The Writer’s Hustle

Editor’s note: The following piece began as a Facebook post written by novelist Wiley Cash (The Last Ballad and others). Since it first appeared on June 29, it’s been shared 53 times and is now posted on Cash’s website. We asked to reprint the post here because it’s an important and thoughtful consideration on what it takes to build a life as a successful writer. Cash has also recently announced a new book club focused on bringing attention to literary diversity.


by Wiley Cash

Last night I had dinner and beers with a good friend of mine who’s also a successful, well published writer, the kind of writer whose career a lot of us would look at with envy. I’ve been thinking about him and the things we talked about all day. Here goes.

When people learn that I’m a writer, I’ll often hear things like, “I would love to write, but I don’t have the time” or “It must be amazing to sit at your desk all day and write your book.” Years ago, when my wife and I first moved in to our neighborhood, a woman down the street told me that whenever she passed our house while walking her dog she thought about me inside, sitting at my desk, working on a novel. She said this wistfully, as if it were the most peaceful life she could imagine.

Over the past six years I’ve published three novels and a bunch of stories and essays. My friend that I had dinner with last night has published more books and essays than I have, and his career has been a little longer and his work has sold better than mine. But our books and works-in-progress are not what we talk about when we meet for dinner and beers. We talk about the hustle. We talk about health insurance. We talk about how the non-writing work or teaching gigs or the conference workshop or the writing gig we have to take will limit our time at the desk. We talk about the calls we get from Hollywood people and whether or not we should believe them when they ask us to do work for free in the hope someone will buy it. We talk about invitations to speak at libraries, universities, and civic groups. How much will they pay us? How much can we expect? How much is it worth to be away from our family for ANOTHER night? Should we include driving time and flying time and sitting in the airport time? Should we be honest about how one hour of “work” requires 36 hours of travel and preparation? We talk about blurbs, both the asking for them and the being asked to provide them. We talk about the book business and how we feel about our agents and editors. We talk about the hope we have that the next book will be the one that helps us get to the point where we won’t have to have the conversations that we keep having.

Most of my friends are writers, and very few of them are what would be considered well off. All of them hustle. All them bust their ass, both on their writing and on their careers. There are only a handful of writers in this country who don’t have numerous side hustles. I can think of only two or three I know personally, but they still bust their asses at the desk and turn out great work.

I guess what I’m getting at is this: the book on the shelf is not the product of the writing life; in most cases it’s the by-product of the writing life, which is often less about writing and more about trying to keep you and your family’s life as stable as possible. A lot of jobs are hard, and a lot of people don’t get paid what they deserve. But the tricky thing in this business is that you may work harder than you could ever imagine on a project you believe in, and then no one publishes your book or buys your script, and you don’t get paid at all. So you teach. You edit. You write for magazines. You travel. You give keynotes. You spend weeks per year away from your family. You worry about insurance and your mortgage and your kids’ tuition and car payments. And when you put your head on the pillow your mind goes to the place where your work lives hot and bright in your imagination, and you fall asleep hoping and praying that it will be the work that finally rewards the hustle of the life you’ve chosen. You think about sitting at the desk where you’re working on your book and looking out the window. Your neighbor passes by with her dog, and you hope that one day she’ll be 100% right in thinking, A writer lives there.


Wiley Cash is the New York Times best selling author of the novels The Last Ballad, A Land More Kind Than Home, and This Dark Road to Mercy. He currently serves as the writer-in-residence at the University of North Carolina-Asheville and teaches in the Mountainview Low-Residency MFA. He lives with his wife and two young daughters in Wilmington, North Carolina.

Memoir: The Struggle is Real

After more than 30 years of writing advertising copy for unabashedly snarky clients, I thought I had bulletproof skin. But when my agent sent me the notes that accompanied rejections of our book proposal from 28 publishers, I realized that the durability of my epidermis was more akin to that of a neonate than a superhero.

