Tuesday, October 27, 2015


Guest post by Kurt Caswell 
Kurt Caswell, 2015

Kurt Caswell is a writer and wanderer. Originally from Alaska, he grew up in Oregon, has lived in Idaho and taught in places as varied as Japan, Arizona, California, the Navajo Reservation and even right here in Wyoming at Laramie County Community College (2002 – 2005).

He is currently associate professor of creative writing and literature in the Honors College at Texas Tech in Lubbock.

Kurt is author of three nonfiction books:

Getting to Grey Owl: Journeys on Four Continents 

In the Sun’s House: My Year Teaching on the Navajo Reservation

An Inside Passage (winner of the 2008 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Book Prize)

Kurt is an avid walker, and much of his new book, Getting to Grey Owl, is about walking. He makes a good case for the way walking can realign a person with the places they walk, with nature, and with themselves: their heart, mind, and body.

In today’s post, Kurt muses about the role that walking can play in the writing life.

 ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Walking and “Purposiveness Without Purpose” 

You likely know this story about Wordsworth. In Grasmere one afternoon, an acquaintance came calling. Dorothy, Wordsworth’s sister, answered the door.
“Is Mr. Wordsworth within?” the fellow asked.
“Mr. Wordsworth is composing,” Dorothy answered.  
“Then I shall wait for him,” the fellow said. “I would like to speak with him when he comes out of his study.”  
“It might be some hours,” Dorothy said. “Mr. Wordsworth is not in his study. He always composes afoot.” 
To talk about walking and writing, there is no better example than William Wordsworth. Though if we were to compile a comprehensive list of writers who walk, it would be long indeed: to speak of a few masters let’s include: Kierkegaard, Rousseau, Basho, Thoreau, Coleridge, and William Hazlitt, Max Beerbohm, Virginia Woolf; then let’s add Bruce Chatwin, Peter Matthiessen, Robert MacFarlane, Sven Birkerts, Rory Stewart, Rebecca Solnit.

And yet, Wordsworth is the original walker, the walker’s walker, the poet who, as Solnit writes in Wanderlust: A History of Walking, “made walking central to his life and art to a degree almost unparalleled before or since.”

Kurt Caswell, 2015
Wordsworth, writes Solnit, “seems to have gone walking nearly every day of his very long life, and walking was both how he encountered the world and how he composed his poetry.” It was, for him, not only a means of traveling, but also a way of being. He was apparently able to compose while walking, and then write the results out later. His sister Dorothy recorded in her journal many of her walks with her brother, and of July 12, 1800, she writes, “walked along the Cockermouth road—he [Wordsworth] was altering his poems.”

Though Wordsworth did a fair amount of pacing, particularly in his garden at Dove Cottage in Grasmere, where he could see out onto the lakes and the mountains beyond, he is best known for taking the walk out of the garden and into the countryside. Gardens are for the wealthy to walk in; poor people walk the public roads, and Wordsworth wanted to be a poet of the people.

If Wordsworth worked as he walked, then this seems to fly in the face of what contemplative practice is, and that is, rather, to not work while walking. You meditate or practice yoga or go out on a walk to take a break from your writing, and somehow by not thinking of your writing, you return to it all-the-better prepared to write. So it sounds counterproductive to say that Wordsworth composed while walking.

In his lecture “William Wordsworth Walking,” scholar Malcolm Hayward makes sense of this conundrum. He writes, “To put the problem in simple terms, in the poems, the experiences that happen to the walker, have to happen in the context of non-directed, non-purposeful walking, in contra-distinction to, for example, what Dorothy termed ‘walking industriously’ . . . For the idea of the poetry to work, in [Wordsworth’s] walking, the poet has to work at not working.” Somehow by not thinking, or not working while walking, the work is served.

