’ll write short reviews of pieces which exemplify that magazine’s or press’s aesthetic.

See you around, soon.

 

Hook Them With Your Opening Line, but. . .What I Learned at the GrubStreet Shop Talk Happy Hour

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opening linesI was late to the GrubStreet Shop Talk Happy Hour, for which I had paid $75 to talk with an agent and editor. Dan Loedel, a lanky young man with a goatee and black-rimmed glasses, who works for Scribner, scooted over to the black window bench to make room for me. I introduced myself and tried my “pitch” on him: “After her mother spontaneously combusted on the Altiplano between Bolivia and Chile, Fallon struggles to make to grasp her identity and reality. Fifteen years later, her brother, who is bi-polar,” I could hear him sigh at this point, but I pressed on.

He sat back and wrinkled his nose. “Your pitch is too plotty. As an editor of literary fiction, I’m less interested in plot and more interested in language and style. What are your “comparables?” That’s shoptalk for authors you might compare yourself to.

I suggested magical realists like Aimee Bender and Karen Russell. That was strike two.

“People in the publishing industry don’t call Karen Russell’s or Aimee Bender’s writing magical realism.”

“What would you call it?” I asked.

He thought for a moment. “I’d call it literary fiction that pushes the boundaries of reality.”

Okay, I admit it. I was discouraged. I was hoping people would say, “Wow, fascinating, send it to me” or “Sounds original, ground breaking, Pulitzer Prize winning.” After all, little grandiosity goes a long way towards getting a person to stick to a project for many years.

Part way through the happy hour we were supposed to mingle. Dan introduced me to an editor from William Morrow, and she agreed. She said, “spontaneous combustion” raised so many questions about whether I was I or joking, talking about reality or metaphor, that she couldn’t listen to the rest of the pitch. She thought I should simply say, “After the mysterious death of her mother . . .”

My friends all groaned when I told them this later.  They love that opening line.

But later, at the GrubStreet Manuscript Mart, where agents and editors read the first 20 pages of you manuscript and comment, Laura Biagi from the Jean V. Naggar Agency agreed that I should start with something less confusing, or go into more detail about the combustion,  or start in real time in the present with the main character and give us enough about her that we start to really care about her.  Here’s the former first paragraph:

          After her mother spontaneously combusted on the altiplano between Chile and Bolivia, Fallon turned her head, saw herself reflected, beautiful and male, in the face of her older brother Ovid and fell in love. Fifteen years later, navigating her way across the crowded floor of the North Star Pub to serve drinks to tourists and Wall Street brokers, she was still struggling to disentangle herself from both events.

         Ovid had called her again yesterday.

I told her I was making a bow to the opening line of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”  She pointed out that the his novel then goes into that scene of the discovery of ice, whereas my first paragraph starts in the past, brings us too briefly to the pub and then goes the previous day.  Too much too fast.

I’ve been hanging out with poets too much, damn it, who like compressed language, and I’ve been writing a lot of short stories where things have to happen fast. But in a novel, apparently, we need to start a little slower.

Peter Blackstone from Grove also agreed that my first paragraph was front loading the novel too much.

So, I learned a valuable lesson. Start your novel with a hook but don’t give people whiplash.

Course, a friend of mine who works for GrubStreet would say, “You’ve also learned that the big publishers aren’t adventurous.” They say they want something different, but not that different. After all, it has to be something that 100,000 people would like. He had personally given up on them, claiming that the best work is coming out of small presses. I can attest to the small press and magazine exuberance and inventiveness at the AWP (Associated Writers and Writing Programs) bookfair.

But if you want to quit your day job so that you can write more, you have to please the big publishers.

I’ve vowed to give it a shot. Then I’m going to the small presses.

