Karin Gillespie–Sacred Writing Secrets That You Won’t Get From Writer’s Digest

Wise (and funny!) words from writer Karin Gillespie:

Every  once in a while, I get a phone call from someone who will say, “I want to be a writer. Will you tell me how to do it? Could we have lunch or actually, I don’t have time for lunch. How about coffee? Or could you just e-mail me your answers.”

I know what they actually seek from me. They want to know the real writing secrets; the ones buried deep in the bowel of a mountain and closely guarded by a moat filled with hammer-head sharks.

 Read the rest of Karin’s post on her blog.

An invitation from Ruminate magazine to the Why the Writing Works community

Call for Submissions:

RUMINATE Magazine is currently accepting submissions for our 2014 William Van Dyke Short Story Prize with final judge Larry Woiwode. Along with publication in our Spring 2015 issue, the winner and runner-up will be awarded $1500 and $200, respectively. There is a $20 entry fee, which includes a complimentary copy of the Spring 2015 issue. The deadline for submissions is October 27th, 2014. To read the complete contest guidelines and to submit, please visit our website (http://www.ruminatemagazine.com/submit/contests/fiction/).

James McBride’s “The Good Lord Bird”

At the Festival of Faith and Writing, held every other year at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI, I heard James McBride discuss his novel The Good Lord Bird. He had wanted to write a novel about the abolitionist John Brown, but wanted to do it in a way not done before. He more than accomplishes this goal with his first person narrator Henry “Onion” Shackelford, a ten year old slave boy in the Kansas Territory in 1856, who is kidnapped by John Brown following an argument between Brown and Onion’s owner, Dutch Henry Sherman. Unfortunately for Onion, who is a male, but like most colored boys in those days, he wore a potato sack for his clothing and with his light skin and curly hair, Brown mistakes Onion for a girl.

Onion narrates this novel and begins his tale by stating “I was born a colored man and don’t you forget it. But I lived as a colored woman for seventeen years.” (McBride 7). Onion is a confident narrator, and this confidence makes the novel, as he relays his efforts at trying to pass as female and his adventures with John Brown. He’s an adult, looking back on his life, and his sure voice carries the cadence, humor, and words of someone who’s experienced much and takes pride in relaying his story.

Onion is an exceptional storyteller with the strong cadence of his voice and his choice of words. “Now, in all the years I knowed him, Old John Brown never got excitable, even in matters of death–his or the next man’s–unless the subject of the Lord came up. And seeing Dutch Henry fling that Bible to the floor and swearing the Lord’s name in vain, that done a number on him…Next when he spoke, he were talking like an Irishman no more. He spoke in his real voice. High. Thin. Taut as gauge wire” (16).

Onion takes great offense to being mistaken for a girl by Brown: “Now, I don’t know about Pa, but between all that mumbling about kings and heathens and Zions and so forth, with him [Brown] waving that Sharps rifle around, I somehow got stuck on the “daughter” section of the speech…Everybody in Dutch’s, even the Indians, knowed I was boy. I weren’t even partial to girls at that age, being that I was raised in a tavern where most of the women smoked cigars, drunk gut sauce, and stunk to high heaven like the men” (18).

Onion describes Brown’s actions during a fight in Pikesville, a slave town. The fight is taking place outside, in an alley: “Well, I don’t know if it was that lit cannon belching smoke over his shoulder that done it, or them rebels losing heart when they seen the Old Man hisself in person standing in the clear, untouched with their bullets zinging past his face, but they turned and took the tall timber…And with that cannon fuse lit and burning home to its maker, the Old Man stood right next to it and watched the fuse burn to nothing and fizzle out. It didn’t hit the hammer. The thing was dead” (197)

Onion’s voice paints a picture that is hard to miss–Brown standing in an alley, oblivious to the danger he is in. Onion’s voice paints vivid scenes–some funny, most not–throughout the novel. Onion grows from a ten year old boy to a young man, present at Brown’s final stand at Harper’s Ferry. Throughout, Onion’s voice is strong and uniquely his because of word choice, and the cadence of his speech.

The Good Lord Bird won The National Book Award for Fiction.

McBride, James. The Good Lord Bird. New York: Riverhead Books. 2013. Print.





