Archive for the ‘Creative Writing and Literary Criticism’ Category

I am a protagonist in a world of unending dilemmas which contain hidden meaning that it is up to me to discover. I am the artist of my life. […] I am on my own side, rooting for myself.

~ Tristine Rainer, Your Life as Story


I am writing a novel. There. I’ve said it. While friends and colleagues closest to me are aware of this and ask me frequently how the book’s coming along and when will I be finished and do I have an agent and what house is going to publish it and where can they pick up a copy, I don’t often share the fact that my creative ambitions are that lofty.

First, it’s somewhat embarrassing. I mean, really, most people have at one time or another thought of writing a book and, well, haven’t. To date, I am still in that camp. It seems a childish fancy, like becoming a ballerina or professional baseball player. It’s far less brazen to tout my mere nonfiction career as a guest newspaper columnist and blogger. Secondly, the immediate question (“So, what’s it about?”) is unvarying and my convoluted answer to it just as predictable. By the time I’ve babbled on about the Bildungsroman form and my quirky, self-destructive, train-wreck-of-a-protagonist who is both the hero and antihero of her own life and how elusive close third person narration is and my unresolved conflict about the manuscript’s classification as literary fiction, memoir, or autobiographical fiction and whether it’s best aligned with the nuances of Young Adult, New Adult, or Christian or some combination of commercial genres, both the polite conversationalist and I are sorry he asked.

In my defense, there’s not an easy response or requisite two-sentence elevator pitch to that inquiry—at least not yet. Any novel is a massive undertaking, and mine, which spans the life of a woman from middle school to middle age and is currently only a scant two hundred pages, aspires to Lambesque extensiveness. My inability to encapsulate the tale’s plot or “aboutness” in fifteen seconds notwithstanding, I have been seeped in its storylines and characters for decades. It is undoubtedly for this reason and not some authorial vagary that I struggle to distill it to two or three lines à la a book-jacket blurb.

Time of Death’s essential premise of an extraordinary yet subtle, otherworldly battle for one ordinary soul; its probing of universal questions and ambiguities about predeterminism, free will, and divine intervention; and the implied distinctions between physical death and spiritual death swirl unreconciled in my mind, and I have pursued an understanding of these obscurities both consciously and subconsciously since childhood. Still, now that the themes have shown up in the pages of what I hope and must presume each time I sit down to write (lest the last eight years of effort be for naught) will amount to a bestselling memoir or, better yet, “a brilliant debut literary behemoth,” not having a simple response to this simple question feels uncomfortably spurious.

As if I needed yet another reason to feel like a writer fraud.

Most of us who write describe ourselves in the action tense: “I write.” More often than not, it comes out as “I, um, well, I sort of…write.” The effect is far less pretentious than proclaiming, “I’m a writer,” especially when the admission is mumbled sheepishly with the accompanying shrug, as, of course, it always is, like an involuntary tic. It must be a common affliction among writers—established, emerging, and wannabe. Books have been written about it—You Are a Writer by Jeff Goins is one of the more insistently assuring—and, apparently, conference directors plan for it.

It’s not often that the Association of Writers and Writing Programs hosts its annual conference and bookfair in Southern California. During the last four years, the event was held in Minneapolis, Boston, Seattle, and Chicago, making attendance inconvenient and costly for those of us living in the Southwest. So when I learned that the 2016 “Big Literary Conversation” would be held in Los Angeles and that the likes of Jonathan Franzen, Joyce Carol Oates, and Cheryl Strayed would be hobnobable, I registered immediately.

The week before the event, I sat at my local Starbucks and perused the workshop and reading schedule, planning my days. There were the usual panels on creative nonfiction and memoir writing, the socially conscious essay, market demystification, and the benefits and pitfalls of the humanities Ph.D., which I highlighted and asterisked in anticipation. But the panel that caught my eye and captured my curiosity most was among the first day offerings: “In Case You Think You Don’t Belong Here: Imposter Syndrome and AWP.” Imposter Syndrome? The paragraph about the session described it as a frequent phenomenon that must be managed and overcome to have a successful writer’s conference experience.

Truthfully, it seemed silly to me. After all, attendees had ostensibly registered; they had paid for the right to feel comfortable, no matter their “place in the literary landscape.” My own place is admittedly tiny—miniscule, really, but I wasn’t remotely worried and thought any anxiety of others was unwarranted. Besides, these conferences are enormous and attended by hundreds. One could be a complete charlatan, a tax accountant or lawyer or, say, property manager in writer disguise for all anyone would know.

The first morning, I hung my identification lanyard around my neck and strode boldly into the heart of the conference: the bookfair. The rows of tables and exhibits of publishers, presses, journals, authors, and schools were endless. I recognized most of the names and titles and was already a subscriber to many of the publications. I even bumped into Mary Norris, the Comma Queen herself, and bought a second copy of her Confessions just so she could sign it. I was on sure footing. These were my peeps. I was, as my farm-raised mother used to say, like a pig in mud, in my element and enjoying myself thoroughly.