In his essay, Hayward references Kant who explored “‘purposiveness without purpose,’ and “note[s] that it is ‘the mere form of purposiveness in the representation by which an object is given to us, so far as we are conscious of it.’” I think this means that on a walk, the universe offers us objects of meaning, and though we are conscious of these objects, their purpose is not yet clear—we do not think too hard on them while walking. Purpose will arise later in the writing, but so long as the writer walks, the object is present without being troubling. “In walking as work,” Hayward writes, “Wordsworth must retain the ‘form of purposiveness’ without falling into the abyss of actual purposefulness.” Once the walk becomes utilitarian, its benefits vanish. If you go out walking to fix your poem, you will fail. If you go out walking to go out walking, you will fix your poem. Wordsworth walks without a purpose and with a purpose at the same time.

Kurt Caswell, 2015
This is true also of Sven Birkerts, who writes in his book, The Other Walk, “Walking—thinking by way of the body, the feet and legs, filtering the immediate world with senses on high—I’m so much more open to the whims of association than I am when I’m at my desk with my lineup of plans in front of me. I also feel it—though not always—as a movement toward writing, for at a certain point in my circuit, I can’t say how this happens, a different kind of sifting of words begins. . . . for these words and phrases are quickly taken up into the body’s rhythm.”

Walking is a contemplative practice, a practice that offers a reprieve from, and an ignition for, art. Going out for a walk each morning or afternoon to make a space for the work is a contemplative practice suitable to most anyone.

 ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Lynn chimes in… 

I met Kurt Caswell when he presented at LCCC’s 2014 Literary Connection. My husband, Mike, and I were struck by Kurt’s improbable combination of gentleness and intensity. He read from his work and we were so enticed by Kurt’s sensory, insightful writing that we picked up a couple of his books.

His most recent book, Getting to Grey Owl: Journeys on Four Continents, chronicles over twenty years of Caswell’s travels as he buys a rug in Morocco, rides a riverboat in China, attends a bullfight in Spain, climbs four mountains in the United Kingdom, and backpacks a challenging route through Iceland’s wild Hornstrandir Peninsula.

Learn more about Kurt and his writing at www.kurtcaswell.com.

If you are a fan of traveling, culture, landscapes, walking and wildlife, you’ll find anything Kurt writes to be pleasurable reading. If you are simply a fan of good, thoughtful and thought-provoking writing, I suggest you put Kurt Caswell on your reading list.

Now--time for my morning walk!

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

How Much to Reveal? How Much to Conceal?

by Susan

1992 selfie. Would you let your daughter run off with this guy? Seriously?
In 1992, I was 24, just back from a four-month job working at a hotel near Denali National Park in Alaska. I announced to my family that I was moving to Utah with a man I met over the summer to be a ski bum, and no, we didn't have any marriage plans.

You can only imagine my mother's joy...

When Mom died in 2013, I asked for and received her diaries. One day I sat on the floor going through the notebook from 1992, looking for bits of my life filtered through my mother's words. I finally found the entry from the day she met this man:

"Sue's friend Brian came by. He seems nice."

That was it. End of story.

I wanted to know what my mother had been thinking about it all, but, as my siblings told me, she was so afraid someone would be offended by something she wrote that she wrote very little, other than noting the weather and what they had for dinner.

Mom was not writing memoir, but the question of how much to reveal is a big one for those of us who are. We might need to protect ourselves from repercussions. We face ethical issues when writing about others.

Sometimes we need to tread lightly, but not risking exposure actually carries a risk. If we cut out everything that might distress or offend, we can be left with nothing that will move the reader, nothing that will connect with them. Intimacy with the reader requires vulnerability on our part.

I thought I'd offer a few quotes:
Linda Joy Myers on her blog:
"Each of us decides how much to expose our private self. Ask yourself: does the piece show a side of yourself that no one else knows? Are you writing about events you’ve never told anyone about before, exposing secrets? Are you afraid of being judged by who you were or who you are now? Do these questions make you move away from the computer? Remember, in a first draft no one will see the writing but you. Take a risk and write, whether in a class, workshop, or at your private computer, moments that you’ve been afraid to encounter, give yourself permission to discover layers of your truths, and keep writing to explore and expose yourself."

