Where There’s Poetry, Prose Will Surely Follow

Jamie Pollard-SmithA few weeks ago, I had the honor of hearing Ada Limón read her work at Queens University as part of the Charlotte Lit’s 4X4 Series. Small in stature but huge in heart, her warmth and wit filled the auditorium while her words brought tears to our eyes. One piece in particular struck a chord with me.


“The Raincoat” (excerpt)

…My god,

I thought, my whole life I’ve been under her

raincoat thinking it was somehow a marvel

that I never got wet.


And there it was, the reaction I have experienced so many times before when faced with heart-shattering imagery that hits a little too close to home. I had to write. Immediately.

I went home that night and sat at my computer. It wasn’t that I believed I could write poetry of my own or even some polished piece that would someday rival Limon’s brilliance. It was because I am a writer and words are how I process the world. The mother I lost to Alzheimer’s was my raincoat and now I must do the same for my two teenage children. Hearing Limón point it out so boldly left me spiraling with emotions and ideas. There was nowhere to hide.

Poetry makes us better humans by stirring up our emotional pots. It does not mean that we all must write it, but I have countless drafts that started because someone crafted a piece of poetry that shook me to my very core. It was an image or idea staring at me in the sea of blank space on the page. In all that silence, it could not be ignored. My words poured onto the page.

Pandora’s box had been opened to a sea of memories, regrets, resentments, and everything in between for me that September evening. Facing these demons is hard and necessary work, and while prose is my form of choice, I am thankful every day for the poets who awaken my soul to what lies bubbling just below the surface.


ABOUT JAMIE: Jaime Pollard-Smith is a full-time writing instructor at Central Piedmont Community College with a Master of Arts from New York University. Her fiction has been published in Literary Mama. She is a contributor for Scary Mommy and Project We Forgot. Read her thoughts at unbecoming.co.

PUT POETRY INTO YOUR PROSE: Join Jamie for Putting Poetry Into Your Prose on December 2nd, in person at Charlotte Lit. What can the prose writer learn from the poet? Let us count the ways: sound, rhythm, word play, word choice, concision, and so much more. In this session, we’ll read and discuss several prose passages that employ one or more tricks from the poet’s toolbox. Then, we’ll explore the ways we can use those techniques to strengthen our own prose, trying our hands at a few of them through in-class writing prompts.

PLEASE NOTE: Proof of full Covid vaccination is required to attend in-person Charlotte Lit events. Send a pic of your vaccination card to staff@charlottelit.org.

More information is here.


Lola Haskins

Once I wrote “The distance to the horizon is a fierce happiness,” and I believe it’s true.  I had a good friend once who was a fine painter, and a series of paintings he did right before he retired from the art department inspired me so much that I wrote tiny stories about the characters in them. My friend made a fold-out book and exhibited it with the paintings. Later, when I wrote monologues in the voices of just the women, he jumped in and started making extra drawings. Now, he’d been fighting oral cancer for years and about this time he was approaching the end stages. I used to sit with him in his house—I remember he wore a mask because most of his face was gone, he said, he looked like a monster—and we’d talk about how things were going. Then one day he burst into tears and said “Lola, I’m so sorry. I’m not going to be able to finish our project”. To which I told him the truth: “Dear X, don’t worry.  Everything we’ve been doing for all these months IS our project; it was never about finishing in the first place.” In other words, our project was the horizon.

Thinking of tears reminds me of a story about me and another artist. The artist in this one is the 18th century Japanese painter and print maker, Hokusai (1760-1849), whose pictures I’ve loved for my whole adult life but never appreciated properly until I saw an extensive exhibit of his work. I’d thought I preferred his depictions of country people to the views of Mt. Fuji he did late in his life—and I still do like those—but when I found myself in the same room as Mt Fuji, I started crying, that mountain moved me so much—the way he rendered it, it was everything.

After that, I started reading about Hokusai’s life, and what I found has made him a role model for the rest of mine.

