What’s Next for Writer’s March? You Tell Me!

IMG_1481Hello fellow writers,

It has been a long time since I’ve posted here.  As you probably noticed, 2018’s March snuck up on me and I wasn’t able to get this year’s Writer’s March off the ground.  As most of you know, I began this project in 2011 when I was a graduate student trying to finish my MFA.  At the time, I wanted to keep myself accountable and, most importantly, build a writing habit that was sustainable not just while working on my dissertation manuscript but beyond.  Writing posts for this blog taught me a TON about how to build good habits, how to think about writing, and most importantly, how to stay connected with a community of writers that has become increasingly dispersed across the country.

For the last 8 years, the March has gone through active and dormant phases.  As I moved into the working realm and had less time, it sometimes became a savior and sometimes a burden and sometimes (like this year), more than I could handle (and thus a source of guilt).   At this point in time, I’ve been trying to decide on the future of this project.  Do I keep the website going, rejuvenating it in 2019?  Do I pass the project on to someone else to moderate?  Or does this project shift and adapt as I have shifted and adapted?  I guess what I am asking for is your feedback.  I have two thoughts on where this project might go:

Idea #1:  The March Goes On

Who says change is good?  In idea #1, we would keep this site exactly as it is.  You would hear from this blog around the month of march.  We’d work like NanoWriMo, only better because you set your own goals.  The posts during the month would become more daily prompt driven, though we’d still invite guest bloggers to share insights on how and why we do this thing we are doing, and life goes on.  (And, on year’s like this year, it would be more than okay for me to skip the task, guilt free)

Idea #2:  The March Amps Up

At this year’s AWP Conference in Tampa, I started thinking a LOT of literary citizenship.  For me, the curating of this blog is just that – a desire to engage with people as they work through their writing process to both encourage them to keep writing and encourage them to set reasonable, achievable goals (while encouraging myself at the same time).  If the March were to adapt, I’d like to push this beyond simply the act of writing in order to highlight and engage with people whose works have made it through to the final stages, including publication.  This means that the March is not longer relegated to a single month, but  would post semi-regularly to promote publications and engage with writers who are finishing up projects that began during Writer’s March.  In other words, this means:

  • Writers March would post book reviews, interviews, announcements for writers who have completed a writing project or some other writing related venture.  The only requirement would be that the writer would need to have participated in writers march in the past.
  • Writers March would post throughout the year (though probably 1-2x a month maximum)
  • Writers March would still do its month of March writing endeavor
  • Writers March would need a team of volunteers to help, a low-commitment editorial board of sorts for people interested in writing book reviews, conducting interviews, or engaging with the project in some other way (all ideas would be welcome)

In other words, this is sort of a “go big or go home” option.  Rather than keeping things as they are, we amp Writer’s March up and push it to do more.

If you could take a moment to share your thoughts, I would be very grateful!


To everyone who participated in this 2017 Writer’s March!  And especially to…

  • Randi Beck
  • Bob Sabatini
  • Cynthia Patton
  • Jennifer Simpson
  • Lenore Gusch
  • Melanie Unruh
  • Nari Kirk

…or being such wonderful (and often last minute!) bloggers!  This was a last minute push to bring back this project, and without your help and support, none of this would have been possible!

We hope to see you all next time!  Now onward to April, National Poetry Month!  Who’s with me!  Mwahahahaha!

It’s over! (Whew!)

By guest blogger Bob Sabatini

Here we are at the end of another March. How’s the writing been coming? You feel like you created something wonderful? How about your goals, did you meet those?

For myself, I hold my goal up against what I actually accomplished, and if I do that, I come to the conclusion that… well…

I suck.

I wanted to write 31 dramatic monologues, and I’m stuck at 11. And I got writing of any kind done on fewer days than that. Easy thing to do would be to blame my job, I’ve put in several 12 hour days over the past couple weeks. But I would be lying if I said that I don’t have time to write. I do, the medium I set out to tackle is so short–less than a page, usually–and I am not striving for anything really polished, just rough first drafts. I mean, an hour at most if I hunker down, and I definitely have an hour of leisure time, even on the busiest days. I’m not going to say I’ve run out of ideas, either. What has proven much more difficult than I was expecting was finding the voices to speak for more than a few distinct speakers. So, while I had plenty to say about compassion, forgiveness and resistance, I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was compiling a 31-installment gripe, which was not the direction I wanted to go with this project.