Ted Kooser in Writing Brave and Free on writing about others in our memoirs:
"In writing as in life, there seem to be many ways of looking at the matter of tact and candor. Some writers act as if candor were the same thing as courage, others as if it were pure folly. Some writers act as if tact were simple common courtesy, others as if it were cowardice."
Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird:"We write to expose the unexposed. If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must. Otherwise, you'll just be rearranging furniture in rooms you've already been in. Most human beings are dedicated to keeping that one door shut. But the writer's job is to see what's behind it, to see the bleak unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words..."
I often struggle with how much to expose in my writing. What I've learned is that the one person I cannot conceal things from is myself. If you have something you are writing around, write it for yourself only. Get it on paper in your personal journals. Write it fully and truthfully. You can decide later if it's worth sharing.

(For the record, 23 years later, Brian and I are happily married. Not every seemingly impulsive decision is a bad one.)

Tuesday, October 13, 2015


guest post by Sheila Bender

Lynn here:

Let me introduce you to the author of today's guest post...

Sheila Bender is founder of WritingItReal.com, a community and resource for those who write from personal experience. A poet, memoirist and personal essayist, she offers online classes and often teaches at writers’ conferences.

Sheila's two newest books are now available on line under the Writing it Real banner: Writing In A Convertible with the Top Down and Sorrow’s Words: Writing Exercises to Heal Grief.

After my stepdaughter died in 2012 my writing life seemed frozen. I decided I needed something to warm me up, so I registered for an online class with Sheila. The class, Writing Healthy Starts, did the trick. The writing exercises that Sheila shared with my online classmates and me were sparks that got the writing fire going again, and for that I am forever grateful. 

Let’s see what Sheila has to say that will kindle the fire today… 


When we talk about not having enough time to write, it's time to spend a few minutes on some exercises. In small bits of time, we can sharpen our skill in evoking experience as well as our trust in associations. 

This helps us not only want to arrange longer stretches of time for writing but also to enjoy our writing time and its results much, much more. 


First and foremost, creative writing is a re-creation of experience--experience we had or are having in the world. Experience is lived through the five senses--it is what we see, hear, smell, taste and touch that add up to form our attitudes, help us take actions and create dreams. If your writing does not include details and images that appeal to the five senses, you will not be immersed in your experience when you are writing about it. Without the necessary immersion, you will become disinterested in your own efforts because your words will seem shallow and dull and ultimately short-circuit your ability to mine your experience for insight and deeper knowledge. 

Imagine you think a philodendron in your living room is “beautiful.” As a writer you need to evoke an experience of beautiful, not sum it up with that intangible word. If you say, "The leaves on the philodendron in my living room had variegations that reminded me of tributaries on the maps I loved to read when I was in grade school," you are setting up experience that can not be gotten to by labeling the leaves beautiful. 

A way to learn how to create sensory images that will lead to useful and surprising writing is to practice using comparisons (similes) in your writing. A facility with similes (and ultimately metaphor) will enliven your writing and your view of what you are writing about. It will allow you to access more and more of your experience. You can practice this simply by saying one thing looks like, smells like, tastes like, sounds like or feels like another thing: 

A mirror looks like a lake. 

A cornflake in a bowl of milk looks like a dolphin swimming in the ocean. 

A shoe with its lace untied looks like a toaster with its electric cord unplugged. 

Working with the like construction, you encourage your simile-making mind to tell you what you might want to be writing about: 

I sit at my desk like a marionette with no one holding the strings. 

The 30 student papers on poetry in my briefcase are a thick sandwich. 

Dressed up in the front seat of my husband's convertible without a scarf on my head, I see my hair in the visor mirror as the madly waving fronds of a stately palm tree. 

