You write because you must

writing insights from litfest 2021 (so far)

LitFest be like this

Every time I spend several days in a row working on my writing, I feel both connected and disconnected. Connected because it’s heady being in a room with people (even a Zoom room) who care about the art form as much as I do. Disconnected because I garner so much good information in such a short time and I become incredibly inspired. It’s a head-spinning cocktail of wanting to abandon my current projects forthwith and begin a new one mixed with anxiety about how in the blue fuck am I going to remember everything? I stub my toes a lot, drop and shatter glasses and lose my keys. Here’s a way to stay grounded, I hope. Choose random findings and try to mosaic them into meaning.

Cheat sheet

Welcome to my cheat sheet. I decided I would quickly catalog the input from writers, playwrights, poets and my fellow attendees and share them with you. Granted, you may not find them quite as impactful as me. But I’d be super surprised to learn you didn’t find one single thing to put into your toolbox or noggin and use later.

“You suck,” says this creature in my head.


Poetry has been both a blessing and a bane to my existence as a writer. I love doing it and revising it and creating thematic chapbooks and all of that. I have won prizes and grants from it. But it is a maddening form. Even when I’m doing it well I feel I’m not doing it well. My favorite poets seemingly breathe a rarified air that would suffocate me, a mere mortal. My insecurities are legion–and just as demonic as that name entails. But oh man I love it.

I recently listened to a Dharma Punx podcast about awe. In it, Josh Korda talks about how in a clinical study, 15 minutes of awe three times a day has healed people’s depression. He suggests using art; or even your own hands as inspiration. I immediately thought: Oh yeah. I’ll just read a poem. Nothing places me in awe like encountering a poem on the page. I often read it out loud, too. Then I’m healed from the sounds and sense and beauty of the thing. Every poem is a prayer to our better nature. And when I write it I feel like a better person.

At Litfest I was able to attend Andrea Rexilius‘ workshop about Beginnings and Endings. The takeaways are as follows (and my apologies to Andrea if I’ve warped these in any way):

  • Make sure your title opens the door, doesn’t slam it shut. We tend to want our title to work as a headline. Make it a hyperlink.
  • Endings can be amorphous as long as they stay within the poem’s ecosystem of sense

Writing characters well

The idea that we can create emotional resonance for our characters by using setting is not a new one. If you’ve been in an English class discussing any of the books they make you read in high school you can probably spew the way Tess’ environment mirrors her inner state or how all of the settings in Catcher in the Rye build on one another to add tension and depth to Holden’s character and character arc. Boy howdy.

Azareen Van Vliet Oolomi shared so much in her class about character embodiment on the page. Consciousness vs. character is key–using elements like the gaze and the position in place can help. As we work through workshop, her insights about evoking consciousness through the intersection of history and culture in her work fascinated me. The way her novel “Call me Zebra” delivers “unreal realism” that layers on the politics of exile and the diaspora of the displaced person’s experience resonated with me. In my work I heighten the drama to hopefully help the reader experience this hyper vigilant consciousness of the trauma survivor. Azareen’s “painterly practice” of research where she unfolds her topics organically based on where the color needs depth or the figure needs edges. At least that’s what I heard when she was discussing the quality of the research she did for the novel.

a sum of its parts

As I review my notes I am struck by how deeply my pen gouged the paper. I attend these classes in a state of heightened passion and awareness where it feels desperately important to concentrate and to write down the magical words or phrases that will help my work. The truth is not one alone can do it. I think of making a dam and trying to use one stone to stop the current. In amalgam, these tips and hints, insights and epiphanies do impact me as an artist. But being in community discovering them somehow makes much more of a difference. The conversation and push and pull of dialogue and opinion creates another entity in class that teaches me about the tension of ideas. Great art is born from this tension and it’s so much richer with a diversity of meaning and flow created by the many rather than the one.

take me with you my darling

  • Remember: Your voice is important and deserves to be heard. The close reading received from others in workshop is a kind of love bestowed upon your creative impulse. Within the context of this love, in criticism or praise, taking what you need and leaving the rest, writers flourish and grow.
  • Poetry is everywhere. Sip it from the air or ladle it on to your plate or slather it between your ears. It can end up on the page within prose and flower there.
  • Take me with you my darling: The best thing is to follow a new writer down the path of their thoughts as they create. It’s like watching one of those magic acts — how’d they do that? It doesn’t matter if they tell you, you’re still amazed.
  • There’s no such thing as a genre. Trying to box up people into prose writers or fiction writers or poets is a marketing ploy. Publishers need to sell books and I get it. But so many people I know work in hybridized forms. Sometimes it seems they’re easily dismissed or relegated to the fringes. Me included.
  • Prompts to flight. Upon first hearing, writing exercises never sound good. The inner groan turns from dismay to delight pretty quick. I can’t discount the value until I’ve morphed it for myself, to my own purposes. Even “misses” make a difference. The fragment they generate tells me what not to do next.

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