But as the day wore on, the exhibits began to reflect all I hadn’t accomplished. While I was familiar with Ploughshares and Tin House and subscribed to The Paris Review and Poets & Writers, my work had never appeared in any of their pages. Incrementally, my ventured status as a bona fide writer (ahem, one who writes) diminished to apprentice to aspirant to avid reader. By the middle of the second day, I had begun to work in “I have an MFA” into almost every conversation with exhibitors and other attendees. I knew why I did it; it was my subconscious way of establishing my credentials and legitimizing my presence. I recognized it almost immediately. It was the Syndrome.

Goins has plenty to say about this condition and knows what it takes to conquer it. Before he became a bestselling author and writing coach, he questioned his own authenticity: “Who was I, pretending to be a writer […] when I hadn’t been published or paid for my work?” While it would seem the antidote to Imposter Syndrome is landing an agent, signing a book deal, or cashing the advance, it’s actually much simpler (or much harder, depending on your perspective). “Embracing your identity as a writer,” according to Goins, “is mostly a mind game.” In other words, you’re a writer when you believe and say you are. Getting published and being paid may be the ultimate goal, but it’s not what catapults you to writerdom. Sitting down each day and doing the work does. Because you do have to actually, um, write.

Back home at my desk, I realized that I had experienced numerous bouts of Imposter Syndrome throughout my life and that they had always occurred when I was attempting something new and hard and risky. Each time I sat for the first time in an MBA or MFA classroom or the conference room of an esteemed company with people far smarter than I or stood shivering at dawn in a marathon corral waiting for the gun to fire, I had felt the presence of its collective symptoms and heard its mocking accusations. You don’t belong here. Who do you think you are? You think you can actually do this? You are so audacious!

Why, yes. As a matter of fact, I am.

Aspiring to do more and be more doesn’t make one a fraud when the desire and ambition are supported by genuine effort. Some things, too, are simply harder and riskier than expected and require immense perseverance. So, I’ll keep nourishing my grand impulses and pushing for remarkable outcomes. I will embrace my dreams in all their glorious audaciousness while recognizing they may not be realized overnight. And as both the author and heroine of the novel I know I will someday finish, I am rooting for my protagonist Fawn in each passage and, in doing so, am rooting for myself.


Albert Lynch, before 1912

Albert Lynch, before 1912

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A curious thing seems to be happening in MFA workshops and critique groups.  Criticism regarding spelling, grammar, and punctuation is considered hypercritical and offered only with considerable apologies for nitpicking.  “Your editor will catch and correct those problems” seems to be the widespread assumption, which disregards entirely the fact that, as unpublished, amateur writers, we don’t yet have editors.  Moreover, we have less chance of ever having one if our query letters and submissions reflect a bungling of or indifference to the fundamental rules of writing.

Personally, I think relying on others to tidy up our work is a slippery slope.  More often than not, a seemingly minor punctuation edit such as the addition or elimination of a comma or an ellipsis will change the carefully wrought tone of a passage entirely.  Further, many of these “petty” edits are stylistic.  Will my editor know, for instance, that I intended to capitalize “It” when referring to a personified Fate?  The portrait of the resplendent but doomed Dorian Gray might have been inelegantly smeared rather than excruciatingly seared “with the lines of suffering” had Oscar himself not corrected his typist’s error.

Writing well is more than the generation of an engaging plot and well-developed characters and the correction of inadvertent POV shifts; it is the ability to inspire, evoke, engage, and transform through words and syntax and rhythm.  But none of that can be achieved if the passage is a distracting, irreverent jumble of comma splices, dangling participles, improperly used apostrophes, and misplaced semicolons.  Such blatant disregard for the fundamental mechanics of writing would destroy any stylistic or substantive merits of the piece and undermine the credibility of the author.

As both a Christian and a writer, I feel a heightened responsibility to write well and to confront and overcome any prevailing issue of ordinariness at all costs.  The standards for writing that is divine or inspirational should never be compromised for the sake of the enterprise or message.  “Christians,” according to screenwriter and script consultant Barbara Nicolosi in The Making of a Christian Bestseller by Ann Byle, “tend to allow mediocrity because of our penchant for looking at the heart, not the art.”  She goes on to criticize some of the “slop” in Christian literary art that is justified by the market because of the artist’s good intentions.  “We’re ending up giving a false witness to what our faith is. It’s devastating.”

I agree wholeheartedly with this assertion, having encountered faith-based writing that is both technically inadequate and thematically trite, and I deem the deficiencies even more objectionable than I would if I came across them in the secular realm, considering what is at stake.  My intention as a Christian writer is not only to support an unfettered approach to genuine and controversial subject matter but also to advocate the highest standards of technical imperatives and artistic excellence in Christian fiction and nonfiction.

So let’s master the semicolon and colon and solve the lay/lie/laid/lain mystery once and for all.  Consult grammar manuals in relentless pursuit of accuracy, and find a critique partner or group that isn’t reluctant to point out grammatical errors or other weaknesses.  Let’s eliminate our beloved adverbs where possible, and murder our darlings.  And, for heaven’s sake, please tell me if I mean “sow” rather than “sew.”  Let’s utilize our talents in a way that exalts unabashedly the One who bestowed them.  If that means revising and editing ad nauseam, so be it.  After all, as William Zinsser reminds us in On Writing Well, “a good editor likes nothing better than a piece of copy he hardly has to touch.”


