SAFTA Writers’ Coop: Tin roof. Porch. Woodstove. Outhouse. Sold.

Editor’s Note: As we move into summer, Litmosphere will appear less frequently. You can look forward to reports from the field like the following, where writers in our community report back on fellowships and residencies they experience this summer.  First up, this dispatch from Beth Gilstrap.

I first learned about Sundress Academy for the Arts at Firefly Farms through writer friends on social media. Most of my tribe is scattered across the country and if it weren’t for Instagram & Twitter accounts, I’d hardly know who was publishing where or what writerly adventures they had. I knew of Sundress Publications since they put out the Best of the Net Anthology, but also because they put out stellar work, some of which happens to be written by folks I’m lucky enough to call friends. In this instance, my poet friend Jim Warner spent a week at SAFTA’s new Writers’ Coop last year to finish his third collection, Actual Miles. He posted photos of an idyllic dry cabin nestled in a Tennessee holler on a working farm complete with a donkey mascot named Jayne. All it took for me to apply was one look at the place. Tin roof. Porch. Woodstove. Outhouse. Sold. Though the cabin is dry, it’s only a quarter mile from the SAFTA farmhouse, where all residents have full access to the amenities at farmhouse, including the best farm eggs I’ve ever tasted in my life.

With no electricity or running water and no obligations to participate in readings or teach workshops, I knew the cabin was the perfect place for me to finish my second story collection. To apply, I filled out the form on their website. The application also requires a brief project statement, two references, a CV, a writing sample, and an application fee of $15, or $10 for current students. The fee is waived for Coop applications. The Writers’ Coop is just one residency option. They also have farmhouse residencies, which include an element of farm volunteer work in the form of feeding livestock. My week at the Coop cost $150.00.

In the mornings, I woke to the sound of chickens and sheep and the sweet smell of the deep woods. I walked the short distance to the cabin to make myself eggs and coffee and then after charging all my devices, headed back to the cabin for the day. If nature inspires you, you can do like I did and drag a folding chair out to the little porch to write for most of the day. While I wrote, I watched butterflies and birds and even a Mama coyote and her pup. I laughed at a lizard trying to climb a piece of scrap metal, said hello to a salamander, and even spied a fox trotting along the valley below. The solitude and quiet was exactly what I needed. In the evenings, I read by lantern light until I fell asleep. During my week at the cabin, I wrote every day for hours and ultimately, did complete a draft of my new book. At the end of the week, I had the opportunity to mingle with a bunch of poets up for a retreat and workshop. Good conversation, food, and cheap beer after heavy summer storms was a perfect way to celebrate the work and being writers in the world doing our thing. I will be reapplying for the fall residency period.

Beth Gilstrap is the author of I Am Barbarella: Stories (2015) from Twelve Winters Press and No Mans Wild Laura (2016) from Hyacinth Girl Press. She serves as Fiction Editor at Little Fiction | Big Truths. Her work has been selected as’s Fiction Pick of the Week and nominated for storySouth’s Million Writers Award, Best of the Net, & The Pushcart Prize. She was also a finalist for both the 2018 Doris Betts Fiction Prize & the 2018 Best Small Fictions Anthology. She has been awarded several residencies including Sundress Academy for the Arts at Firefly Farms and  Oregon State University’s Spring Creek Project for ideas, nature, and the written word. Her work has appeared in Re: AL, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, The Minnesota Review, Hot Metal Bridgeand Little Patuxent Reviewamong others. She lives in Charlotte with her husband and enough rescue pets to make life interesting.


Summer Reading Picks from Park Road Books

Ah, summer!  Time to dig your toes in the sand and crack open an excellent book. Need ideas? Our friends at Park Road Books are here with these helpful suggestions, including Middle Grade and YA picks at the end of the list. 

Nothing is Forgotten, by Peter Golden (Atria, $26.00)

This historical novel delves into family relationships and secrets.  Spanning the time between WW II and the Cold War, Nothing is Forgotten follows a family of Russian Jews as they escape persecution and rebuild their lives only to have their past resurface.  From a CIA-sponsored radio program broadcasting early rock ’n’ roll in West Germany to tracking down Pablo Picasso in the south of France, this novel spins a great tale that keeps the reader guessing and wanting more. (John O.)

Vacationland, by John Hodgman (Penguin Books, $16.00)

Memoir is a new direction for John Hodgman, whose previous three books comprised a fantastically fraudulent encyclopedia of imagined knowledge. Hodgman brings the same absurdist wit and manic, self-deprecating sensibilities to his stories in Vacationland, along with keen observations and honest insight. John Hodgman remains one of the funniest writers around, but with Vacationland we get to enjoy a bit of his wisdom as well. (John O.)