…. The period, beginning in 1834, saw Hokusai working under the name “Gakyō Rōjin Manji” (The Old Man Mad About Art). It was at this time that Hokusai produced One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji…

In the postscript to this work, Hokusai writes: “From around the age of six, I had the habit of sketching from life. I became an artist, and from fifty on began producing works that won some reputation, but nothing I did before the age of seventy was worthy of attention. At seventy-three, I began to grasp the structures of birds and beasts, insects, and fish, and of the way plants grow. If I go on trying, I will surely understand them still better by the time I am eighty-six, so that by ninety I will have penetrated to their essential nature. At one hundred, I may well have a positively divine understanding of them, while at one hundred and thirty, forty, or more I will have reached the stage where every dot and every stroke I paint will be alive. May Heaven, that grants long life, give me the chance to prove that this is no lie.”

In 1839, a fire destroyed Hokusai’s studio, but he never stopped painting and completed Ducks in a Stream at the age of 87. He is said to have exclaimed on his deathbed, “If only Heaven will give me just another ten years… Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter.”

ABOUT LOLA: Lola Haskins’ poetry has appeared in The Atlantic, The London Review of Books, London Magazine, The New York Quarterly, Georgia Review, Prairie Schooner, Rattle and elsewhere, as well as having been broadcast on NPR and BBC radio. She has published fourteen collections of poems, a poetry advice book and a non-fiction book about fifteen Florida cemeteries. Ms. Haskins has been awarded three book prizes, two NEA fellowships, four Florida Cultural Affairs fellowships, the Emily Dickinson/Writer Magazine award from Poetry Society of America, and several prizes for narrative poetry. She retired from teaching Computer Science at the University of Florida in 2005 and served from then until 2015 on the faculty of Rainier Writers Workshop.

SEE LOLA LIVE AT CHARLOTTE LIT! Lola Haskins will read from and discuss her work at Charlotte Lit on Friday, November 5 at 6 p.m. Free! Advance registration required.


Judy Goldman

“Whenever something good happens to you regarding your writing, you just get nervous,” my daughter tells me. She’s talking about when I’m on my way to publication, when I get a positive review, when I win a prize.

What’s also true is that when something bad happens to me regarding my writing (publication impossible, bad review, no prize), I get nervous.

Rejection makes me nervous because it confirms what I often believe to be true about myself.  Acceptance also makes me nervous because I’m convinced some major rejection is next.

For years, I’ve told students in my workshops they need to possess both arrogance and insecurity to be a writer.  Arrogance enables you to think that what you write might matter to somebody else.  Insecurity forces you to keep going back to your work to revise, to strive to make it better.

But what role does nervousness play?  And what is the key to getting rid of that nervousness or, at least, tone it down a notch?  How do you become a person who approaches writing with a sense of calm?

Be a dead writer?


But if you’re reading this, you’re alive, and we need to work with that.  Is there some trade secret all the successful writers know?

Ann Enright, an Irish writer, says, “Writing is mostly a case of mood management.”

So how do you manage your mood?

Well, this is what not managing your mood looks like:

  1. Praise paralyzes you.  You think, surely they’re just trying to make you feel good.  Or maybe the praise is sincere, but they don’t know good writing, so you can’t trust them.  Or maybe they know good writing and meant what they said, but you know all that could change in an instant.
  2. You know you’ll never get it right.  It’s the contrast between the image in your mind of the work you want to create vs. what actually ends up on paper.  How they rarely match.  If only readers could see inside your head, they’d know what a fabulous writer you are.
  3. You’re so afraid of failure, you don’t take risks.  Your inner critic is forever blowing the whistle.   Maybe you stop yourself before you even begin, before you take the risk of writing at all.
  4. What’s the use? is your mantra.

And what is really excellent mood management?

Persisting.  Persevering.  Without discouragement or bravado.  With curiosity.  With wide-eyed wonder.  With the attitude that anything can happen — and so what? Regardless, you’re right there, at your sturdy little desk, pecking away.  The writer, Fred Leebron, once said to me: “It’s a war of attrition.  Don’t attrish.”

So, it turns out the key to continuing to write even while riddled with nerves is to continue writing even while riddled with nerves.  It’s the trade secret every successful writer knows.  It’s also the problem every successful writer struggles with.