Except, that doesn’t seem to be the note I want to go out on, the kind of judgment I want to pass on myself or anyone else who set a goal and didn’t make it. So,

no I don’t suck, and neither do you!

I have eleven pieces I didn’t have on March 1. Seven of them I’m not just happy with but am damn proud of. It’s not 31, but it’s more than zero. And ultimately, this is the message I want to go out with at the end of the month. If you smashed through all your goals, wrote the 50,000 words you wanted or the complete book of poems, or even if you really just sat down for an hour each day and actually wrote during that time, good for you. If you didn’t… good for you anyways for making the effort.

In sunnier times, I’ll look on the failure to meet some writing goal (a business model for improved productivity) as something I can afford to get down on myself for. But not when we’re weathering a storm. Under the deluge of the current administration, if I can produce a single life preserver to buoy and lighten the spirits of another person, to make them feel less alone or less persecuted, I have achieved something to be proud of. I keep going back to a different excerpt from the same video Sam plugged a few days ago, the commencement speech given by Neil Gaiman. “When things get tough, this is what you should do: make great art.” I don’t see that necessarily meaning to churn it out relentlessly.

These are very trying times, and those in power have been unleashing a torrent of negativity in too many areas of civic and cultural life to even begin to enumerate here. Art is how we fight back. When the powerful are insistent on churning out ugliness, the beauty of our words, our paintings, our songs, and our prayers have the power to heal. I think they know that too, or else why would they be so intent on killing public funding for the arts even though it’s such a minuscule part of the budget? Well, that’s the great thing about writing, our supplies are dirt cheap.

One of the trends I have been following on social media and when I go to events like the Women’s March has been a flowering of folk art—quirky signs and tee shirts, beautifully raw yet sincere poetry, videos, and thousands of expressions of love in many types of media—all by people not trained as artists. We all serve to support and uplift one another, and though the burden may be great, there are many many kind souls helping to shoulder it. No need for anyone to beat themself up because they didn’t do “enough.” Do what you can, make the art as great as you are capable of, and of course continue to strive for the improvement of your craft. But whatever you do, don’t give up.

TBT: Day 30: Marching into the Void

This post was originally published March 30, 2013, and is one of my favorite posts ever.  It has been revisited in honor of Throw Back Thursday.  (Also, I find it amazing to remember that we once had over 50 participants!  I was much better at gathering the forces that year.  Next year, we’ll aim for more!)


By guest blogger Lenore Gusch

Back when I was still a student, complaining about being in school, how all of my time seemed to go to studies that didn’t have anything to do with my writing, and how much more creative I could be if I just had more time to myself, everyone warned me that life after graduation would be different, and maybe not in the ways I wanted. No more deadlines. No more workshops and writing prompts. No more interesting literary internships. No more instant writing community at my fingertips. My motivation to keep at it would have to be entirely my own.

It was true. I graduated, and suddenly was writing into a void. The writing community that had nurtured me for four years went missing.

Many of us on the March have been lucky to keep in touch with our writerly friends from school or to find our own new writing communities. (I still send drafts and story ideas back and forth with a few of my close friends.) Some have been even luckier to go on to MFAs, lead their own creative writing classrooms, or find other careers that foster their continuing to write. But I suspect that out of the fifty-six challengers this month, there are just as many of us who are not surrounded by a single other writer in our day to day lives. (My boyfriend sometimes jokes that he is illiterate, which, although completely untrue, still sends chills down my spine. He rarely reads and never, ever writes.) Many have other full time careers, significant others, and/or families commanding their attention. (Lots of it!) And still, we write on. For some reason, we insist upon it.

A lot of the posts on this March have been about doubts. “Why am I doing this?” “Am I crazy?” “Is my writing any good?” “What is the value of art, anyway?” Some of these are easier to answer, like the first one. Revisit Jennifer Simpsons blog to see why a whole slew of writers are sticking with this insane endeavor. Some of them are more problematic, like the second one. (Only you can tell you how truly neurotic you may or may not be, and why, and if you’re really crazy, you probably won’t be able to tell!) I tend to get hung up on the last one. What is the value of art? What is the value of writing? Why is it important that we tell stories to one another? Are there better things I should be doing? I have a deep belief built from groundless faith that it IS important. That it is, perhaps, the most important thing that humans can do while they’re stuck here together on the earth. But when it comes to articulating this to a society-at-large which is less and less invested in art as a measure of success and happiness, I often falter.

