Category Archives: Write What You Know

“Story Water”

Getting to know your characters is the most important aspect of plot for me. A good story develops from the decisions, the reactions and responses a character makes in relation to given circumstances.

The economy collapses!

But who your character is will determine what she does in response: marry a millionaire, start her own business, join a revolution, write a poem, run for political office, move to another country. So getting to know your characters is really a way of coming to terms with the story you want to tell.

Stories are like life: there are the cards you are given at birth and the way you play those cards. It’s important to push ourselves to reveal and come to terms with the cards our main character has been dealt. It’s important to explore the limits, the boundaries of that character’s beliefs because understanding those limits will create dramatic tension throughout the story and catalyze the plot point.

Here are the words of the great poet Rumi:


A story is like water
that you heat for your bath.

It takes messages between the fire
and your skin. It lets them meet,
and it cleans you!

Very few can sit down
in the middle of the fire itself
like a salamander or Abraham.
We need intermediaries.

A feeling of fullness comes,
but usually it takes some bread
to bring it.

Beauty surrounds us,
but usually we need to be walking
in a garden to know it.

The body itself is a screen
to shield and partially reveal
to light that’s blazing
inside your presence.

Water, stories, the body,
all the things we do, are mediums
that hide and show what’s hidden.

Study them,
and enjoy this being washed
with a secret we sometimes know,
and then not.

John Berger

The great John Berger passed away just a few days ago on the 2nd of January. He was a wonderfully prolific writer who made art history, the way we see the lives of artists and their productions, come alive. He was a playwright and a novelist.

On a personal level, though, three of his “poetic essays” affected me most: And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief As Photos (1992); The Shape of A Pocket (2003); and Hold Everything Dear (2008). I don’t know what else to call these three works because Berger does much more than, in the original sense of the word, “assay” or “essay” his topics.

Berger had an extraordinary ability to shatter boundaries: the frameworks we choose to render invisible and apolitical to ourselves and others. He was an iconoclast who shattered the boundaries of genre, refusing to accept the usual, framed ways of seeing literary (and painterly) forms.

These three “poetic essays” are prose meditations that distill at points into love poems, intimate and public, that reflect on eros as well as agape, the ethics that bind us to one another. What I will miss most is his ability to depict the fragility and sturdiness of life—that and his reminders about the darkness of the age in which we live.

Here are two obits:

New York Times

The Guardian


Yolanda Lopez’s image of the seamstress as Virgin Mother is especially inspiring to me because my mom was a seamstress from the age of 16 to her retirement, and she held our family together with a strong work ethic and a great deal of faith.

The word “inspire” is especially important to writers–whether poetry or prose. It derives from the Old French “inspiracion” which means “inhaling, breathing in; inspiration” (c. 1300).

The earlier roots of the word are from the Latin “inspirare” which means to “breathe upon.” (For those of you familiar with the Old Testament, consider the implications of the moment when God breathes life (spirit) into Adam.)

In Middle English “enspire,” (borrowed from Old French and Latin) was originally used to describe a divine or supernatural being who imparted truth to others.

This twinned idea of “breath” and the translation of truths from the divine to the human realm are integral to all of us as writers–lower-case, modest “truths,” anyway. The poetic line, and well-written prose, has breath. It is a line that can be breathed, spoken. It expresses the voice of the writer, and it attempts to express an observed truth about our world, our experiences in the world.

I hope we can all start the New Year in a positive, creative frame of mind. My best wishes to you and yours. May the New Year be filled with much joy, good health, and inspired productivity! Cheers, Liz

In Memoriam: Mavis Gallant

“No, I had no idea what was in store for me [when I arrived in Paris].
None whatsoever. But I had a typewriter, so I started writing.”
Mavis Gallant


I am ashamed to admit that I learned of Mavis Gallant’s work rather late—in 2007, after coming across an interview conducted by Stéphan Bureau and translated by Wyley Powell.  Before that point, asked to name a writer who had given voice to the lives of ordinary Europeans in the aftermath of the Second World War, I would have said Heinrich Böll, Gallant’s contemporary. I had loved Leila Vennewitz’s translation of The Stories of Heinrich Böll, especially “Murke’s Collected Silences,” “Undine’s Mighty Father,” and “Till Death Do Us Part”. And the way Böll forged character and place together—forged a character from an object in “Adventures of a Haversack,” had even inspired one of my own short stories, “The Cigar Box.”

