How do you know when it’s done? (Or how I stopped hating and learned to love my imperfections)

It’s the perennial question all writers face: You’ve written a piece, and good as it is, is it done? Have you done all you can to make it perfect? Before we get there, check the entry criteria. I call them table stakes. Consider these five points first. 

  • Central point: If it takes more than one sentence (25 words) to describe what the story or poem is about, you’re not done.
  • Emotional depth: Any place you can go deeper? Balance inner thoughts, action and dialogue.
  • All five senses: Crisp descriptions and new imagery.
  • Point of view and tense: If you changed the point of view, for example, from first person to third, how does the story change? If you changed from past tense to present, what happens?
  • Strong characters and vivid setting: Are they visible? Can you make them clearer?

“Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.” — Confucius

The simple answer is: it’s never done done. You’ve heard that James Joyce was still making edits to Ulysses decades after it had been published. How Ernest Hemingway wrote 47 different endings for A Farewell to Arms to ensure he’d picked the correct one? Don’t get me started on Emily Dickinson…. You can drive yourself crazy. Here are a few hints to help you figure out if you’re done. Or not.

1. Put everything in

Be constantly on the lookout for subconscious gifts — those persistent whispers — it’s why I write. To get outside myself, to find that something extra I didn’t know I had. I call it touching divinity. 

More often than not, those persistent whispers lead me where I need to go.

Given free reign, I tend to get off track. I go tangential. No problem. At least I didn’t ignore the whisper; I took heed. Maybe it was a wrong number.

If you don’t write it you’ll never know and not knowing can haunt you. Put everything in.

2. Take everything out

It sounds counterintuitive. Hang with me. I can explain.

“Write a sentence as clean as a bone.” — James Baldwin

Let’s take it further: write a paragraph as clean as a bone. Write a scene as clean as a bone. Write a story, a chapter, a whole book as clean as a bone. Challenge yourself. When in doubt, take it out.

I create outtake files. Keep them. They may become useful for something else.

Here is the “kill your darlings” thing. Ask yourself: am I keeping it because I like it, or am I keeping it because it’s necessary? Necessary means it advances the story, deepens a character, or ties back to the central theme. If it does none of these, open up your outtakes file, and take it out. 

3. Tighten

Maybe it’s just me, but I suspect it isn’t. My first drafts are full of filler words, common phrases, and what I call fluff. Crutch words. If only there was a quick way to clean it up. There is! That’s where my repeat offenders list comes in. I have 40 or so fillers, fluff stuff, and crutches for which I check. 

But, you counter, what if filler words are there for a purpose; what if they help to build the voice? Voice doesn’t need filler words, voice don’t need fluff. Tighten. 

4. Put it in a drawer

Distance. Sometimes we need distance. You’ve heard a peer say, “It seemed so good when I wrote it; then I read it the next day and it was complete hogwash. Balderdash. Drivel. How can that be?”

You’re too close. It’s natural. What’s needed here is perspective.

Put it in a drawer. Literally, figuratively, whatever works for you (see hint 1). Pull it out in a week. Mileage may vary but somewhere between a week and a month is about the right amount of psychic distance to be able to get perspective.

5. Read it out loud

This one is new for me. I have friends who swear by this step for all writing, from fiction to essay, to blog post. Read it outloud and where you hear yourself stumble, your voice cracks, or a word just gets stuck in your throat, see if you can fix it.

Some would even say record yourself reading it and listen to it. I have to admit I have not gone this far yet, but I would love to. Your smartphone can record your voice. Your computer probably can. Try it.

6. Feedback

Bottom line: Good feedback makes you want to write more. If feedback makes you feel like not writing, it gots to go. Out out. No explanation needed. (Unless it is your editor, you’re under contract and you just want don’t want to — that’s a different problem.)

Constructive, deep, heart-felt, thoughtful feedback is gold to writers. Instead of saying, “this is not right,” it says, “have you thought about…?” 

Great feedback can sting. You’ll know great feedback when you see it; deep down you know it’s true. 

Great beta readers are earned, not found. When a reader agrees to read for you, you enter into a sacred contract. They took the time to read it; you owe them the courtesy of acknowledging each point. 

Show respect for their time and effort. Express gratitude. You will have a stronger beta reader next time. 

7. Tighten again

In the process of incorporating feedback, in rewriting, you have gone back to some of your habits. Run through the tighten sequence again. Doesn’t have to be time consuming — after all you already did it once. The heavy lifting got done the first time.