ABOUT JUDY: Judy Goldman is the author of seven books – three memoirs, two novels, and two collections of poetry.  Her new memoir, Child, will be published May 2022. Her recent memoir, Together: A Memoir of a Marriage and a Medical Mishap (published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday) was named one of the best books of 2019 by Real Simple magazine and received a starred review from Library Journal.

Her first memoir, Losing My Sister, was a finalist for both SIBA’s Memoir of the Year and ForeWord Review’s Memoir of the year.  She received the Sir Walter Raleigh Fiction Award and the Mary Ruffin Poole First Fiction Award, as well as the three prizes awarded for a poetry book by a North Carolinian and Silverfish Review Press’s Gerald Cable Prize.  She received the Hobson Award for Distinguished Achievement in Arts and Letters, the Fortner Writer and Community Award for “outstanding generosity to other writers and the larger community,” the Irene Blair Honeycutt Lifetime Achievement Award from Central Piedmont Community College, and the Beverly D. Clark Author Award from Queens University.

Her work has appeared in USA Today, Washington Post, Charlotte Observer, Real Simple, LitHub, Southern Review, Gettysburg Review, Kenyon Review, Crazyhorse, Ohio Review, Shenandoah, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere.

Rooftop Inspiration

Charles Israel, Jr.

Charles Israel, Jr.

Wherever our work as writers comes from, I’m just happy that it comes. And I wanted to share my inspiration for my flash fiction, “Ask a Crow.” It started as a poem, based on two things I saw on a rooftop, a crow and a coffee cup. The crow I understood, but a coffee cup? Which lead to a better question, what else doesn’t belong on a roof? From somewhere in my imagination, the bow from a double bass showed up. The bow changed the piece from a poem to a story. Because that bow had to be tossed by someone and tossed no doubt in either joy or anger. Here follows a love story.


Ask a Crow

It used to be her favorite cologne, so I splash some on. I look out the bathroom window, across Division Street. The building across the street has a huge, flat rooftop that takes up too much of my vista. On the rooftop, a wooden water tank. And there, under it, lies the bow for an upright bass. Also, there’s a coffee cup turned cistern, from which a crow bobs and drinks.

The cologne’s extracted from a small, alpine flower—speick. A smell that penetrates. As a punishment during the dark ages, they’d lock people in barns where they were hanging speick flowers to dry. After release, the person could be still be identified as guilty, for weeks—by the smell. Chief crimes for the speick barn were the theft of cattle or sheep, and also adultery.

From the only other room in our apartment, the big room with its one big window, I hear her: Are you going to leave me like this? Are you going to leave me like this? Like the chorus of some old soul tune, one with the verses understood. She’s standing on the window sill, a hand and a foot in each corner.

She turns her head. Her face has folded in on itself, like origami. I grab her by the waist. With my face pressed into her back, I hear her breathing, hard. Wait a minute, she says, Is that my bow?

She jumps down to check the bass case for her bow. I’d felt bad the second I released it. But then, as it sailed over the street, turning end over end, I heard its music. Like the first time I heard her play music: there, at her spring orchestra rehearsal, me the only one in the audience. She sounded so beautiful: I fell in love. Thief and adulterer, she says, all rolled into one.

I jump onto the window sill and go spread-eagled. Like a paratrooper at the jump-door, I turn my hands inside out, my fingers pointing toward Division. I’m set, ready to fly over. Ready to ask the crow: What do I do now? What have I done? How do I get her back? Can I get her back?  But he unfolds his wings and flies off, the bow in his beak.

MASTER PERSONAL ESSAYS WITH CHARLES: Be guided—step by step—through the process of writing personal essays. Write a complete essay using prompts, freewriting exercises, feedback, and revision. In this class, you can share your work with others. You may also elect to receive written feedback from the instructor.  (New this spring, you’ll have the option to add a detailed critique of your writing for an additional fee. Details will be sent after you register.) This class meets on three Tuesdays, May 11, 18 & 25, 6-7:30 p.m. More info

ABOUT CHARLES: Charles Israel, Jr., teaches creative writing at Queens University of Charlotte. His poetry chapbook, Stacking Weather, was published by Amsterdam PressHe’s also had poems and stories in Crazyhorse, Field, The Cortland Review, The Adirondack Review, Nimrod International Journal, Pembroke Magazine, Zone 3, Journal of the American Medical Association, and North Carolina Literary Review. He likes to read ancient epic poetry and contemporary creative nonfiction about voyages and journeys, sports and war. He lives in Charlotte with his wife, Leslie.

