A – Alive

 “Unbeingdead isn’t beingalive.”

― ee cummings, “POEM(or”

I haven’t been doing a lot of pondering lately, which is probably a reflection of my (non-existent) creative climate. We all have our cliché highs and lows, and I can honestly say after an all-time staggering low, my writing life has all but disappeared.

Normally when I find myself among the soil in those trenches, digging up worms, kicking rocks, trying to find a ladder, or a vine, or a hand, recreating wings, I have turned to words, not away from them. I have always written myself into life again, sustained my sanity, uncovered answers. I have whined and rejoiced and pondered my way into some form of better, hopefully more coherent me. Always. With words.

And then I quit. Suddenly those words, which had always sustained me, gave me no pleasure or respite or even pain. In a lot of ways, they had betrayed me, or I them. I had squandered them on an unbeing. I felt as if I had been erased. Or as if in writing those words to define this other person, to write them into beingalive, I had started unwriting myself. I was lost. Something was missing. A word or a letter or a sound. Some voice in my head had just fallen silent. So I did what I imagine some proud, annoyed writers do. I quit.

I quit writing on The Sarcastic Muse, I quit writing my own work, I quit writing myself.

I found other outlets, albeit not creative, to distract myself. I’d hear echoes sometimes, characters whispering. Sometimes I’d pause long enough to listen, catch a remnant of a conversation, distantly waiting, but I’d catch myself. Turn away. Resist.

I don’t have a solid reason or an excuse or even an understanding as to why I have avoided words. All I know is that they have sat in waiting, like a reflection on a dark pool. My ghosts. Writers can’t stop writing. We die. Or something in us does.

ee cummings wrote that “unbeingdead isn’t beingalive” and I find it linguistically interesting that he compounds two synonymous words in order to form an antithetical meaning that clearly forms yet another parallel antithesis: unbeing [the act of not being] + dead [not being] == [the act of not being not being] =/= being [the act of being] + alive [being] == [the act of being being].

In the act of not writing, was I unbeing dead rather than being alive? And in writing this now, writing a bit of myself for the first time in months, am I beingalive and burying a little more of the unbeingdead back into history? Is this the notion of rebirth?

I have started this A-Z challenge with Robyn. I am writing myself into Alive, a tiny stumble into the beginning, a swim-upstream kind of challenge, but I am relieved, almost, to feel beingalive: to feel Alive like a small particle in the river, to drift, to rush, to maybe hit a wordwall waterfall. Or to drown in that smooth river way.

But to be

Or unbe—


Are you writing yourself Alive? 


Do You Write What You Know?

What do you think about the old adage of writing what you know?Hosseini Quote

I asked that a couple years ago in a post, and I’ll ask it again. That question still conflicts me.

Back when I was reading Margaret Atwood’s biography, I remember pausing over her process, pondering the way she frequently pulled from the familiarity of her own life to write intricately woven stories. She used Canada as a setting, places she’d been, streets she’d walked, people (or at least an outline of them) that she once knew. Her experiences influenced her fiction—and still do to this day.

However, Margaret Atwood is also known for her speculative works, which are based in the future, just a few of many possible alternative conclusions (scary as her worlds would be) of our current trajectory. She doesn’t know the future or which elements of the future in her novels will eventually (if ever) come to pass, and yet, the fearsome thing about her work is that it is easy to believe it could happen.

So, going back to the first question I wonder: Which is better? A mix of “Write what we know” and “Write what we’d like to know”? Or should we change our approach entirely to “What can we imagine?”

According to BRET ANTHONY JOHNSTON over at the Atlantic, we should go with the latter. When he started writing away from the familiarity of his own life, he found that “the shift was seismic.”

Delving into the deeper unknown and pursuing the more difficult, untreaded path is never easy.  I am a notorious perfectionist. The problem I have with writing what I don’t know is that I run into the feeling that I should know it. Then I start researching. Then I expand that research. Then I have this tendency of trying to know everything about everything and nothing gets written.

But I also have frequently submersed myself into the speculative world, envisioned a future that is not my own, of which I know absolutely nothing, and it has been a freeing lesson in creativity. In this world, my characters and the environment have rules, but they are not necessarily the same rules by which I live. Instead of pushing my own agenda upon them, the well-lit paths of my own past, for instance, I get to witness a new kind of life: one that is not my own to live, yet one that I will live anyway, through them. One that I will come to know, time and again, through my characters.

In that sense, maybe our characters do know best.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pull from the aspects of your life that you do know. It’s entirely possible to bridge the gap between both worlds, writing authentically about the strange, abstract unknown while still drawing from familiar outlines: the sprawling sunset you witnessed on a mountainside, learning a language in a foreign country, meeting a person that all but confounds you. These are real experiences, but they don’t have to meet the same fates as your own.