Educated, by Tara Westover  (Random House, $28.00)

From debut New York Times bestselling author Tara Westover comes Educated: A Memoir. A true story about Tara Westover’s life growing up in the mountains of Idaho raised by survivalists. The story follows young Tara through her early years and into adulthood. Her father shuns all forms of government oversight and because of this, she never attends school. Although the family has had its struggles they have remained “close.” This changes when Tara decides to take the GED and is accepted into Brigham Young University.  With the freedom of education, Tara struggles with what she now sees is a very different world from the one she grew up with. This beautiful book is an engrossing story and an engaging read. If you enjoyed The Glass Castle you will enjoy Educated. (Megan M.)

The Seven Husbands, by Taylor Jenkins Reid  (Washington Square Press, $16.00)

An excellent look at not only the various “masks” that women of the 1950s were required to wear in order to survive daily life, but also about the sheer strength of true love. This triumph of a novel chronicles the life of fictional Old Hollywood actress Evelyn Hugo as told through interview snippets by the backseat narrator, Monique, a journalist hired to write the aging Evelyn’s biography. Throughout the novel, Evelyn candidly details life with each of her seven husbands with the intent of answering the question on everyone’s mind: which one was the great love of her life? With amazing women of color and LGBTQ+ representation, this novel is beyond deserving of the overwhelming praise it has received. (Nikki B.)

Convenience Store Woman, by Sayaka Murata (Grove Press, $20.00, on-sale 6/12/18)

A slim and stunning English-language début of a young woman who works in a Japanese convenience store for 18 years. Funny, touching and scathing observation on what passes for normal in society. Selling over 650,000 copies in Japan is an achievement and I hope her American audience appreciates her as much as I do. (Sally B.)

Penelope Lemon: Game On!, by Inman Majors (Louisiana State University Press, $26.00, on-sale 8/15/18)

Don’t plan on getting anything done once you pick up the funniest book of 2018. Major’s tale of a recently divorced 40 year-old woman struggling to make a life for herself and her ten year-old son is a hilarious page-turner. (Sally B.)

Calypso: Essays, by David Sedaris (Little Brown and Company, $28.00)

This is David’s best book. Humor and tragedy that will bring tears to your eyes. Need I say anything else? (Sally B.)

Middle Grade

The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl, by Stacy McAnulty (Penguin Random House, $16.99)

The story of twelve-year-old Lucy whose grandmother makes her attend middle school for one year, make one friend, join one activity, and read one book.  Seems pretty easy except since Lucy was struck by lightning four years earlier, she’s now a math savant who does calculus for fun, reads math textbooks, and has been homeschooled ever since. Fitting in isn’t easy for Lucy; her ordered, rigid world meets middle school angst while its aches are tempered with laughter.  Lucy and her peers learn to embrace their uniqueness and this book reminds all readers to do the same. (Sherri S.)

Young Adult/Teen

The Astonishing Color of After, by Emily X. R. Pan (Little Brown for Young Readers, $18.99)

This gorgeous, powerful début tells the story of an incredible journey from the U.S. to Taiwan. After Leah’s mother dies by suicide, she appears to Leah as a ghost in the form of a giant red bird. To uncover her family’s secrets, Leah travels to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents. With gorgeous prose, elements of magical realism and Buddhist influences, this novel reads like a dream. (Shauna S.)

Anger is a Gift, by Mark Oshiro (Tor Teen, $17.99)

With this debut, Mark Oshiro has written a fully intersectional book sure to garner many awards. Oshiro’s characters represent a range of gender, sexuality, disability, and mental health situations and he covers topics such as systemic racism, disability access, police brutality, anxiety, first love, and more. With fast-paced and compulsively readable writing, Anger Is a Gift is a much-needed addition to the literary canon. Fans of The Hate U Give, Dear Martin, and All American Boys will enjoy this novel. (Shauna S.)

Sky in the Deep, by Adrienne Young (St. Martins Press, $17.99)

This novel sends readers into a Viking-like world with warrior clans who fight every five years. During the last clash Eelyn, an Aska warrior, watched her brother die on the battlefield against the Riki.  She has been training for revenge ever since and gets her chance during the next battle cycle only to see her brother alive and fighting with her enemy. Stunned by his betrayal of family and clan, wounded Eelyn must survive with her brother’s friend Fiske and his family in order to survive. When a legendary clan begins to raid and kill throughout the mountain villages, Eelyn and Fiske must decide who is the worst enemy-the Herja or themselves?  Gritty, Games-of-Thrones-like action will appeal to both genders with just a slight hint of romance. (Sherri S.)

A Thousand Beginnings and Endings, edited by Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman (Harper Collins, $17.99, on-sale 6/26/18)

This collection of YA short stories explores themes in East and South Asian mythology and features Charlotte-based New York Times bestselling author Renee Ahdieh and New York Times bestselling and North Carolina-based author Roshani Chokshi. (Sherri S. and Shauna S.)

