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]


Interview: 4X4CLT Artist Gabrielle Wolfe

Artist Gabrielle Wolfe is a woman on the move, but not in the clichéd, can’t-sit-still way. She likes settling in to a new place. She and her partner have just moved from Charlotte to Park City, Utah, for several months—maybe more—of seasonal work in the skiing and hospitality industry. They’ve been spending a lot of time outdoors, taking in the crisp air and iconic sights, even eating Thanksgiving dinner in an authentic, Western-style saloon.

Gabrielle is intrigued by the concepts of place and permanence, and she often experiments with them in her work. Her medium of choice is oil on canvas, and her abstract paintings are collages of images and figures, geometric shapes, and swatches of color – all seeming to be in motion, in close proximity to one another.

As a viewer, I get a sense of standing on the corner of a busy city street, or being deep in conversation with the artist on a moving train. It’s the contradiction, the frenetic stillness, that draws me in.

Gabrielle acknowledges that her work is very personal, though she wants people to be able to access a larger meaning.

“I’m still ironing out the dialogue I want to have with viewers,” she says. “I like to think introspectively about history and time, so in that sense my work is very intimate. I try to reflect how I feel about the spaces I’ve been in,” thinking of her canvas as an “abstract landscape,” where she can explore the significance of her experiences and surroundings.

“I find elements, shapes I love, then I use them as a scaffolding for my compositions.” This may involve painting something from a sketch, line work of something more representative than abstract, or using brushstrokes to capture emotions sparked by a particular place. She refers to the latter as “gestures of spaces.”

She uses moving out of her home in Charlotte as an example of how we can inhabit a place, but how it can also inhabit us. As she was putting things into boxes, she thought about how she was systematically dissembling the life she had built there and enjoyed. Soon, she would be putting a new life together, piece-by-piece.

“I had to think about what would come with me and what I’d leave behind,” she says. “Now that I’ve moved, I look around at what I brought, and I’m intrigued by my choices. Why do these particular objects mean something to me?”

Gabrielle feels spaces are imbued with “accumulated fragments of those who live in them.” In her art, especially in the collaging process, she says she works through the “implications” of these “echoes and remnants of what’s left behind.”

She’s grateful to her mom for being her first champion and collector. “My mom calls herself a patron of the arts, and she is. She’s always been there for me, supportive in every way.” When Gabrielle was growing up in Charleston, South Carolina, the best shopping trips were to the art supply store, when her mom would let her get fresh paints, brushes and scrapbooking materials.

Gabrielle knew early on what she wanted to do and attended an arts middle and high school, before heading to college at Winthrop University. In 2015, she earned her BFA with concentrations in painting and printmaking, then moved to Charlotte to begin working in a print shop and as a studio artist. She also went on to start her own art consultancy, curating shows of local artists at area businesses, such as Petra’s and Not Just Coffee at Atherton Mill.

When asked about what it means to have her artwork paired with the words of Beth Ann Fennelly in the 4x4CLT project, Gabrielle says she welcomes the connection: “I love reading books, writing, and incorporating text into my paintings.”

When people see Fennelly’s words near the work of the artists, Gabrielle hopes the readers will have a visual context to consider; in turn, she says, the writer’s words will “create a literary bridge to the art.”

Gabrielle Wolfe is one of two featured artists chosen for Charlotte Lit’s 4X4CLT Series 2 Number 4 posters, released in December 2017. Her work, along with that of artist Scott Partridge, accompanies the words of Beth Ann Fennelly, writer and Poet Laureate of Mississippi. Look for the 4X4CLT posters to be displayed at over 50 host locations throughout Charlotte.

You can find Gabrielle’s work on her website, gabriellewolfe.com and on Instagram @gabwolfie.

Five Questions for 4X4CLT Featured Writer Beth Ann Fennelly

How did your foray into micro-memoir evolve—did these pieces begin as prose poems or were they their own specific beast from the start?