 

 

 

Metaphor Writing Prompt 2

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Jonquils_and_English_Leaves (1)Here’s a prompt I got from Discovering the Writer Within: 40 Days to More Imaginative Writing by Bruce Ballenger and Barry Lane.  It won’t generate a poem or a whole piece like my synesthesia exercise, but it will produce a clever line or two for an essay. I don’t make a big distinction between similes and metaphors in this exercise, though I think they have different emotional impacts. (Metaphors, without the inter-mediation of the word “like” are more immediate, atmospheric and magical, hence better for stories of that nature. Similes are better for essays, but work fine in stories, too.)

Step 1: Put a line down the center of your page and fold in half.Then write down a random list of abstract concepts.  Then flip the page over and write down an equally random list of concrete things that you can see, taste, touch, hear or feel (try not write things that relate easily to the first list). Like so:

Abstract/General Concrete/Physical
Love

War

Peace

Prejudice

People

Nature

Cayenne Pepper

Marshmallow

Dirty sneaker

Swamp

Rust

Bitter cucumber tip

Step 2: Next, fill in the blanks of this sentence below  using one word from the abstract side and one word from the concrete side.

____(abstract noun)_________ is (like)____(concrete noun)__________.

When you do this, don’t pick things that match — pick something that seems oddly mismatched or is truly random.  This is important, because metaphors have more power when they take big leaps. If the leap is too small, there’s no snap. If the leap is too big, it’s called a conceit (which is a no-no for some — but I’m not a big nay-sayer).

Step 3: Now write a sentence that helps to explain.

For example:

  • Love is like cayenne pepper.  A little bit goes a long way.

Here’s one a student wrote years ago:

  • Love is like going to the moon.  It takes a long time to get there, but when you do, the earth looks very different.

Give it a try and have fun. Please feel free to reply with surprising outcomes.

 

Spontaneous Combustion, Music, and other forms of Play

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Karen Russell

After her mother spontaneously combusted on the altiplano between Chile and Bolivia, Fallon turned her head, saw herself reflected, beautiful and male, in the face of her older brother Ovid and fell in love.

This is the opening line of my novel-in-progress The Ciphery, where the main character tries to figure out how a person can ever trust herself in a world where reality is a matter of perception and the improbable has already occurred. I hear the opening line to the tune of Pink Martini’s “Le Premier Bonheur Du Jour”.

In a former post, I said I would periodically post links to music from the playlist Ciphery theme music. Though I understand that many write while listening to music, I can’t actually do it for long, because hearing is my dominant mode of information processing, and my attention goes to anything audible first. However, music is a quick way to get back in touch with where one has left off, while it pleasantly promotes theme and tone continuity.

As I write this post, I’m at the Associated Writers and Writing Program Conference 2015 in Minneapolis, MN. Just listened to Karen Russell’s keynote address, “The Paradoxical Usefulness of Non-Utilitarian Motion AKA Play.” It was far too brilliant for me to absorb every word (especially after getting up at 3:30 to catch a plane to Minneapolis and listening to sessions all day), but the gist of it was that play – which by definition has no purpose and is done for its own sake– has a transcendent, revolutionary, and healing purpose. And that’s what we writers do.

She gave an example of how stroke victims heal more by trying to simulate the motions of a virtual dolphin than by repetitive goal-oriented movement. The seemingly random motions of a flailing baby wire our brains for language, and the air-bubble rings that dolphins make, for no other purpose than to have fun, distinguish them as having superior intelligence. She said play is the seedbed of all language and that it can’t be reduced to its effects, hence the paradox. We play to play, which makes us better writers. And, I might add, as soon as we play to get better at writing, we cease to play.

She said much more, but that’s all I’ve got for now. I’ll post a link to the written version, if she posts it.

I also attended a GREAT panel called, “Nerd Novels: Exploring Worlds of Knowledge in Fiction,” led by Peter Mountford, Jean Hegland, Michael Byers and Susan Gaines and another great session on the uncanny with Kelly Link, Steve Stern and Karen Russel, where I became aware of the magical realist oriented Small Beer Press, and I attended a session on why fairy tales continue to haunt us. More on all that in a future posts.