It may seem a little harder with sound than when evoking feelings and visual images, but try it: 

The sound of a train going by in the distance is like the sigh of a ghost. 

The ocean crashing against the shore sounds like the blood in my veins heard through a stethoscope.

The tones and tunes of cell phones ringing in the purses and pockets of Los Angeles restaurant diners at lunchtime make even the most sedate and refined establishments sound like carnivals. 

Now do it with smell: 

The smell of clothes fresh from a dryer is like the smell of bread baking. 

The smell of the charcoal grill after the fire's died down is like my girlfriend's clothes after the fire in her apartment. 

Smell of Jasmine flowers as I walk by is the smell of my grandmother's dress as I clung to the folds.

Write what you taste in this way, too. Instead of the usual bitter, sweet, salty or bland use this exercise to more fully describe the tastes of things in your experience. 

Oxtail soup tastes like already chewed gum. 

That freeze dried vegetable patty tasted like dirty socks. 

Think of something you are very familiar with touching--an article of clothing, soapy dishwater, a pot scrubber, your cat, a garden rake, the driver's wheel of your car, for instance. Write about the feel of it in detail, using simile: 

I plunge my hands into the soapy dishwater in the white Rubbermaid tub in my sink. It is warm as the morning coffee I sip and swallow. It slides over my skin like my cat's moist tongue when she is licking me. It feels buoyant around my hands like risen dough. I keep my hands in the soapy water before I pull the first dish out because I like feeling like a goldfish must in a bowl by the sunlight from a nearby window. 

I am surprised by how much I like washing dishes! Perhaps if I chose something else, I would be surprised by dislike: 

When I put my hands inside my pantyhose gathering it so I can slip my toe inside, my fingers snag the fiber like rough little emery boards. I pull the hose up along my ankle, calf, and thigh and feel its pressure grip my skin. At first I like the way the hose seems to hold my skin together like the bread of an orange under the peel. But when my two hose-covered legs brush against each other, I feel each leg begin to itch. I want to take the hose off then and when it is at my ankles, I feel the downward pull, a sensation like I have in my stomach when the elevator goes up. 

In addition to practice creating similes, try this exercise for gathering sensory information: 

Write down three smells you are aware of right now--i.e. your soap, something cooking, burning oil from a car going by, the smell of water from a hose, charcoal in the grill, baby powder on a toddler after bath time, sunlight on a cat's fur, the new plastic smell of casings on electronic components. Choose one and think of what the smell reminds you of. 

Write about your memory starting out by saying, "I sit here and smell _________. This smell brings me back to ______________. That's when I_________. 

Here's my outcome: 

I sit here and I smell the pages and binding glue on my new book. This smell brings me back to flour paste and paper mache days in my Brownie troop and grade school. That's when I made maracas by coating burned out light bulbs with strips of newsprint soaked in non-toxic paste made of flour and water. Strip by strip we covered the bulbs, layer upon layer of newsprint, until none of the glass we'd started with shown through. I think we must have waited for layers to dry before we added more wet newsprint over them, smell of a wet dog, I think. Somehow our teachers knew when it was time for us declare the musical instruments done. Somehow the glass got smashed without our damaging the paper mache casing we'd painstakingly created. Then we painted our instruments bright colors. They began to smell like new patent leather shoes. I think we must have used them, broken glass both hitting and missing the beat, the sound of multi-vitamins in a jar when I lift them from the breakfast table. 

Keep writing for 10 or 15 minutes remembering to include more smells from that remembered time.

Because taste is an underused sense in our writing, here's another way to practice using it: Put something edible in your mouth. Keep it there awhile before you chew it. What does it taste like so far? Then bite into it and write what it tastes like a little more dispersed in your mouth. Now chew it and describe the taste. Now swallow it and describe the taste left in your mouth. 

