Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving from Writing Wyoming

As writers, we can be thankful for...
  • Writing group buddies who see the beauty in what we've created
  • Conferences where we can gather and connect with other like-minded souls
  • Time alone to think, reflect and write, maybe in a very special place of our own
  • Books we read that feed our own writing
  • The people we love who inspire us.
  • The joy of publishing that piece or placing in a contest.
  • Chocolate. And coffee. Maybe a glass of red wine.
  • And pie. Definitely pie.

Gratitude journals
Many people keep a daily journal where they write down what they are thankful for. If you do not already, you may want to consider making this part of your writing life -- either a separate journal, or as a beginning to your writing journal.

Every time my co-blogger Lynn starts a new notebook, she randomly puts sticker dots throughout the pages. Whenever she comes to a dot, she stops what she is writing and makes a list of things she is grateful for.

Thanksgiving Miscellany

Wishing you all a wonderful, happy Thanksgiving from Writing Wyoming!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014


by Susan

Here's the to the brave and hardy souls who are nearing the end of National Novel Writing Month (affectionately known as NaNoWriMo) challenge: write a 50,000-word novel, start to finish, during the month of November. 

Whether you're sailing through it with words to spare, coming down to the wire or panicking over your word counts, my hat's off to you.

Me? Didn't do it. I'd say couldn't do it, but "could" is more a matter of priorities. I'm afraid meals, sleep, clean laundry and hubby time took precedence this month.

Writing may not be my only priority, it is still a priority. It has to be. Right now, I am plugging away at my embryonic novel while others are finishing theirs. Although "embryonic" implies structure and order in how it's coming to be. Mine seems to pop into my head in assorted scenes and snippets of dialogue that I write down and hope to hang on a plot structure.

It's more like a mosaic than an embryo: I'm assembling, sorting and planning the pieces before I prep the wall and lay down the coat of adhesive. 

There are a lot of different styles for writing a novel. There are the careful outliners vs. those who prefer to fly by the seat of their pants. The ones who won't talk about what they're writing vs. the ones who corral their friends to brainstorm ideas. There are those who make each sentence perfect before moving on, as opposed to those who, to quote W. Michael Gear, use the "vomit and mop" method.

There are those who barrel through start to finish, unlike what I seem to be doing. Surely, I can't be the only one out there that works this way.

But you know what? It doesn't matter what your writing style is. It doesn't matter, because there is no wrong way to be a writer. Repeat: There is no wrong way to be a writer. There is no wrong way to put your heart on the page. The only wrong way to be a writer is to not write.

So I'll keep choosing and assembling my tiles and deciding where they go. I hope someday to make something beautiful of it.

What is your writing style? Please share with us in the comments!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014


post by Lynn

Image courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons
Dear Rejection,

Ouch. That hurt. But I assure you I don’t take it personally. Well, maybe a little. I figure you have your reasons.

What are your reasons, may I ask? I take it more personally when you are mute. Say something-- anything--because the muteness tells me (or at least I think it does) that I’m not even worthy of the effort of a nice letdown. Come on, I deserve that at least.

Let me spell it out for you. Just say something along the lines of “not a fit for our current edition” or “we’ve had a lot of submissions similar to this lately, so unfortunately…” or even (oh, I wish) something specific to my piece like “the ending happens a little too quickly, need to flesh out the character arc a bit more.” That’s not asking too much, is it?

Still and all, it’s a far more frightening thing when I don’t even risk you. When I shrug my shoulders and say, "If I don’t play, I can’t lose."

That’s bad--awful, in fact. I know that if I’m serious about writing, I’ve got to get on the field. Jump in the scrum and fight for the ball, even knowing I'll get banged up.

Okay. I have to go now. There's some, well, LOTS of work to do. We’ll meet again soon. But I think I’m going to take our frequent encounters as proof that I’m in the game, and getting better every day.


Lynn G. Carlson

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

No Tears in the Writer...

by Susan

... no tears in the reader. Or so I've heard it said.

I often write in the time between I get dressed and when I have to leave for work. One drawback is that if I am writing a particularly emotional scene, I start crying. I keep writing. I keep crying.

There's nothing like showing up for work with red-rimmed eyes and a headache from crying -- 10 minutes late as well because I was trying to get the last few sentences down.

As writers, we try to plumb those depths. In fiction, we feel what our character feels so that we can put that experience on the page. In memoir, we remember those emotions. Lewis Nordan, author of the memoir, Boy With Loaded Gun said he wanted to make his readers laugh and cry in the same sentence. I want that, too, because that is how life is. But how?