Before I published this book, my husband and I wrote a collaborative novel. Called The Tilted World (HarperCollins, 2013), it was set in the flood of the Mississippi River in 1927, and it ended up being a big project. Although we’d each published four books, we’d never written one together. In addition to teaching ourselves how to collaborate, we had to do a lot of research. And it was high stakes: we spent four years writing the novel. Imagine, if it failed, how costly that would have been for our marriage.

Luckily, it didn’t fail. After we returned from book tour, tuckered, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write next. There followed a long, frustrating, fallow period in which I wasn’t writing. I mean, sure, I was scribbling little thoughts and ideas in my notebook, but nothing was adding up to anything. Many of my scribbles were just sentences, or a paragraph, the longest just a few pages. I kept complaining to my patient husband that I was “not writing.” Eventually, however, it occurred to me that I was enjoying this scribbling in my notebook. After the high stakes, research-heavy, character-imbedded-thinking of the novel, my own life seemed rich material again. The little memories or quirky thoughts or miniature scenes I was creating seemed refreshing. So, strangely, I identified the feeling of writing before I identified the activity. I thought, What if this “not writing” I’m doing actually is writing, and I just don’t recognize it because it doesn’t look like other writing I’ve done? What if I need to stop waiting for these things to add up to something, and realize maybe they already are somethings, just small?  Once I’d recognized the form and gave it a name, the micro-memoir, I realized I was almost done with a book.

You write about motherhood with a clear-eyed honesty that is anything but the dreaded “s” word so often tagged on writers who are mothers (“sentimental”). Could you talk about your experience of writing as a mother and the reception of that work?

When I was pregnant the first time, I devoured all the mothering books, in an effort to be supremely well informed.  But nothing prepared me for motherhood, which is so much better and harder and weird and wilder than I had expected. So much funnier, too.  I wrote about my experiences as a mom to try to understand them.  And people have sometimes praised this writing for its lack of sentimentality—which makes me happy—it was important to me not to sentimentalize, because that simplifies and cheapens the mystery that is motherhood.

Would you share the most useful piece of writing advice you ever received?

When I was in grad school, my first year, I had a conference with the poet Jack Gilbert, and he read a sheaf of my poems, which were pretty over-determined and directed, and told me a story.  He said that in the 1970s, the city of Amsterdam had a taxi shortage, because so many tourists were swamping the city and because there’s a rigorous licensing for taxi drivers in the city, due to its numerous bridges and one-way roads. The city solved the problem by initiating a new kind of taxi. Instead of taking the full-fare, licensed, traditional black taxi, one could take a half-priced red taxi, but the ride might be less direct, might incorporate a detour or two. He said, “Beth Ann, take the red taxi.”

What should people know about literary life in Mississippi?

Oxford, MS is a very literary place—Faulkner’s house, and PW’s “Best Bookstore of the Year,” Square Books—and Oxford felt like home from the moment I arrived. We recently bought five plots in the cemetery where Faulkner is buried! So we’re here eternally, now.

Note: Fennelly serves as poet laureate for the state of Mississippi and as director of the MFA program at the University of Mississippi, where she teaches poetry and nonfiction writing.

Which writers do you read for inspiration?

That changes all the time. Lately—Maggie Nelson, Claudia Rankine, Edouard Leve, Kaveh Akbar, Issa, Catherine Lacey, and Maggie O’Farrell.

Beth Ann Fennelly’s writing was featured on Charlotte Lit’s 4X4CLT Series 2 Number 4 posters, released in December 2017. She is the author of three poetry books: Open House, Tender Hooks, and Unmentionables, all with W. W. Norton. Beth Ann’s poetry has been in over fifty anthologies, including Best American Poetry 1996, 2005, and 2006. She is the author of a book of essays, Great With Child: Letters to a Young Mother (Norton, 2006). She co-authored with her husband Tom Franklin The Tilted World (HarperCollins, 2013), a novel set during the 1927 flood of the Mississippi River. Beth Ann’s newest book, published by W. W. Norton in October 2017, is Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs.

