Getting unstuck, finding bright

Wanda Lotus writes about a woman who’s 53 and “struggling with how to keep exploring and developing” while working on her “small/protective habits of thought.” I’m struggling with the same exact feeling: I want to do something creative, something like the things I used to do when I was much younger and felt like the world was just waiting for my talent to burst out. Then education, then kids, and then work and life and income and needing to keep health insurance….But not having a lot of time is no longer a viable excuse, not now. I’ve said that for years, that I don’t have time because of my job and personal life. I’m at a point now in my career where they’re not going to get rid of me just yet, and the kids are grown and nearly out of the house. Yet my talent has never burst out. Not once. And I’m 49 this year.

I want to finally blossom, but there’s a nerve that’s lacking or a…fear that stops me. I’ve been thinking on ideas from my educational background, particularly William Blake’s idea of “innocence and experience.” We start out innocent, go through experience that hurts us, changes us, but then–Blake said–we could find our way back to an innocence that isn’t childlike, but is a kind of informed, aware innocence. It’s *choosing* to not let experience unteach us of the best of who we are, but to choose to be like a child, in our clarity and trust and strength of feeling.

So I’ve been thinking, Why not create and explore without judging myself. Without asking anyone for their approval. Without judging myself and whatever I do. Just go on and get in there and get messy and create whatever I feel like today: write a poem, color a page in a book, play an instrument again. Let myself enjoy the little things without thought of creating anything bigger. If I can do that…when I *will* do that…I’ll have unlocked a freedom, a brightness of spirit for myself that somewhere along the way, got locked up.


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Liberty or death

When you are finished here, go back to our Prison (&) Writing: Contact Zone website to study Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. We will be working our rhetorical analysis magic on their important works.

Leave a post with your rhetorical analysis of Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death!” speech at

To write your rhetorical analysis, create a paragraph on each letter in the REALM:

R – Can you define the probable readers in terms of age, gender, occupation, education, position of power? What values do target readers share with the writer? What range of positions might target readers hold before reading?

E – What features of the text seem most crucial to understand–the claim, the arrangement of arguments, the supporting evidence, the appeals, the style? What features of the essay make it a more convincing or persuasive argument? What parts of the text are most difficult to read? Why? What parts are most appealing? Why?

A – What do you know about this author? What specific qualifications does the author present to build credibility with the target audience? What appeals to the author’s character do you see in the essay? In what ways does the author identify with the readers? Does this level of audience connection help the essay? How?

L – Given what you can discern about target readers, what limitations does that audience impose on the writer? How do the author’s background knowledge and experience limit the argument? How do the author’s character or values limit the argument? How does the larger context (its history or its social, political, and economic context) of the argument constrain the writer?

M – What seems to have prompted the writer to present this argument? What, if any, is the writer’s history of work on this topic? What event might have prompted the writer? What value(s) might have sparked this essay?

Your turn! Liberty…or an alternative? I look forward to reading your REALMs.

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Your Ecocomp

Using photographs that you have in your possession or by finding photos on a websites such as Zillow or Trulia or Google Streetview, review images of the place where you spent an important, formative part of your life. For your deliverable to me, you will write a 3-4-page essay on what it was like to live in that place and how that building, specifically, impacted you and had a part to play in the period of your lives that is your focus. Your paper will be in MLA format, which you will find here:

Be sure to include a reflection paragraph or two on this:
Consider how your identity and reality, created through language tied to that place, were impacted ecologically by your surroundings. 

Check out a sample essay draft here:

Start with a draft of your own. Just get the ideas out there to share with the class at first. Start with a 1-2-paragraph blog post that you write in response to this post.

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Book review | Clayton Lindemuth’s NOTHING SAVE THE BONES INSIDE HER

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you

As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend

Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

–from Batter my heart, three-person’d God – John Donne (1572-1631)

Clayton Lindemuth’s NOTHING SAVE THE BONES INSIDE HER (2013) is a story about a believer and her God. But this is no feel-good-hands-in-the-air-and-hug-your-neighbor faith. Emeline Margulies Hardgrave believes in a God who has much power, but who demands much in return. Faith can conquer, Lindemuth seems to claim, but first, the believer must be conquered by faith.

Emeline’s journey shows her overcoming domination and power through submission to her God’s will. Her God is a harsh teacher who schools her in submitting to His will in the face of an evil that has free rein in the Appalachian mountains of western Pennsylvania. Can Emeline allow herself to become an instrument of righteousness? If she can, her vision of peace will become the future. If she can’t, a centuries-old evil made manifest will claim another life.

Emeline’s tormentors–both her stalker and her husband–want one thing: to hold in their fists dominion over the life and death of every living thing in Devil’s Elbow. The novel’s theme of man’s misuse of power is made clear in the breeding and fighting of pit bulls, which Lindemuth renders with particular detail and nerve-withering force.

But even though Lindemuth can make words climb into your mind and lodge like memory, the purpose is never mere shock porn. In this novel, puppies are tortured into being fighting dogs because powerless men need to pretend that they are strong. Justice comes with four legs and clamped jaws, though. Every man who trains a pit bull in this book has created a hound of hell, and the hounds exercise a moral force in the book’s punishing universe.