“I know this is a big issue for women of a certain age, but….”

“I can’t convince myself that a memoir will speak to the readership, which seems to me to have a much stronger need for practical advice.”

“In the end, I feel it’s a bit too much of a memoir to fit well on our list.”

“Our success with memoir has been mixed, so it’s not a direction we’re heading in at the moment.”

“I worry that this proposal overlaps too much with a book I already have in the pipeline.”

The first thing I wanted to do after being skewered by the publishers’ comments was to suck my thumb or embrace a number of other regressive behaviors. When you attempt to write a memoir, you start to dream that you are being tossed into the Mall of America stark naked. You get trapped in a hard, tiny seat on a loopy roller coaster of self-doubt. Worst of all, you continually reject yourself before any one else can do it for you.

Why am I bothering to write this? This is so lame and stupid. Why am I pushing my sister to write her side of the story when she is a doctor who hates to write anything but prescriptions? Won’t writing about taking care of old, sick parents only make me seem old myself? Our brothers will hate us. Our cousins will second-guess our childhood memories. Unless we can find a way to become former U.S. presidents overnight, no one will care about or buy our book.

The day I got our rejections, I stopped just short of singing, “Nobody likes me, everybody hates me, think I’ll go eat worms,” and forced myself to open my laptop. Unfortunately, instead of revising Chapter 2, I procrastinated by rewriting the dictionary definition of a memoir to include phrases like “a genre of writing that involves a soul-ectomy and leaves wounds that never heal.” When I read that the word “memoir” derives from the French: mémoire: memoria, meaning memory or reminiscence, our decision to write a memoir about loss of memory seemed hopelessly counterintuitive. And let’s face it: isn’t dementia just too dang depressing?

But before I hit delete and erased the 200 pages I had already written from my computer’s memory, if not from my own, I happened upon a group of authors who had written books about aging with extreme passion and amazing grace—AlzAuthors.com. They acted like what my sister and I were writing was interesting and valuable and funny and sad and everything in between. They had clearly clung onto a seat on the roller coaster of emotions that come with writing a memoir.

Ah, positivity. Ah, the joy of kinship! I opened the laptop once again and decided to change the title of our book from Disposable Dad to Sisterly Shove. Onward and upward!


Malia Kline and her sister Diane Stinson’s new memoir, Sisterly Shove: A Fight to the Death Against Pancreatic Cancer and Dementia, came out May 10. Buying information at https://sisterlyshove.com.


Malia adds this: Thinking of writing a memoir? Read this first: http://www.writersdigest.com/writing-articles/by-writing-goal/get-published-sell-my-work/the-market-for-memoirs.

Malia also adds this: Already 200 pages into your memoir? Do not under any circumstances click on the link above.

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.

Writing as Life?

What have I learned from writing, from life as a writer, and from hanging out in the wonderful community of other writers?

1. Persistence trumps talent every time.

2. If you’re waiting on the muse to show up before you start working, you’re wasting valuable time. If you’re not where you’re supposed to be (with pen or keyboard at hand ready to work), how do you expect the muse to find you?

3. There are no born writers…or painters or race car drivers or bankers. They all work at it.

4. Everyone is creative. The lucky ones recognize it and enjoy it. The unlucky or doomed believe whoever lied and told them they couldn’t create. Everyone is creative and can develop and enjoy what calls to them, whether it’s writing or cooking or gardening or juggling or…

5. There is a special place in a very bad place for those who tell little kids [or big kids] they can’t paint or write or cook or sing or dance or color trees purple. No one has the right to take that away from another person. No one.

6. If someone ever told you that you that you couldn’t do something but you liketo do it, don’t listen to them.  Do it any way.  Don’t worry that you won’t get rich or famous doing it…what’s that got to do with enjoying it?

7. When creating anything, the first draft should be fun. Quit thinking so much. Stand on the edge of the pool, hold your breath, and dive in. The real work starts when you come up for air – and that will be fun, too.