There they are. Seven hints to think about when you’re not sure that you’re done. Do all of them every time? No. Use discretion. If I had the time I would do each of these steps. Would I then be done? Um. Maybe? But I would rest assured — all the tools and methods I know of have been exhausted.

After all this, will I read a piece months later and see something I would have liked to change? Happens all the time. 

View your writing as a progression. Your imperfections reflect the way you were when you finished that piece. You will do better next time. 


Rick Pryll is the author of The Chimera of Prague (Foolishness Press, 2017), which won the Romance category at the 2018 New York Book Festival, a collection of short stories, Wallow (Foolishness Press, 1999), a poetry chapbook, Displaced (Foolishness Press, 1998) and a hyperfiction short story, “Lies,” that has been translated into Chinese and Spanish. A graduate of MIT, he wrote a novella to satisfy the thesis requirement for his degree in Mechanical Engineering. Rick and his wife, ArtPop Charlotte 2018 artist Holly Spruck, live in Charlotte. They have two children and two cats and a dog.


Join Rick for on Tuesday, January 29, from 6 to 8 pm to hear his astute advice for writers considering the self-publishing route, “Do Not Get Ripped Off! Tips for Self-Publishing.” Details and registration here.

Anti-Resolutions: What you’ll STOP doing this year

On January 3, from 6 to 8 pm, join Cathy Pickens for a FREE session to explore how you can make space and time for your creative work in 2019. Come celebrate the start of your creative new year! Space is limited, and pre-registration is required.


‘Tis the season for resolutions, to take stock of seasons past. Most of us dust off the old list: lose weight, make it to more of the kids’ ballgames. Or we just don’t bother, resolving to plug along as near-perfect as we are. New Year’s Resolutions have become passé, predictable, reliable only in reminding us of failures past.

This year, why not try some anti-resolutions—what you’ll stop doing this year?

  1. Stop ignoring what’s around you. Take real notice of the people and things that make your life run smoothly, more pleasantly. Take a deep breath when you walk out in the crisp air. Develop a child-like curiosity about even the most mundane. Write it down, to let yourself see what you’re thinking. Scribble on a legal pad or in the back of your DayTimer—nothing fancy needed. Creativity and “flow” expert Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi suggests noting one thing each day that surprises you, as a way to awaken your awareness and broaden your focus. Talk to yourself on paper about how to solve a problem. Ask yourself “what if …?” and “why?” You’ll be surprised how it helps you focus. Be mindful.
  2. Stop taking the easy path. Try something that scares you—or at least stretches you. According to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, an object at rest tends to stay there. Conversely, as Matthew Arnold observed, “Genius is mainly an affair of energy.” Accept a speaking engagement, hike up Crowder’s Mountain, take a ballroom dance or cooking or kayaking class for fun, or work on that (writing) project you’ve been promising you’ll start. Each new task requires initiative and risk-taking for the beginner but gets easier—once you’ve done it. Get moving, preferably along an uncharted path.
  3. Stop being one-sided. Learn the delicate art of balance. Aristotle urged us to seek the Golden Mean, emphasizing the importance of balance. Where are you out of balance? Develop where you feel weakest. Read something you wouldn’t ordinarily read. If your bedside books are all history or technical manuals, try some well-written fiction or a book you loved—or wished you’d read—when you were a kid. Try listening to a book on tape (the library will loan you one for free!). Visit the Mint Museums. Turn off the TV.
  4. Stop sitting in the same seat. Perception can be more powerful than reality. Practice sitting in someone else’s seat, seeing from her perspective, testing your own. Maybe you, literally, sit in someone else’s seat in a meeting, to break the routine. Look at an issue from your customer’s or co-worker’s or boss’s or sales clerk’s or child’s or spouse’s or mortal enemy’s place.
  5. Stop being inconsistent. What do you value? What’s important to you? Would someone know your values by what you say, by how you spend your time, by the decisions you make? In trying new things, make sure you’ve grounded yourself, that you know who you are. Take time to nurture your spiritual life. Philosopher William James said, “The art of being wise is knowing what to overlook.” That wisdom cannot be gained in the push and pull of your busy life. Be still. Turn off the car radio. Get off the treadmill and take a walk outside. Be alone with your thoughts. Recognize who you are and what you value.
  6. Stop being so serious. When was the last time you felt inspired or motivated by a humorless drudge? Does the fate of the free world actually rest on what you’re doing? Okay, maybe it does. But you can still lighten up.