AWP was fab as always. The bookfair reminds you that the creativity thrives under the radar of “the market.”

XO to everyone!

Surfing Life, Page, Mind

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WaveFingers

I woke up the other morning realizing that if I had entered myself in the race to become a great, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, I am certainly losing. Next thought (thanks to years of therapy and generic Cymbalta) was that I have never finished reading a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (except 100 Years of Solitude). I appreciate their brilliance, the way they are stories about an entire culture as much as a single person, but they are always so slow and boggy. That’s not the kind of novel I want to write. I want my novel to move fast on the surface but provide undercurrents that people can ride should they choose to.

Besides, I’m not in the race. I’m just trying to live a full, rich, loving life. I’m a teacher who writes and a writer who teaches. The two enhance each other, and I don’t believe that old adage, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” Rather, those who can truly teach are a rare breed and do a great service to the world. I aspire to be one of those kinds of teachers.

Writing a novel is hard and requires balance, yet movement. The surfing metaphor comes to mind. You have to overcome ego issues, you have to tune into the rest of the world, but you have to tune into yourself at the same time so that you can become an accurate conduit… and you have to maintain the balance between the abstract and the concrete, between words and sounds, between conscious and unconscious. You have to go into the past, but not get swallowed by it, know when to make things up, know when to borrow from reality. You ride the wave, exerting years of practice to maintain balance, but following where the wave leads.

It’s better than watching TV (I do too much of that, because it’s so much easier). Novel writing is a worthy puzzle to master. It enriches life and strengthens them mind no matter the outcome.

By the way, my essay, “How Not to Become a Writer” was a finalist in the writing advice contest of  Talking Writing and will be published in their Spring 2015 issue, and my story “Life in the Margins” is forthcoming in Big Lucks. I had a great time working with their brilliant fiction editor, An Tran. I’ll post the links when they are in.

 

The Strange Life of Words or Why I Write

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I dreamt once that words were people, refusing to speak as I walked by. The image neatly sums up my lifelong conflict with language. I adore words. I want to stroke them and live inside their bony curves. A variety comes to me easily, when I’m talking to friends or teaching. It’s a joy to be able to stretch out my hand and have the exact word appear, with the right heft and color, reverberating with history. Yet when asked to define a word, like “fluent” for example, I can’t.

A strong physical sense arises. I know exactly what it means, my hand wants to gesture, but the words to define it stumble out. How is it possible to know and love a word, but not be able to define it with words? How can I love something that is so difficult? Aren’t we supposed to be drawn to the things we are good at?

This paradox has only grown more pressing as I’ve devoted my life to the teaching of writing. I might be walking outdoors, and words will parade through my mind like children playing dress up, trying to shape themselves into silver willow fronds, or simulate the taste of late afternoon sun. But when I sit down before a white page, they scatter.

It happened just the other day, as I walked my dog down our dirt road. I came to a bog pond where a blue heron lives. What I thought was him standing in the water turned out to be a few dry stalks with an orb spider web illuminated by dew. Just beyond the periphery of my vision, the actual heron launched himself silently into the sky, huge, blue-gray and prehistoric. My first impulse – to run home and write it down, to hone the words until they leapt – was followed immediately by doubt. It takes so much time that might be better spent on students, family, and community. Surely writing should only be reserved for obsessed geniuses – or at the very least, for those to whom it comes easily.

I remember my first story like an alcoholic remembers her first drink. Even then conflict was present. I was six years old. I had just returned from Germany to my hometown. Having learned to read and write in German, I was having difficulty spelling in English. My second grade teacher set me up with a tutor.

I sat at the cafeteria table and the tutor’s words floated down from somewhere up above like bubbles. “Vowels,” she said. “A, e, i, o, u.” They bounced over my head. I stared at the gray table uncomprehending.

More words floated down. “Why don’t you write your own story?”

These words electrified me. I sat up straight and looked up at my tutor’s mouth. I could write my own story? The idea whirled inside me. All those stories my mother read to us that ended terribly. I could change that. I could create a whole new world.