8. How do you know you’re doing it right? If you’re a little bit afraid.

Show up. Pay attention. Play. Be grateful. Be generous. Enjoy.


Cathy Pickens’ first of five mystery novels, Southern Fried, won St. Martin’s Press/Malice Domestic Award for Best Traditional Mystery. She has written a mystery walking tour, Charleston Mysteries (History Press), and numerous articles and case studies. At Queens University of Charlotte, she was named the Wireman Professor and won several teaching awards. She has served as president and on the boards of national mystery writers organizations and as president of the regional Forensic Medicine Board. Currently, she works with former inmates on starting their own businesses.

At Least I’m Not a Dancer — An apologia

“We seldom realize, I think, how very much we really are in the hands of
the dictionary. We think certain thoughts; we have certain experiences; and
then language, with its hard and fast boundaries, says, “You shall not say
that wonderful thing—you shall only say this—and we find on paper the pale
lifeless shadow of the thing that came to life in our soul.” — Emmet Fox

 

Writing is my weakness and it’s a nerve-wracking practice, but I can’t
help it—my blood is so doggone noisy, I have to write stuff down to make it
quiet. Plus my genes are always quarreling inside of me, not to mention all
those environmental and socioeconomic factors that contributed to my need to
scribble words onto the page. Carl Jung knew what he was talking about when
he said: “Nothing so promotes the growth of consciousness as the inner
confrontation of opposites.” Back in 1954, I plopped into the world, the
fourth child and baby girl of a profoundly sober Christian Virgo mother and
a sad, alcoholic dreamer of a father. And for the first fifteen years on Planet Earth
there was a whole lot of shaking going on.

A mother, they say, is the first book a child ever picks up and the last
one they put back on the shelf. Sounds right to me. I suppose then that a
father is the second book picked up and the next-to-the-last one put down.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve been fascinated and appalled by how unalike
my parents were. I spent years worrying about their lives and ignoring my
own. But when I finally got down to peeling the sweet Vidalia onion of
myself to its pungent core, a writer emerged, shrugged her shoulders and
said, Well, at least I’m not a dancer—which is a good thing because I lack
the grace for that muscular art.

My love affair with words began early. In first grade, I met twenty-six
lifelong friends—letters that were sometimes big and sometimes small
according to where they found themselves in a word or a sentence.
Miss Graham, my teacher was an up-to-date old maid who smelled like pickles. A
phonetic genius, she dredged my imagination for interest in Dick, Jane and
Spot, who led quite boring lives because they were forbidden to do anything
that required more than six letters just so I could learn to read. And for
some reason, the words settled into my fat brain like orphans who’d found a
good home without even trying. The part I liked most about learning to write
was erasing. I loved the way it smelled when I rubbed the pink end of my big
fat pencil across the cheap lined paper, exterminating mistakes easily, and
brushing them onto the floor as if they never occurred.

Twenty-five years ago, I wrote this sentence in my journal: My life is
about three things: words, love, and human beings. The grandiosity of that
statement surprised me, but now I understand that it wasn’t grandiose at all—it was a simple
profession of faith. Writing has helped me become a more decent person than I would have
been otherwise. It has helped me separate who I really am from my ego.

Another reason I became a writer was to honor silence. I have always wanted to make sense
out of my precarious life. As a child, I was quiet. I observed. There seemed to be something
hidden in everything I saw. My senses told me there was something Else. I could smell it. I could
feel it. Sometimes, I could even taste it. But I could not name it. But when I learned to listen to
this voiceless force, I discovered I had a voice deep within me.

“May God forgive me this sin of speech,” Nietzsche once wrote, and even
though he lamented that he was only a poet, I believe language was his only
earthly salvation. Indeed, it has been mine.  One of the most important
things I have learned to do as a writer is to acknowledge that other, bigger Author, who
sometimes shows up for work when I sit down to write. Some writers call it inspiration.
Some call it God.  I call it the Holy Spirit

Maybe it’s just Silence full of Itself, inviting me to . . . dance.