As a student, I had a built in excuse when I needed to go “work.” Now, when I have to explain to my boss why I don’t want to work full time at the douchey steakhouse downtown, or why I don’t want to go to yet another family dinner with my pseudo-inlaws, I can’t play the student card. I just have to be a degenerate recluse who isn’t motivated by things that make sense, like making as much money as possible, finding a career, starting a family, yadda yadda yadda. Instead, I’m just messing around with this weird hobby that few people really “get.” (I thought about writing a whole post on how society tends to measure success, and how we fit in—or don’t—as writers, but it goes down such a bitter rabbit hole that I thought better of it.)

Still, we are compulsive. We are crazy. We are going to do this thing no matter what, right?

Playing by the Mississippi river.  Absolutely not writing.

All that being said, I will be the first guest blogger this month to confess that I totally, utterly failed at reaching my Writer’s March goals this time around. Partly, it was just bad timing. The busiest month of the year at the douchey steakhouse is March, and I was working twice as many shifts as I usually do, which left little time or energy for anything else. Then, I spent a week in New Orleans with my two best friends and my illiterate boyfriend, where I ate and drank and napped to excess, cooked, read, took pictures, biked around the city exploring and listening to great live music. I had a wonderful, wonderful time. I never picked up a pen the entire time I was there. So partly, it was timing, but partly I was unwilling to be that crazy degenerate recluse who skips out on that breakfast with friends or that last beer in order to go home and write. I didn’t demand it.

We’ve established during this month together that, for whatever reason, this writing thing makes us happy. It fills some need in us. My advice is: embrace the fact that you may, indeed, be a crazy reclusive degenerate. Stop justifying your motives to yourself and others. If you need to work less (ya know, for “the man”) and write more, demand it. If you need more time alone, demand it. If the only way you can produce anything is with Ziggy Stardust playing on repeat at top volume, demand it. Society be damned! When you start to do more of what makes you happy and fulfilled, low and behold, you will become a more productive member of society anyhow. You will become a better lover, parent, and worker because your neurotic, creative itch will be scratched, and then you can contentedly go about other things.

Now that I’m getting ready to march out into the void again, I regret that I didn’t take more advantage of all the lovely advice and writing prompts this month. I wish that Writer’s March could last all year. I want to run around screaming “No! Don’t leave me! Don’t go! I don’t want to be alone again!” But the spirit of the March can carry on!

I try to read something, write something, and play at least one instrument every day, for any amount of time, even if it’s just five minutes. It’s sort of a mini-March that I keep in mind all year long. Here are some things I do to that help:

  • Set goals. They don’t have to be as extensive as what you chose to do in March. They don’t have to be daily. But as Sam keeps assuring us, they really do help.
  • Keep in touch with your writer friends. (Some of these bloggers have their own blogs you can follow, for example.) Even if they are only virtual, remember that you are not the only crazy one. Exchange work if at all possible, and if you’re lucky, find people who will give you honest critiques.
  • Buy a book of writing exercises, or look them up online, and play with them when you don’t feel like working on other projects.
  • Ask friends for writing prompts (even then non-writerly friends) and then give them the results (even if they don’t care).
  • Read as much as possible. I always think of reading as brain-food. Without enough brain-food your brain will be too hungry to write when you sit down to do it.
  • Remember that you don’t need to justify what you’re doing—to yourself or anyone else. 

Good luck out there. I’ll miss you!

Fallow Fields

By Guest Blogger Cynthia Patton

35th Birthday Rental Lenses 086Okay, I’ll admit it. Before Writer’s March, I hadn’t written anything for several months. Why? I’m not sure. Why do any of us lose momentum and stop doing something that we love, something we know in our heart of hearts is as essential as air?