Collecting Family Stories

Melinda Ferguson Sherman

Melinda Ferguson Sherman

As I’ve been writing in my journal these past thirty-some years, I’ve often found myself associating events of the day with memories of my childhood, or referencing family stories I often heard growing up. Some of the stories are about me before I was old enough to remember them; others tell a story of  “the time when” my brother, mom, or dad had a funny, disastrous, or a just-goes-to-show-you learning experience. How surprising and enriching it is to discover new associations and meanings in old stories.

This experience inspired me to write short pieces of memoir with the notion of passing family stories onto my children. Otherwise, how would they ever know my family’s background, which is rooted in rural Ohio and is vastly different from their childhoods growing up in Manhattan and Long Island? In today’s world, where traditional family Sunday dinners, weekend visits, and annual reunions are not as feasible as in the past, writing down our stories is the only path open to those of us who want to preserve our memories for posterity and familiarize our children with their ancestors.

The same day I learned of my pending new status as a grandmother, I came across an ad for a book I immediately ordered: Unconditional Love: A Guide to Navigating the Joys and Challenges of Being a Grandparent Today, by Jane Isay. Having read the book, I’m persuaded that our personal stories are of priceless importance to our children, grandchildren, and future generations. All of our stories — happy, sad, tragic, comic, of famous family heroes and infamous villains — nurture our children’s belief in themselves, their place in the world, their self-worth. Children who’ve heard family stories are less anxious and more resilient in times of uncertainty.

Those of us who write these stories profit in several ways. We bring to our stories a more mature understanding of their meaning; we form bonds with the younger generation; and, in the process of researching and revisiting our past, are likely to reach out to family and friends whom we haven’t seen or heard from for years. We, too, become more connected, more comfortable in the world, and perhaps a bit less anxious.

START COLLECTING YOUR FAMILY STORIES WITH MELINDA: Melinda Ferguson Sherman leads the four-session workshop “Five Generations: Collecting Family Memories,” beginning Tuesday, October 20. More info

ABOUT MELINDA: Melinda Ferguson Sherman was born in Ohio and lived most of her life in New York City and Long Island before moving to Charlotte two years ago. She is a writer, teacher, and––for nearly 20 years––a journal and memoir writing workshop facilitator. She has written two books of family stories for her children. Melinda has a BA from Miami University, an MA from Columbia University, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Southampton. She worked as an editor at Warner, Walker, and Macmillan. Most recently, she’s served as adjunct faculty at Suffolk County (NY) Community College and Central Piedmont Community College.

Not Today, Noonday Demon

Jessica Jacobs

Jessica Jacobs

Editor’s Note: Jessica Jacobs leads the new Charlotte Lit 4-week studio, In the Beginning: Exploring Questions of Spirituality and Religion through Poetry, beginning September 13. More info

– – – – – – – – – – – – – –

With two new books between us, my wife and I spent nearly nine months of 2019 traveling, giving readings and teaching workshops at festivals and conferences from Florida to Washington state. Our meager spells at home consisted primarily of recovering from our most recent trip while simultaneously preparing for the next one, our bags permanently half-packed, our pets alternately desperate for our attention (the dogs) or showily displaying their displeasure at our absence (no surprise here: the cats).

Then, 2020: We taught at the Palm Poetry Festival in January and after that? Panic, global and local, uncertainty, every last one of our spring gigs postponed or outright cancelled. Which meant that, fortunate as we were to have our home and health and each other, all our normal markers of time were gone.

In some ways, there was great beauty in this. I can now tell you the exact stages of bloom and fruit and seed undertaken by the blackberries, then the raspberries, and now the figs; the names of our neighbors and their much-more-frequently-walked dogs. But I’ve also floundered in periods of deep restlessness, having difficulty concentrating when trying to read or write.