Tyree Daye’s “River Hymns”

Gabrielle Calvocoressi, author of Rocket Fantastic and featured poet for 4X4CLT in June 2017, served as final judge for the American Poetry Review’s Honickman First Book Prize. She chose Tyree Daye’s River Hymns, citing the poet’s ability “to show us a world we thought we knew and then expand our understanding.” Daye joins Charlotte Lit as featured writer for 4X4CLT in June 2018.

Daye is from Youngsville, North Carolina, a small town northeast of Raleigh with a population of 1,157 according to the 2010 census. The poems in this collection are imbued with a sense of that place. Action happens at home, in church, and outside. The separation between inside and outside is a thin one. Outside is close, sometimes capricious, where threat and beauty reside in equal measure. In “Wade Through,” the speaker’s mother is quick to pass along inherited warnings:

The presence of extended family, both living and dead, is keenly felt in these poems and the separation between those two states is also a thin one. The speaker’s grandmother is dead, but that doesn’t stop him from speaking to her. In “How Long Is Her Hair Now?” he asks, what’s the price of being / obsessed with the dead? It’s a question the poet returns to again and again. Earlier in that same poem he admits she sometimes answers back:

As one would expect from a book with “river” in its title, currents run through this book. Yes, the actual rivers—the Haw and the Neuse are named specifically—but so is the river of gin that ensnares many. As Daye notes in “Southern Silence,” one of the collection’s standouts:

And in “What is God but Rain Spilling Me Over?” the dead also gather near the river to drink and confess / in the ribcage of the pines. The strongest current, though, is that of extended family. In “Sore,” the speaker says he comes from a clutter of folks and they’re all here: aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents, alive and dead, where they live, where they’re buried, what they liked to eat, how they liked to play. The family’s geography weaves in and around the rivers, living in houses they don’t own, where people they love have died or “made ghost” and haunt them still.

Calvocoressi wrote that in River Hymns she encountered “new ways to think about family and community, new ways to wrestle with my own landscape and legacy.” That’s the gift Daye’s plain-spoken but beautifully wrought lyrics offer us.

Join Charlotte Lit in welcoming Tyree Daye for two events on Wednesday June 6:

Master Class, 10 am to 1 pm: Tyree Daye teaches a master class at Charlotte Lit, “Writing the I—Giving our Poems Identity.” In this workshop, framed by Barbara Guest’s “Invisible Architecture” and Vievee Francis’ “Coming to the ‘I,’” we’ll take a look at the way the poet’s personal narrative and the poem’s symbols frame the structure and emotional connection to images. We’ll also learn ways of diving into the subconscious, where many of the images we use in our writing exist, and consider those moments of coming up for air, when our written work begins to develop identity. Register here

4X4CLT Release Party, 6:30-8:30 pm: Join us in celebrating the next release of 4X4CLT posters, featuring poems by Tyree Daye and art by Hasaan Kirkland and Kathie Roig, at C3 Lab in South End. Tyree reads from his award-winning collection River Hymns, and Kathie speaks about the creative process for her handwoven art, which will be on display. We’ll also have craft beer courtesy of Triple C Brewing and delicious bites from Earl’s Grocery. Free!

Immutable Laws of Writing #3: Writer’s Block Does Not Exist

Writer’s block does not exist.

That might seem harsh, especially if you’ve experienced writer’s block. Let me clarify: I acknowledge that we can feel blocked, and that many writers call this feeling “writer’s block.” Immutable Law of Writing #3 contends that there is no ailment, no virus, no universal diagnosable condition called writer’s block. “Writer’s block” is a bogeyman. When we’re blocked, it’s something specific masquerading as a force we can’t control.

So, what does block us? And what can we do about it?

1. You’re blocked because the writing feels hard.

Can’t sugarcoat this: writing is hard, or can be. Just because the words sometimes (or even usually) flow freely doesn’t mean you should expect that all the time. It’s a craft, not magic. If you’re blocked, ask: is it just that the writing is hard, and I’m avoiding it because it’s hard?

One solution: give yourself a small quota—say, 250 words—and write until you get there. Remind yourself, say it out loud: writing is hard some days. If you don’t write on those days, you soon won’t be a writer at all.

Another solution: write something else. Write something you want to write. If there’s something nagging at you, a story that won’t stay out of your head, work on that. Come back later to the work that got you stuck, when you’re refreshed.

2. You’re blocked because you don’t know what’s next.

The question here is: Why don’t I know what’s next?

It could be that you’re a pantser—a seat-of-the-pants writer, as dubbed by Larry Brooks—who lets the story emerge organically. One solution is to try some pre-planning. You don’t need to become a full-out outliner, but do spend some time imagining the story forward. At the very least, if writing a novel especially, identify the primary substructure. Most use this one:

  • The Setup (establishing the stakes)
  • The Inciting Incident (sets the story in motion)
  • Plot Point 1 (the story direction changes)
  • Midpoint (something important happens)
  • Plot Point 2 (a twist that sends the story toward its conclusion)
  • Resolution (how it all works out)

Once you have a general destination, you’ll get moving again. They don’t have to be good words. As a devoted pantser, you already know that most your words are going to get edited or edited out.