Oh, yeah. Stop promising to get in shape and just get moving. Hit the gym or the sidewalk. Getting enough exercise is more important than your pant size. You’ll need the energy for all the things you’re going to stop doing this year.


Cathy Pickens’ first mystery, Southern Fried, won the coveted St. Martin’s Press Malice Domestic Award for Best Traditional Mystery. She’s written five books in the series, as well as Charleston Mysteries (History Press), an essay on historic crime cases in 27 Views of Charlotte, a regular column for Mystery Readers Journal, and articles on writing craft and on business. She served as national president of Sisters in Crime and on the national board for Mystery Writers of America. As a long-time professor in the McColl School of Business at Queens, she won numerous teaching awards.

Reading “A Christmas Carol” as a writer

“Marley was dead, to begin with.” From first line to last—”God bless us, everyone”—last week 30 people got together at ImaginOn for a joyous public reading of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. (In case you’re wondering, it takes about three hours.) The cast included 10 Charlotte Lit members and teachers, a dozen local actors, and staff of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library.

Each reader brought their own style to this timeless tale, making the text come alive. Hearing it out loud, I was able to appreciate the story anew. It’s beautifully constructed, and writers can learn by studying it. A memorable protagonist, colorful characters, plenty of humor, flashbacks that work, lots of conflict and tension—and finally, in the end, a wholly satisfying redemption.

Even in redemption, though, there is pain and regret. We see Ebenezer Scrooge’s wasted years. Writers might heed both the lessons and cautions Dickens embedded in the story: it’s never too late to make a change, even the most radical one. 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.

Here’s an excerpt from A Christmas Carol, and a link to where you can find the whole story. Embrace both the tale and its telling, and you might give yourself no better Christmas gift.


From A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens

Stave 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. (Here’s one, from Goodreads.)

How to be a Well-Versed Citizen (Poetry World Edition)

Charlotte writers have an extraordinary opportunity for engagement at the North Carolina Writers Network Fall Conference on November 2-4. Classes are offered in a variety of genres, including Lisa Zerkle’s class, “How to be a Well-Versed Citizen of the Poetry World.” Registration is open now.


There’s someone new in town, just arrived with the poems she wrote in a state of thrilled, urgent uncertainty. She knows she doesn’t know enough about writing but still wants more of that electric, creative state. Also new around these parts is that older guy who’s been writing on the side for years, dashing off a poem here and there and saving them for later. It’s later now, he has some time, time he wants to invest in this writing thing he’s thought so long about.

Look around. You’ll see these people, so many of them, newly arrived on the shores of poetry. They’ve thrown open the metal hatches of the getaway pods they used to escape the non-writing world they’ve left behind. They’re clambering out, duct-taped valises full of rough drafts in hand, taking their first steps into this new place. I’m here! they say. What’s next?

I’ve been thinking lately about what it means to be an engaged citizen of the literary world. If this land has served us as a respite—a place with welcoming plazas and warm hearths, challenging teachers and encouraging colleagues—if we want this land to continue to thrive both for us and for the next wave of new arrivals, what’s required?

The archetype of the solitary writer, toiling alone in a garret ensconced in a haze of cigarette smoke and angst, has never been wholly accurate. Of course as writers we know the joy and sorrow of approaching the page. Stacking up lines, tearing them down, rearranging their constituent parts. What we do before and after that, however, is equally essential, I argue, and necessary to keep our literary world thriving.

Toni Morrison’s well-known encouragement reminds us that, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” By extension, if we want a vibrant, expansive literary world, we must build it. First—of course—we write, we revise. But not just that. Our writing should include book reviews, author appreciations, essays on craft which constitute another necessary facet of our writing. If we’re to articulate these reflections in a cogent way, we’re also reading broadly. Bill Griffin, a fine poet and an excellent literary citizen, recently took two notably different books along on a trip. The first, a short story collection by an author who is, he says, “bizarre, eclectic, impossible to categorize.” The second, by a poet who is “grounded and true; when I read his poems I am always amazed that something that seems so simple can be so deep.” This diversity of reading material results in “conflicting bits, the novel and the orderly, the stable and the radioactive, bouncing around in my head. What’s going to happen? Poems grow out of that stuff,” he says.

So, writing, reading, and then? I know Bill from my time serving on the board of the North Carolina Poetry Society. After I became serious about poetry, NCPS named one of the poems I’d really toiled over as a finalist for an award. I hadn’t won, but even that minor recognition validated my efforts. When, a few years later, I was asked to help out on the board, I agreed as a way of paying it forward. When I needed advice on literary citizenship, friends from my writing tribe—like Bill—came through.

