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Filtering by Tag: Writing


Chrysta Brown


On August 30, Kanye West won an award for being a brilliant artist of some sort. During his acceptance speech he claimed that awards shows were ridiculous, called himself an artist’s messiah, confessed to smoking pot, and announced that he would be running for president. A year ago, maybe even a month ago, I might have sighed and muttered, “Oh, Kanye,” but this time, with the nagging realization that I probably have more deadlines than talent, all I could do was think about how I will never be able to write like that and have people support it. Everything felt so meaningless.

There is a picture of Idris Elba saved on my computer. His hands are folded and he wears an expression that quite attractively blends judgment and concern. “Shouldn’t you be writing?” the caption asks. Yes. Yes, Idris, I should be writing. I should be penning down my every thought, victory, tragedy, and curiosity on paper and online, but the blank page and I are in the midst of a staring contest, and so neither one of us has much to say.

That may not be exactly true. There are a lot of things going on that would make excellent essays, or at least mediocre essays that I could edit into readable ones, but I don’t feel like talking about those things. It doesn’t matter, though. The lack of something to say and the lack of will to say something both yield the same result. Nothing. Yet, I’m still suffering from the urge to create. In spite of the fact that millions of thoughts get published and posted every minute of every day, I have the tiniest bit of hope that I can water and nurture and grow something special where nothing used to be.

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” God introduces himself as a character by speaking light, ecosystems, and cows into existence. I know what the Bible says. I know what the lesson is for the artist: Words have power. I guess that is true. Words do things, change things, create and destroy things. But, is the inverse also true? Is the artist powerless when he can’t find the words or when he isn’t big enough to speak them? It feels that way. I feel drained and empty when I sit down to write and all I can do is stare out of the open window and watch the trees let go of leaves that weren’t strong enough to keep trying.

The first sentence of the Bible does not interest me because I do not understand people who always have something to say. I do not trust people who brag about how easy creation is. What grabs me is second sentence. I like the part where the narrator reveals with a sort of flyaway detail that, prior to everything, there was a whole lot of nothing. If I were given this manuscript in a workshop, this is the part I would circle and highlight as the big point. As both a reader and a writer, I would ask the author, “How long did you stare at nothing before you found something to say?”

Crossing the Threshold

Howard Schaap

Boulder-up-hill He came into my office as he often does, or as I often do to him in return, to avoid actual work, to talk about the fun stuff—the difference in Raymond Carver after Gordon Lish, how the Pinckney Benedict story “Mercy” is perfect for our students—and/or complain about the unfun stuff, also fun in its way. We work in the same pod and his office is directly across from mine. We’re not rivals; he’s fiction and I’m creative non. Truly, we’re friends.

“So, I’ve finished another major rewrite of my novel, and I’ve got a few people lined up to copyedit it one more time,” he said. “Then, hopefully . . .

“How’s the thing with the agent?” A while back, an agent wanted a one-sentence pitch from him, and he’d agonized for a bit over it, also a topic of conversation.

“It’s fine, yeah, so hopefully it’ll be done-done, and then by the end of the semester, I’ll land it.”

“That’s so great,” I said, or something like it. “Really amazing to teach and do something like this. You’re the man.”


In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway recounts the goings-on in Paris when he was an expat. I read it in Paris when I was twenty-one, an intoxicating affair. But for all its inclusion of other artists—Ford Madox Ford, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald—A Moveable Feast is a romance about the solitary artist, the artist who is a faithful lover only to his art. And it’s a damned lie.


The next day, my colleague came back. “So when I was in here earlier, what I meant to ask was if you’d read it—if you’d be one of my readers. I came in to ask that, and then I chickened out and I didn’t.”

“Oh, really? Oh, well, sure. Of course. I’d love to.”


My dad loved the trumpet. In the early 50s, my grandma set aside egg money to buy him one, and he practiced it in the barn, “mastering” it—his word—in six months as a sophomore in high school. His band teacher was his favorite teacher, and this band teacher encouraged him to join the army band. He tried to run away to do so, but since he had a brother who died in Korea and since he was a minor, he needed my grandpa’s signature to join. Thus ended my dad’s dreams of the trumpet.

In an end table in our living room, I came across some of his trumpet music, tracked with sixteenth note and—whether this is memory or imagination, I no longer know—thirty-second note runs. This, too, is a romantic story. Better yet, it’s tragically romantic.

How much art dies on this hill? How much withers for lack of a good reader or the withholding of a signature of blessing? How much art is sacrificed on the threshold of fear and pride?


A day later and I went into my colleague’s office, identifying my part in these near misses.

“So, I could have offered to read it, too, you know,” I said, “but I didn’t because, you know, I didn’t want to presume. I guess I thought of it as private, didn’t want to interfere.”

He’s gracious and incisive about the situation. “It’s like we’re still stuck in the model of the solitary artist,” he says. “It’s not like anyone has taught us how this works.”