At some point, I find I need to real it back in, lest I slip over the edge into maudlin. I need to step back and keep the details that convey the power of the scene without lapsing into self-pity. Self-pity is an easy thing to write and a dreary, annoying thing to read.

In The Poetry Home Repair Manual, Ted Kooser writes:

"To write a poem that is not just a gush of sentiment but something that will engender in its readers deep, resonant feelings, you need to exercise restraint to avoid what is commonly termed sentimentality."

Or worse yet, gushiness. Yet if you take too much of the emotion out of the piece, it loses its heart and its human connection. It's a fine line to skate.

When working with beginning poets, Kooser said he will make them write without any overt statements of feelings. No outright statements of love or grief, but only the situation that would cause such things. Trust the reader to have the emotional reaction to it, he advises. You do not need to lead them by the nose.

His advice works for prose as well. I've often felt the most powerful stories are best told most simply, most concretely. Details tell the tale. I am more moved by a woman's hand shaking as she smooths her mother's hair in the coffin than I am when the writer tells me the character is grief-stricken.

As I scribble this zeroth draft, I am likely gushing. My job as a writer is to go back and reel it in, find the fine details. Maybe, if I'm lucky, I'll make you cry, too.

And in honor of Veterans Day
Chris Valentine, a long-time WyoPoets member, sent us a collection of war poetry that honors those who have served. We also invite you to read on our blog Art Elser's words about finding healing from his Vietnam War experiences through writing.

Today, our thanks go out to all who have served our country.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

A Bit More on Place

by Susan

After Susan Marsh's wonderful guest post earlier this week, we came across a new discussion from Page Lambert on the same topic, a summary of a panel discussion, "At the Heart of Place," that she was on with Dawn Wink, Julene Bair and Susan Tweit at the Women Writing the West conference.

Each offered her own perspective on the places that shaped them and shaped their writing -- from a west Kansas farm, ranchland, even the stars.

Lambert notes:

How then, is setting or location different?  When narrative, story, brings a place to life, it becomes the Place where something happened

I know every place I have lived or encountered shapes me in some way and spills out in my writing. There are the places I treasured, like Alaska, that always felt like magic to me. There is the city I grew up in, a minor rivet on the rust belt enduring hard times then and even harder times now. I wanted to leave it desperately, but I will carry a piece of it with me always. Cheyenne was like an arranged marriage for me. I came here for my husband's job and wasn't too sure about this place in the first place, but I fell in love with it over the years as I made my home here.

What about you? What is your place, the place that feeds your writing? Please share!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014


guest post by Susan Marsh

Photo of Miller Lake in the Wind River Mountains
by Susan Marsh

When I started writing this guest blog a few weeks ago, I had no idea how hard it would be: I thought I knew my subject well, since it’s one I have long pondered. There is always more to learn, so I am sharing with you my latest thinking on the subject.

Here are the opening lines of two novels I have written:
"Sunlight touched the cottonwoods, their leaves dark and glossy as if it were the middle of summer." 
"Dawn brightened into daylight, revealing miles of rawboned country." 
In both of these sentences I have introduced the main character: the place where the story occurs. We all understand what setting is—the time and place of the story that interweaves with character and plot. But when I speak of Place, I mean more than setting. As I try to understand the difference between place and setting, it helps to recall what setting is supposed to do in a story: to ground the characters and plot, to help the reader visualize what is happening and when, to give metaphorical meaning to the plot. Place does the same, but it abides less authorial manipulation. My story must be true to the place, to wrap itself around the place in an authentic way.

Setting is used to serve the author’s needs; place resists this. It can intervene as I write, the same way my characters do: “Cross that out – I wouldn’t say that,” says a character as I struggle with early-draft dialogue. Place likewise demands to be portrayed on its specific terms.

In my mind, place is larger than setting—both geographically and emotionally. If setting is the era/location of a story, place transcends time, containing a past, present and future. It is the essential spirit of a region in all its wildness: even if it has been turned into strip malls it holds the memory of what once was and could again be. Setting is a device; place has power. Its wild nature comes to inhabit the people who live there just as the people inhabit the place, making us inter-permeable.