3. You’re blocked because you are out of ideas.

Just as I don’t believe in writer’s block, I don’t believe that writers ever run out of ideas.

Generally the opposite is true: we have so many story ideas that the trouble is deciding which one to work on. If that’s the case, try this: make a list of your current story ideas. For each, write a descriptive paragraph explaining what it’s about. (Alternately, do this out loud.) The one you wrote or spoke the most about is likely the one you have the most energy for. Follow the energy.

But let’s say it is possible to be out of ideas. Then what?

In a story-in-progress, add a new and unexpected character, or introduce some kind of trouble, and see how your characters respond.

If starting a new story and not knowing where to begin, start with the universal story frame:

  • Someone
  • Wants something badly
  • But there are obstacles
  • Which are overcome, or not
  • And someone is changed, or not

Identify a someone, something they want, and why they can’t have it. Try making lists on paper or using a mind map. Select one and start telling their story.

If you are writing a short story, use this basic setup: create two damaged people and bang them together. That is, name and describe them, then put them in a situation where something has changed (often phrased as: what’s different about today?).

4. You’re blocked because you’re not inspired.

Your muse, for reasons unexplained—the muse never explains—has vanished. Let you down. Gone on vacation. Or worse: is visiting the rival writer down the street! Oh, disloyal muse!

Seriously: you’ll wait a long time waiting for inspiration to arrive. Go and seek it out. Walk in the woods. Go to a movie. Read your favorite book, or a new one. Take a writing class. All of these can help. But the best solution is to put your behind in your writing chair. If you sit down to write every day between 9 and 11 a.m, say, you’ll find that that’s when the muse tends to appear.

5. You’re blocked but you don’t know why. It’s any and all of these or something else.

The one final fool-proof method is to lower your standards.

Immutable Law #1 says the words aren’t going to write themselves. You have to write them. It doesn’t matter if they’re any good. We have to edit later anyway. So give yourself permission to write badly. You can even choose it: “I’m going to write badly today!” Write terrible words that you will be ashamed of later. It’s liberating, really.

And once you start writing, Immutable Law #2 kicks in: objects in motion tend to stay in motion.

In the end, blockages happen to all of us. Sometimes, your fingers hover over the keys and nothing happens. How easy it is, when that happens, to get up and say, “I have writer’s block.” How easy it is to blame the universe and the muses. Next time, see if you can identify why you’re blocked, and then you’ll know what to do.

And you can stop believing in writer’s block. For good.

Where’s the Library at, a**hole?

In the old grammar joke, that’s how the bright freshman responds to the Harvard professor when he’s reprimanded for ending a sentence with a preposition. Finding balance between being right and being obnoxious is a delicate dance, one I’m beginning to wonder is worth navigating at all.

I was an English major. I am an avid reader. I spend most of my day thinking about writing—my own or that of others. But admittedly I break “The Rules” all the time. To me, beginning a sentence with a conjunction is a reasonable move if it renders a sentence more approachable. And (see what I did there?) while some will take issue with me, I won’t lead the charge for who vs. whom or can vs. may. In modern parlance, they have become nearly interchangeable (cue the wailing of middle school English teachers). Even so, I wonder which, if any, rules matter anymore as we contend with the daily torrent of words we both consume and produce.

Language is a living thing, one that’s always changing and adapting. I appreciate being afforded these greater degrees of nuance. Each year Webster’s Dictionary adds over a thousand new words to the lexicon. For instance, the next time I spy a typo on the froyo shop sign and react with a facepalm, you’ll be able to accurately describe my action and its cause. But after the facepalm? What next? What happens when the daily twitterings out of the highest office in the land are a bland word salad composed of limp iceberg lettuce mixed with “great” carrots and “huge” cucumbers. Do words and the rules governing them matter anymore?

And speaking of typos: over the past two weeks or so, a number of flagrant errors have accosted my hypersensitive eye: the political mailers advocating for the “perseveration of rights” and “formally incarcerated individuals.” Or the KFC placard—fast food signs being a notorious source of typos—touting its spicy chicken “sanwich.” Even those who know better (or should know to be more careful) make these mistakes, such as the nonprofit executive director who writes of his staff’s  “extrodinary” work. Do proofreaders still exist? Or are most people counting on autocorrect to save their bacon? These missteps send me rifling through the junk drawer for the nearest red pen. As the coffee mug slogan goes, I am silently judging your grammar. (Like vs. as. There’s another one.)