The Bar Virtue

Alissa Wilkinson

Speakeasy-Bar-Interior-Design-of-Fraunces-Tavern-Restaurant-New-York It's always a long day at work, but today was especially long: a student meeting sandwiched in between two meetings with advancement at the college, and three lectures to prep, and the copier breaking down, and an article to publish. I customarily repair to a pub down the street a few days a week to wrap up my workday, right about when the walls of my small office start to close in on me. I try to go early and leave early, when I can. But today I didn't make it here till almost seven o'clock. I still got a seat.

They know me here. They gave me the WiFi password months ago. They slip me extra food or a pint they accidentally poured for someone else. Today, I got here and started to order, and the bartender immediately leaned in and said, conspiratorially, “You know, we have an Imperial IPA on tap now.” I've been griping about the proliferation of Oktoberfest for weeks. They know what I like.

I started coming here almost a year ago, partly because some sleuthing revealed they pour my favorite Irish microbrew, and partly because it's close to work. Low lights, but not too low. No sports in the side of the bar where I usually sit, though I traded spots briefly during the World Cup. Polite clientele, unlike most of the places near Wall Street. And lots of history—my husband recently looked up from his laptop to tell me that it's the oldest bar in New York City. George Washington bid his troops farewell right here.

I've spent a few late nights here with friends, and a few more alone, cranking through the to-do list. When I ran the New York City Half-Marathon last March, I ran over the finish line and straight here, where they were pouring stouts at ten o'clock in the morning. I've made friends with the bartenders and recommended books and talked about movies and chuckled at antics, and I've written many thousand words perched in the same seat where I am, right now, writing a few hundred more. I've eavesdropped on more awkward conversations than I can count and chatted with (mostly Irish) tourists and tried a few weird beers, and I have always felt safe.

When people ask me how I work while perched at a bar, I point out that many New Yorkers work in coffeeshops—and of course, everyone has their favorite one. Some are loud. Some let you be anonymous. At some, your barista knows your drink; others have free coffee refills. But for me, the bar is the right place: I don't have time to write till evenings, I don't want to drink caffeine late in the day, coffeeshops in New York close by 7pm, and besides, once you figure out that drinking slowly is fine, a nicely poured pint is the perfect thing to make an evening of tasks more tolerable.

Tonight, I'll duck out in an hour or two, after I tick off the final item on my to-do list—it's a work day, after all—and trade some conversation with the bartender. I'll leave feeling like I haven't been “out,” because in some sense, I haven't; I've been at one of my comfortable places. It's a gift to have a place where you are a regular, a place where everybody knows not just your name, but your drink, and your occupation, and the fact that you're married and would rather not deal with unwanted attention from some rando down the bar, and what book you're reading right now.

Rosie Schaap, who wrote the “Drink” column for The New York Times, wrote a book called Drinking with Men, all about the joys of regularhood. And she says this: “Although loyalty is upheld as a virtue, bar regularhood—the practice of drinking in a particular establishment so often that you become known by, and bond with, both the bartenders and your fellow patrons—is often looked down upon in a culture obsessed with health and work. But despite what we are often told, being a regular isn’t synonymous with being a drunk; regularhood is much more about the camaraderie than the alcohol. Sharing the joys of drink and conversation with friends old and new, in a comfortable and familiar setting, is one of life’s most unheralded pleasures.”

I couldn't have said it better myself.

A Long Obedience

William Coleman

Albert-SchweitzerBalzac drank close to fifty cups of coffee every day. Before he wrote a single word, Steinbeck set twelve, freshly sharpened Blackwings on his desk. Poe made scrolls of narrow sheets and sealing wax: a tiny scroll for every final draft. Hemingway stood; Capote reclined; Dickens paced. 

Tales of rituals about the act of writing abound. They are told and retold, collected and displayed: evidence of eccentricity, or quick-fix jump-starts to propel us into creative space.

What’s rarer, at least to my knowing, are stories in which the whole of a writer’s life is seen to have been brought to an order, as is the way of Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami:

“When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours,” he told The Paris Review in 2004. "In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”

To regard each moment of one’s life as essential to induction into the timeless is to take a more integral view of imagination than is often made manifest in popular culture, one that requires rigor, if it is to be acted upon.

“To hold to such repetition for so long requires a good amount of mental and physical strength,” Murakami continued. "In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.”

I tend to forget the link between discipline and creative well-being. How much easier it is to go slack, waiting for inspiration. But when I look back at the times when I was able to contend most fruitfully with what Nietzsche called the “thousand laws” at work within “the free arranging, locating, disposing, and constructing” that composes each moment we later call inspired, I recognize them as times when my days were fully exercised —filled with theory and practice, thinking and running.

The next sentence in Nietzsche’s book is familiar, and deeply challenging: “The essential thing ‘in heaven and in earth’ is […] that there should be long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.”

Balzac worked fifteen hours a day. He plumped with ink each margin of every galley proof he ever got. Steinbeck labored over East of Eden for eleven months. He drafted each day’s work on the right-hand pages of a notebook. In the facing space, he wrote letters to his friend, Pascal Covici. “On the third finger of my right hand, I have a great callus just from using a pencil for so many hours every day, ” he wrote on April 3, a Tuesday. "It has become a big lump by now, and it doesn’t ever go away.”