My only consolation? I subscribe to Brick, the literary magazine in which the interview appeared. So I plunged into Paris Stories, a collection selected and introduced by Michael Ondaatje, at that time one of Brick’s editors, and discovered some extraordinary writing from a highly conscious stylist. In “Irina,” for example:

“If illness became him, it was only because he was fond of ritual, the children thought—even the hideous ceremonial of pain. But Irina had not been intended for sickness and suffering; she was meant to be burned dry and consumed by the ritual of him.”

I continued through Paris Notebooks: Selected Essays and Reviews (1986) and Montreal Stories (2004), and developed a deep respect for Gallant, a writer who maintained a singular focus on her craft. There is a great deal to learn from the way Gallant wrote and the way she lived her life, and I cannot wait for her two novels, Green Water, Green Sky (1959) and A Fairly Good Time (1970) to become more easily available.

We all owe a great deal to the artists and writers at Brick for creating and sustaining a literary magazine that opens us up to sometimes overlooked writers and their extraordinary work. (By the way, Brick also published a critical overview of Gallant’s work by Russell Bank, “The Stories of Mavis Gallant,” which is worthwhile, especially for readers who like the compass of history and theme.)

 NYT Obit by Helen T. Verongos (2.18.2014)


Borders/Embargoes, II and III

“…behavior could be judged by moral criteria as right or wrong, 
but action is judged for neither its motivation nor its aim, only for its performance.”

Hannah Arendt, qtd in Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun,
Wafaa Bilal and Kari Lydersen 


To anyone looking through night goggles, the eight figures huddling in the blackness of the desert night would have glowed an eerie phantom-green. Without the goggles, all eight, including the little girl and her father, remained nameless shadows. They had been waiting in the desert heat, waiting until nightfall for the truck that would carry them on the next leg of their odyssey across a continent. When the truck finally arrived, the coyotes jumped out of the cab and unlatched the rear door. The stench of sweat and excrement caused the eight waiting travelers to step back, which offended the coyotes, who started herding them into the truck at machete point, cursing at them for being late.

Inside, there were already some thirty or so people, their only luxuries a bucket in a far corner and two small slits that ran along each side of the truck. All eight scrambled in, grateful to have completed one leg of their journey, anxious as they faced the long ride from the edge of the north-south border to the center of Florida. All of them had to trust that the coyotes would not take the money they had each paid and leave them locked inside, without food or water, in the terrible heat, along a foreign road. They had to trust that once a day the two strangers seated in the cab would pull over by the side of a less traveled road and open the truck’s rear door enough to let in the fresh air and give one of them the chance to empty the bucket.

The girl sat tightly by her father. He wrapped his arms around her, and she buried her face in his chest, trying to peer out into the darkness of the truck’s interior to observe the people around her. When the final stop came and the driver loaded another dozen people inside, they lost the luxury of sitting and had to stand, swaying and bumping against one another with every turn the driver made. The passengers stood that way until their hands and ankles and calves swelled. Some people started to weep, calling out in the name of the Virgin mother for any mercy that would take them home again. That would forgive them for the terrible mistake they had made.

We’re suffocating, the girl’s father told one of the coyotes, who only looked past him, pushing against the truck door repeatedly, as if he were trying to close an overstuffed suitcase. He turned the heavy bolt and locked them all inside again.

The girl squeezed herself into her father’s arms, trying to block the sound of a child weeping by focusing on the rattle of the truck’s engine and its grinding gears. She fell into a deep sleep, not waking up until the coyotes opened the door.  They had arrived in Florida. Almost everyone hurried off the truck. Squeezed into the far right corner a young woman remained curled up in sleep. The coyotes laughed. They cursed. When she still would not wake up, they jumped in, planning to drag her out, but she was dead, still holding in her arms the child who had suffocated with her. Some of the fellow travelers started weeping. Someone else asked if anyone knew her name. One of the coyotes drew a machete and explained that nothing had happened.


An out-of-state visitor who had lost his way pulled over to the side of an empty county road and decided he might as well relieve himself. Walking into a small clearing about twenty feet from the road, he was surprised to discover a half-buried doll. Why would anyone do that? He took a closer look, quickly zipped up, and ran back to his car. Whatever had happened, it was none of his concern, so he sped off, but once he had found the interstate again, a pang of conscience moved him to call the police and leave an anonymous tip.