Published by South Carolina Review, January 2007

Karon Luddy was born in Lancaster, SC, the fourth of six children of hardworking, salt of the earth parents, and moved to Charlotte in 1976. During a midlife renaissance, Karon resigned from Apple Computer to pursue her lifelong passion—literature. In 2005, she earned an MFA in Creative Writing in Fiction from Queens University, yet poetry has been a constant in her creative life. 2007 saw the publication of her first book of poetry, Wolf Heart (Clemson University Press) and her first novel, Spelldown (Simon & Schuster). Karon is currently working on a poetry collection, Circling God.

On Parachutes and Literary Citizenship

Lately, I’ve been thinking about parachutes. Not related to jumping out of airplanes and free-falling until you snap your parachute open. Rather, I remember over thirty years ago and filing into my school gymnasium along with the rest of my first-grade class. We sprinted around the perimeter of the room for a warm-up, our eyes glued to the red, green, blue, and yellow parachute spread out across the center of the gym floor.

Parachute day. A gym class spent grabbing the edge of the parachute, lifting our arms when commanded, attempting to get a yarn ball to fall through the hole in the middle. Toward the end of the class, we’d together grasp our portion and hold the parachute waist high. Then on the count of three, we raised our arms over our heads, crouched down, and pulled the parachute over us, a giant balloon forming above our class.

In a way, Literary Citizenship might be akin to parachute day. For those who have never heard of the concept of Literary Citizenship, this term often describes the acts we as writers do to uplift the whole writing community—this literary society in which we are citizens.

Literary Citizenship may include, but is not limited to, actions such as subscribing to literary journals or buying books from local bookstores, attending readings or planning events to highlight other writers, writing book reviews or interviewing another writer in your newsletter or on your blog, supporting your local library or sending another writer a note of appreciation. And the list can continue to items like promoting another author’s book, writing a book endorsement, providing feedback to another writer, or giving suggestions about submission opportunities. Honestly, the potential actions may be endless and, when viewed as merely a to-do list, might fall into the category of “overwhelming.”

Literary Citizenship, however, is less of a to-do list and more of a mindset, a way of seeing ourselves as part of this writing community and writing life. For me, to participate in acts of Literary Citizenship is to acknowledge that while I might write alone, I do not exist in this writing world alone. I am a citizen along with many, many others.

When it came to parachute day, there was no way one first grader could lift her arms high in the air, crouch down, and let a giant balloon form above. No way at all. Parachute day took our whole class, each adding their particular ability and part in the pursuit of a greater goal.

Of late, I find myself accessing the generosity of this literary world to which I claim membership. I’m in the midst of gathering endorsements for my forthcoming essay collection, and I’m reliant on the help other writers can provide. When I first began this process, my stomach turned with nervousness and fear of rejection.

While those feelings haven’t necessarily dissipated, I’m working to remind myself that to need other writers is the very hallmark of being part of a literary world. I’m not holding onto a huge parachute alone. Just like I value engaging as a literary citizen, other writers do as well. We each are able to contribute different acts—not a to-do list but instead what is appropriate to and possible for who we are as writers.

I hold the edge of a parachute not with a class of first graders, but instead with a community of writers, ready to lift our arms, our pens, our words, our reviews, our time in a variety of different ways. Together we elevate the writing world and help us all sit beneath the communal power of building a robust literary society.

We give, we ask, we participate, we offer, and we live this writing life embracing and walking in the reality that we are citizens. We are citizens. And we are not alone.

To read more about the concept of Literary Citizenship (and debates about the merits of Literary Citizenship), check out these links:

Cathy Day’s Principles on Literary Citizenship” at the Literary Citizenship blog

5 Ways to Be a Good Literary Citizen” at the Writer’s Digest blog

Are There Limits to Literary Citizenship?” at Jane Friedman’s blog

That’s Not How Any of This Works” at the Brevity blog


Patrice Gopo is a 2017-2018 North Carolina Arts Council Literature Fellow. Her essay collection about race, immigration and belonging will release this summer. Please visit patricegopo.com to read more of her work and sign up for updates about her book.