It’s easy enough to co-opt a trapping of a writer’s inner life, to buy a dozen pencils, brew another pot. What’s hard is to submit to the force toward which the rituals point. What’s hard is to work when it seems like nothing’s working. What’s hard, to put it another way, is to work on faith.

Where Do You Write?

Michael Dechane


It's best that I be as clear about this as I can -- I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow (and to transcribe them, of course). Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer's job is to use the tools in her or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it's enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all those gigantic ribs and grinning teeth.  - Stephen King, On Writing

The metaphor of writers as archeologists King describes it is my favorite part of his book On Writing. The process of discovery and of clearing away everything that isn't connected to the other pieces rings true to my experience as I work at finding words. It helps me focus. It helps me remember to be attentive, gentle, and decisive at my desk. It is a standing invitation to return to the joy-and-labor of finding and bringing home stanzas, paragraphs. I wonder, though, about where one goes to find fossil-stories: about the nature and topography of this ‘undiscovered pre-existing world.’

As I continue to press on in pursuing the craft of writing, I am discovering that where I go internally is more important than where I decide to break open my laptop, or how many cups of coffee might put me in the sweet zone for the day’s writing work. I don’t have a great way to articulate this yet – maybe that’s why I’m still hung up (or hanging!) on King’s metaphor of digging bones.

At this point, maybe it is as much as I can say that I feel I need to go deeper, or underneath, some strictly rational, manageable ‘place’ to get to a ‘place’ with ideas and words that feel most true, most surprising, most like my real voice. Maybe what I’m looking for is a personal metaphor to capture — and driving directions for how to get back to — that mysterious, wonderful, terrifying place where I find the good words. A metaphor for that place, and for my role in it. Am I alone in this search? Or have you quested after this, maybe found a metaphor that helps you?

The Space Between

Daniel Bowman, Jr.

14 cafe-fang_ "In his 1951 essay ‘Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena,’ British psychologist D. W. Winnicott wrote, ‘It is in the space between inner and outer worlds, which is also the space between people — the transitional space — that intimate relationships and creativity occur.’” - quoted by Alexandra Enders in “The Importance of Place: Where Writers Write and Why” (“The Literary Life,” Poets and Writers, March/April 2008)

The routines of writers seem to be of perpetual interest to us bookish types. Stories abound about where and when and how (and with precisely what type of instrument) famous writers have done their work. I’ve always been intrigued by those stories, in part as they helped me think about my own habits and preferences.

I’m one who prefers to be in a public space. Even when I have a nice office, I find I’m more productive when I leave it. When I worked in the private sector, this made more sense: I kept shop in a mind-numbing gray cubicle under mind-numbing fluorescent lights, with the nearest window way down at the end of my row.

So I wrote most of the early drafts of my forthcoming novel at a Tim Horton’s just around the corner from that office. I always took the same table when I could get it, next to a giant window that let in every bit of the cloudy daylight afforded by the long winters of Rochester, NY. I’d hurry through a bowl of soup and nurse my black coffee for the duration of lunch hour. And I would enter that space between the inner and outer worlds.

I remained partly aware of my surroundings: the blasé music, the retirees who met every Wednesday and sat at the large round table in the back, the business crowd wiping slush and sticky rock salt off their polished shoes as they yapped into their phones. At the same time, I was entirely absorbed in the world of my story. I could see and hear my characters clearly, follow them where they went, imagine what might happen next, fashion careful words to represent that universe.

And now I’m finishing the final work a world away at a small coffee shop in Hartford City, Indiana called Common Grounds. I chat with Katie, who knows my routine: after I order, she lets me get to work, then quietly brings my food and coffee over when it’s ready, for which I’m deeply grateful. Each table contains a tablecloth with a hearty thread count, a small lamp, and a centerpiece of several antique books or a milk bottle from farm days past. The music is good: Neil Young or Dylan or Louis Armstrong. A small television mounted to the wall plays Turner Classic Movies in glorious black and white, set to mute. I like to sit where I can see it out of the corner of my eye. Then I enter into the world of a story that, by now, I’m very tired of and will be pleased to leave behind soon.

Floating over the top, I’ll hear someone yell out the day’s headline from The Hartford City News Times or start yet another conversation with, “Hey, remember [so-and-so]? Well, did you hear what happened?” But I’m into my book, sometimes immersed in the vivid and continuous dream of the story, sometimes taking a cold, critical look at a darling phrase and dragging it by the neck to the chopping block.

I can’t seem to do without either; it’s that space between the exterior and interior worlds where I feel most able to write. I don’t know exactly why this is, and I don’t know if the why matters. It’s what works for me.

What works for you?

What keeps us writing?

Guest Blogger

jpeg1 I am up this morning, discovering that today will be the first day in many months that the Texas sky is cleared for go on all the blue it can project, and the temperature a wonderful 75 degrees, with not an ounce of wind. Finally.

I fire up my computer and prepare for a day of writing. I notice an email from an author and close friend who provides me feedback on my stories. She writes to congratulate me on my short story Rehabilitation and for it having made it into Relief's 7.2 edition. She writes, "I will miss Jake and Kitty and the early days when their story was being written. Now they belong to the world."