Perhaps one day I will have the answer to this mystery, but for now all I know is that I often go through fallow periods in my writing. At these times, the words seem dead—except they aren’t.  They are merely dormant like roses and fruit trees, waiting for longer, warmer days to produce a rush of new growth and blooms. I may not like it, but I’ve learned to trust this cycle, trust that the words will eventually come just as spring follows a hard winter.


There have been many changes and new developments in my life of late. It’s taken me 50-plus years, but I’ve learned that sometimes it behooves me to sit back and wait, see what happens before I open my mouth or put pen to paper. I’d like to say that’s what I’ve been doing, but it wouldn’t really be true. I wasn’t consciously waiting for anything. I was stuck in neutral, mindlessly spinning my gears. I wanted to write, but I couldn’t muster the strength/will/courage to do so.

It’s not as if I’ve been completely idle. Instead of writing I’ve been meeting new people, reading, and watching movies. I’ve been gathering strength for battles I know will come. I’ve been cooking and creating new recipes as well as working hard on book promotion for my poetry collection.

The other thing I’ve been doing is going within, wandering in the wilderness of myself. I always tend towards introspection in winter, but this year I went deeper and farther than ever before. I questioned my assumptions, re-evaluated my priorities. This has been an ongoing process since my daughter’s autism diagnosis and my subsequent separation and divorce, but this year it felt as if I’m finally at the truth, getting to the core of what it means to be me.

Maybe it’s because of this, but I feel ready to tackle the next (and probably hardest) phase of my memoir. I could be wrong, but I think if I make a push I can finish it. Or at least get close.  Perhaps I needed the fallow period to prepare for this task Or maybe it was merely procrastination, pure and simple. I’m not sure. What I do know is that writing is easier when I stop fighting and trust the process.

It’s easier, but never easy.

Dorothea Brande’s “Formula for Success”: The Will to Fail Revisited

At the onset of this Writer’s March Challenge, I wrote about Dorothea Brande and the “Will to Fail,” a concept based on Nietzsche’s “Will to Power” that seeks to name the human propensity towards self sabotage.   As I explained,

Each person has a dream, a goal, an internal sense of what would make their lives better (their own will to power, so to speak), but each person’s will to power [is] usurped by the stronger will to fail.

selfsabotageyoursuccessMany people have watched Neil Gaiman’s commencement speech, a video I shared and discussed many years ago.  In this speech, Gaiman talks to a group of graduating art students about how to make it as artists in today’s world.  He tells them to always keep in mind what they have at the top of their mountain (their life goal).  Then, when faced with choices on what to do next, he said, keep in mind this mountain and choose options that will take you closer to the top.  And so, put another way, the “Will to Fail” involves all the life choices we make that either take us down or away from our mountains.  It also (perhaps most importantly) asks us to examine all the reasons we stop climbing altogether.

So, what do we do to avoid this “Will to Fail”?  How do we overcome it? In other words, I keep hinting at Brande’s formula for success, but have yet to offer it up.  And so, I offer it now.  As Brande Says,

All that is necessary to break the spell of inertia and frustration is this: Act as if it were impossible to fail.

Continue reading

Dreams and Dissertations, Poetry and Prose, Inspiration and an Eaglet Named Hope

by Marisa PC

A week or so ago, I dreamed that I attended a combo pool party and poetry reading, which featured Dana Levin and Jessica Helen Lopez. In the dream, both poets read, and then we ended up talking in the pool. It was nighttime, the pool was lit from beneath the water’s surface, the colors of the dream were turquoise and muted gold and night sky, but those details are merely atmospheric. The happiness I felt upon waking told me the importance of the dream: that I should partake of more poetry.

An interesting message, given that I’ve been doing just that. I’ve recently read Dana’s Banana Palace, Bonnie Arning’s Escape Velocity, Mark Doty’s Paragon Park, and I’ve started Jennifer Givhan’s Protection Spell. Classic poems by W. H. Auden and e.e. cummings have echoed in me, soothing and stirring me during these difficult political times, while Lisa D. Chavez’s “In an Angry Season” and some of Jericho Brown’s more recent work does the same. And since the presidential election, I’ve attended nearly a dozen readings, maybe more, and found myself grateful to hear the work of up-and-coming poets I’m lucky to know, poets like Crystal Zanders and Colby Gates.