Our lives are busy and not everyone can make time for a board position. But all writers can do something, say, attend a reading or an open mic, sign up for a workshop, get the word out about an upcoming book release or lit event. Someday, when your own book is fresh from the press, you’ll want a strong community there to write rave reviews, invite you to readings, send you notes of appreciation for your writing.

Don’t you want that? Introverts, this also means you. Get out there and engage with your people. Now’s the time to build that community, just as when you took your first steps into the writing world, someone was there to welcome you. Someone who offered to read one the poems sliding out from that duct-taped valise, someone who said, “This way. We’re all here together.”


Lisa Zerkle is the Curator of Charlotte Lit’s 4X4CLT Poetry and Art poster series.

Living at the Borders of Boldness: Making Time to Reconnect with Our Creative Selves

Join us for Charlotte Lit’s first multi-day retreat

Do you ever feel that you’re living close to the borders of madness, that state of being in which each day is progressively more packed with meetings, phone calls, and errands? Have you begun to open your in-box each morning with a sense of fear and trepidation? Have you caught yourself saying aloud to some inner artist, “Hang on just one more day. We need to get through this project, then, I promise we’ll get to the good stuff; we’ll start making art again.”

In a world that values productivity and outer connection over rest and contemplation, it’s all too easy to set our creative selves on a shelf, to forget the art of reconnecting to those invisible forces that enrich and fill our lives with meaning. Creativity doesn’t just happen, however. While there’s some truth in creativity experts’ exhortations to “just put your butt in the chair,” sometimes the muse needs to be more gently coaxed.

If you’re like me, you may not remember when you last tried that gentle route––took time away from ordinary life to reflect, rest inside the natural world, and restore your body. I’m not talking about spending an evening with Netflix and a bottle of white wine. That kind of rest has its virtue, but it won’t do the trick when your muse is sending up flares and demanding a search and rescue mission.

Fortunately, Charlotte Lit has something to try instead: join us for a mini creativity retreat.

You won’t have to go far, pack a suitcase, or spend any time making plans. Charlotte Lit has taken care of all the details. By popular demand, Pacifica Graduate Institute’s Dr. Dennis Slattery returns to Charlotte to lead us on our creative quests to the “borders of boldness.” We’ll spend an evening and a full day together at a beautiful, peaceful retreat site in south Charlotte. Meals and most supplies provided. All you have to do is show up with an intention to unwind, reconnect to the source of inspiration inside you, and re-create your creative self.

Here’s what to expect:

Friday, October 19, 6–9 pm: We’ll begin our day and a half retreat at Soul’s Home Studio (aka Kathie’s place) with a light supper and introduction to the weekend, including a short film, talk, and discussion. (Light supper included)

Saturday, October 20, 10 am–5 pm: We’ll return to the studio for a day of creative introspection in which activity and rest, community time and solitude are woven into a peaceful, restorative pattern. Dennis will give talks based on his research and writing on creativity and facilitate follow-up discussions. We’ll enjoy journaling and visual art exercises that help us explore our unique creative processes; return to our bodies through labyrinth walks and gentle yoga practice; engage our Selves and one another through the body of a poem; and end our time with a closing ritual designed to lead us back into the world with renewed creative energy. (Lunch and snacks included)

If you have questions, email or call me: kathie@charlottelit.org or 704-458-3293. I’m really hoping you’ll join Dennis and me for this one-of-a-kind retreat!


Dennis Patrick Slattery, Ph.D., is Emeritus Faculty at Pacifica Graduate Institute. He is the author, co-author, editor or co-editor of 26 books, and the author of more than 200 articles on literature, psychology, culture and myth. He will publish three new works in 2019: Deep Creativity: Seven Ways to Spark Your Creative Spirit (Shambhala Press); a co-edited volume of the letters of Joseph Campbell; and a volume on Homer’s Odyssey. He continues to teach as Emeritus faculty and to offer “Riting Retreats” on exploring one’s personal myth. Dennis continues to take classes and paint in both acrylic and watercolor as well as ride his Harley-Davidson motorcycle through the Hill Country of Texas.


Kathie Collins, Ph.D., co-founder of Charlotte Center for Literary Arts, earned her graduate degree in Mythological Studies with an emphasis in Depth Psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute, where she is currently an adjunct professor. 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, Bible Workbench, and Between. Her chapbook Jubilee was published by Main Street Rag in 2011.

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.