Abstract elements are combined and reinforced within the tangible nature of fiction. It’s not so much about what we know—it’s about what we could possibly know, and what we continue to learn, with each and every day the we experience the mundane, the novel, the risks.

So my conclusion? Write about the possibilities.

Stories aren’t about things. Stories are things.
Stories aren’t about actions. Stories are, unto themselves, actions.

-Brett Anthony Johnston

TSM Recommends: Blog Posts on Marketing, Editing, and Writing

TSM Recommends

The Internet is full of writers looking for and offering an array of tips to make it in the writing industry. This past month, I’ve read a few blog posts via Twitter (and Tweeted them myself) that give some interesting insights and advice on marketing, editing, or writing. Below you’ll find a few of them. Of course, you’re always welcome to see what the Muses have been writing about this month, too!

71 Ways to Promote and Market Your Book by Kimberly Grabas:

This article is from 2013 and I know the market is always changing, but if you’ve published a book and want to find ways to give it an extra promotional push, maybe you’ll find something new here to try.

How Writers Can Remix the Past by Drew Chial

Some good advice from a previous script reader. This post illustrates how to use and balance events from the past to the advantage of your story and probable misfortune of your characters.

Top 7 Ways Authors Are Using Instagram by Adrienne Erin

Let’s face it, many people respond better to visual stimuli. That’s one reason Instagram works so well. Curious as to how it works for writers? Pick up some tips from Adrienne’s article.

4 Ways to Plan Your Writing by Jacqui Murray

I’d say most writers are familiar with the plotter/pantser terminology, but I’d hazard to guess that at some point, no matter what kind of writer you are, some planning will come into play when developing your story. If you’re curious to know of a few ways to go about this, check out Jacqui’s post.

Five Ways to Spot the Wrong Proofreader by JuliaProofreader

If you’ve finished a story, you’re familiar with the process that comes after: betas, editing . . . more editing. But after the editing phase, what’s next? Proofreading. You want your manuscript as polished as possible. JuliaProofreader gives some advice on what to look out for when choosing your proofreader.

Have anymore post suggestions? Share below! We’d love to check them out!


A Series of Style: How Stylistics Can Help Your Writing

The series I have planned for the coming months will focus on particular elements of style–word choices, rhetorical devices, syntax, and so on–and how these elements pertain to fiction. In writing these posts, I hope to emphasize how the language choices we make in our creative writing endeavors help construct the narrative we’re creating. And, most importantly, I hope to show you how to use them to your advantage.

What is stylistics?

Stylistics is, first and foremost, an academic discipline. But wait! Before you run away screaming, I have a secret to share. You come into contact with style constantly: in speech, at university, reading the news, even on social media. It makes sense, then, that style plays such a heavy role in fiction. Have you ever given your character an individualized or societal way of speaking? That’s style. What about debated the use of a word and then chosen a synonym because it “sounded better?” Again, style. Have you shortened your sentence length to pace an action scene and to “speed up” the feel of the prose? You guessed it. Style.Craft and Art

Stylistics is one of those disciplines that bridges into other disciplines and is not generally studied on its own. When I studied it for my master’s thesis, I predominantly focused on stylistics as the bridge between linguistics and poetry, but many of my sources handled prose as well. It fascinated me: how style, as both a field of study and an intuitive part of our writing, is inherent to a creative text. Here we’re mostly going to be looking at the latter.

Who? What? When? Where?

In both literary criticism and linguistics, it’s not uncommon to ask common WH-questions: Why was a theme used in a particular work? Which parts of our language have changed over time? Whose choices in a novel affect the structural process of the prose and subsequently the story? However, the thing about stylistics—and, more narrowly, of style itself—is that it doesn’t focus so much on the why or what of language, but on the how. How do we use language—vocabulary, syntax or sentence structures, sound play (alliteration, assonance), meaning variations—to improve the story we’re trying to tell?

How does style apply to my writing?

You don’t realize it, but you use style subconsciously every time you choose a word, construct a sentence, or even when you adhere to specific genre standards. In the case of “how” we’re using language, this is also applicable to how we write it and how we show it through our characters and prose. For instance:

  • How do we use dialogue in our stories to imitate regional dialects?
  • Does a character have a particular individual dialect (idiolect) that characterizes his actions?
  • How does sentence length affect the overall tone and rhythm of a piece? How does it carry the action of a scene?
  • How do particular word choices influence meaning and overall meter of sentences?
  • How does punctuation affect our associations of timing?

The list could go on and on, to be honest. The interesting part is seeing where and how it all connects when words and ideas and grammar meet. And how all these tiny linguistic connections build what eventually become a novel.

Think about it . . .

So what’s next? In subsequent posts, we’ll work on observing style in everyday fiction. We’ll discuss these through examples and (hopefully) understandable explanations.

Next up: How sounds works in your prose.