When this besieges the unhappy mind, it begets aversion from the place, boredom from one’s cell, and scorn and contempt for one’s brethren…Also, towards any work that may be done within the enclosure of our own lair, we become listless and inert.

Sound familiar? That’s not twenty-first century me talking, but Desert Father John Cassian, writing in the 4th Century of a frequent scourge of his fellow monks—acedia a.k.a. “the noonday demon” a.k.a. sloth, listlessness, chronic and debilitating apathy. A disease the British writer Sara Maitland called “the reverse sense of ‘givenness’. . . that no action or decision is worth taking for oneself, that no act of will can have any results, so why bother?”

Reading this text from so long ago that so accurately described my internal struggles, I felt not only a sense of transtemporal camaraderie, of being that much less alone, but also learned from Cassian a solution to what before felt like a uniquely modern malaise: make a schedule and keep to it, do work on behalf of others, give thanks for the specific moments of each day for which you are grateful while reflecting on what you might like to change for the better, and try and connect with something larger than yourself, like God or community or the natural world.

And so I’ve begun crafting a shape to my days. Between regular runs and dog-walks and meal preps, I’ve been editing and teaching, and, to feed my own writing, delving into Torah (the Old Testament) and associated scholarship and contemporary spiritual poems, grateful for the ancient wisdom, companionship, and inspiration to be found there.

Jessica Jacobs is the author of Take Me with You, Wherever You’re Going (Four Way Books), one of Library Journal’s Best Poetry Books of the Year, winner of the Goldie Award in Poetry from the Golden Crown Literary Society, and a finalist for both the Brockman-Campbell and Julie Suk Book Awards. Her debut collection, Pelvis with Distance (White Pine Press), a biography-in-poems of Georgia O’Keeffe, won the New Mexico Book Award in Poetry and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and Julie Suk Award. An avid long-distance runner, Jessica has worked as a rock-climbing instructor, bartender, and professor, and now serves as the Chapbook Editor for Beloit Poetry Journal. She lives in Asheville, NC, with her wife, the poet Nickole Brown, with whom she co-authored Write It! 100 Poetry Prompts to Inspire (Spruce Books/PenguinRandomHouse), and is at work on parallel collections of essays and poems exploring spirituality, Torah, and Midrash. You can learn more about her at jessicalgjacobs.com.

Study with Jessica: Jessica Jacobs leads the new Charlotte Lit 4-week studio, In the Beginning: Exploring Questions of Spirituality and Religion through Poetry, beginning September 13. More info

Ramble Your Way Through the Pandemic

Cathy Pickens

Cathy Pickens

Recently, writer friends tell me they’re stuck, they can’t focus, can’t seem to write. One said she feels as if she’s withering.

What are we to do?

My pandemic solutions don’t vary much from my everyday solutions to living a joyfully creative life. The pandemic has just convinced me that they can work.

1. Turn off screens. No one needs a steady diet of the things we’re fed as “news.” And you’ve already binge-watched everything. If you can’t do a cold-turkey detox, at least limit your time with TV, social media, even newspapers. Be the adult over your own “child control” settings.

2. If you can’t write, now is the perfect time for what I call a ramble. “But I’m on lockdown!” you announce, indignant. All the better for stretching your creative muscles. (Not all rambles require leaving your house.) I offer suggestions but only to get you started on your own list:

Deep reading. An involved book with rich characters and an intriguing plot may seem too demanding right now. But give it a try. Research shows we’re losing our ability to concentrate, but deep reading helps—and lets us step outside ourselves for a while. My favorites: Dickens’ Bleak House (he’s surprisingly witty, not bleak) or Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (the first “sensation” novel and still a page-turner).

A new skill. What have you always wanted to try but just haven’t had the time…or the nerve? For me, it’s sketching. Of course it won’t be good. But it could get better. And I’ve got pencils and paper aplenty. My sister just designed and (single-handedly) built a deck behind her house. I’ll choose something inside, out of the heat. What have you wanted to try? Maybe you’ll bake. Or collage. Play with sidewalk chalk. Write poetry. [Not a poet? Find George Ella Lyon’s Where I’m From poem online and use it as a template to write your own list poem.] Stretch those creative muscles.