It isn't often that I come face to face with why I sit down in front of a blank slate and write, and more often than not, take walks, brood over non essentials, and spend days procrastinating until something dislodges and I find my way back to letting a story unfold. And then when things really start to happen, and I'm being drawn into another world, into other lives, that I can't be exactly sure where the words and the sentences and paragraphs are coming from. This is why my friend's point that ". . . they belong to the world," hits home.

Only yesterday, I was struggling with a plot issue in a story that has been on my plate for months. It needed something more, and nothing was coming to me. I leaned back and reached for the 2013 Pushcart book, fanned through the pages and found Sonny Criss, a short story by Jeanne Shoemaker. Well, for obvious reasons, with her name almost my own, except for the "r," I had to read it. Forty-five minutes later, I'm crying. I sat wondering, how did she do that. I said to myself, I've got to read this story again and analyze it. I asked, who is this author that can keep me turning pages and bring me to tears in the end? It was then I realized that by studying it, I would steal the beauty of it, take the gift, as it were, and start looking for the price tag.

Maybe, writing is, first and foremost, an imaginative process before it is anything else. The same lesson keeps coming back to me, that the story must come from a place that is beyond my own ability to make happen. No matter what I might do in the way of framing the elements of structure, plot, theme, characterizations, voice, and settings, whatever it is that draws me into the world of language and story, is pure imagination. What else can it be? Apart from imagining, there is nothing to work with. After reading Sonny Criss, I found my way back into my own story and the plot problem disappeared. I saw something deeper in my main character and it was all I needed to let the story achieve is purpose.

So, here I am again this morning knowing that the character Sonny Criss and his Wyoming family has changed me. And, I realize I've been given the gift of introducing Jake and Kitty in the story Rehabilitation, and they too, to find their way into our world.  As for those of us who bleed at our keyboards and worry everyone close to us, we become forever connected with the characters who speak through us, and we offer them like newborns, unique, memorable, and full of purpose. Maybe it's this that keeps us writing, like parents, never letting go of the work we have to do.

(Photo by Fausto Padovini)

- Guest Blogger, Mike Shoemake (Read Rehabilitation in Relief 7.2. Purchase here.)

Artists Anonymous

Vic Sizemore

drawing-hands A friend recently told me of a ninety-three year old woman she met at an art show in Denver. The woman has painted her entire life and never had an exhibition. She is happy with what she has made and doesn’t care that she hasn’t had a show.

My wife and I recently watched Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours, a quiet film about the relationship of art to life. Set mostly in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, the movie gazes at and muses on paintings from the European masters. The musings are voice-over narration from a security guard at the museum named Johann—at one point, he stands off to the side while a guide lectures guests at length on Bruegel. Later, as we pan across paintings on the wall, he tells us that many of the paintings are the work of artists who went unrecognized and unrewarded while alive, while others were celebrated. “They hang here side by side,” he says. He then asks if we can tell the difference between them.

The ones who remained anonymous and yet labored on are the ones who fascinate me. I think of Joseph Grand, the hapless writer in Camus’The Plague. Grand works hard every day at combatting the disease, but when he goes home in the evening he works on his novel—actually, he obsessively rewrites the first sentence of his novel, trying to perfect it before he moves on to the next. He tells the protagonist Dr. Rieux that he dreams of a day when editors will read his perfect sentence, stand up shaking their heads in appreciation and say, “hats off, gentlemen.” Yet, knowing how unlikely this is, he labors on in obscurity trying to write the perfect sentence. Rieux calls him the story’s true hero because he has a little goodness and an ideal. His ideal is simply that the work itself is important and worth doing well whether or not anyone ever stands in admiration.

Many of my friends are writers, and artists, and musicians—often all three at once—but I have friends who do various other kinds of creative work. One friend designs and sews funky children’s clothes. Many teacher friends are constantly seeking creative ways to reach their students. A couple of chef friends of mine create delicious and fun dishes. Just like me, they want recognition for what they do well; recognition is not their goal however, not the people I have in mind. They labor on at their creative work for the joy of a thing done well.

If you knew you would never receive recognition for your creative work, would you still do it?

(Drawing by M. C. Escher)

What is writing for?

J Mark Bertrand

7 Untitled Is the purpose of writing to communicate something to readers, or to mystify them? It’s been almost fifteen years, and James Miller’s article in the now-defunct Lingua Franca pitting clear communication (personified by George Orwell) against mystification-as-profundity (poster boy: Theodor Adorno) has stuck with me. First reading it fresh from grad school, where both perspectives were drilled into me with equal vigor, I’ve seen this either/or proposition reproduced in almost every argument over the goal of good writing that I’ve been dragged into since then. Whatever battle lines are drawn — literary vs. commercial, spiritual vs. secular — the old antagonists return to fight. Advocates of clarity are accused of dumbing ideas down, while advocates of mystery are chided for hiding their confused or commonplace thoughts behind a curtain of obfuscation.

I wish I could claim to have kept above the fray, but I’ve been a partisan more often than not — and for both sides, too, my allegiances shifting with the context. If I’ve switched sides back and forth, it’s not for lack of conviction. It’s just that neither side embodies what I’m actually attempting to do when I write fiction.