When the police arrived, the officers discovered the depressed earth that had been partially excavated by hungry animals and called in the homicide and forensic teams. The boiesy of a woman and child were eventually exhumed and taken to the coroner, who cut them open and determined both had died of asphyxiation. The woman was in her twenties and otherwise healthy. There were no indications of sexual assault on either victim, though further examination of the woman’s pelvis indicated that she had probably given birth more than once. The infant, a girl, was only months old. The internal organs of both bodies indicated severe dehydration before death. A thin silver cross on a thin silver chain and one pink infant sock were found near the bodies. Though well decomposed by heat and humidity and dismembered by animals, modern advances in DNA technology made it possible to identify with one-hundred percent certainty that the bodies of this Hispanic mother and child were not related.

The discovery of the grave was of interest to the local newspaper. Fulfilling a clear civic obligation, the editor ran a series of articles about what had happened just miles from the town limits. God only knows, the editor wrote, how often this sort of crime is being committed and by whom. We must seek for remedies to keep this from happening again, and we must punish the guilty. The mayor, who never saw eye-to-eye with the editor, could smell trouble brewing. He called the police chief, who called his officers, who rounded up several local Hispanic men, (the “usual suspects,” someone chortled), and held them for further questioning–all but one. His name was Pedro. He had lost most of his hearing in an industrial accident when he was still a boy. He never heard the police officer who told him to stop and then shot him once, twice, three times in the back when he did not. Justifiable, wrote the editor. Law and order, intoned the mayor.

The suggestion of possible malfeasance by a local police department drew the attention of an editor at a large newspaper in a large city hours away from the town on whose outskirts the grave had been found. This editor sent a reporter to speak to the police chief and to interview the widow and five orphaned children of the illegal who had had the bad luck of not hearing the policeman. My husband was here legally, the widow was reported to have said. Why was he  shot in the back on his way to work? The photograph that ran with the story clearly documented the impoverished conditions of this working-class family. “Shoot an Illegal?” the headline above the photograph above the fold read. Sales shot up. Dozens of good citizens who had glanced at headline and photo wrote in to the editor: Don’t those people know about birth control?

A few days after the story ran, Pedro was buried, but only after an anonymous donor provided the money required for a simple casket and grave marker. No one remembers what happened to his widow or children. No one remembers when, or where, or even if the bodies of those other two wetbacks were buried.

Borders/Embargoes, I


“When you tell a story no one else tells anymore , you say: ‘I invented this, it’s mine.’ But what you’re really doing is remembering…what the memory of your forefathers left in your blood….”

Ariel Dorfman, “Myth as Time and Language [in Miguel Angel Asturias’ Men of Maize]”


In the moonlight what appeared first were the empty shoes, which seemed to have walked across the hot shifting sands alone. Then the tattered clothes, draped across the broad, bristling arms of the cacti like charred garlands, appeared.  Behind the cacti was the low tree under which a girl and her father discovered the incinerated bodies of three men who had paused to rest in the shade, grown lethargic from lack of water, then delusional, and died. The girl could not look away from the bones gleaming in the moonlight, or the figure in the middle, reaching out to her, offering her something in the palm of his hand.

The girl felt her father emerging from the darkness, his arms wrapping protectively around her, pulling her away from the strange tableau. He pulled, and she followed, watching through her child eyes as the sands under her feet shifted, forming hills, then dunes she had to cross quickly, as quickly as her father demanded. She imagined sinking into the hot sand, disappearing, emerging again and always near the base of the tree, where the three men had come to rest. Hurry, her father said. They had to catch up with the others. He knew it was difficult, but she had to try harder.

Sometime after the girl and her father crossed the moonlit landscape, the three incinerated men were discovered by a few good Samaritans, the sort of fools who left plastic gallon jugs of water along the northward passage from Mexico. Before calling the authorities, the Samaritans knelt before the bodies in prayer. As one of them explained in far too much detail to the local television news reporter, there were no words to express the injustice of dying in pursuit of a better life.

Tell us how you feel, the reporter prodded. The Samaritan hesitated and then explained how he had recoiled in horror, how he had approached the bodies, how he had found in the mummified hands of one of the men, hands that reminded him of his own father’s, a perfectly intact photograph of a little girl in a white dress with a blue ribbon sash and the smiling woman who held her. The reporter flashed her saddest, most knowing look at the camera.