I’ve kind of been wanting to try my hand at poetry again, even though I know this “hand” to be prose-laden, too literal, leaden. This morning I drank my coffee and read poetry and had an eagle-cam streaming online, and I scribbled three poem portions. And look, I don’t know whether they’ll be poems. They’re really just scribbles right now, but isn’t that the way we start?

The poetry I was reading this morning? It was MFA student Aaron Reeder’s dissertation, From the Kingdom of the Lost. I’m on Aaron’s committee, and I started reading it last night. I prefer to read poetry dissertations twice—once to get a sense of what the manuscript as a whole is trying to do and another time to see how the individual poems are puzzled together to achieve that end. But as I read Aaron’s work, I could already see the book in the manuscript; that is, I understood that I was reading a fully realized poetry collection. It had me in its grip, tightly, tenderly. I was a passenger brought along on an emotional journey, and near the manuscript’s end, I suddenly found myself in tears. Big, drippy tears.

I used to cry all the time over the least little thing. Now I’m crotchety and crusty and cranky, and I don’t cry so easily, so the fact that Aaron’s work had me in big, drippy tears speaks for the level of his accomplishment. Once I’d finished my reading and my crying and my coffee, I walked the dogs, and when I got home, I scribbled some scribbles that I like to pretend may go toward poems.

This is where I admit, as we approach the end of the Writer’s March, that I’ve done little else. I haven’t come close to achieving the goals I set four weeks ago. But I’ve submitted some finished pieces, gotten a positive rejection from a top-tier literary journal, done a couple of line-edit-level revisions, toted around notes for a novel in hopes of working on it, dashed off some notes and done some reading for another piece I’d like to work on, and oh yeah, scribbled some pretend-poetry scribbles that maybe just maybe someday will grow up to be prosy little poems.

No matter my lack of complete success with the Writer’s March, I’m exiting this month with renewed inspiration and determination. Some of that has come from my participation here, but most of it has come from working with the four MFA students whose dissertations I’m lucky to be reading. These MFA students, they are ending this month (whether or not they’ve participated in the March) by meeting a huge goal: the completion of their dissertations. Each of these students has constructed a book-length work. Aaron’s is a poetry collection. (Look for it soon!) And I’m also working with a fiction writer and two creative nonfiction writers.

Celia Laskey, the fiction writer, has put together a novel in stories called Under the Rainbow. Last summer on a hunch that it would be good, I volunteered to read it. I was right: It was good. In fact, it was better than I’d expected. Truth be told, I offered to read Celia’s manuscript because of its subject: An LGBTQ task force moves to a town voted the most homophobic city in America with the intention of creating opportunities for education and inclusivity. Each story is told from the point of view of a townsperson (the majority of them straight and terrifically conservative) or a task force member. I well remembered my time as a student in fiction workshops and how distressing it could be to have readers who just didn’t get my queer themes and characters. I hoped to be a good reader for Celia and a sounding board as she worked through her revisions. As usually occurs when I read another writer’s work in progress, I became involved in the storylines and found myself caring deeply about the characters, queer and straight alike. And beyond that, I found myself studying Celia’s manner of storytelling—how she manages to employ first-person POV and show each of her characters fully and actively, revealing not only how they appear to other people but also what their inner lives and most private hopes and disappointments are. I can’t wait for the day I hold a published copy of Celia’s book.

I finished Cat Hubka’s manuscript, The Price of Admission, just yesterday morning and am blown away. I’ve known Cat for a number of years now; I worked with her when she was an undergraduate. As I turned the pages of her memoir, I saw how she’d incorporated the work we’d done together with all the work—so much work!—she’s done since. At the end of our first semester together, Cat met with me. She talked with me about one of her four sons, Mike, who died in his late teens. In our meeting, she told me she loved him and wanted to write about him. Though he is not the focus of Cat’s dissertation, Mike is threaded through its pages, as are her other sons, as are a number of other people who have played important roles in her journey into and through the early years of her sobriety. Because I have known and worked with Cat for a while now, I knew portions of her story, but reading her work allowed me insight into many aspects of her life that I hadn’t guessed at. I feel such tenderness for my friend, even at the parts she may refer to as “assholery,” and I feel pride in seeing that she has something original, compelling, and sometimes startling to include among recovery narratives.