I recently finished reading a long novel that I’d checked out from the library. A fellow library patron had noted a typo on one of the pages by circling it with a pink highlighter. And not just circled it, but attempted to excise the errant word ending with the correct proofreader’s mark. Clearly one of my people. While I would not have done so myself (marking a library book a graver sin than making a typo) I recognized, even appreciated, this act of resistance. For lovers of language, such mistakes make us twitch. We want to make it right. We’re the ones who, on happening across the lovely word ‘lexicon,’ say it to ourselves under our breath: lexicon, lexicon, lexicon, until we’re driven to the dictionary to relearn that it’s derived from the Greek lexis, meaning word or speech.

What if, to use another word from the same Greek root, you’re dyslexic? What if, dyslexic or not, you simply couldn’t care less if someone swaps perseveration for preservation. Eh, you figure, they know what I mean. Maybe I should remove the comma splice from my own eye before noting you used complementary where you should have chosen complimentary. Maybe if we writers and readers are the standard bearers, we can share our love of language with the rest of the world without sounding like a**holes. Shall we discuss it? Shall we discuss shall?

Lisa Zerkle’s poems have appeared in The Collagist, Comstock Review, Southern Poetry Anthology, Broad River Review, Tar River Poetry, Nimrod, Sixfold, poemmemoirstory, Crucible, and Main Street Rag, among others. Author of the chapbook, Heart of the Light, she has served as President of the North Carolina Poetry Society, community columnist for The Charlotte Observer, and editor of Kakalak. She is the curator of Charlotte Lit’s 4X4CLT, a public art and poetry series.

Read Like a Pro

It’s open mic night. It seems simple enough. Just get up there and read your work, right? Not quite. As the saying goes, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. My suggestion is to go a step further: read like a pro.

Not that you’re expecting to be paid to read your poem or prose piece to a group of ten to thirty people, but it’s better to read as if you’re getting paid for it.  “Professionalism” is really about doing your best, delivering a quality product, satisfying your customers and making them want to come back for more. It’s both substance and image, the steak and the sizzle. Some tips:

Be ready to read. Have your poetry or prose handy and in the correct order. If you plan to read from a book or electronic device, flag the pieces in advance.

Approach the stage briskly. Try to reach the microphone before the applause dies out.  A brisk approach will energize you and raise the level of anticipation in the audience. If you have a mobility impairment, sit close to the mic, so you have less distance to cover, and ask for assistance if needed.

Treat the microphone as your friend. Speak up! The number of readers who can’t be clearly heard outnumber those who are “too loud” by a factor of at least 10 to one. Understand that not all microphones are the same. Some work just fine 12 inches from your face; others you almost have to kiss. Could you hear the readers ahead of you? If not, speak louder or get closer to the mic. Don’t tap on the mic, but feel free to ask, “Can you folks on the back row hear me clearly?”

Limit introductory and transitional remarks.You’re sharing time on the stage with other readers, so be considerate of everyone’s time.

Speak in the Goldilocks Zone. Reading in a monotone can make a good poem or story sound dull. Reading in a bombastic or melodramatic manner can be annoying to the audience. Find that “Goldilocks Zone” in between. Give your transitional remarks a slightly different “voice” than your reading—just enough so the audience can tell the difference between your remarks and your reading.  I remember attending one open mic where the author used the same tone and inflection in her remarks as in her poems. The audience didn’t know when to clap.

Make eye contact. To the extent you can do so without losing your place, look up occasionally from the page and make eye contact with the audience. Try to scatter your eye contact so that people on the right, left, in the middle, front and back feel as though you are speaking to them personally. This helps the audience to stay engaged and shows that you are interested in them.

Don’t apologize for your work.People don’t want to hear, “I wrote this ten minutes ago on a cocktail napkin” or “I know this a piece of crap but I’m going to read it anyway.” Just do the best you can with what you’ve got.

Do what you can to look good, sound good, and show interest in the audience. Who knows? Someday you might actually get paid for reading your work.

Richard Allen Taylor is the author of three books of poetry, most recently Armed and Luminous (Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 2016). Richard’s poems, articles and reviews have appeared in Rattle, Comstock Review, The Pedestal, Iodine Poetry Journal, Wild Goose Poetry Review, Asheville Poetry Review, Toastmaster Magazine and South Carolina Review, among others. He currently serves as review editor for The Main Street Rag and formerly co-edited Kakalak. After retiring from his 44-year business career in 2013, Richard earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte in 2015.

Heroes and Mermaids: A Deep Dive into Jung’s Archetypal Ocean

If you’re a writer or lit lover (and if you’re reading this blog post, you’re likely both), you’ve no doubt heard of Joseph Campbell’s seventeen stage “hero’s journey.” Maybe you’ve used a “hero’s journey” map to outline a novel—or even your own personal quest! If so, you know that Campbell draws his pattern (just one of an endless number of archetypal patterns) from C. G. Jung’s theory of the archetypes of the collective unconscious.

