KonMari Objects

Part of Charlotte Lit’s “Keeping Pen to Paper” Series.


Stuck at home for the unforeseeable future, many of us are holding our spring cleaning up to painstakingly high standards, and what better way to do that than harness the cultural phenom Marie Kondo? Perhaps you’ve unearthed an object in your attic or a sweater in the way-way back of your closet that once sparked such joy for you, it almost felt like a friend? Or maybe you’ve come to realize in the face of this existential threat to mankind that perhaps you don’t need quite that many books? (Yes we do, Marie; don’t touch our books!)

In this vein, please take a few minutes to choose one character (fiction), persona (poem), or person (memoir/nonfiction), and imagine one object in each of Marie’s categories that would “spark joy” for him or her and one that would not.

1. Clothes
2. Books
3. Papers
4. Misc. stuff (read: crap)
5. Sentimental items

Now, choose one of these objects and do the following:

1. Describe it in great physical detail. Consider giving it anthropomorphic qualities that help us feel what the owner feels about it.
2. Tell the story of how that object came into his or her life. (This might be particularly interesting if it something that no longer sparks joy but once did, showing a transformation.)
3. Use this object in an emotionally-charged scene. How might the object itself, and his or her feelings toward it, raise the stakes or tension?

Write for at least 40 minutes, if you can.

Journal Writing During a Pandemic

Begin now.
— May Sarton, American poet, novelist, and memoirist

Do you keep a daily journal? If you do, you know what an invaluable resource journal writing can be in times of crisis. If you are a lapsed journal writer or have never kept a journal, consider starting one today.

Journal writing is a means of checking in with yourself. It’s a portal that deepens one’s consciousness—of society, of the physical world, of the senses, of one’s inner life, of the spirit. It asks: How are you? How are you really?

The tools you need are (1) blank paper or a notebook, (2) a pen or pencil, (3) twenty minutes, (4) privacy, and (5) a little faith in yourself—faith that this act of writing is important for your health and well-being.

Decades of medical and social science research show the benefits of writing. The simple act of putting pen to paper is proven to reduce blood pressure, lower heart rate, increase the production of the body’s T-cells to bolster the immune system, and expedite recovery from disease.

Whatever your burdens, long- or short-term, journal writing can help you sort out your jumbled thoughts and feelings by giving you a confidential, safe place to let it all out. There is an unspeakable relief in having said all you have to say on a topic that distresses you. Word by word, the process of writing brings order to your inner life, which brings order to your world.

The COVID-19 pandemic prods us to explore and ask questions, whether we toil on the front lines—working in hospitals, food service, grocery stores, online teaching, and vital manufacturing—or find ourselves in lockdowns and quarantines. The situation begs us to assess our daily lives before, and during, and the unimaginable after.

Many of us have an opportunity to be more deliberate about the choices we make, and your journal is a place to explore those choices. What are your daily joys and pleasures? Struggles and confusions? What do you most hunger for? What do you miss—and what do you not miss? What are you thankful for? Expressing gratitude is common part of a journaling practice, and in times of trouble we need to uncover our gratitude most of all.

In your journal, write without judgment. No one will see these pages but you (and maybe not even you!), though you may choose to share some of what you’ve written. You can tear up your pages and throw them away if you want, but be prepared to realize that you’ve produced a treasure trove of memories that can be reread and perhaps passed on to your loved ones.

My mother was born in 1918 in the midst of that Spanish Influenza pandemic. How I wish I had my grandmother’s journals from that time! I wonder about the details of their day-to-day lives, and what I could learn from what they lived.

Try it! You can begin today. Simply write down the details of your day. No detail is too small to be noticed and appreciated. Day after day, you’ll be capturing and understanding your life.

Using the Sense of Smell

Part of Charlotte Lit’s “Keeping Pen to Paper” Series.


Writers paint a picture for our readers. We want them to see what we see, or what we’ve imagined. So it makes sense that the most of our writing focuses on what we see—that is, uses the sense of sight. But if you want to paint a more vivid picture for your readers, be sure to sprinkle in the other senses: smell, taste, hearing, and touch.

In today’s mini lesson and prompt, we’ll focus on the sense of smell. Here are some examples of writing using the sense of smell.