After the edited version of the interview ran on the local news, the public responded with what some described as an understandable degree of shock and awe. The Samaritans, who had been interrogated for hours by the authorities, were rounded up and placed in custody. Hearing of their arrest, the same television reporter did a piece on religious fanatics, running the Samaritans’ mug shots repeatedly on the six- and eleven-o’clock news, and generously helping the viewing community to formalize the terms of the debate: “What do you think?” the reporter asked, her brow studiously furrowed for the camera. “Was it okay to help illegals break the law? We want to hear from you, our viewing public.” Eventually that public reached a consensus, as the polling data clearly showed: providing water to illegals did not constitute humanitarian relief. Everyone had their own problems. The Samaritans had aided and abetted a criminal. It was a matter of law, and the law was clear.

After their release, the Samaritans started receiving death threats. Eventually, they had to stop a practice deemed blatantly unpatriotic by a well-known local radio personality. “Those people!” he sputtered. “They shouldn’t be trespassing out there anyway.” His argument (that real Americans were tired of hearing about illegals, that those men who had died in the desert had made a choice, however foolish) was indisputable—not that too many people with microphones tried.

No one seemed to remember the fact that the terrain those men died crossing had once been their ancestral lands, theirs before an illegal war of aggression against Mexico in the mid-nineteenth century. Though if those historical facts had been brought up, the local radio personality would have had a ready response: whatever happened that long ago was history—a matter of no consequence. He might have recalled the illegal Atlantic crossing of his maternal great-grandfather, who was known to have killed the man whose wife he coveted and eventually married. He might have, but he didn’t.

Lanham and Orwell

Revising Prose (1979)I learned a great deal about voice from Richard Lanham, especially two of his books: Style: An Anti-Textbook and Revising Prose. In the latter, Lanham outlines a multi-step technique he refers to as the “Paramedic Method” or “PM.” Once I learned the technique, I never let go, reading my papers out loud, marking each stumble over an awkwardly constructed sentence, and then returning to those sentences, PM in hand, and taking them apart step by step. The practical technique aside, I have wondered for some time now about the influence of George Orwell on Lanham’s larger, more complex argument about the way we use language now and in a culture that values speed and the shiny surface of things.

The distaste Orwell expresses in “Politics and the English Language” for euphemism, the bedrock of
political language, echoes in Lanham’s argument that writing matters as a communal and humane practice. “In our time,” Orwell, writes, “political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible.” He then offers us a list of atrocities (imperialism, purges, deportations, atom bombs) that “can, indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties.” He gives concrete examples of the enormous schism between act and representation; between what we do and how we represent those actions to ourselves, individually and collectively:

Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.

Pacification, rectification, elimination—the verbs have been turned into nouns, Latinate nouns that communicate effectively, all the while neatly and hygienically buffering us from bombarded villages, trudging peasants, suffering prisoners.

Orwell was writing shortly after the World War II, yet Lanham in his work situates in the present that same schism between act and representation. Lanham, the brilliant rhetorician, draws our attention to the beauty of a consciously wrought style despite the fact that we live in an age for which the default definition of “rhetoric” has become verbose, pompous, insincere. We are tired of being lied to by politicians and advertisers. Our understandably paranoid defense is to reject lengthy and complex sentences. Lanham, however, does not advocate for short sentences. He advocates for balance and clarity. The PM is meant to help us see the idea we are trying to express in each sentence. Once we see the idea, we have another decision to make about how to cast it within the structure of a sentence. And it is in that very instance of seeing and then making a conscious ethical choice about how we use language, to obscure or to reveal, that Lanham returns to repeatedly—as does Orwell.

The speaker who relies on euphemistic platitudes has for Orwell “gone some distance towards turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.” To insist that all sentences must be short (a dismayingly reductive misunderstanding of Hemingway’s style) leads to political debates that sound more like an off-, off-, off-Broadway reading of bumper stickers or sound bites. It is euphemism—albeit without the bombast and complexity. But both forms reduce us to machines, spouting language we don’t understand, and offers the scant comfort of conformity. Here is an example of that mechanistic sort of writing:

Jones writes a touching article where he utilizes several techniques that have an impact on his audience and include persuasion, such as pathos, rhetorical questions, and ethos, to demonstrate the similarities between actual violence and aggressive television violence scenes are alarming signs these television programs are dangerous for children.

If we skim the sentence instead of actually reading it, we get a sense of complexity, effort, thought. If we slow down and actually read it, something shifts. Here, in highlights, is what Lanham has taught me to see:

Jones writes a touching article where he utilizes several techniques that have an impact on his audience and include persuasion, such as pathos, rhetorical questions, and ethos, to demonstrate the similarities between actual violence and aggressive television violence scenes are alarming signs these television programs are dangerous for teenagers.