Character Complexity in Ron Hansen’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

by Matthew McEver

Before the rise of the post-Vietnam Western, the fictional Western was considered light entertainment, with coloring book characterizations–black hats and white hats. Ron Hansen, in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford  (1983), tells the story of how Jesse James was assassinated by a member of his own gang. In writing the novel, Hansen had to contend with over a century of folklore, where Jesse James is revered as an antihero, a Confederate sympathizer continuing the Civil War, and Bob Ford is a spineless traitor. Hansen, though, pushes back against the folklore and challenges the oversimplifications by rendering emotionally complex characters.

The core of Assassination is how Robert Ford idolizes the mythic outlaw Jesse James, yet kills him. Hansen’s Bob Ford is a self-described nobody who believes that he is destined to be a legendary gunslinger. Bob becomes James’ protege, but eventually realizes that if he were the man who killed Jesse James, then “America will know who Bob Ford is” (153).

What further complicates matters is the complexity of Jesse James, a villainous yet complicated soul. Jesse is a one-man show, and his robberies often involve understated hijinks. Following the Blue Cut train robbery, Jesse leaves the engineer a dollar “so you can drink to the health of Jesse James tomorrow” (27). After robbing an Iron Mountain Railroad train, Jesse hands the conductor an envelope containing “an exact account” of the robbery so that the newspapers may report the incident accurately (48).

Repeatedly, Hansen offsets Jesse James’ violent nature against his more redemptive qualities. In one chapter, Jesse dresses as Santa Claus for children. In another, he shoots a man in the head. In another, he’s a Methodist choir director.

Not to oversimplify, the emotional power of the novel is grounded in, namely, two methods. One, Hansen’s telling is colored by another narrative, Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Jesus, which lends an emotional component to the text and renders Jesse James as messianic. Second, Hansen creates a moral dilemma for the reader. Hansen recreates an experience for us somewhat analogous to that of Jesse James’ contemporaries. Like them, we are simultaneously taken in and appalled by this false-messiah. Like them, we are enamored with psychopaths.

Where your own writing is concerned, here’s a helpful anecdote and appropriate conclusion. When researching and writing the novel, Ron Hansen determined that “no hard facts, however inconvenient” would be dismissed and “no crucial scenes, however wished for,” would be turned to ends more pleasing to the modern reader (Afterward to Assassination 11). Characters don’t march in line and do our bidding. No matter what we wish for them, they must be who they are. They must, as ugly as this may be, tell the truth not only about themselves, but also about us.

Hansen, Ron. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. New York: Harper, 1983. 

Encyclopedia Johnson


By Liat Faver

My greatest regret in reading Boswell’s Life of Johnson was I felt rushed. I needed to finish the book in time to write about it, and in three weeks I drove through its 1402 pages like a mad woman. When Johnson himself informed me “if we read without inclination, half the mind is employed in fixing the attention; so there is but one half to be employed on what we read” (747), I took it to heart. I found occasion to savor it, hovering over passages that stunned me with their intricate beauty and acuity. Rarely did this tome inspire ridicule; however, I was often dismayed with Boswell’s manner of crossing the same streets repeatedly. I realize he wants to paint an accurate portrait of a man he admires above all others. Yet I wonder if it is necessary to take us through so many of Johnson’s daily events with so thoroughly fine-toothed a comb.

It is easy to see the objectionable side of Dr. Johnson, his self-importance, argumentativeness, and the annoying quality of being correct most of the time. But we warm to him when we see “his brown suit of cloaths looked very rusty; he had on a little old shrivelled unpowdered wig, which was too small for his head; his shirt-neck and knees of his breeches were loose . . . a pair of unbuckled shoes by way of slippers” (280). Here we find the old curmudgeon in his rumpled and unadorned simplicity, loveable and mortal.

Our fascination with Johnson begins when we read that he once beat his school mistress. This is offered as an example of “that jealous independence of spirit, and impetuosity of temper, which never forsook him” (29). We are intrigued by his prodigious powers of recall when his mother insists that he memorize and recite lessons in a prayer-book, and he does so in stunningly short order. We then read that he stepped on and killed a duckling when he was three-years-old, and composed a beautiful, if remorseless epitaph. When we are told the duckling story isn’t true, we are informed, in a footnote, according to Miss Seward, the value in this fable and other childhood tales that can’t be proven, is in “the seeds of those propensities which through his life so strongly marked his character” (31). Thus, we are introduced early to Johnson’s tendencies toward inflexibility and supremacy, and “aversion to regular life” (47).