In the Evening We Shall Be Examined on Love

In the Evening We Shall Be Examined on Love
~ St. John of the Cross

My Imperfect Heart, Terry Thiron

That line was enough to propel Thomas Centolella into his moving poem of that title, and has been enough to stay with me as an iconic constant, a touchstone that I come back to like being aware of the intake of breath. I suppose I could do worse than question how I’ve scored in the school of love. Have I, in any given moment, remembered the open heart; the way love ties me to others; has it brought me beyond petty attitudes to be present with the woman I love meeting the challenges that emerge with every moment?

I’m getting ready for an evening performance of poetry and music on the theme, looking at more than three thousand years of world cultures and their insights into love and romance. I want to do this, not because I know the topic, but because I don’t know it well enough and want to know more. I need an advanced course and a deadline, to get out of grade school if I can, while I can.

I’ve been lost in love before, inhaled its heady fragrance, lucky enough to see love mellow and ripen and I’m o’ so grateful for it. But I’ve blown it as well, given up when it got tough, stayed too long and not long enough. Was it naiveté, will I do it again? Maybe there’s more I could have done, that I could still do.

I suspect as a culture we’ve forgotten what happens when reverence for love gets lost. Maybe that’s  partly due to the way we elevate the personal. I read that when Ibn Arabi felt the ecstatic pull to a Persian beauty, he knew behind it was a gift of divinity and it propelled him to embrace the Sufi inspiration: love is my religion and my faith. When the Greeks told the story of how Aphrodite condemned Psyche to a craggy rock for the way her beauty was worshiped by the community, was it out of jealousy or because we’d forgotten how beauty came to us. Can we hear Sappho call respectfully to Aphrodite: Lady of Cyprus, pour the nectar that honors you into our cups. And when it all gets too heady, can Ikkyu bring us back to ground: Ten days in the monastery made me restless…If one day you come looking for me, ask for me at the fishmonger’s, in the tavern, or in my woman’s embrace.

I wonder, is it really a test about success and failure? When, as Centolella says, we…climb the hill as the light empties and park our tired bodies on a bench above the city and try to fill in the blanks, maybe it’s not about our own view at all. Whatever looks down on us in our reflection, does it marvel as we do at the effort, the stories, the love?


Larry Sorkin is a part time business man, sometime poet, and occasional performer of poetry with musicians. He’s been working with the Bechtler Ensemble for over ten years. He teaches and presents workshops exploring poetry and the arts, dance, and music. You can find some of his published work in the collections …and love... and What Matters by Jacar Press.

The Hidden Life of Trees

As I write, glancing—a little too often to be very productive—out of my office windows on this bitterly cold January afternoon, the winter sun is just beginning to sink. In another half hour, it will set the bare canopies of my front yard’s great oaks into flames of orange, pink, and deep plum.

It’s a trick, of course––a bit of nature’s magic, a show that will repeat itself on clear evenings for a few more weeks before days begin to lengthen and the sun angles itself toward spring. At our latitude in Charlotte, foliage won’t be far behind. Winter’s wizened, naked crones will don green robes and become girls again. But, if I can be still like these stately arboreal sisters, resist mind’s rush toward the longer, warmer, busier days of spring and instead sync myself to winter’s slower rhythms, I can participate in this spectacular mystery play.

Relationship with and participation in nature, particularly in the life of forest trees, is precisely what Peter Wohlleben encourages in his international bestseller The Hidden Life of Trees. In this genre-blending work, Wohlleben, a forester turned ecologist, provides a naturalist’s lessons about the ecology of the forest with the voice of a gifted storyteller, convincing readers that forest trees are indeed social beings that share resources with one another, nurse their “children” with sugar and other nutrients, and have an ability to learn from experience. Above all, Wohlleben champions looking at the environment through the much longer lens of forest trees, those giant beings I like to think of as our first ancestors.