“The room smelled like stale smoke and Italian salad dressing.” (Michael Connelly, “The Poet”) Here, Connelly uses the odors of a place in a fairly basic way, describing what he actually observes, and his description puts us there in the room. Here’s another:

“Wearing dry-cleaned jeans and a white T-shirt under a red bolero jacket, she gingerly wandered about, lightly touching things, her perfume, that vanilla musk, laying down a heavy sweetish track wherever she went.” (Richard Price, “Samaritan”) Here, Price goes a bit further, using a scent to tell us something about one of the characters. Here’s Anne Lamott, in nonfiction:

“After a while, I stretched out on one of the benches and closed my eyes…. My bones were cold. I could isolate the icy scent of pine trees that sneaked through the walls. Sometimes grace is a ribbon of mountain air that gets in through the cracks.” (Anne Lamott, “Grace (Eventually)”) Lamott elevates this a bit more, endowing the odor with meaning. Finally, here’s Price again, taking the odor of the woman and making it meaningful for the narrator:

“As they left the apartment, heading for a restaurant, Ray became aware that Danielle’s perfume would still be in the air a few hours from now when he returned, just hanging there like an unmitigated longing, and there would be nothing he could do about it.” (Richard Price, “Samaritan”)

Your prompt for today has two parts. First, add the scent/order/smell to an existing scene in a basic way, just as an additional descriptor for the setting. Then, take a scene—either this same one, a different one, or a new one—and add scent/odor/smell in a more complex way, to tell us something about a character, or use it metaphorically.

Making Connections

Part of Charlotte Lit’s “Keeping Pen to Paper” Series.


Let’s face it. Life in the outer world is typically so busy, most of us hurry through our days with little awareness of what’s going on inside us. We awaken each morning with to-do lists so long and loud, our nighttime dreams evaporate before we even open our eyes. And, we climb into bed at night so dog-tired we’re lucky to read ten minutes before our eyes slam shut again.

If you’re like me, you have a towering stack of books on your bedside table. And, as frightening as these days are for all of us, for the next few weeks (maybe months), we’ve been given the gift of time. Time to read. Time to write. Time to reconnect with our unique creative genius.

Social isolation doesn’t have to feel isolating when you have a bookshelf full of friends. I’m not suggesting you read for mere entertainment or as a way of distracting yourself. Rather, I suggest keeping a pen and a notebook nearby so that you can begin making real connections between the words you read and the life you live. Whether you scribble in the margins of your book, keep a list of the beautiful sentences you find, or find yourself inspired to riff on one of its themes, reading with a pen or pencil in hand is an essential form of conversation—with the author, with the book’s characters, with the world, and, most importantly, with yourself.

Starting a conversation with a book (or any other form of writing) is one of the best ways I know to bridge the gap between life in the outer world, which has suddenly gotten much smaller, and the interior world, which is infinitely large. These conversations build psychic bridges between our egos (the conscious part of the personality that manages practical, day-to-day life) and the unconscious world of forms and energies from which imagination arises. Every time you cross that bridge you strengthen your connection to the inner world and, with it, access to creative ideas.

So, your assignment this week, is to begin (or continue) the inner journey by building this bridge. There are lots of ways to do this. Here are three suggestions:

1) Open that fat book—you know, the one you’ve been saving for the day you have enough time to really dig in—and read it slowly. Underline or place sticky notes on the sections that inspire you, make you wonder, or make you mad. After 30 minutes, stop reading, select a passage to respond to, and write for 15-30 minutes. The form doesn’t matter––essay, poetry, fiction, love letter, cartoon strip. Just start a conversation that deepens your experience of the book by taking you deeper into your own experience.

2) Write for 15-30 minutes (from your point of view or the point of view of someone else—real or fictional), beginning with one of the following questions:

  • What stands between you and someone you love?
  • What stands between you and something you really desire?
  • What stands between you and the person you once were or the person you want to become?

Then, continue your writing by wondering how you might bridge the distance.

3). Write about one or more bridges you’ve burned. Describe the bridge and the things, people, or places it connected. How did the fire start? Did you watch it burn or turn your back? When you think back, is it with regret or remorse? Or is with certainty? Where did the burning of that bridge lead you?

Paying Attention Requires the Deep Gaze, Not the Passing Glance

Irene Blair Honeycutt

Irene Blair Honeycutt

Needing to feel grounded, I sit outside, an acorn in my hand. A slight breeze brushes my face. I loosen my grip on the acorn; and it feels lighter, as if it might mysteriously dissolve and flow into my veins.

Does this acorn hold within its DNA the tiny thing Julian of Norwich held in her palm?

A Showing from God. The size of a hazelnut. She writes, “I looked at this with the eye of my soul and thought: ‘What can this be?’” Such a small thing for her God to have made a major part of a visitation. Is it sacrilege to think that Denise Levertov is expressing both bemusement and good-natured humor when she addresses Julian in one of her dialogues: “And you ask us to turn our gaze/inside out, and see a little thing,/the size of a hazelnut,/ and believe it is our world?”