An example: Soybean 

I roll you around with my tongue and you are wet from the rinsing I gave you and you are cold from the refrigerator so you taste a little like a glass of water. I bite into you and I taste the smallest flavor of salt, as if there were a single tear on my tongue. When I chew you up good, I am surprised by the taste of something just a bit like the smell in the stagnant puddle the gardener's hoses leave at the foot of my apartment's driveway. It is so vague, though, that it is not at all unpleasant. I swallow and you leave the taste of grass when I was a child, sucking on a blade in summer

You can also practice using the sense of taste when you are trying to define intangible emotions: 

My anger is cayenne pepper in my mouth. 

When I make my college students laugh, it's as if I have seltzer bubbles in my mouth. 

My children's hopes and dreams taste like vanilla and honey in gently warmed milk. 

Then work with using other senses to evoke what you might have only used intangible words to name. You'll find that your descriptions of experience seem accurate and often also surprising.

Lynn here again

Thanks Sheila! I’m fanning some flames as we speak. 

I'd like to offer a challenge to our blog readers: 

If you are so inclined, post something in the comments section that came to you as a result of Sheila's encouragement to tiptoe through the senses.

I will if you will!

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Tools to Explore Your Chosen Genre

by Susan

If you are writing in a genre, you should be reading in that genre. But how do you keep up?

If you have been wise enough to befriend your local librarians, you may have learned that you can tell them the title of a book you enjoyed, and they'll point you to more like it. How do they do it? No, their superpower is not an ability to read every book published at lightning speed. They rely on readers' advisory tools that are available to you, too.

For Wyomingites (and possibly others):
These are licensed databases available through GoWYLD.net under the recommended reading header. I say "possibly others" because many libraries across the country make these available to their patrons, not just in Wyoming. Check with your local library to see what resources they offer. Even if they're not in Wyoming, they just might have them.

Search by plot, genre, age level, title, series and more. Scroll down the first page to the "Keeping Up" section for in-depth information on specific genres. Every book you click on gives you a list of subjects and other characteristics that allow you to search for more books like it. Stash your findings in a folder for one session only, or create a login. Need a little help getting started? Look under "How do I?" at the top of the screen for tutorials.

In addition to many of the same search functions as Novelist Plus, Books & Authors lets you search through a "Who, what, where, when?" interface -- character, subject, location and time period -- resulting in a nifty little Venn diagram showing how many titles they found for you. (Four 19th century English zombie books!)

For anyone:
I had plans to talk about Shelfari as well, but the site hasn't worked properly yesterday or today. If you have experience with that one, please share it in the comments!

You do need an account to use Goodreads, although you can simply tie it to your Facebook account. The "Explore" page (shown here) is a good place to take a look by genre. Goodreads is an excellent way to keep up on new books, and many people enjoy the social aspect of sharing favorite reading lists and reviews.

Another social site, and an extremely useful one if you want to easily catalog your home library. Build a library of up to 200 titles for free; enter as many as you'd like for $10 annually or a $25 lifetime payment. One of LibraryThing's features is the ability to join groups, and there are writers' groups active on the site. Build reading lists, read and share book reviews, keep track of what's on your home bookshelves, and make connections with like-minded scribblers.

A UK-based site that's been around a while. I must confess, I haven't explored it much, but I see it come up often in library circles as a recommended readers' advisory tool.

Do you write Young Adult (YA) literature? If so, Teenreads is a great resource. Follow the site on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube as well. 

There are plenty more out there, some very genre-specific. While you're befriending your local librarian, you might ask if they can point you to any others.

And a quick plug for two WyoPoets contests:
  1. The WyoPoets members-only chapbook deadline is coming up on October 15. Enter up to three poems, no entry fee. Not a member? It's only $20 to join
  2. The WyoPoets Eugene V. Shea National Poetry Contest is now open to everyone. Entry fee $3 plus $1 per poem. Deadline is Dec. 1, 2015

More on both contests at www.wyopoets.org/contests.html