That very night, in a room I shared with my two brothers, I huddled at the end of my bed, enfolding myself in my curtains. I stared at the stone tower of the church across the empty street, bathed in the colors of the traffic light, now red, now green, now yellow. Velvet mystery infused me, and I jotted down my first few lines. For a half hour I flew, my heart large. I had a beginning – the townspeople had trapped a monster inside a church, nailed the roof down on him like a coffin lid. But the huge flathead nails were coming loose. How would it end?

No answer. I sat with for a child’s eternity. The abyss yawned. My wings collapsed.

That’s how my love of writing began – stemming from difficulty, offering liberation and ending in angst.

Ironically, it is that very difficulty that called me to the teaching profession: it helps me help others overcome theirs. More importantly, the undeniable force and magic of words keeps calling me back.

Years ago, living in Paris trying to be a writer, I sat alone in a tiny white-walled apartment at the top of a spiral stair. I tinkered with a piece of writing that later got published. It was a tortured process, a steeping of self in words and wordlessness, a game of hide and seek with a host of internal critics, a dance to catch stars in my skirt without burning a hole in it, a leap into and over the abyss. Under certain conditions, if we strike the right words against each other in just the right way, they catch fire. A piece of writing emerged incrementally with elastic between each word so taut that if I pulled on them, they snapped. All else fell away and a stark truth emerged. This was the hardest thing I’d ever done, but I couldn’t think of anything else I’d rather do.

Even though I’ve quit writing many times over the years, I kept returning. And finally I have come to accept the fractiousness of writing. Writing is a set of diverse and sometimes opposing mental and emotional operations. Wild and often unbiddable, it requires that we leap back and forth between the different sides of our brains. On the one hand we must free associate and on the other hand we must choose, discard, catch and order. And it doesn’t stop there: we must be emotional and rational, verbal and spatial, personal and universal, private and public.

Worse yet, it comes with no map. We might draw a map, hold the teacher’s map in our hands, but the road changes with each new sentence, sprouting new paths. The possible routes are endless, and yet some paths work and others don’t. Forget asking why.

Even more threatening, writing is an exposure – you are committing a part of yourself to permanence for the eyes of others.

Complicating everything, some of us think more verbally while others think primarily physically, in a cocktail of chemicals and images and physical sensations. Stuffing that felt-sense into the linearity of language is a devilish challenge and changes the originating impulse. But that very transformation is what we seek. As with a foreigner writing in a non-native tongue, the alien perspective lifts language to new heights. In just this way our difficulty with language gives writing its beauty.

Writing by its very nature requires that you throw yourself out over an abyss and hope that the act of jumping will force new wings.

I’ve come to the conclusion we writers are like flowing water. Some of us, like Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates, are waterfalls as big as Niagara. And some of us are creeks. We have less to say, or it takes us a long time to say it, we meander all over the place, and we dry up seasonally. But we’re all part of the watershed; we all end up in the same place, the great, deep ocean, the clouds, the sky.

So – what I’m left with is this, I don’t write because it’s easy or because I’m a genius. I write for that moment when we physically inhabit the world and let the structure of the galaxy or the chemistry of a leaf come into us. When the brilliance of the universe comes through our brain’s synaptic cocktail into words that transport others, it is a spiritual moment, a connection to something greater than ourselves. Our words are the sun-crusted spider web, earth-bound, reflecting light, that sometimes turn out to be a great blue heron launching us out of the bog into the air. It’s a blessed moment. A moment we all need.

 

Note: I wrote the following essay for the SUNY Adirondack English Division blog. It was the vehicle I used to break through a three-year writing block. Later, this essay inspired the story, “The Intensest Rendezvous,” which is still looking for a home. The story came out on the fly, I later realized, because I had outlined it in this essay. Whenever I stop writing for a period of time, I now know how to get back into it thanks in large part to Rosann Bane’s Around the Writer’s Block.