I like to think of writers conversing about life’s mysteries often evoked by small things:  acorns, hazelnuts, grains of sand, flowers in crannied walls, the mustard seed. O Taste and See, Levertov says. “On the last day of the world I would want to plant a tree,” Merwin responds. “Our metaphors go on ahead of us,” Doty asserts. And if we, as poets, are receptive, we learn to follow them.

Metaphors of our poems save us, or almost do. Something beyond metaphor, beyond the poem, can only do that. Save in the sense of a “momentary stay against confusion,” Frost interjects. Poems guide, rage, console, inspire, bear witness. They reach their limits in their capacity to express the ineffable. Isn’t this why Whitman’s narrator rises in the lecture hall and leaves the astronomer lecturing? He is bored, yes. But needing more, craving more than charts and diagrams, he actually becomes sick sitting there. Is it intuition that urges him to glide out into “the mystical moist night-air” and look “up in perfect silence at the stars”? Whitman juxtaposes the expansiveness of the Great Silence of the Universe to the loud applause in the lecture hall, leaving narrator and reader feeling the mystery.

Whatever the direction, whatever form the poem takes while being shaped, whatever picture it paints, the good poem often leaves an opening for transcendence. I love how Levertov in “Some Notes on Organic Form” refers to the act of writing as a communion wherein “the writing is not a matter of one element supervising the others but of intuitive interaction between all the elements involved.”

The genesis of the poem emanates from paying attention to the world and leads to discovery. To taste and see requires the deep gaze, not the passing glance, as Levertov shows in these opening stanzas from “To Live in the Mercy of God”:

To lie back under the tallest
oldest trees. How far the stems
rise, rise
                before ribs of shelter
                                                   open!

To live in the mercy of God. The complete
sentence too adequate, has no give.
Awe, not comfort. Stone, elbows of
stony wood beneath lenient
moss bed.

And awe suddenly
passing beyond itself. Becomes
a form of comfort.

 


Irene Blair Honeycutt’s fourth poetry book, Beneath the Bamboo Sky (Main Street Rag 2017), is sub-titled Poems and Pieces on Loss and Consolation. Her kinship with trees began in her childhood in FL where she often retreated to her palm hut. She still meets with the woods and enjoys writing time in her mountain cabin. Her work has been published by journals, including Nimrod, Southern Poetry Review, The Southern Poetry Anthology: VII, and Virginia Quarterly Review. She founded CPCC’s Sensoria. Upon her retirement from teaching, the college established a Distinguished Lectureship in her name.

Getting Lit at Home

So, you’re going to be spending a bit more time at home? You could binge Netflix, but we have some ideas for how to get more Lit. (Thanks to WCNC’s Charlotte Today for inviting us on to talk about these ideas.)

Read more.

We all have a stack on our nightstands. Plus, you can check out ebooks from the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, or actual books if you visit one in person. If you request a book online, they’ll deliver to your local branch.

Listen more.

Audiobooks are a growing trend. You can buy audiobooks from Audible and Libro.fm (where purchases benefit your chosen independent bookstore), or — again — download them  from the library. There are also many great literary podcasts. The New Yorker has several notable ones: The Writer’s Voice, in which the magazine’s latest short stories are read by the author; the Fiction Podcast, in which writers select a story from the New Yorker archives to read and discuss; and the Poetry Podcast, which does the same for poetry. Locally, there’s Charlotte Readers Podcast, which has 100 episodes of local and national writers reading and discussing their work — including Charlotte Lit’s Paul Reali and Kathie Collins and many of our members and teachers.

Read to each other.

We read to our kids when they’re small, but reading out loud is a wonderful experience at any age. Poetry reads particularly well, but you can read anything. How about Harry Potter?

Netflix and…novel.

There’s certainly going to be some TV watching during our extending home stays, so how about reading a novel and then watching the movie or serial adaptation? The other order works, too.

Begin writing.

There’s a thing called NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month, where people try to write a first draft of a novel 50,000 words, in a month. You could make your own writing challenge and make a great head start on your own novel or memoir, or some poetry. A good way to begin is by keeping a journal.

Take a class.

There are many online classes for writers, and really for anyone and about anything. Grub Street, Coursera, MasterClass — there are lots of options. Little known is that if you have a library card you can access The Great Courses for free, streaming, with the Kanopy service.

Pacing in a Poem

Paula Martinacby Tina Barr

One element that I often share with students, when we workshop poems, is the movement or pacing of a poem. The poem’s imagistic, linguistic or narrative thrust must convey the reader through the poem. The poem might center on a small drama, and this is fine. Think of a haiku. But the poem’s length has to be congruent with the level of drama.