To me an unread story is a gesture of love left unconsummated.

Unrequited might seem a better word, but it’s not: there are books you haven’t read but for which you still feel affection. (Consider the American love affair with the Bible.) In some cases not having read the story keeps the love alive. The pages do not always contain what we’ve been led to believe.

As a reader I don’t seek consummation for reasons of clarity or mystification, although both sensations are part of the experience. What I look for is something closer to communion.

To me an unread story is like bread and wine left untasted on the table, an author’s gifts placed before readers out of a thwarted desire to know and be known.

Some of us don’t like to think of readers at all. We write for ourselves, telling the stories we’d like to hear. Art for art’s sake, with no hint of accommodating the audience. Mystification for its own sake, feeding your inner Adorno while your inner Orwell starves. This is a pose I’ve sometimes adopted, yet it seems more and more to be a mere shield against rejection: “You didn’t love me? That’s because you didn’t get me. This was never meant for you; you couldn’t have understood it.”

A story must communicate, or so they tell me. The question is, how? Must we follow the expected patterns, tap out only the approved rhythms, and keep culling the word horde until all the mystery is gone? Start thinking of what we do as mere communication and before long you find the reader can be quantified, reduced, understood –– and that a better term than reader is consumer. If writing for myself was a dead end, writing for consumers is even worse.

This is why, instead of communicating with readers, I want to commune.

I’m not aiming at blasphemy here, or even irreverence. It seems important to me that the creative act be understood in terms of incarnation, and the Christian Eucharist provides an apt metaphor. In spite of Walker Percy's belief that “the incarnational and sacramental dimensions of Catholic Christianity are the greatest natural assets of a novelist,” here I find Calvin’s notion of spiritual presence helpful. The author’s presence in the paper and ink or the pixel, though not physical, is nevertheless real in a way that can only be impoverished by ascribing it only to symbolism. Entering into the story is, at least for “worthy receivers,” to commune with an author who is actually, though spiritually, present in the work.

Somewhere between demystification and mystification for its own sake –– or perhaps I should say, somewhere above them –– there is a place for something both mystical and substantial, an experience of one another through words that has become almost a secret, a guilty pleasure none who know it feel entirely comfortable talking about. It does not always happen, but when it does, we remember why we read and write to begin with, just as there are moments in church with the taste of bread on the tongue and wine on the lips when we, for an instant, recover the true urge that brought us there.

Have you been writing lately?

Abby Jarvis

24 jacob-wrestles-an-angel

In the very essence of poetry there is something indecent: a thing is brought forth which we didn’t know we had in us…

It’s hard to guess where that pride of poets comes from, when so often they’re put to shame by the disclosure of their frailty.

- From “Ars Poetica?” by Czeslaw Milosz

“Have you been writing lately?” I cringe a little every time I’m asked that question. There is no good answer:

Yes, I’ve been writing and no, you can’t see it; or

Yes, I have been writing but it’s all terrible; or

No, I haven’t been writing, and please please please don’t ask me why.

Writing poetry is not a pleasant process. Any writing is uncomfortable, I suppose, but there’s something uniquely dreadful about poetry. Czeslaw Milosz says a poet is a demoniac city; poems rise up like devils, unannounced, before they are exorcised by page and pen. A poet’s demons are caught, subdued, and arranged in neat stanzas for other’s perusal.

Pinning down your demons to be scrutinized like bugs under glass is a profoundly uncomfortable experience. No human is comfortable being openly frail and vulnerable in front of other people. When a poet writes, they struggle to capture the total essence of their humanity; their fear, rage, ecstasy, sadness, and joy. It is not easy to display yourself at your most human and your most vulnerable.

Yes, I have been writing lately. It is not a comforting process. No poet’s process is. Poetry is wrestling with your demons like Jacob wrestled with the angel; it’s private, it’s desperate, and, hopefully, there’s redemption at the end.

Coming Undone

Tania Runyan

11 fault1-1

Just the other day I was paralyzed by these words:

“What would you do differently, you up on your beanstalk looking at scenes of people at all times in all places? When you climb down, would you dance any less to the music you love, knowing that music to be as provisional as a bug?. . .If you descend the long rope-ladders back to your people and time in the fabric, if you tell them what you have seen, and even if someone cares to listen, then what?”

The words are from Annie Dillard’s essay, “How to Live,” which first appeared in Image in 2001. I had been thumbing through the Bearing the Mystery anthology in the few minutes I had with my coffee before the kids came home. Now I heard the bus’s diesel engine rounding the corner and didn’t know what to do.

Writing that moves us, we say, makes us laugh or cry. It may even compel us to fight for justice, reach out to a stranger, say a prayer, or otherwise turn our lives around.

But this essay, this essay about my miniscule passions in “the infinite fabric of time that eternity shoots through,” rendered me helpless. I wasn’t so much overwhelmed with sadness or questions but numb, frozen-fingered in my ability to grasp anything. The fact that such a concept as eternity existed was enough, for the first time in my life, to make the floor tiles spin.