Interview: 4X4CLT Artist Scott Partridge

Artist Scott Partridge and I sit at Amélie’s getting acquainted. A nearby print of the Mona Lisa, retrofitted with mirrored sunglasses, reflects a Kardashian self-awareness that could be straight out of da Vinci’s Instagram. Though not one of Scott’s pieces, it seems an appropriate backdrop for our conversation. I learn that he once created a custom digital painting for Charlotte’s Cowfish restaurant, called the “Mona Geisha,” reimagining the iconic subject as a traditional Japanese geisha.

Scott considers both fine art and graphic design to be equally important expressions of his work. Whether he’s working on a corporate commission, or something of his own, he says he “takes his cues from nature and geometry.” Like the work of the twentieth-century modernists he cites as inspiration, Scott’s paintings and digital collages seek to capture his subjects in a moment of time. They reveal in a flash of insight, that essential – and, at times, elusive – quality we must see if we are to fully appreciate the form in front of us.

He’s drawn to what he calls the “personality of shapes,” and through his work brings a range of universal emotions to a wide variety of subjects: from mother and baby elephants, to the tiniest kestrel falcons; from a digital collage of Abraham Lincoln, to a Lichtenstein-inspired mashup of fast food ad mascots in a lover’s spat. He imbues his subjects with a subtlety of universal emotions, reinforcing the hard-wired connections between human consciousness and the perceived sentience of the world we inhabit.

One of Scott’s primary influences is artist Charley Harper, active in the 1950s, 60s and into the 2000s. As a child, Scott would see Harper’s work, which he says was so “recognizable” in form and color, like a logo, that he remembered it and was later inspired by it when he sought his own style as an artist.

“[Harper was] a master of figuring out what’s the main thing about this subject that makes it that,” says Scott. “He takes away all the details that don’t contribute to its identity, and [you’re] left with the essence of it, conveyed in simple geometric forms.”

Scott’s process begins with a sketch. If what he’s working on will be more “improvisational,” he says it usually becomes a painting. For something more “modernist, geometric,” it will often become a digital composition. For the latter, he scans the sketch into Photoshop or Inkscape and turns it into vectors that can be layered with colors, images, and textures.

A native of Maine, Scott grew up spending much of his time outdoors. In middle school, he started sketching plants, pinecones, and small animals, with aspirations of being a natural science illustrator. He later went to Springfield College, where he studied art with a medical illustration concentration for two years, then transferred to Messiah College in Pennsylvania to study art for another year.

Questioning how what he was learning would connect to the artist’s path he envisioned, he left school and, in 1995, moved to Charlotte with one of his roommates. He’s been here ever since, beginning his career at a local print shop and learning how to use technology as another tool for his art. Scott says his formal education, particularly the time spent illustrating, was “useful practice for becoming familiar with structure of natural objects.”

When not in his studio, you can find Scott outside, hiking Charlotte’s nature preserves. We discuss the irony of knowing that one of his favorite subjects, the Barred Owl, can often be heard at night in his Plaza Midwood neighborhood. When I ask Scott if he imagines the owls lining up outside his window, primping and posing in an effort to win over his artistic attentions, he says, with kind eyes and a patient tone, “I don’t know.”

Scott Partridge is one of two featured artists chosen for Charlotte Lit’s 4X4CLT Series 2 Number 4 posters, released in December 2017. His work, along with that of artist Gabrielle Wolfe, accompanies the words of Beth Ann Fennelly, writer and Poet Laureate of Mississippi. Look for the 4X4CLT posters to be displayed at over 50 host locations throughout Charlotte.