This sentence actually expresses three ideas: 1) Jones writes a touching article; 2) He uses several techniques; and 3) These television programs are dangerous for teenagers. It would take time to
Style: An Anti-textbook (1974)develop each of these ideas, yet we live in a culture that moves at a frenetic pace. The ideas expressed raise logical questions: What is “touching” about the article? Does Jones have a particular connection to the material? Which “techniques” exactly? Who is his audience? Are them sympathetic to his argument or not? Why would those “techniques” be relevant to that particular audience? Which idea is most important to the writer? There are many more questions, and those questions will not be articulated, the answers left unexplored, for the same reason: they require time. The writer avoids taking a position. As discussed in the posting on Boal and Freire, the writer of that sample sentence has learned conformity.




Boal and Freire

In Theatre of the Oppressed, Augusto Boal takes on the task of stripping theatre to its roots, insisting that “all theater is necessarily political, because all the activities of man are political and theater is one of them.” Theatre at its most elemental was the “dithyrambic song”—free, “created by and for the people.” The history of Western theatre reveals a careful, purposeful separation of that song from the landscape within which it was rooted. It was the privileged classes “who decided that some persons will go to the stage and only they will be able to act; the rest will remain seated, receptive, passive—these will be the spectators, the masses, the people.” Boal, the well-educated son of a baker and a home-maker, was born in Brazil, kidnapped and tortured in 1971 by the military regime that had come to power in 1964 with the help of the United States, and eventually exiled from his homeland for 15 years.  He was a dissident and a leftist, but I think of him as a teacher.

In 2005, about four years before his death, Boal was interviewed by Amy Goodman and Juan Hamlet and the baker's sonGonzalez of Democracy Now! Asked to explain how he developed the “theatre of the oppressed,” he talked about Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” and the difference between art that mirrors the world, “our vices and virtues,” and art that transforms. “I would like to have a mirror with some magic properties in which we could—if we don’t like the image that we have in front of us to allow us to penetrate into that mirror and then transform our image and then come back with our image transformed. “ The act of transforming transforms the actor, he explained. The stage becomes a space within which the usual way of seeing can be suspended and another possibility essayed, tested—the original meaning of the verb to essay. So the theatrical space is akin to the classroom—or at least the classroom where assumptions can be questioned safely. And since the literary text and the dramatic text both develop from a particularly human context, they are both political—reflective of specific ideas about what and who are valuable, what and who are rendered “collateral.” Words are like trucks, Boal insisted to Goodman and Gonzalez: “You can put inside what you want.” Indeed, the stage is the space within which language, the euphemisms that so galled Orwell, can be thoughtfully unpacked.

Boal was a friend of Paulo Freire—and, by his own admission, Freire inspired by him. Theatre of the Oppressed consciously echoes Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Seeing a clear parallel between the stage and the classroom as a transformative space is easy. Much more difficult is the matter of creating and sustaining a space within which students are invited to think critically and question the common rendition of people and events in the world around them. Because no matter how much we insist on the complexity of audience, students generally write to the teacher. Freire insists that the classroom and the world are “coextensive”; that education presents us all with a stark choice since it can either serve to indoctrinate students, to teach them to conform, or to introduce “the practice of freedom,” the practice of thinking critically and creatively about the world. Boal’s actors present the play, addressing a specific theme. At the end of the play, when no solution seems available, the spectators are invited to become actors and provide alternatives, to think outside the theatrical (and social) box. Social conditions so often misrepresented as inevitable or insurmountable shift. Boal’s technique unmasks the tension between existing social conditions and the representation of those conditions, demonstrating palpably the power of acquiescence, of rendering ourselves inert, spectral before any authority—playwright or professor.

“What do you want me to write?” students often ask me. And I wonder whether perhaps human beings desire being dictated to, whether we find it oddly comforting. “Write what you think,” I respond, thinking of Boal. Some of them look back at me distrustfully. I can’t blame them. We don’t invite students to shift from spectators to actors often enough; and if their education does not help them rehearse safely “the practice of freedom,” of critical thinking, then how can they transform the world? Do we ask students to be passive in class, but to engage in community service? Do we ask them to ingest information passively, but gnash our teeth when they don’t show up at the voting booth? For Boal the idea of using “the theater as a rehearsal for [the] transformation of reality” did not become “his practice until the dictatorship was every time more severe on us and they started forbidding our plays, not allowing us to do our plays [,] to do nothing.” It was only “when we lost our theater, we lost everything,” that they found the transformative practice.