Some art does that—shifts the tectonic plates of our perceptions. It doesn’t inspire us but undoes us, haunts us until we view the image, listen to the piece, or read the essay again. I didn’t want to read it again. It made my stomach hurt, my breath shallow. But I went back to it later that day. Then again the next night. And the next. “Then what?” Dillard asks. Then what, then what, then what?

I still have no idea what to do.

But I know I would like to create something—even just one essay, poem, flowerbed or gingersnap—that leaves someone gaping like a caught fish.

Be still and know that you know nothing, the essay (Spirit? tiles?) seems to be whispering to me. Then work out of that.

The Real Race

Alissa Wilkinson


I started running seriously about a year and a half ago, as I was beginning my MFA thesis, which means I was digging deeply into old drafts and seeing my old writing faults everywhere I looked. On a whim one night, I signed up for a half-marathon that was four months away, Googled a training schedule, and started getting out on the road to pound out miles.

My life—which at the time was in various states of emotional and professional turmoil, and some of those linked to one another—fell into a rhythm of work, writing, and running. Whenever I wasn't at work, I was either at my computer or out on the pavement.

Five half-marathons and thousands and thousands of words and only a few mini-breakdowns later, I'm still surprised to realize that, for me at least, consistently running is far easier than consistently writing. In fact, running is almost comically easy: it’s just one foot in front of the other, and a lot of ignoring the voices in your head. There’s no grammar or style or word choice or any of those things to attend to. All runners engage in the same general muscle movements: the legs lifted and placed down, the feet striking pavement, the arms pumping back and forth. Sometimes I run past a person whose stride has been altered by injury or some kind of muscular defect, and his gait is noticeable only because it is different.

That means that the main difference between me and Haruki Murakami, who runs marathons and ultramarathons and wrote a book about running and writing called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, is just that he’s repeated the same muscular motions, the breathing and pumping of limbs, a lot more than I have.

Murakami also has a great deal more practice than I do with writing. He has been writing for three or four hours per day for decades. I suppose that means he also has developed the muscle for discipline. Reading his book on this point, I found this passage:

To write a novel I have to drive myself hard physically and use a lot of time and effort. Every time I begin a new novel, I have to dredge out another new, deep hole. But as I’ve sustained this kind of life over many years, I’ve become quite efficient, both technically and physically, at opening a hole in the hard rock and locating a new water vein. So as soon as I notice one water source drying up, I can move on right away to another. If people who rely on a natural spring of talent suddenly find they’ve exhausted their only source, they’re in trouble.

When I started writing, I “relied on a natural spring of talent,” especially since I was mostly writing short informational pieces. But when I decided to dig deeper and dredge another hole called “creative writing,” one in which I had to work with my own stories and my own material, I discovered that I’d exhausted my source—my natural spring—and now was going to be forced to do the hard work of sitting down and writing every day.

That is a real drag on the ego. Someone who sprints and then decides to train for a marathon will hit a wall around mile four, and might get discouraged. And someone like me has her identity rocked when she can’t do something well on the second or third or even tenth try.

I can tell you this: her tendency is to try to find a shortcut, or just quit. Usually the latter.

She has to take a hard look at herself and get ready to fail and then keep going. She has to be ready for sore muscles, and a bruised ego, and maybe even injuries, and the possibility that she might never be as good as the other guy, the hard truth that it’s possible she’ll never be a standout. Or she may write for years before she has anything to say. She might have to write from fear, and through fear, before she is ready for the real race.


Vintage Rejection

Stephanie Smith

Rejection always hurts, but this publisher seems particularly hard to please! This vintage rejection slip is from the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company (1907-1925), who is famous for their production of Charlie Chaplin movies (Photo originally posted on NPR). I'm not sure if my writing, or much modern writing at all for that matter, would pass muster! Which reason for rejection do you find most surprising, amusing, appalling? One of my favorites...see #6 for a good laugh.

But to keep you from getting too discouraged, here are a few excerpts from rejection letters of now beloved and classic works,  from publishers who probably still have their foot stuck in their mouths...

Lord of the Flies by William Golding..."an absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull."

The Deer Park by Norman Mailer..."This will set publishing back 25 years."

The Diary of Anne Frank..."The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the 'curiosity' level."

On Writings by Anais Nin..."There is no commercial advantage in acquiring her, and, in my opinion, no artistic."

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame..."an irresponsible holiday story."

Stephanie S. Smith graduated from Moody Bible Institute with a degree in Communications and Women’s Ministry, which she now puts to work freelancing as a book publicist and writer through her business, (In)dialogue Communications, at After living in Chicago for four years, traveling to Amsterdam for a spell, and then moving back home to Baltimore to plan a wedding, she now lives with her husband in Upstate New York where they make novice attempts at home renovation in their 1930s bungalow. She writes for and manages Moody Publishers’ blog,

There’s No Crying in Starbucks!

Michael Dean Clark


This is the fifth in a series of thoughts on how place shapes and is shaped by the stories we tell. The first four can be found here, here, here, and here.

This is a love song about the place where I write, not the places I'm writing about.

I have a bad habit, but it’s a habit nonetheless. I write at Starbucks.