Numerous letters to relatives, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances often repeat themselves, and I wondered why Boswell included so many. Eventually I came to appreciate them as evidence of the frequency of written communication in Johnson’s era. They also convey emotion and humor, and elucidate the elaborate turns-of-phrase common to the eighteenth century. In a beautiful missive to Joseph Baretti, Johnson expresses affection, “’I would have you happy wherever you are: yet I would have you wish to return to England . . . You may find among us what you will leave behind, soft smiles and easy sonnets’” (257).  The letters also evince historical dealings more colorfully than simple narrative.

I disagree with Johnson’s belief that “’women have all the liberty they should wish to have. We have all the labour and the danger, and the women all the advantage . . . If we require more perfection from women than from ourselves, it is doing them honour’” (944). And he over-simplifies grief and its longevity, saying, “’In time the vacuity is filled with something else; or, sometimes the vacuity closes up of itself’” (714). He seems heartless in his regard for children when he reveals that he “’should not have had much fondness for a child of my own’” (737). Yet he suffers considerably after his wife’s death, and exhibits great affinity toward his step-daughter, and Boswell’s children, and in one of his many defenses of Johnson, Boswell tells us “man is, in general, made up of contradictory qualities” (1399).

As an observation of historic and political events, Life gives an insider’s account of the time it occupies. We hear of the American struggle for independence, controversies over slavery, public execution, etiquette in the classroom, and more. Discussions between Johnson and his cohorts traverse many themes, from wine consumption, to Parliamentary procedure. When Johnson falls ill, we learn of the dropsy, blood-letting, and the application of squills.

Boswell’s devotion to Johnson is painstaking and affectionate. We see his “strange and somewhat uncouth” appearance, his “convulsive cramps” and “slovenly mode of dress.” It is touching to watch him walk with “the struggling gait of one in fetters” (1398). Johnson’s voice may still be heard in the pages of Boswell’s biography, a man with the “power of seizing the useful substance of all that he knew” (1400). And we can’t help but listen.

Boswell, James. Life of Johnson. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc. 1980. Print.



How Do You Do What You Do?

Do you read wrong? When you write, are you doing it badly? Not in the sense of sloppy prose or dangling participles, but the mechanics of the act of reading and writing. When is the last time you stopped to think about how you do what you do? Often we ask why we do something, but the question of how comes up less frequently.

Do you read your books on paper or digitally? Like it or not, more and more reading will be migrating to the world of pixels. It may seem like a mundane distinction, but I find I delve deeper into prose written on a page instead of a screen. This is a personal preference, but I know I’m not alone. I love the smell of a new book, the feel of leafing through well-worn pages, the repulsion at finding a book left open with its cover up and wearing out the spine. As it turns out, I am not alone in finding hard copies more rewarding. A recent study compared reading comprehension between readers of a short story on a Kindle and readers of a paperback. The Guardian has a nice summary of the study and its findings here at the link below.


The take-home message? Readers of physical books can recall more details and can feel more connected to the story. However, this is one study and the research is preliminary. Do not rush out to burn a pile of Kindles and iPads. If you consume all your text through a screen, try reading a hard cover book next. Pick up a newspaper (if you can find one). See if the printed page draws you in closer and keeps you reading longer. Consider how you do what you do.

As for writing, what works best for you? Do you flourish your pen or clack away at the keyboard? Or perhaps you dictate your work? There are many ways to write, and they all have their advantages. A computer can check your spelling and you have easy access to all the knowledge of the Internet. But freehand writing can be less prone to distraction. An email cannot pop out of a pad of paper. As for dictation, stories sound differently when you hear them as opposed to reading the words. You may find a character’s voice comes across differently when you verbalize their mannerisms of speech and affectations. I produce fewer pages when I dictate, and I obsess over single words in early drafts. So I know that method is not best for me. But to each your own, and if you find the spoken word to be a better conduit to your writing, keep at it!

Try new methods, and you may find a refreshing new way to read or write. Regardless of how you do it, be sure that you do.

Jab, Cross, Uppercut! Humor in Bruce Covey’s Poetry

What would you expect from a poem titled “I’m a Bitty Cupcake”? Some lines about the virtues of buttercream? Maybe a study of sprinkles? Ganache, perhaps? Whatever you might have going on in your head about tiny bits of fluffy wonderful, I bet it wasn’t this: “I’m a Bitty Cupcake But if you fuck with me, I’m gonna kick your fuckin ass, you know what I’m sayin?” (109).