Tomorrow I receive Ana June’s manuscript. I don’t know its title yet, and I don’t know how she has navigated the stories from her life that she may tell in it. In our conversations about writing, Ana has spoken of connections between the physical health of the body–specifically the woman’s body–and the assault on the environment, so perhaps these themes will be woven through her work. And as with the other MFA students whose work I’ve been reading, I’m sure I’ll be engaged, amazed, and inspired.

It’s very late—early, actually—and I’d like to bring these musings around to a point, but I’m not sure I’m going to succeed at that. Obviously, I’m not going to succeed at fulfilling my Writer’s March goals, either. But I want to thank all of you who have written for the blog, especially founder Sam Ocena, and I want to congratulate those of you who have accomplished some or all of your writing goals for the month. I am inspired by you, as I am by the MFA students whose committees I have the honor of serving on, and that inspiration is energizing. I’m going to go forward from this time and partake of more poetry—and more prose too. Best of luck to you as you end the March and the month of March. Here’s a video of an eaglet named Hope fledging—that is, flying from the nest for the first time earlier this month. May we all fly on strong wings. May we lift one another up.

video from American Eagle Foundation, Northeast Florida webcam, 2 March 2017

The Last (Soundbite) Supper

Guest post by Randi Ocena


First of all, do you like how I worked that pre-Easter reference in the title there?  Second of all, did you know that several well-known scholars believe The Last Supper actually occurred on April 1st? And did you also know that some lesser known scholars believe April Fool’s Day originated as a lighthearted attempt to cheer up that otherwise sad and somber occasion? (That last bit may not be true, so best not go repeating it to your friends and colleagues.)

Anyhow, here is the final installment of podcast recommendations, suitable for writers of all ages, genders, and religious affiliations.

Creative Writing Career  

This one is all business, but in that casual Friday sort of way.  Each episode typically features one guest writer, plus a notable hosting panel of writers from all across the board (books, screen, videogames). Topics are highly specific for each episode but wide-ranging across the series and include things like not screwing up your great novel with a crappy query letter, keeping the attention of young children for more than two seconds, and choosing the right tags in descriptions of your book for the online market.

Writing Class Radio

Sometimes writers like to overshare. Sometimes we don’t share enough.This podcast is all about the oversharing. One episode that stands out is perhaps “I Fart, You Fart, We All Fart and Most Of Us Deny It.” Also “How To Tell Your Inappropriate Story” which includes the phrase “he grazed my uh, anatomy” and some background cat noise & guitar music with whispering.  Fiction, non-fiction, laughing, crying. It’s all here, sometimes all at once.  It took a couple of episodes, buy I’m a fan.

Story Makers Show

Before I try to sell you on this last podcast, I’d like to get two minor gripes out of the way that nearly stopped me listening to it beyond the first 11 seconds:  1) Whether the title refers to a show belonging to two story makers or whether it refers to a show intended for all story makers in general, I’d like to see some possessive noun punctuation in there . In short, I find the absence of an apostrophe in the title distracting, as evidenced by the fact that I am mentioning it at all. But then, I am also disturbed by the use of mismatching hangers on my side of the closet, so whatever. 2) There are 11 seconds of electronic noise (music?) at the beginning of the show which shouldn’t bother me, but I feel strongly compelled to mute it.

All that aside, this is a good show featuring the usual writerly podcast fare: Interviews, Q & A, advice, readings. So why mention this one when there are so many others like it?  Partly, I like that it adds some academic depth & heart to the usual craft discussion without being pretentious or mushy.  But mostly, I like that it is a show dominated by scores of sharp, witty, diverse and talented women. Seriously, just try finding a straight white male writer on this show. I haven’t yet.  (And straight white guy readers, please don’t get offended. Some of my best friends are straight white guys, really.)

And lastly, for dessert, I leave you with this.

This” is a hyperlink to a  whole list of more writerly podcasts, a list written by someone other than me.  Some of it will be familiar to you by now, but I don’t have enough ears or hours to listen to every last one of them.  I hesitated to include it here without the proper vetting first.  But just like the time I failed at marriage by hiding cookies in the furthest reaches of the pantry to protect Sam from potential poisoning by untested cookies, I cannot win at blogging by trying to protect you from potentially crappy or harmful podcasts through extreme vetting or religious popquizzes (comedic callback & political elbow nudge in one go…Ta-da).