Jung believed that we are born with a psychological predisposition to understand our experiences in typical forms and patterns, and that these patterns bear striking resemblances to each other in cultures throughout the world. He theorized that these archetypal forms operate beneath our awareness in the very deepest layer of psyche—a murky, ocean-like psychological realm comprised of energies that shape all common human experience. This ocean, which he called the collective unconscious, is at once a repository for the experiences of our predecessors and the origin of everything we in turn will experience in our individual lives.

Though formless and invisible inside the collective unconscious, in the way that a magnet pulls fragments of metal to itself, the archetypes enter consciousness by clothing themselves in the events and situations of our personal and collective lives—that is, they appear to us as archetypal images or symbols.

Archetypal images depict both grand and ordinary events, characters and situations. The more common, the deeper the corresponding archetype lies inside the collective unconscious and the greater possible meanings it can hold. Take the archetype of the door or threshold, for example: when I walk through the door of my house at the end of the day I not only enter the place where I’ll have dinner and sleep, but I also encounter the accumulated power of the door/threshold archetype. As I turn the key, I unlock the closure that separates my life and work in the outer world from the much quieter and more private personal life inside my home. My door is more than a door; it’s a sacred portal into another world. When I cross the threshold I’m free to drop my public persona and orient myself more fully toward family and inner life.

“Crossing the threshold” is one of the steps (or archetypal situations) Campbell details in the first stage of the “hero’s journey.” Of course, in this context, the step marks a very different kind of crossing, one in which the hero leaves home for an adventure of a lifetime. The door/threshold archetype is so all-encompassing it very comfortably holds both of these meanings (this paradox), and countless others too.

Archetypes serve a psychological function that parallels the biological function served by our instincts. They are templates for understanding experience and orienting ourselves within our social-cultural world. They are also energies that seek to be consciously known and expressed and are therefore dependent on the human poietic or image-making impulse. Likewise, what is conscious, or nearly so, in us seeks connection to its imaginal source and meaning. With the language of archetypes we often find the words and images essential for expressing our otherwise inexpressible inner worlds of thoughts and feelings. Inner and outer constantly seek one another, and it is the sacred work of the artist, the writer in particular, to bring the two into creative relationship.

Any of a great number of images might be used to symbolize the archetypal writer, but at this moment I find one especially compelling—the mermaid. Thanks to Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Little Mermaid,” these beings which are half-human, half-fish are most often depicted as maids, but given their ambiguous, fluid natures, we might rather think of them as merpeople. As denizens of the deep primordial ocean (a symbol of the unconscious), these mythic beings can breathe both water and air. They are able to dive deep into the generative waters of the ocean and onto its floor where live the mysterious artifacts of humanity’s shipwrecked past. Then they rise again to communicate with living humans and reflect on surface life. They are mercurial intermediaries, savers of drowning sailors, and beautiful sirens with sweetest voices. But they are people, too—people with the rare and fantastic ability for shapeshifting transformation.

Though we might not always dive so deep or sing as sweetly, as writers we dive into the imagination—into the collective unconscious—and bring back the resources, images, and language we need to tell our parts of the human story in a way that is archetypally familiar yet fundamentally personal and new. We strive, as Joseph Campbell says, to live the myth forward, to deliver fresh images and narratives that speak to the world’s current situation.

You can experience a fine example of creative work that does just that in Actor’s Theatre’s production of The Mermaid Hour, a 2016 NuVoices finalist by David Valdes Greenwood. With pitch-perfect dialogue, this play explores the life of a family faced with making difficult choices for and with their twelve-year-old transgender daughter. The production opens Wednesday, May 2 at the Hadley Theater at Queens University and runs through May 19. Toni Reali, daughter of Charlotte Lit co-founder Paul Reali, plays the leading role of transgender tween Vi.

And, if you’re interested in learning more about Jung’s archetypes, you can join Kathie Collins and Paul Reali on May 2, 9, and 16 for a three-session class that examines the origins, expression, and creative potential of archetypal patterns. Registration and information is here.

Kathie Collins, Ph.D., co-founder of Charlotte Lit, earned her doctorate in Mythological Studies with an emphasis in Depth Psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute. A poet and lifelong student of Jungian psychology, Kathie thrives in the in-between space from which dreams and creativity emerge. She’s happiest when she can share that space with others and one of her great passions is bringing words and people together for transformative conversations. Kathie’s poetry has appeared in Immanence, Kakalak, BibleWorkbench, and Between. Her chapbook Jubilee was published by Main Street Rag in 2011.

3 Ways to Improve Your Writing

I spend a lot of time staring at a blank computer screen, my fingers poised over the keyboard, hoping the right words will find their way onto the page. I check my email every 30 seconds, waste time on Facebook, start typing, decide the writing is crap and hit delete, give up and read trashy magazines hoping for inspiration. Rinse, repeat.