Lindemuth’s world is no place for half-measures, not for dogs nor characters nor author. His subject and style are in the tradition of John Donne, mixed with a northern Appalachian Gothic tone reminiscent of William Faulkner, and a crystalline, straight line of descent from Flannery O’Connor. The stalker’s car in NOTHING SAVE THE BONES INSIDE HER could appear in O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find;” the trailer that Deet fashions for Emeline is like the Bundren family’s wagon in Faulkner’s AS I LAY DYING.

Lindemuth’s last novel, COLD QUIET COUNTRY, is a Wyoming riff on Arthurian legend, a fact tipped to us by the characters’ names: Guinevere and Gale G’Wain. If you’re thinking that their literary pedigrees alone make Lindemuth’s books worth reading, you’d be right. These modern-day revenge tragedies and morality plays are spiritual–deep explorations of what we know is right and wrong, fair and unfair, moral and immoral, good and evil–the lights that illuminate, sometimes dimly, our journey through the world.

Lindemuth is a writer’s writer, too, in his use of setting, voice, and point of view. Anyone who practices fiction writing will benefit from a study of how he makes different voices come off the page through word choice, punctuation, and details.

Such a charged, emotional reading experience is an unusual, unsettling, yet rewarding experience, and I look forward to spending time with Clayton Lindemuth’s next release, MY BROTHER’S DESTROYER (2013).

Buy it now:


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Reality, research, and verisimilitude

A friend in a Facebook writer’s group is doing NaNoWriMo, and she’s plowing through her word count in one window, while in another window, making a “grocery list of research” she will do after the November purge. I commend her mighty efforts. I don’t have the fortitude to do 50,0000,000000,000 words in 30 days.

Her research has to do with explosions and armaments and Big Issues. Certainly, if you want readers who have ever been on the receiving end of a speeding bullet to read your stuff–and keep coming back for more (<–important part)–you’d better get it right.  Look at our bookshelves, and the examples are everywhere: medical examiner protags like those in Karin Slaughter’s Grant County series and Patricia Cornwell’s (older) Kay Scarpetta series have to get it right or their readers threaten to throw books against walls. That’s why help abounds for writers who need to keep the details in order. Police procedurals, for another example, are full of necessary technical information, explored in-depth by Lee Lofland working The Graveyard Shift.

But my question as a writer remains:  How much is procedural or statistical or technical accuracy necessary in novels?

As a writer + wife + mother + full-time faculty + owner of a needy Jack Russell, I want to know: Where is my energy best spent?

And–while I’m asking–What about the literary principle of verisimilitude? How can we achieve verisimilitude in our reader’s hearts and minds, even if we, ourselves, have never dissected a corpse that was in the water for 3 weeks?

“Verisimilitude” is the quality of being “like reality.” Literature convinces us that it is “like reality” through our emotions. When we make our readers laugh and cry over the trials of characters who have never breathed air, we have achieved outstanding verisimilitude. We have made those characters behave and feel and think “like real people,” and even more, like real people who are important to our very real readers, and that is, ultimately, the goal of fiction: mimesis, or the rendering of the appearance of nature. Accuracy in technical matters is great, and pushes the mimesis up notches at a time, but arguably, recording facts correctly is not the goal of a novel. The goal of a novel is to achieve a verisimilitude of emotional tension about nature. A specific kind of nature. Human nature.

Famously, Plato banned poets from his Republic. He criticized poets for creating a “likeness” of reality in their works, and he argued that a false representation of reality that relies on mimesis does not, cannot show Truth. Looking for Truth within a poet’s orgiastic rambling is trying to understand the shadows on the wall once removed. If we cannot comprehend Truth ourselves, then filtering it through a poet’s mimetic version certainly isn’t going to help.  In fact, Plato said, doing so can be a hindrance to a true, USEFUL education about the world.

And this has some bearing on Cornwell and Slaughter and us.

A few years ago, I read the last of Karin Slaughter’s Grant County novels, Beyond Reach, and I didn’t come away with  any more knowledge about determining cause of death. Didn’t know a bit more about pediatrics or medical malpractice. A novel is not a how-to manual. Instead, I wept openly in the novel’s last pages, and I read the final paragraphs over and over again. I put the book down and looked at my one and only true love in a new way, comparing us to Sara and Jeffrey and wondering how and what if and why.

I earned an emotional experience of fear and horror resulting in Aristotelian catharsis through Slaughter’s words. That’s because the verisimilitude in that book is not about Sara Linton’s pediatrics practice and work as a medical examiner. I’m sure that Slaughter has done her research–after all, she coined the term “investigoogling,” but that’s not where the reality is for me. Further, the verisimilitude in Beyond Reach is not about police procedure and Jeffrey Tolliver’s work as Chief, although I understand that events in his work life constitute the plot.

But instead of being about the reality of the characters’ medical and legal professions, that novel renders the long-term love relationship (stand-off) between these two characters and slams us with its resolution. Slaughter tapped into the night terrors that we all have, and through Sara Linton’s reaction at the end, Slaughter brings each of us a version of pain we have imagined a thousand times, and it feels intense and real and true.

So, as I consider whether or not research creates the reality we want in our novels, I’m inclined to say that while research will help you to keep your reader happy inside the fictive dream, the real focus of any plot has to be the emotional, interior verisimilitude of the human experience as perceived through one character’s take on the world. Rendering the universal through the particular is our job as writers. The rest is Googling.

Write on,


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