So with that I say, listen with discretion and I hope you’ll find something to like. Or as my mother says, be safe and have fun, in that order.

So until next year, friends–Happy  listening, happy writing, happy marching. And many other happy things too.



Why Not? In Pursuit of the Picture

The question of “why” interests me less and less these days. “Why’s that?” inquisitive/cheeky readers might ask, and to be honest, I don’t know and I’m not terribly interested in knowing.

In his essay “Topic of Cancer,” which would become part of his book Mortality, Christopher Hitchens observes that just before finding out he had terminal cancer, he earned “million-miler” status with United Airlines and consequently “a lifetime of free upgrades.” While many people would deem that ironic, he doesn’t “see any ironies here”:

Would it be less poignant to get cancer on the day that . . . I was bounced from a coach-class flight and left on the tarmac? To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?

Irony, in the way he’s using it, would imply a grand scheme, an existential system wherein he somehow merited esophageal cancer. But he’s not going to go there. He understands that life isn’t that cruel. He didn’t earn cancer like he earned his million-miler upgrades. Lots of people get cancer–why not him?


Ross asks an age-old question.

The query of “why” is often posed in writing workshops: Why does character X do Y? Why is the narrator telling this story? The workshop conversation can begin to resemble a police procedural in which the question of motive appears again and again, which on the surface may seem to be in service to the craft, but–I suspect–has just as much to do with writers’ hopes that a story or essay with clear logic will render life more comprehensible.

(At the risk of alienating all writers, I hazard the claim that prose writers are more concerned with “why” than are poets. At the risk of alienating primarily prose writers, I hazard that this is because poets are smarter. And, yes, this latter declaration risks alienating integrity-obsessed readers who recall my earlier assertion about being little interested in “why.”)

Among the one-liners rattling about my brain is this: “What I have been after all along is not an explanation but a picture.” From Annie Dillard’s classic Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, this sentence shook me when I first read it and has multiple times since. It embodies her wisdom: The writer’s task is to see–not to rationalize or elucidate, but to see. In another chapter of Pilgrim, she says, “What I call innocence is the spirit’s unself-conscious state at any moment of pure devotion to any object. It is at once a receptiveness and total concentration.” While seeing is often equated to maturity and cynicism, to Dillard it is innocence. It is beauty. It is devotion, attention, prayer.

I have a habit of turning to Dillard–as is evidenced by a previous post–because she can see like few writers I’ve read. And seeing is itself so demanding I don’t think I can do much more, as a reader or writer. I can’t answer the “whys” or even muster the energy to ask them. As fascinating as psychology and philosophy are, they can get in the way of living–and in the way of a good writing session.

My watery writing directive is this: Don’t allow the “why” to stall you. Don’t let it delay the shaping of a scene, the description of a character, the momentum of exposition. Focus on the scene, the character, the idea, without stumbling over sense. If some well-meaning reader of your draft asks “Why Z?” reply “Why not Z?” If the reader then muses, “But everything happens for a reason,” pick up your laptop and move to another room. Or, if using a desktop, pick up the reader and move them to another room.

To look past the thing to the question of motive or impetus is to reject the writer’s most essential function and to take upon oneself a burden that, especially in early drafting stages, the literary writer has no need to bear. Focus first. Focus with such ferocity you become innocent. The universe is neither kind nor cruel. It doesn’t coddle or condemn. To face what we are and where we are is itself the struggle.

Compass Divination: Finding Direction in the Cards

Last week, Bob requested that this week’s “Divination Inspiration” post be inspired by a bag of stones.  Unfortunately, the stones nor the bag could be found!  (I guess it will have to wait until next year, eh?)  Instead, I went to my favorite oracle deck, The Enchanted Map:


The Enchanted Map is a favorite not just because the cards are beautiful, but also because it has shown me over and over again that there is more to this world than meets the eye…  As with the previous oracle posts, feel free to use these cards as today’s inspiration (for your life or your writing) and/or as a writing prompt.  You can consider the “you” to be YOU-you or one of your characters (or both of course).

And so, without further fanfare, I offer up five cards from the Enchanted Map deck: Continue reading