Okay, perhaps I’m stretching the metaphor a bit by referring to them as ancestors, but I’m not the first to project human characteristics upon trees. It’s easy to see why. Their vertical structures bear resemblance to human bodies—long torsos that branch into elegant limbs, then extend further into slender, finger-like branches; crowns that, when fully leafed, resemble full heads of hair; knots and scars that mimic facial features. And, though they don’t have the human capacity to pick up their roots and walk, it sometimes seems they might.

Writers and artists from Virgil to Tolkien have told such tales, endowing forest trees with human feeling and mobility, while honoring their role as keepers of ancient wisdom and sacred mysteries. The largest of living beings, trees have roots in the underworld, trunks on land, and crowns stretching toward heaven, enabling them to span the three worlds of heaven, hell, and earth and making them central figures in mythologies throughout the world. Virgil even asserted that the first humans were born of a mighty oak.

Indeed, trees have captured human imagination since our beginnings, which by the way is much more recent than theirs. Trees began to populate the earth 385 million years ago. Human beings didn’t begin to evolve until around two million years ago, and when we did, it was with dreams of trees.

Our hominid forbears lived most of their lives in the relative safety of the tree canopy, dropping to earth for limited forays until climate change caused vast numbers of trees to die off and forced these early ancestors to adapt to life on the ground. Still, we haven’t lost our fascination with the great beings in whose arms we slept, ate, and nursed our young. We wonder what they’ve witnessed in their much longer lives (the oldest tree on record is 9,550 years old), how the world has changed, and the ways in which it hasn’t.

We also realize that, despite living in an electronic age, we haven’t yet lost our dependence on these creatures whose bodies served as our first nurseries. Granted, as the daughter of a carpenter, I’m a particular fan of hardwood floors and knotted pine furniture, but as I look around, I see that I’ve never really left the forest nursery. I live in a wood-frame house, sleep in a four-poster pine bed, pull my clothes from walnut dressers and paperback books from oak library shelves, toss tonight’s salad in a bowl made from teak. And who among Americans today is much different? What would we do without the trees?

Well, for one thing, we’d have a pretty hard time breathing. Remember, trees breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out the oxygen—a good enough reason to contemplate their importance to human life. But because they are so essential to our health and well-being, trees have long held a primary role in human culture. After all, without trees there would be no recorded literature. In that sense, my vocation as a writer is as much tied to the trees as my father’s.


This year, Charlotte Lit will celebrate tree culture in our “city of trees.” Planning is underway, so stay tuned for a series of events that will include author readings, lectures on Charlotte’s tree canopy, a paper-making workshop. Meanwhile, add Wohlleben’s book to your winter reading list. Maybe even read it under a tree-shaded table in the park. Your blood pressure will likely drop and you’ll be filled with a phytoncide-fueled sense of well-being. Yep, I learned that in The Hidden Life of Trees.

Christmas Yet to Come: Reading “A Christmas Carol” as a writer

In addition to being a seminal work of literature, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a beautifully-constructed story, and writers can learn by studying it. A memorable protagonist, compelling flashbacks, conflict and tension—and by the time the “Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come” arrives, we’re totally sold on the ending, Ebenezer Scrooge’s redemption.

We bring it to you today not only because it’s Christmas day, but because this last week of the year is a perfect time to think about the Christmas seasons in your future. What will you have written by this time next year?

Or maybe the question is larger than that. Perhaps we should read A Christmas Carol as a caution. None of us wants to find ourselves an old Scrooge, having not done what we were called to do—to have not told the stories we wanted to tell.

And so we ask again: what will you have written by this time next year?