Bruce Covey’s poems are always unexpected, always challenging, and often funny as hell. I know that, from now on, every time I see a cupcake, I’ll snicker inside. Children’s birthday parties will become immensely more entertaining when I envision a dozen cupcakes going off half-cocked. Covey’s humor works. I mean, seriously.

Consider the poem “A True Account of Talking to the Moon in Atlanta, GA.” This is a dialogue between Covey himself and the moon. Like, the moon in the sky at night. He plays with the idea of poets overuse of the moon to hilarious effect. “Look, I don’t know shit about poetry. Fucking poets are always staring at me, talking at / me, writing about me. I’m fucking sick of it. You want inspiration? Use fucking Google, / like the Flarfists do” (83). Covey manages to make poet-readers flinch just a little bit when they think about all the references to la luna that they’ve penned over the years. I started to think about just how many of my own poems involve the moon, and I was a tad embarrassed.

Covey’s Chevy Impala-driving, cigarette-smoking, panhandling moon doesn’t stick to railing against poets and poetry in general, no. She gets personal. “Look, I’ve never heard of you. Bruce, right? Don’t go nuts on me with all of your moon / stereotypes. I don’t give a shit whether you write poems. I just want a fucking cigarette. / Now give me the 5 bucks?” (83). The idea that the moon, something many people dream on, something many people associate with lovers and long moonlit walks on the beach and a way-super-cool light to bathe in, that this moon is indifferent about poetry…well, it makes me laugh. It takes some of the gravity out of the concept of poetry (get it? gravity?).

While not all of Bruce Covey’s poems are this overtly humorous, a good number of them invite the reader to play by playing on words and by playing with concepts. Covey’s sense of joy in language is clear, even while his bitty cupcake throws a mean uppercut to the jaw.

Covey, Bruce. Change Machine. Las Cruces, NM: Noemi Press, 2014.

The Top Ten Reasons Why Writers Make the Best Friends

From the South85 blog:

At the conclusion of an alumni weekend during the Converse College MFA residency, I sat with three friends/colleagues/fellow alum who gathered for one final moment before parting (again) to return to our respective homes after a fun-filled, raucous, inspiring time.

As we reflected on various moments, all of us anticipating and dreading the impending depression that results from returning to the “real world,” the thought for this blog post struck me.

Read the rest of Kathleen Nalley’s South85 blog post here.


Interested in an MFA program? The deadline to apply to Converse College’s MFA program is October 1st.
Information on limited scholarships and teaching assistanships are available here.



A post worth re-posting

The Power of the Adjective

Maybe it’s the grammar teacher in me that can appreciate a well-placed adjective and the omission of useless adverbs. I enjoy reading books by writers who can use specific language to strike just the right tone and create just the right image. Alexandra Fuller is one of these writers. Fuller uses word choice to make her unique memoir, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, even more interesting to read.

Fuller tells the story of growing up in a white farming and ranching family in South Africa during the late seventies and early eighties. Fuller is the observer of the African landscape, her family, and the native African community around her. Her observations are spot-on, especially the ones that appeal to the five senses. She shares hard times, losses, and intimate moments with family members by using just the right words to handle each recollection. There are many beautiful lines in the book that I re-read three or four times to marvel at her seeming ability to describe anything and everything with such precision. What I enjoyed most about this book, however, is Fuller’s use of compound adjectives that display her dexterity with words and her gift for description.

Instead of saying the pale yellow light flickered, she writes, “flickering-yellow light (4).” She remembers as a child she and her sister getting “the creeps, the neck-prickling terrorist-under-the-bed creeps (6).” She watches her father use his “after-dinner pipe” and observes her mother in a “broken-chicken-neck sleep.” She tells the reader that her mother has “thick, wavy, shoulder-length bottle-auburn hair.” When she arrives back from a trip she is relieved to “climb off the stale-breath, flooding-toilet-smelling plane into Africa’s hot embrace (287).” In one scene she details a visit from missionaries. “The springer spaniels make repeated attempts to fling themselves up on the visitor’s laps, and the missionaries fight them off in an offhand, I’m-not-really-pushing-your-dog-off-my-lap-I-love-dogs-really way (82).” The word play with hyphenated words turned into descriptive adjectives is a feature of her writing that also adds to this writer’s distinct voice.

When I teach adjectives again with my eighth grade grammar students, I will definitely have fun sharing examples from Don’t Let’s go to the Dogs Tonight.