Tuesday, March 7, 2017


Sometimes, when I’m feeling overwhelmed, I tell myself to get back to basics.

It was in such a moment recently that I had the inkling that I should work on my ABC’s. It became a writing prompt of sorts.

So, voila -- 

ABC’s for the writing life…

is for Awareness.

I pray for awareness, for the ability to see what I need to learn next—not for solutions, because I can figure that out or ask for help. Blindness to my writing faults is my greatest obstacle.

Just show me what I need to see.

is for Begin.

I push myself off the edge daily. “I begin with the first sentence and trust to Almighty God for the second,” said Irish novelist and Anglican clergyman Laurence Sterne.

Amen to that.

is for Change it up.

It is good to turn your mind upside down now and again, like an hourglass, and let the particles run the other way. I do this by reading in many genres (graphic comics, anyone?), going to out-of-the-way places and wondering what it’s like to be lightning or a chair or a pika.

is for Daily.

It’s taken eleven-plus years, but I’ve made writing a part of my days, as regular as tooth brushing, as routine as feeding the dog, as “don’t have to think much about it” as slicing tomatoes.

Note: I consider that all aspects of the writing process count—not only putting words on the page/in the computer, but also researching, ruminating and reading.

is for Emotion.

“Good writing begins where there is a knot,” says author Margaret Atwood.

I spend time locating the knots, through introspection and journaling. I dance around the knot until I finally go ahead and write about it, or from it.

is for Failure.

I fail often. I submit stories and poems and get the old thanks-but-no-thanks response. I apply for a Ucross residency and don’t get in. I start things and fail to finish them.

But I consider my failures part of the game, and I give myself credit for suiting up.

is for Grope.

“How do I work? I grope,” said Albert Einstein.

I grope a lot—for the right word, for the structure of a story, for the heart of an essay, for something to blog about. Nine times out of ten I grab thin air. The tenth time I latch on to something and I’m off and running.

is for Home.
“To find yourself as a writer, you’ll likely look in all the wrong places, then find yourself close to home.”
- Paul Raymond Martin 
Home is where I sleep, eat, love. Home is where I find many of my subjects. Home is my favorite place, so I try to make it as writing-friendly as I can.

is for Inquiry.

Diane Ackerman, author, poet and naturalist, said, “Writing, which is my form of celebration and prayer, is also my form of inquiry.”

Whenever life makes me anxious, I take the questions to my journal. This form of inquiry often blossoms into a poem, essay or story.

is for Je ne sais quoi.

Which is French for “that certain something.”

I notice when a story, essay or poem has that je ne sais quoi—a certain component that makes the whole more than the sum of its parts. I wonder how the writer found it, created it. I try to figure out how to get that elusive quality in my own writing. Sometimes I recognize when it’s there, sometimes I am absolutely sure that it isn’t there and sometimes I just don’t know.

is for Knack.

It’s good to know what you have a knack for. I found out I apparently have a knack for metaphor and dialogue. I found this out by being on the receiving end of critiques from instructors and writing group members.

This is the counterbalance to being aware of my writing faults. Knowing my knacks gives me hope and energy to keep moving forward in my writing life.

is for Later.

One of the most important tools in my writing toolkit is an assertion: I don’t have to figure that out right now. It applies to a hundred things—structure, point of view, grammar, who my target reader is, etc.

I would make myself crazy and never get anything written if I didn’t have this tool. I know that I can usually wait until later to figure it out... until my backburner brain comes up with a solution, until my craft improves, until life rolls an answer at my feet.

is for Music.

I agree with journalist Leonard Ray Teel, who said, “Good writing is like music. It has its distinctive rhythm, its pace, flow, cadence. It can be hummed. The great stylists seem to have an inner music…”

I will endeavor to find a little music in everything I write.

is for Now.

Write right now… the words in your head, the next paragraph in your novel, the image that wants to become a line in your poem. I have this mantra I use when I first arrive in my writing room: “There’s no place I’d rather be, nothing else I’d rather be doing right now.”

is for Orgasm.