It’s a deep level of belonging that I can only describe by an example that may ring true: you are hiking along a familiar trail where you feel at home, and it is late fall when the undergrowth is brown and crispy underfoot, a skiff of snow on north facing slopes above. You love that late season hike, yet part of you anticipates the wildflowers you know will bloom again there in a few months’ time. That knowledge is a manifestation of what I call the ‘interpermeability’ between people and place. It comes only through deep inhabitance.

Place, when rendered lovingly and thoroughly, gives the overall story a certain truth that I can’t find any other way. If a real place is shown well, everything that happens in it seems more realistic to the reader. Real people live in real places that matter to them, and I think the characters of a story have to as well. In writing about the West, it is hard to ignore the place, which so strongly shapes our lives. Wild country and big skies crack us open in a wonderful way, and that is what happens to the characters in my stories.

My focus on place has allowed me to find ways to write less plot-driven and more contemplative scenes. In both my fiction and nonfiction, the main character spends a good amount of time alone in the wilderness where there’s not much opportunity for dialogue or other devices to move the story along. This gives readers a break from the momentum of action scenes, and lets them follow the gentler pace required of solitude in a quiet place.

But how can a place be a character? Characters have a number of purposes in a story: they move the plot forward, interact with each other, influence, persuade or sometimes force one another to react, and they evoke emotions and memories in one another—as well as in the reader. The land where the story happens does the same as it takes on the role of character. The people in the story don’t normally engage in dialogue with a place the way they do with each other, but they certainly interact with it, learning from their intimate experiences and relating to place at a deep emotional level. Over the course of the story, the reader gets to know the place and its unique character, just as the human characters reveal themselves over time.

I often start with the far view of the place, trying to suggest its overall essence in terms of mood and tone, while at the same time trying to make the human characters as compelling as possible. Later in the story, the place asserts itself with more depth, detail, and meaning.

As an example, my novel War Creek was conceived to shed light on the vanishing traditions of the Forest Service, the plight of endangered species, and the grandeur of the national forest just east of North Cascades National Park, a place dear to me on many levels. People who have read the book all comment on the intense evocation of place. It wasn’t something I did consciously; the place lives within me as a writer.

My memoir A Hunger for High Country attempts to evoke a place in a different way. I tell a story of my experiences working as a woman professional in the Forest Service, but I’ve seen the book as a profile of the Yellowstone country as much as it is my story of personal experience and growth.

I’m working on other place-centered stories at the moment, and think that I will never write anything else. I am most interested in the connection between people and the wild earth, a connection that has been with us since the beginning, and one that seems now in danger of being forgotten.

Lynn chimes in...

I read once that setting is where characters are in duel with their difficulties. This is definitely the case in A Hunger for High Country, where the setting both contains and reflects Susan's struggles in being one of the first generation of women to work as a field-going professional in the U.S. Forest Service.

The memoir takes the reader along on Susan's wild ride, and en route you are introduced to grizzly bear biscuits, a coffee mug altered to read "Forest Circus--Department of Aggravation" and a stand of "twisty trunk" aspen that wrap around the author to soothe her in bewildering times. You also learn a hell of a lot about the history of wilderness in these United States, and get a good elbow in the ribs to not take all this amazingness for granted--maybe even do something about preserving it.

Susan's dedication to the wild is embedded in every phrase of the book. This excerpt from the last chapter of the book, reflects her passion:
With each act of service I peel another layer away, coming closer to the core, fueled by the hot fire in the heart that says This Matters. Each time I introduce another person to a favorite untrammeled place or a delicate wildflower, I shine a light on the satisfying depth of experience that accompanies reflective time outdoors. 
-- From A Hunger for High Country, by Susan Marsh.

A little more about Susan...

Born in Seattle, Susan Marsh is a naturalist and award-winning writer now living in Jackson, Wyoming. She has over thirty years’ experience as a wild land steward for the U. S. Forest Service. She was drawn to the wild from an early age, and animals were her primary conduit to this place of beauty and mystery. This loss of the wild and affinity for animals has driven Susan’s lifelong path.

Susan’s books include the novel War Creek (MP Publishing), The Wild Wyoming Range (Laguna Wilderness Press), A Hunger for High Country (Oregon State University Press), Targhee Trails (White Willow), Beyond the Tetons (White Willow) and Stories of the Wild (The Murie Center). Her writing has appeared in Orion, North American Review, Fourth Genre, Talking River Review, Weber Studies, North Dakota Quarterly, and numerous other journals.

Susan received the 2003 Neltje Blanchan Memorial Award, awarded by the Wyoming Arts Council.