When deadlines loom, I have no choice but to sit down and make magic happen (or at least get words on the page). Since I make a living selling words, sentences, and paragraphs, the articles I write need to shine.

Over the years, I’ve found that following three simple rules makes my writing much better.

Show, don’t tell. You’ve probably heard this before but it bears repeating. The best way to draw a reader into the story is through word art, painting a picture with your words.

In an essay about the thrill of completing your first marathon, you could tell the reader, “Running a marathon is hard” or you can show them what that means: “By mile 25, my legs wobbled, my breath came in jagged gasps and sweat dripped down my back. When I heard the distant cheers of the crowd waiting at the finish line, I felt buoyed by their energy and used it to help me finish the race.”

Drawing the reader into the story by creating scenes instead of just stating facts leads to more compelling writing.

Do a sensory scan.One of the faculty advisors I worked with in the MFA program at Queens University suggested this exercise and I’ve found it very helpful: After you finish writing a piece, go back over it and mark the places where there are sensory descriptions. Note uses of all five senses: sight, smell, hearing, touch, taste.

I recently finished a book about farming. During my sensory scan, I realized that none of the descriptions included scent. Farming is stinky! Writing the story without talking about the smells on a farm meant it was missing a key ingredient.

If your sensory scan reveals that you have only described the way things look, think about ways to incorporate descriptions of the other senses. You won’t engage all of the senses in every piece but it’s helpful to use descriptions of at least two or three.

Go on a media diet.The worst thing I can do when I’m working on an article or writing a book is read what others have written on the topic. The reason? When I read someone else’s work, their words echo in my thoughts and I lose my own voice.

When deadlines loom, I try to steer clear of the Internet, magazines, and books so that I can focus on how I want to tell the story. Sometimes I crawl into bed and write longhand in a notebook. My creative juices really flow when I’m not staring at the squiggly green line in MS Word that tells me I have a grammatical error on the page!

These creative techniques are the keys to telling—and selling—great stories.

Jodi Helmer. Journalist. Author. Writing teacher. Doggie momma. Beekeeper. Veggie grower. Vintage needlework collector. Napper. Eater. Canadian. Jodi has many roles and has built a freelance career by writing about them—and a host of other things that pique her curiosity. Her work has appeared in Entrepreneur, Hemispheres, National Geographic Traveler, CNNMoney, AARP, Farm Life, Health,and others. She is the author of four books, including The Green Yearand Farm Fresh Georgia. Jodi teaches writing workshops, offers one-on-one consulting and query critiques, and speaks at journalism conferences to help other writers achieve their goals.

Becoming Human: A White Person’s Reckoning with Race

Book Review: Debbie Irving’s Waking Up White and Finding Myself in a Story of Race

As a life-long lover of books, it feels particularly special to stumble across a book that profoundly shifts my world view, my approach to life, or my thoughts in a new direction. Waking Up White was one such book.

As a woman from a lower-middle class family situated in the beautiful, rolling hills of North Carolina, I’ve struggled with the stereotypes I grew up with, having relationships with people of color—including a best friendship with a woman of color in college, and through a job in which I faced data and stories that clearly showed racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Before reckoning with my own race and history, I experienced the sting—the Zap Factor—of conversations with this best friend, who praised Malcom X (someone I had learned was a terrorist) and tried to explain how she was watched in stores (I wondered what she must have been doing wrong). As I read through the chapters, I found myself breathing a sigh of relief and feeling encouraged that there is a way out of racial tension. By understanding ourselves a little more fully, we can find harmony with others who are different from us; and in embracing those differences, we will co-create a future that is more successful, beautiful, and rich for all of us.

In her book Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race, self-described WASP Debby Irving recounts her liberating, yet heart-wrenching coming to terms with racism: “Racism’s ultimate grip on me came not just from my conditioning to ignore it but from the inverse story that I was told about it.”

In this memoir-like account, Irving walks readers through the process of her transformation from a white person with no racial identity to having a profound sense of her history, privilege, and role in supporting anti-racism. Rather than lecture readers on what she has learned, Irving takes us deep into her journey. Her step-by-step account allows readers to reflect on their own journeys and invites them to embark on their own personal transformations. While some readers may be offended by her criticism of white culture, Irving’s commentary provides a contrast to her long-standing perception of white culture always being “right.” She offers no critical analysis of other racial or ethnic groups. The focus is inward, self-critical, and at times, uncomfortable.

In telling her story, Irving describes key themes or revelations that are common to the white experience. Each chapter provides an insight that builds on the next. She explains the failure of “color-blindness” and how she perpetuated racism by being unaware of the benefits brought by her skin color, and writes about “Robin Hood syndrome,” defined as “‘dysfunctional rescuing,’ helping people in ways that actually disempower them.” Her numerous examples of this syndrome may help altruistic white people recognize where this may come into play in their own civic engagement or volunteerism.