Really, most of my friends think I write there so I’ll “have” to buy some coffee. And while I admit that I may have a (borderline) issue with my love for the Seattle bean, that’s not the main reason I work in the House of the Mermaid. It may, however, be the main reason I have a job that provides a paycheck that allows for said coffee ingestion.

But I actually started writing in the Green Room because I discovered that I compose better when there are people around me and natural ambient noise (that I, of course, drown out by putting my headphones on).

But I tried the monastic-writer-thing. The computer-in-the-closet-thing (hat tip to R. Kelly for teaching us all why it’s bad to end up trapped in a closet). The typewriter-instead-of-computer-thing so I could “feel” the story as an extension of my keystrokes.  I even tried the low-rent-Hemingway-stand-and-deliver-thing, but my knee sucks too much to let me grow that manly a beard.

As a side note, I draw the line at the handwriting-in-the-Moleskine-thing. No yuppie journals for this guy (if for no other reason than my handwriting is so awful – thank you journalism years – that the cost-to-benefit analysis just won’t let me be that much of an affluent nerdy hipster).

Nope, for me, the place to write is Starbucks, with their endless supply of Pike’s Roast, horrible cover versions of songs I used to like, and meetings between wedding photographers and their clients. I have, to date, written two complete novel length manuscripts and am a few hundred pages into the first version of a third, and I would conservatively estimate that in the more than 1200 pages of text in those three projects alone, at least 1,000 were written in this, my other office.

Which brings me to yesterday when I was working on changing a scene in one of my books…it’s an important scene. I killed a kid (in the book, not in the store). It’s a child I worked on creating for more than a few years. And I killed her.

Now, I’m not an overtly emotional guy. But I was a little moved when the final words began migrating from my fingers to the screen. Maybe even a little teary-eyed (though I blame that on the eerie confluence of that scene syncing up with my friend’s cover version of Muse’s “Unintended” – thanks for being such a sweet-voiced beast J. Lynn).

 This is the first time I've ever wondered if writing in public, in Starbucks of all places, is a good idea. I mean, I never know when a scene like that is going to present itself and I sure don’t want to get the whole Coffeehouse Weeper rep. That’s just not the guy I want my kids to have to deny is their father. I give them plenty of other reasons for said denials.

On the other hand, what better market research is there for a writer than resting secure in the knowledge that a scene they created brought them to tears in a coffee shop full of strangers? Unless that author is Glenn Beck, it seems like that says pretty good things about the emotional resonance of the moment.  

Michael Dean Clark is the fiction editor at Relief, as well as an author of fiction and nonfiction and an Assistant Professor of Writing at Point Loma Nazarene University. He lives in San Diego with his wife and three children.

Do Anger and Creating Mix?

Kimberly Culbertson

Are You Reading Along?

Have you clicked over to Don Miller's Blog lately? You know I have, because this isn't the first link I've posted on the Relief site. He's been blogging a series on "The Way of A Creator," and I think Relief readers everywhere should be reading along.

Anger + Creation = ?

Today, his post states that "A Creator Resists the Urge to Create out of Anger." You'll want to read the whole post, but here's a quick quote:

The public only has a consciousness so big, and when you create something good, and it gets into the public consciousness, there’s less room for whatever it is that made you angry. So go and create something good, and displace whatever it is that is pissing you off.

This post has me thinking about Relief's beginnings. Part of our story is that the vision for this journal was born out of frustration. I'll be honest--sometimes "Christian" literature makes me angry. For years we've endeavored to create something that displaces the sometimes-overly-sanitized work that well, pisses us off... okay, I'm not sure I'm following Don's advice in this sentence.

Thoughts? How do you, as a creator, wrestle your anger? Do you agree with Don's advice?

It All Began with a Picture

Stephanie Smith

I have a question for all you writers out there: how do your stories begin?

Do they begin inside you, with a striking thought, image, or scene? Do you observe something in the world that makes you want to put in onto paper? Do you imagine your characters to life, or do you see them on the street, at the Farmer's Market, the corner coffee shop?

Many of my favorite authors, it seems, birth their stories like this: a curious image arises in their mind, an image they see and cannot forget, and they write to discover the story behind the image.

Beloved author C.S. Lewis says that his enchanted world of Narnia began with a picture of a faun carrying an umbrella in a snowy wood.  "This picture had been in my mind since I was sixteen. Then one day, when I was about forty, I said to myself: ‘Let’s try to make a story about it.'”

Kate DiCamillo was lying in bed one morning, her life in a state of depression, when she suddenly saw a magician, joined by an elephant.  They looked as real to her as anyone, and this curious introduction gave her the motivation to get out of bed and start writing again. The tale of these two characters entwine in what became The Magician's Elephant, a whimsical story about magic, homecoming, and belonging.

Sue Monk Kidd's award-winning novel, The Secret Life of Bees, began with an image of a girl going to sleep in her room amidst a swarm of hovering bees.  Right now I'm reading Traveling with Pomegranates, the author's memoir which gives the reader the backstory behind the creation of her bee novel. I find myself fascinated with the way Sue Monk Kidd collects the smallest of details and finds a home for them in her book.  Simple things like a pink house she saw in a magazine, a childhood memory of bees that hummed through the walls of her old house, and a story about a black Madonna struck something in her and she wove them into her novel.