Reaching out. Life goes on for our friends and family and we can’t always be there. My husband’s close friend is dying. For him, it’s not a sad story. I can hear both sides of the phone conversation when he calls from Oklahoma. He’s as exuberant and fun-loving (and food-loving) as he’s always been. Something prompted me to write him a note, to tell him how his wide-open arms and big laugh always made me feel so welcome when I visited that close-knit group of old high-school friends. (They’re all pushing 80 now.) Just a little note. He says he’s showed it to everyone he knows, that it’s getting a bit tattered but he plans on putting it in his casket since they can’t fit his Sooner football memorabilia in there. Just a little note.

Even introverts like me need human interaction. So what if it looks different now? My mother-in-law (who lived through the 1918 flu pandemic and the Dust Bowl) and her siblings exchanged round-robin letters—so much more newsy and tactile than Facebook. Who needs to hear from you? In what creative ways can you reach out?

Exercising our creative muscles offers us certain delights for the effort: contentment, joy, pleasant fatigue.

And it’s just fun. So, what’s your ramble?

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 Charlotte True Crime Stories and Charleston Mysteries (both for 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. Her most recent book is CREATE! Developing Your Creative Process (2020, ICSC Press). 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.

Study creativity with Cathy. Cathy Pickens leads a four-week exploration into your personal creative process, at Charlotte Lit beginning September 14. Four live-by-Zoom sessions plus a half-hour private creativity consultation. Members $150, non-members $195. More info.

Journal Writing During a Pandemic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Little Bit Afraid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

No, it won’t be any good. So what?

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

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

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

Putting Pen to Paper with Megan Rich

“Begin in media res, in the middle of the action. Begin in dialogue that allows your readers to feel the tension. Don’t worry about background or set up right now—just let yourself go into the scene.” With that, a rough dozen or so writers spend the next thirty minutes in quiet except for the tapping of keys and scratching of pen on paper.

Every Wednesday morning from 9:30 to 10:30 at Charlotte Lit, author Megan Rich offers advice and inspiration, along with a guided prompt to kick writers into gear. She leads “Pen to Paper” a free, open workshop for writers at all levels of experience. It’s a varied group—some are published writers working on memoir, YA, or novels; some not ready, yet, to claim the title “writer”—all benefiting from Rich’s gentle encouragement.

Rich is working on her third book, a novel. Her other works include a YA novel and a travel memoir. When she says ‘an editor will tell you to find your character’s greatest fear and write that scene’ or ‘an agent will want you to describe your project in an elevator pitch,’ she knows of which she speaks.

Each hour-long session begins with brief introductions before Rich discusses the writing prompt. She offers the exercise and then adds specific examples of how it might take shape. Maybe it’s finding inspiration in nature or how to build authentic tension in a scene, fodder for the next thirty to forty minutes of dedicated writing time that form the core of each class.  At the end of this time, Rich calls the group back together and asks if anyone would like to share. “Is there any word or phrase that gave you a rush of excitement as you wrote it?,” she’ll ask.

Rich is keen to help burgeoning authors recognize the initial spark of joy and possibility in their words before self-criticism and deflation set in. Sharing is always optional, but for the writers who do, Rich will commend a moment from their work, noting a particularly arresting detail or an excellent beginning line.

Held in Charlotte Lit’s airy new Studio Two, Pen to Paper is a low pressure way to start or re-start a writing practice.  Members are welcome to stay after class to write in the comfortable space. Visitors may try out the studio for free in the hour following class. Writing can be a lonely business but it doesn’t have to be done alone. It’s heartening to write alongside others who are trying their hand at creation, especially under the guidance of a supportive, experienced instructor like Megan Rich.

Megan Rich has written two books, a YA novel and a travel memoir, and is working on her third —a literary-fiction novel inspired by The Great Gatsby. As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, she completed a thesis of original poetry for which she received the Virginia Voss Memorial Award for Writing. She was recently awarded first place in the Confucius Institute’s North Carolina Essay Prize for an excerpt from her travel memoir. Megan is a current member of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop Book Project program, located in Denver, Colorado. She has taught English and Creative Writing for twelve years serving diverse students in traditional and non-traditional settings. You can find more information about her at her Goodreads profile.