Irving introduces an idea she calls the Zap Factor––the sting of discomfort and embarrassment that occurs when white people experience misunderstandings or recognize their own ignorance during cross-racial conversations. By labeling these experiences and providing concrete examples from her own life, Irving enables readers, particularly white readers, to finally understand why their interactions with people of color may be uncomfortable and seemingly unproductive.

Irving also delves into the “dominant white culture” and elucidates the values and character traits that America’s dominant white culture has retained from early colonists. While these traits may not fit every white person, the underlying message is critical: There are cultural differences that impact cross-racial interactions. White people who are cognizant of their own dominant cultural traits while being sensitive to the cultures of people they interact with, will experience a greater degree of progress and partnership.

As Irving’s recount of her own racial enlightenment progresses, she lets go of labels and tells more personal stories. Later lessons seem to be still fresh and not quite established in her vernacular or approach. She describes a moment in which it became evident that her socialization as a white person remained so embedded with cultural differences her conversations still had the power to alienate people of other races and ethnicities. At the same time, when she realizes a mistake or blunder, Irving is able to model vulnerability and transparency. Concrete examples from her own life allow readers to share in her embarrassment and confusion, while also allowing them to identify with her efforts to overcome life-long blocks to wholehearted relationships with people of other races and ethnicities.

Irving doesn’t attempt to smooth over any of her experiences, and empathetic readers will struggle, particularly if Irving’s experiences resonate with them. But the book ends with a powerful, refreshing call to action: “Self-examination and the courage to admit to bias and unhelpful inherited behaviors may be our greatest tools for change. Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable enough to expose our ignorance and insecurities takes courage. And love. I believe the most loving thing a person, or a group of people, can do for another is to examine the ways in which their own insecurities and assumptions interfere with others’ ability to thrive.”

Waking Up Whiteis a moving story of reckoning, a kick in the pants for readers who have become discouraged or indifferent to issues of race, and a tremendous tool for the person seeking to understand and eliminate racism. It’s a story about reclaiming our humanity. When the fabrications of race are exposed for what they are (constructs of power) and what they have caused (dehumanization of people, death, injustice, and unrest), we are freed to recognize the humanity in our fellow brothers and sisters, to collectively mourn the devastation that has been caused, and to collectively build a better future that works for all of us.

Dr. Melissa Neal is a proud North Carolina native who endeavors to make a unique contribution to the world, through writing, relationships, and her work. Professionally, she is a public health expert who specializes in creating effective criminal justice systems and healthy communities. From establishing a nonprofit for justice-involved families in rural Tennessee to conducting national research and justice reform activity in Washington, D.C., she has long worked to improve the intersect between the criminal justice system and community health.

Dr. Neal obtained her doctorate in public health from East Tennessee State University. She currently works for Policy Research Associates, a national firm providing technical assistance to criminal justice and behavioral health systems. She is a commissioner on the North Carolina Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparities and is a member of the Race Matters for Juvenile Justice leadership collaborative. She and her husband, with their two dog rescues—Rufus and Greyson—live in Cornelius, NC.

Novels in Progress: Axel Dahlberg’s “Schmed”

Chapter 1

Mom buried Dad in his half of the cemetery plot they bought together then sold her half. Probably one thing you gotta know right up front. And that I had no say. Like a lot of crap when you’re a kid, you got no say. And you got no clue, mostly. But as far as I can measure, things broke from there. Unless you really want to dig stuff up, then maybe our little family tree was rotting from the inside before Dad’s accident. Mom didn’t know it then, like I didn’t know how far all this would chase me into my future. One thing about my family, we figure stuff out. Usually after it’s all mopped up and no one’s left standing around. But we get it. Mostly.

One thing about me, I’m not special. A regular kid from a regular place. Every kid you’ve never noticed. Standing in line behind you, watching you not seeing me. I’m not gonna tell my name or what I look like. None of that matters as much as the truth. And you can’t know where I’m at now because there’s still guys looking to do me bad. I’m that kid you heard about from the news. The one people saw running from behind Valhalla after it burned—the only time I shot a guy. But not my fault. Honest. You’ll see. I’m setting things straight so you’ll know I wasn’t such a menace like they said. One thing I learned, the ones who tell the tales make their own stories, and they’re never yours.

This is the most honest story I know how to tell. If you’re gonna make sense of anything, you gotta know stuff that never made the news that evil summer when Minneapolis screamed and bled as they started building that Mall of America. People I knew had stuff to do with that goddamn monstrosity—crap you’ll never hear about at Camp Snoopy. People died. Maybe my story will help you look the hell out for crap that slams into your life when you think it’s just another Thursday. Any of this could have happened to you, even if you don’t believe me.

Maybe the best place to start is that night.