Additional Resources

If stylistics is an entirely new concept to you and you’re interested in reading additional material, I point you to the following resources:

The Sense of Style – Steven Pinker

A book for the layman, so to say. Steven Pinker is a cognitive scientist who has written several books about language and the mind’s way of using it.

A Dictionary of Stylistics – Katie Wales

This was the single most useful book for my thesis. I’m pretty sure it saved my life a couple times. Definitely applicable to more than just academics. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I really love it.

Have you heard of stylistics or studied it before? Are there any particular elements of style you’d like me touch upon in the upcoming months?

Let me know in the comments below!

On Margaret Atwood and Writing Advice

We Have the Powah!For those who don’t know: I want to be Margaret Atwood when I grow up.

In May of last year, I went to hear her speak at a literary festival in Tallinn. As I stood in a line stretching far into the streets of Old Town and watched her settle into the spotlight via an outdoor screen set up for those who wouldn’t fit into the building, I clutched the book I’d brought for her to sign and waited, barely daring to hope I’d be fortunate enough to make the cut. Each time they opened the door, a few lucky ones managed to creep past the door wardens — and each time, I would count the people in front of me.

In the end, I was one of the lucky ones. I rushed up the steps with another girl and entered the room, my heart pounding, and though I was stationed somewhere in the back and could hardly see her, I could at least say I was there, in the same room. Probably the only time in my life I’ve been starstruck.

This past weekend I checked out an unauthorized biography on Margaret Atwood (the biographer had communicated with Atwood a couple times in the process of writing it, so it wasn’t necessarily unapproved). The biography humanized her, brought her down to the writer level I’m familiar with — an author who had to start somewhere, trying to balance the academic and creative writing life, confronting the challenges of taking an unconventional career path. An author who never gave up.

Ultimately, we can learn a lot by listening to successful writers. Or by watching them at work. So what I gleaned from my brief encounter with Margaret Atwood and her writing wisdom was this:

Place is powerful

One of the things that stood out to me — in both the talk she gave and the biography — was the discussion of place. And though I feel this is perhaps a topic for another day, I pondered the idea of why we write what we write and how place, being such an integral part of our identities — whether consciously or otherwise — constructs our narrative identities. And not just place as space, but place as culture and society and home. Margaret Atwood began writing and studying literature at a time when Canada didn’t have a national literature. She was pivotal in the movement to establish the Canadian literary landscape. It was and still is intrinsic to her writer identity, and you can feel it in her novels and the characters and their movement through these literary places. What, then, can we say about how places affect our own work and identities?

Writing what you know is good advice

From her biography, I learned that Atwood has based many of her stories on places she’s worked and people she’s known and, ultimately, on herself: her emotions and fears, her interpretation of social issues, her surroundings. Though characters inevitably take on their own lives and personalities and stories move in their own directions, Atwood’s literature is born from personal experience. For instance, her arguably feminist literary stance sprouted from difficulties she faced in a much more narrow-minded, sexist era. The places she has written about are places she has lived. (She herself has said it is essential to her that she know the setting.) Her own interests also prevail, time and time again: biology, environmentalism, bugs. Margaret Atwood has lived her experiences and written about them, and people pay her to read about them.

Having a good network of friends is essential

Atwood faced very different circumstances than I do now, but much of her success and creative drive was influenced, in part, by surrounding herself with creative people and maintaining her relationships with them. Many of her unique projects (which sell for quite the money these days) were collaborations with other creative types (Atwood herself is a polymath–she has perfect pitch, can draw, and, of course, writes), and she went on to exercise her own creativity through the experiences — literary and otherwise — she shared with them. Additionally, she corresponded via letters with several friends who went on to give her genuine and fantastic feedback (detailed, honest, and ultimately essential to her work). I read some of the reviews she received regarding her novel drafts, and I was astounded by the intelligent attention they paid her work. It’s something we should all aim for in our writing groups.

In the end . . .

“If I waited for perfection… I would never write a word.”
—Margaret Atwood

After her talk — which focused on a range of topics from her latest work to modern feminism to the story she’s hidden away in Norway for the next 100 years — we got in line for the book signing. As I waited my turn, I wondered what I should say to her, if anything. What can you say to someone who has influenced you profoundly in a few mere seconds?

Writers meeting our favorite authors is often a dream come true. They have written words that have touched us, signed their names upon books that have spoken our own. Sometimes, we get lucky enough to listen to the exceptionally talented, as they sit, poised gracefully in front of a huge crowd, and talk about their process, their ideas, their writing.

So when I did finally reach the small table and met her (very blue) gaze, I decided that perhaps my presence there spoke for itself. That her work, which I’ve read at various times in my life and for various reasons, had already spoken.

It still speaks to me.

And through me, even now, it’s reaching you.

Which authors have taught you something valuable or inspired your writing life? Let me know in the comments below!