In Robert Frost’s famous poem, when a boy loses his hand to a saw, just before he stops work, the poem is rich with microcosmic and macrocosmic context, so the poem is longer, and narrative. Sometimes the “meat” or the “juicy” part of a poem does not actually occur until later in the draft, often because as the writer begins, he or she doesn’t reach “lift-off” or the real central metaphor, dramatic upswing, or the language doesn’t become really compelling until a certain point in the draft. Often this is because the writer is gearing up before her or his unconscious begins to drive the poem. And it’s the unconscious that really comes up with compelling imaginative ideas.

There is a balance between the way the reader moves through the poem and the “pay-off” for the reader. The reader must be kept engaged by the poem, and the poem needs to offer or give an experience to the reader, whether purely linguistic, centered in imagery, or in a dramatic moment or series of moments, or a story.

My students are often confused about what I mean by pacing, but I mean the poem can’t meander on for 3 pages unless those 3 pages pack some kind of punch. That is why, and this is interesting to me, in a contest in which I was a finalist recently, the editors advised that out of the 1200 or so entries, they were sending 15 or 20 finalists to the judge, but they were very specific in their submission policy about advising writers to avoid sending in entries that went over a page, in general. They were referring to the difficulty of sustaining that energy, and poetry, because it is, in general, about compression and condensed language, works best, often, on one page!


ABOUT TINA: Tina Barr’s books include “Green Target,” winner of the Barrow Street Press Book Prize and the Brockman-Campbell Award for the best book of poems published by a North Carolinian in 2018, Kaleidoscope (Iris Press)She teaches in the Great Smokies Creative Writing Program at UNC Asheville.


LEARN WITH TINA: Tina Barr leads the Charlotte Lit class, “Folk Wisdom: Proverbs as Prompts for Creating Narrative, Memoir, Poem,” Saturday, April 4, 1-3:30 p.m. More information is here.

A Little Bit Afraid

A hundred people gathered for a lunch-and-learn session on developing their creative process. Just a quick look at creativity as a discipline rather than an airy flight of fancifulness.

As part of that process, I encouraged them to fill their creative wells by seeking experiences outside their comfort zone, what I call “rambles.”

One woman raised her hand: “How do you know when you’re doing it right?”

In a flash, her question coalesced for me what drives my creative process.

The answer came so quickly, it surprised me. Only later, I realized its intuitive truth: “When you’re a little bit afraid.”

A little bit afraid. Not burdened by fear that paralyzes you. But also not bored or complacent. If you’re not taking risks, pushing yourself, how can you possibly create something that interests and engages anyone else?

Any exploration of creativity eventually has to deal with fear. When I ask writers why they haven’t started a project they long to do—and when I keep asking why, past their easy first answers about not finding time or not knowing how to start—it usually comes down to one word:

Fear.

Of what? Of failure. That someone will ridicule it (usually some specific critical voice they carry with them from the past). That it will be a waste of time. That it won’t be any good.

No, it won’t be any good. So what?

I’ve never met a creative person who loved the first efforts—even those with life-long creative practices, those who’ve enjoyed success, been celebrated. It’s never good at first—so what?

In my own creative work, I came to realize that fear wasn’t something to overcome but something to work with, to appreciate. After all, if I’m not doing something that’s important enough to me that it scares me a little, why should a reader care about it? Like the butterflies before I get on a stage to speak, if I’m not a little afraid, I’m not attempting anything worthwhile.

Harness that adrenaline, that spark. Understand its purpose, use it to challenge yourself, to bring out the best you have to offer. You’ll make it better later—but you can’t rewrite a blank page. Start with what scares you a little. The creative process starts there.

Runes

Jennifer Halls

Jennifer Halls

Runes are ancient. They are the symbols from which our alphabet was developed. The first historically documented use of runes in a systematic way (as words) is 50 C.E. It is not known when the first symbols were written, then used to mean the same thing over and over.

Scholars still study and argue how and when these letters changed shape into the type on our modern-day keyboards, yet they are the foundation of every word we write. Learning about the runes can give us a completely different perspective and dimensional richness of the words we choose. They can also give us interesting ways to focus our lives and our writing.

For instance, today I reached into a bag of runes while internally asking, “What is the most important thing to write about for Charlotte Lit?” One wooden disk felt slightly different than the others. It was Laguz, which is connected to things unseen but felt—intuition. This suggested I needed to share my simple intuitive process of pulling a rune to focus my writing. This is a quick and easy way to reveal what perspective might be needed in a piece of writing, especially since I mainly use runes as a way to unlock intuition.