As much as I love reading fiction, this genre has always been the hardest thing for me to write.  Characters do not appear to me in dreams, or start talking to me in the shower, or hover over my bed in the form of circus animals.  But I do often see images in real life that I pause over and tuck away for later, for a story that will be woven with bits and pieces of things in the world that catch my curiosity.

Here are some of them:

A man sitting on a porch that is covered with wind chimes.

The way a book in my hand vibrates with the live music of a cello playing in a bookstore.

A snippet of overheard conversation, “Once when I was seventeen and wild, I cut off all my hair.”

What sparks your stories into life?

Stephanie S. Smith graduated from Moody Bible Institute with a degree in Communications and Women’s Ministry, which she now puts to work freelancing as a book publicist and writer through her business, (In)dialogue Communications, at After living in Chicago for four years, traveling to Amsterdam for a spell, and then moving back home to Baltimore to plan a wedding, she now lives with her husband in Upstate New York where they make novice attempts at home renovation in their 1930s bungalow. She is a member of the Young Professionals of the Southern Tier and blogs for Moody Publishers at

The Word and words

Stephanie Smith

Editorial Assistant Stephanie S. Smith meditates on the relationship between the Incarnation, the Word made flesh, and the writer, the wordsmith. I often wonder why, out of all the ways to describe the miracle of God-made-Man, the writer of the gospel of John chose to call it “The Word.”

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” –John 1:1

He says it three times; he really doesn’t want you to miss this: This Jesus? He’s the Word. As a writer who lives and breathes words, this intrigues me.

If the Incarnation is composed of the Word given skin, of theology given a body, lungs, hands, sweat glands and elbows, what do my creative words translate into? If the Word became flesh and brought Life to the world, can my words, fragile and human as they are, become something more than ink on a page? Can they also bring life?

As writers, I believe that our words wield powerful weapons of influence, for better or for worse. And as Christians, I believe we are entrusted with language to point to redemption, by faithfully articulating the brokenness of our world and the wholeness of the gospel. The written word, as creatively communicated in story, poetry, and prose can help us to interpret our lives in light of the greater, eternal context.

Flannery O’Connor affirms this, “The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem is to find that location.” Good writing connects the regular details of our lives with eternal reality and puts them on the same plane.

The response of the Christian to the revelation of God should be that of Mary’s, who said to the angel Gabriel, “May it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:39).  Mary, who Scripture describes as a woman in God’s favor, invited the divine word to manifest itself in her very life, which was fulfilled literally in the Incarnation.  In the same way, we invite the Incarnation into our lives when we obey God’s Word.  We give our faith a face when we love the widow, feed the hungry, visit the sick.

Madeleine L’Engle, in Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, says our writing should reflect the response of Mary, “who, when the angel told her that she was to bear the Messiah, was obedient to the command.” L’Engle remarks, “I believe that each work of art, whether it is a work of great genius or something very small, comes to the artist and says, ‘Here I am.  Enflesh me.  Give birth to me.’”

In the creative process, the writer-artist responds to each idea like Mary to the angel’s revelation: Yes, manifest yourself in my very flesh, that I may nurture you, cultivate you to grow, and pour you into the world for men to see. The Christian writer uses language as a frame, clothing the abstractness of idea in the flesh of syllables, sentences and words, and then presenting it to the world as a bright and shining advent.

Stephanie S. Smith graduated from Moody Bible Institute with a degree in Communications and Women’s Ministry, which she now puts to work freelancing as a book publicist and writer through her business, (In)dialogue Communications, at After living in Chicago for four years, traveling to Amsterdam for a spell, and then moving back home to Baltimore to plan a wedding, she now lives with her husband in Upstate New York where they make novice attempts at home renovation in their 1930s bungalow. She is a member of the Young Professionals of the Southern Tier and blogs for Moody Publishers at

Don Miller on the Church's Effect on Literature

Kimberly Culbertson

Don Miller has a great post up this week called "Is Church Life Stifling Your Creativity?"  Here at Relief, we've often had to carefully straddle the line between offending our Christian audience (people who keep Relief alive while asking many of the questions that Miller lists) and offending our sense of craft and Relief's mission to bring the authentic to light. So check out his post and let us know what you think--we're eager to hear.

So I've decided to Nanowrimo...

Kimberly Culbertson

If you've never been introduced to Nanowrimo, the word is shorthand for "National Novel Writing Month." The idea is that a participant will write at least 50,000 words of a novel in the month of November. It's intended to be a crappy first draft that you write while banishing your inner editor, something I'm not sure I can accomplish, but here we go anyway. November 1st marks the beginning of this adventure.  Coach Culbertson, the Founding Editor of The Midnight Diner (and my husband), created a video course called Write A Book in 30 Days, and I'm about to try it out. If you're giving Nanowrimo a go, you might want to check it out, too. There's a little bit of pre-work that you can do in these last two days of October, so click over it out right away :)