Repeat or Tell a Different Story?

Reading Hilde Lindemann Nelson’s Damaged Identity, Narrative Repair has been a transformative experience. This philosopher has given me a way of thinking and talking about how it feels to mediate between two cultures.  She argues that our identity is formed in relation to two narratives: the story we tell ourselves about who we are and our agency (our ability to act in the world); and the story others tell of us on a broader, cultural level.

This broader “master narrative” might be positive or neutral.  It doesn’t have to be pejorative or derogatory–though it all too often is.  When it is a demeaning master narrative, there is every chance that it will work to “infiltrate consciousness,” changing a person’s sense of herself and her ability to act in the world.

Confronted with a demeaning master narrative, it’s really not enough for an individual to love and respect herself.  That master narrative functions as a sort of ideological force-field. It can work to infiltrate and distort a person’s sense of herself.  Put differently, it really does take a village to form an identity, to develop a sense of agency and to work for positive change in the world.

Lindemann Nelson’s analysis of the master narrative pushes hard up against one of the central myths of U.S. culture: that the playing field is level.  If you happen to be one of the perpetually down-and-out, then it’s because you haven’t worked hard enough. This myth cloaks the role of bigotry and racism in the demeaning master narratives this culture tells about those who are not part of the (perceived) majority.

Consider Ortner’s argument again: it’s not that women are their bodies; it’s that women are perceived this way.  And culture, which I would simply define as a series of accepted practices, perpetuates this misperception, until women’s almost universal second-class status becomes “normal,” what Lindemann Nelson would term the “master narrative” about women, the story that infiltrates their consciousness and changes their sense of agency.

Much as women’s issues have been rendered invisible for centuries, the story of those (Latin) Americans who cross the border into this country has also been rendered invisible, a blatant denial of how all of our lives intersect, and a blatant erasure of history, past and recent.

What is the master narrative about immigrants? Not the now acceptable immigrants, the ones who passed through Ellis Island or the ones that might drift across the U.S./Canada border, but the ones who are barely given the grammatical status of a noun (a person), reduced as they are to the status of an adjective: “illegals.” How does the master narrative about American exceptionalism and individualism render their stories? What happens to their human identity and agency in relation to that master narrative?

Millions of Americans saw “The Farmer,” the recent Dodge ad that ran during the Super Bowl.  Now watch the video Cuéntame, a group of Latino/a activists put together:

This short corrective video reminds all of us of the power of “counter narrative,” a term used by Lindemann Nelson to describe the story that forms the cracks in what once appeared a seamless and impenetrable master narrative. Please, cuéntame mas: tell me more empowering stories.

Writer’s Block: Habit

Students who suffer from writer’s block often describe writing as an abstraction or a mystical trance that occurs unwittingly and without explanation.  Understandably, it’s that sense of writing being outside of one’s direct control that seems to provoke the greatest anxiety and frustration for them.  Will the trance come mercifully before deadline and keep them from a failing grade?

So many writing teachers talk about the necessity of making a commitment to the habit of writing: to sitting down and writing every day—even if only for a few minutes.  But each time I have passed along that bit of wisdom to my students, the next question has always been the same: “What if I have nothing to say?”  The emptiness of the page peers back at them, well beyond their direct control.  The idea of developing a writing habit in the context of this looming vacancy, then, is akin to sitting around and waiting for Godot.  (And we all know how that ends.)

The word habit usually makes us think of things we do repeatedly or even unconsciously: the habit of eating lunch at noon every day, or the (bad) habit of smoking.  But another, earlier meaning of habit refers to clothing, clothing that was worn ritualistically or symbolized a person’s specific role or position; for example, a monk’s habit.  I find it useful to think of the habit of writing in this latter sense—not as something I do, but rather something I wear.

The habit of writing is like a pair of gloves I slip on or a shirt or a jacket.  Writing is a presence, a thing, not an abstraction that hovers in the near distance.  It’s neither mystical nor dependent on something “outside” me, but rather concrete and palpable, something that I “put on” each time I sit down to write. So try thinking of writing as something you already want and have, something you have already slipped into, and see if it isn’t easier to work from that sense of abundance.