From A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens

Chapter 4: The Last of the Spirits

The Phantom slowly, gravely, silently approached. When it came near him, Scrooge bent down upon his knee; for in the very air through which this Spirit moved it seemed to scatter gloom and mystery.

It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible, save one outstretched hand. But for this, it would have been difficult to detach its figure from the night, and separate it from the darkness by which it was surrounded.

He felt that it was tall and stately when it came beside him, and that its mysterious presence filled him with a solemn dread. He knew no more, for the Spirit neither spoke nor moved.

“I am in the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come?” said Scrooge.

The Spirit answered not, but pointed onward with its hand.

“You are about to show me shadows of the things that have not happened, but will happen in the time before us,” Scrooge pursued. “Is that so, Spirit?”

The upper portion of the garment was contracted for an instant in its folds, as if the Spirit had inclined its head. That was the only answer he received.

Although well used to ghostly company by this time, Scrooge feared the silent shape so much that his legs trembled beneath him, and he found that he could hardly stand when he prepared to follow it. The Spirit paused a moment, as observing his condition, and giving him time to recover.

But Scrooge was all the worse for this. It thrilled him with a vague uncertain horror to know that, behind the dusky shroud, there were ghostly eyes intently fixed upon him, while he, though he stretched his own to the utmost, could see nothing but a spectral hand and one great heap of black.

“Ghost of the Future!” he exclaimed, “I fear you more than any spectre I have seen. But, as I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to live to be another man from what I was, I am prepared to bear you company, and do it with a thankful heart. Will you not speak to me?”

It gave him no reply. The hand was pointed straight before them.

“Lead on!” said Scrooge. “Lead on! The night is waning fast, and it is precious time to me, I know. Lead on, Spirit!”


A Christmas Carol is in the public domain, so it’s easy to find and download in a number of formats. (Goodreads has some options here.)

Writing a Better Year

A favorite book from my childhood is Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson. The story begins with a blank slate: just Harold and his crayon on an empty page. By drawing on the page with his crayon, Harold takes a journey and creates his world—pies and perils alike.



Creative writers do something similar: create worlds on the page. If you’re like most writers, you want each creation to be better than the last. Every story is an opportunity to further develop your craft, to write a better story.

What if we were to bump you and Harold together?

We’re about to welcome a new year, which might be the optimal (or at least traditional) time to try this experiment. For your next year, instead of resolving to do something, resolve to create something. And the creation I have in mind is not what you think: I’m not going to suggest that you decide what you’re going to write and then go write it. (That would be too easy. Any writing web site can tell you that.) Rather, the challenge is to create your world, the way Harold does.

In other words: you are a creative writer, and you are hereby challenged to write your next year into existence. Here’s how:

  1. Decide. Decide that you are going to see the year as a blank canvas or a blank page on which you can tell any story you want—that you are the author of your own story.
  2. Describe. What does your ideal year look like? Fill in the canvas: describe the entire year as you’d like to see it play out. Be specific: when will you write, where, and what. Try writing it as a short story with you as the protagonist. Describe yourself with good adjectives, like persistent and passionate and even plucky. What obstacles will the hero/heroine encounter, and how will they be overcome? What will the protagonist learn by the end? How will you be changed?
  3. Debut. Select a day to begin. You could wait until January 1st…but who says you have to write the story that way? How about beginning today?

It’s easy not to do this. It’s far easier to let the year happen as it will, to respond to the ebb and the flow, the flotsam and the jetsam—so easy. Easy to let your writing get swallowed up by the monsters we call time and to-dos and teenagers. We all have our monsters, and most of them we have drawn into existence ourselves, just as Harold did.

We can also draw them another way. It’s your year. You can create it anyway you choose.

 


Like the idea of “writing” your year into existence? Join Charlotte Lit co-founders Paul Reali and Kathie Collins for a free community conversation on January 4 at 6 pm. During the session, you’ll imagine your own “creative hero’s journey,” and you’ll leave fired up—and with a plan. [More Info & Registration]