"Writing is like making love. Don't worry about the orgasm, just concentrate on the process.
- Isabel Allende

Yeah… what she said :-)

is for Patience.

The Kanuri people of Africa have a proverb that says, “At the bottom of patience is heaven.” As a writer, I want heaven. I want to finish what I start. It will take patience, but it will be so worth it. I’ll inch along, if I have to, and do my best to be patient with the creative process.

is for Query.

As a writer, I have to emerge from my creative fog now and again and deal with the business of writing if I hope to share my work. I have to learn to query agents and publishers, format manuscripts, write a synopsis or logline, and tackle other intimidating projects.

is for Raise some hell.

“Writing is an act of mischief,” said Thoedore Roethke. I’m one of those pathologically polite people who doesn’t raise my voice in public. But on paper? Well, that’s where I can be loud.

is for Senses.

“We live on the leash of our senses,” said Diane Ackerman.

Ah, yes. I will breathe, sniff, run my hand along my skin. I’ll ask sensory questions as I write, pulling from my imagination and memory. How to describe the light coming through the window? What was the background noise at that moment? Was the grass squishy or springy? The air sultry or crisp? By concentrating on these sensory details, I'll transport the reader to that place and time, and make them feel what I felt.

is for Tide.

The ebb and flow of creativity is like the tide. And who sits and bitches about the tide? It comes in and goes out and we work with the rhythm. So, too, I must work with the rhythm of my writing.

is for Universal.

Carl Jung floated the idea that, strange as it seems, the more personal and individual the thoughts, the more they apply to everybody. “That which is most personal,” he said, “is most common.” I come back to this concept whenever I cringe at revealing my personal life in my writing.

is for Value. 

As a writer, I keep in mind that I barter with every reader. He or she gives me attention, and I must deliver some value in exchange. It might be information, an insight, an experience or a chuckle, but it must be something of value.

 is for Words.

Author Ivan Doig called language an “inexhaustible prop shop.” Every day I try to add something new to my supply.

is for Xenophile.

From the Greek, it is a word that describes “an individual who is attracted to foreign peoples, manners, or cultures.” While it’s a great word that would bring in a heck of a Scrabble score, it’s also a good thing for me, as a writer, to be. Writers are students of the human condition, and the more I learn about other, far-distant inhabitants of Planet Earth, the better my writing will be.

is for Yearn.

“What do you love and are willing to give to the page?” asks author, painter and “writing as a practice” instructor Natalie Goldberg. I keep an ear cocked, listening for the whining of my heart. When I hear it, I know I’ve found something to write about.

is for Zinsser.

As in William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well. It’s a classic. Although I wander far and wide in my reading-about-writing travels, I return often to this slim volume. Mr. Zinsser reminds me that clarity and brevity are paramount. Revisiting his fundamental principles of good writing is never a wasted trip.

Whew! I made it. Thanks for hanging in there with me.

I'd be thrilled to hear an alphabet letter or two from YOUR writing life, if you’re feeling generous.


  1. Wow! I suspect you've worked on this alphabet for quite a while, unless you are a genius, which of course could well be true. As I worked through the letters I wondered as I neared the end what Z would be. What a wonderful surprise to find William Zinsser there. I have read and reread On Writing Well so many times. It was my bible as a professional tech writer over thirty years. And the skills I honed there have been essential to my poetry too.

    1. Got to have Zinsser!

      I'm no genius, but I do gather a lot of thought-snippets, and (obviously) quotes. This writing prompt let me compile a bunch of them, and reminded me how diverse this writing life is.

  2. Fantastic ! A, B, C... Each letter is a part of our life. I like O (oups...), L (it could be Lynn ?) and of course J like "je ne sais quoi". Writting in French, from A to W, gives me the same emotion, everyday. Bravo ! Greetings from France !

    1. And greetings to you from Wyoming. Thanks for commenting. I figured you'd enjoy the French phrase--sometimes it just has to be said en Francais!


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