In addition to his selection as a 4X4CLT artist, Scott was chosen to be a member of the ArtPop Street Gallery, class of 2017, and has his work on a billboard in Charlotte. Currently, his work also appears, along with the poetry of Marquis Love, as part of C3 Labs South End Verses public art project. You can find his work online and at various locations in the Carolinas and beyond. See www.jevaart.com.

Review: Beth Ann Fennelly’s Heating & Cooling

Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs
Beth Ann Fennelly

W.W. Norton & Company
ISBN 978-0-393-60947-9
111 pages | Memoir | $22.95

Short forms are all the rage, lately, with the profusion of prose poems and flash fiction staking (small) claims on the pages of literary journals. Add to this genre-fluidity the “micro-memoir,” another short form employed virtuosically by Beth Ann Fennelly in her new collection Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs. These pieces range from a sentence or two, to several pages in length. Many are lighthearted. Some are lists. A few are prose poems in spirit: see “A Reckoning of Kisses” and, especially, “I Was Not Going to Be Your Typical.” This is not a bad thing. Fennelly is staking a claim here by writing however she damn well pleases.

A poet by trade, Fennelly serves as the poet laureate of Mississippi, but she’s also written fiction along with her husband, the novelist, Tom Franklin. The narrative slant of even the briefest of these micro-memoirs sends their stories reverberating further than their words. For instance, take this economical recounting of life among the long married, part of a series that runs throughout the book:

Married Love, II

There will come a day—let it be many years from now—when our kids realize no married couple ever needed to retreat at high noon behind the locked bedroom door to discuss taxes.

A rare honesty and self-deprecation weaves through these pages, often with humorous results. No spoilers here, but don’t miss the fun of “Why I’m So Well Read” and “One Doesn’t Always Wish to Converse on Airplanes,” the latter an oddball encounter just weird enough to ring true. Pull up a chair, Fennelly seems to offer, have I got one for you.

Her truth telling lands solid punches, too, when addressing more serious territory. Those who have had difficult relationships with aging parents will relate to her recounting of time spent with her father, in particular “Sweet Nothing.” The sudden loss of her sister, as detailed in “Grief Vacation” is heartwrenching. Quiet fury rages through “Goner.” At three pages, one of the longest memoirs in the book, it grapples with sexual abuse in Fennelly’s childhood church. She’s left the church, but it hasn’t left her. Catholicism’s ritual and language are a recurring theme.

As ever, Fennelly writes about motherhood with beautiful ferocity (notably in her 2004 poetry collection Tender Hooks). She returns to the subject here, refracting it through its complexity in the bold “What I Think About When Someone Uses ‘Pussy’ As A Synonym For ‘Weak,’” and this humorous piece:

When They Grow Up

My oldest child will hate me because I wrote an entire book about her. My middle child will hate me because I wrote hardly a word about him. But the baby; ah, the baby. When I write about him, I call it fiction, and I’m always sure to mention he has a big penis.

In midlife many of us have lost people we love and those we don’t. Children, if we have them,  are growing or grown. We’ve lusted, and loved, and occasionally regretted it. Those who’ve not gotten there yet will appreciate Fennelly’s take on what’s to come. Heating & Cooling is an economical accounting of midlife that works by illuminating points on this timeline brightly enough to let the reader stitch together the whole.

We are thrilled to welcome Beth Ann Fennelly to Charlotte Lit December 1 and 2. 

Fennelly, the Poet Laureate of Mississippi, is the featured poet on our upcoming 4X4CLT Series 2 Number 4 posters. December 1, she’ll read from and discuss her work at our poster release party, at Resident Culture Brewing Company, 7 to 9 pm. Park Road Books will be on hand with Fennelly’s books for sale.

If you’d like to try your hand at the micro-memoir form, Fennelly teaches a master class at Charlotte Lit the following day, December 2, from 10 am to 1 pm. Spaces are filling quickly for “Build Me a Hummingbird of Words: Tiny Texts.” Register at charlottelit.org/workshops.

Credits: Photo of Beth Ann Fennelly by Jon Cancelino