Laguz

Laguz

The word rune is found in most Germanic and Celtic languages to mean mystery or secret, hinting at their intuitive nature. The way their meanings thread through every word is a secret that even the best scholars have only sketchy ideas about. I find etymology very satisfying; discovering meanings from root words can be quite revealing. But how were those words formed? While we may never know, we can play with the clues runes give us.


Want to learn more? Jennifer leads a one-day class, “Runes: Discover the Hidden Power in Words,” February 29, 2020. More information is here.

Query Letter: Going Beyond the Pitch – Knowing About Who You Are

Betsy Thorpe

Betsy Thorpe

I’ve read thousands of query letters. Thousands and thousands.

At the beginning of my career, the queries came from agents. They were polished. They were short. They were resting on the laurels of that agent’s reputation. If a high-powered agent sent a submission to me or my boss, I knew I had to put whatever I was doing on hold, because if I didn’t, I would miss out on acquiring what could be a major book for our publishing house. That book would have an offer by the end of the week, probably within twenty-four hours. Her taste, her reputation, her client roster, was that good.

A dozen years later, I had opened up my own editorial business after the birth of my first child, wanting the kind of flexibility that, unfortunately, was not negotiable back then. I was editing and ghostwriting, and I had sold a wonderful book by a friend’s sister to Tarcher/Penguin. I thought, hmm, Maybe I’ll be an agent. So, I hung my shingle out and the query floodgates opened. I quickly saw how uneducated people were about constructing an effective query. Many were simply lists: “I’ve written three adult novels, four children’s books, and two screenplays. Which would you like to see?” Others, (mostly men) thought that if they compared themselves to God, all bestsellers ever written, and Henry Ford, that I would surely want to see their manuscripts and, by golly, would be a fool not to. (I refer you to Slush Pile Hell for great examples of really awful queries.)

I soon found that agenting was not the right business model for me, took down my shingle, and returned to my editorial services business. But for years afterward I continued to receive thousands of unsolicited query letters, which goes to show: people don’t do their research. Since then, as online resources have educated people, I’ve seen queries improve. But there’s still a long way to go.

Which leads me to what I want to help you with today: that tiny fourth paragraph in your query letter, which is the one about you. Many people don’t include any information about themselves. They just pitch their book, maybe include some comps if we’re lucky, and then walk away. But wait! I say, who even are you? Where do you come from? What brings you to our querying shores?

In this third paragraph, tell us what profession you are in now, or have been. It helps to know, because you could be bringing an important skill set to your work as an author. Teachers, professors, lawyers, salespeople make wonderful presenters and are not shy getting up in front of groups. Those in advertising and marketing and social media know myriad ways to get their book in front of potential readers.

Then there’s participation in writers’ groups, conferences, classes. Why do agents and editors want to know this? We want to see that you’re networking with other writers—those are the folks who are going to be there for you. You’ll need blurbs from faculty you’ve studied with or from fellow writers who have also gotten book deals. Your fellow writer friends will come out to your book signings and help sponsor or throw events for you. “It takes a village” doesn’t just apply to raising children, it relates to building up a writer as well. From your writers’ group to beta readers, from taking classes to getting a professional edit to getting a final proofread, from gaining support on Twitter and Instagram and Facebook, there are numerous steps along the road to getting your book ready for “prime time.” Don’t think that it’s a solitary pursuit––just you and your laptop in a coffee shop. Editors and agents like to see that you’re aware of how important it is to network. Just by adding a few key words to your bio, like “member of the NC Writers’ Network and Charlotte Lit” can be huge.

Finally, where do you live? Think it doesn’t matter? What if an agent grew up in Raleigh, feels alone in New York, and would love to connect with Southern writers? By writing, “graduate of NC State, and living in Charlotte, NC,” you add that little twist, that personal connection, that says to agent, hmm, interesting!

But don’t go crazy beefing up your bio—the personal should not be more than 3 lines of your query letter. It’s not a resume. Choose wisely what you put in. Make it interesting. Make it memorable.


Betsy Thorpe started in book publishing as an assistant at Atheneum, eventually becoming an acquiring and developmental editor while working at HarperCollins, Broadway Books (Random House), Macmillan, and John Wiley & Sons. She then started Betsy Thorpe Literary Services, which helps authors deliver their best work to the public, either through publishers or self-publishing. She is the co-author of numerous non-fiction books, including three featured in the New York Times, and is at work on her second novel, The Writer’s Cottage.