This post appeared on the American Christian Fiction Writers website on November 19, 2015.


Draft of Chapter Four of "The Picture of Dorian Gray"

Draft of Chapter Four of “The Picture of Dorian Gray”

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Somebody said that it couldn’t be done

   But he with a chuckle replied

That “maybe it couldn’t,” but he would be one

   Who wouldn’t say so till he’d tried.

So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin

   On his face.  If he worried he hid it.

He started to sing as he tackled the thing

   That couldn’t be done, and he did it!


Somebody scoffed: “Oh, you’ll never do that;

   At least no one ever has done it;”

But he took off his coat and he took off his hat

   And the first thing we knew he’d begun it.

With a lift of his chin and a bit of a grin,

   Without any doubting or quiddit,

He started to sing as he tackled the thing

   That couldn’t be done, and he did it.


There are thousands to tell you it cannot be done,

   There are thousands to prophesy failure,

There are thousands to point out to you one by one,

   The dangers that wait to assail you.

But just buckle in with a bit of a grin,

   Just take off your coat and go to it;

Just start in to sing as you tackle the thing

   That “cannot be done,” and you’ll do it.


                                 ~ Edgar Albert Guest


Posted in honor of my successful MFA thesis defense at Chapman University one year ago today and my new novel completion deadline of August 31, 2016.  I thought the thesis “couldn’t be done,” and I did it, so it’s time to “tackle the thing” again…


"The Matterhorn" by Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902)

“The Matterhorn” by Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902)

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There is perhaps no branch of work amongst the arts so free at the present time as that of the writing of fiction.  There are no official prohibitions, no embarrassing or hampering limitations, no oppressive restraints.  Subject and method of treatment are both free.  A writer is under no special obligation, no preliminary guarantee; he may choose his own subject and treat it in his own way.  In fact, his duty to the public—to the State—appears to be nil.  What one might call the cosmic police do not trouble him at all.  Under these conditions, hitherto kept possible by the self-respect of authors, a branch of the art of authorship has arisen and gone on perfecting itself in mechanical excellence, until it has become an important factor of the life of the nation.  Today if the supply of fiction were to be suddenly withdrawn the effect would be felt almost as much as the failure of the supply of breadstuffs.


~ From “The Censorship of Fiction” by Bram Stoker, born on this day in 1847


Bram Stoker, circa 1906

Bram Stoker, circa 1906

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With the first of November upon us, writers everywhere have stockpiled food and bid farewell to their family and friends as they hole up in their writing caves until December 1.  November is National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo, an annual internet-based creative writing event that challenges participants to write a new 50,000-word novel in thirty days.

The project was founded by Chris Baty in 1999 with twenty-one participants, and the official NaNoWriMo website was launched the following year.  The number of registered participants has grown steadily every year, and the affiliate Young Writers Program and official podcast were developed in 2005.  In 2010, over 200,000 writers registered for the challenge, and nearly three billion new words were written.  A summer version of NaNoWriMo (Camp NaNoWriMo) was introduced in 2011.

The novel can be on any theme and in any genre.  However, it cannot be a project already in progress.  Writing of the new novel cannot have commenced prior to midnight on November 1, and the 50,000-word mark must be reached by 11:59 p.m. on November 30.

While I’m not working on a new novel during NaNoWriMo, I am committed to writing twenty-seven new pages of my developing novel or approximately 6,700 new words—not bad for a writer with a full-time day job.

For a comprehensive list of FAQs and guidelines, visit the website at www.nanowrimo.org.

Have fun, and good luck!



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Early-bird registration for the largest and most essential literary event in North America is now open to attendees, presenters, and exhibitors through October 30.  The Association of Writers & Writing Programs is hosting its Annual Conference & Bookfair at the Los Angeles Convention Center and JW Marriott March 30 through April 2, 2016.

Each year AWP Conference attendees participate in “the big literary conversation” and networking, with unparalleled access to the most influential organizations and voices in contemporary literature. The 2016 conference will feature 2,000 presenters and more than 550 readings, lectures, and panel discussions on modern fiction and poetry, writing technique, publishing, and teaching, and hundreds of presses, literary magazines, online journals, and literary organizations will be exhibiting at the upcoming bookfair.

Featured presenters include keynote speaker Claudia Rankine, who is the author of five collections of poetry and recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award, as well as Rabih Alameddine, Richard Bausch, Peter Ho Davies, Jonathan Franzen, Kelly Link, Joyce Carol Oates, Roxana Robinson, and many other award-winning authors and poets.

With more than 12,000 writers, teachers, students, editors, agents, and publishers in attendance, the 2016 Conference & Bookfair promises to be the most informative and inspiring literary gathering of the year.

For more information or to register, go to www.awpwriter.org.



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Six years ago on this day, with a succinct, autogenous “Hello, World!” announcing its quiet arrival on the heavily populated, cyber literary landscape, Archetype was launched.  Conceived originally in 2009 to chronicle my academic journey through Chapman University’s dual Master of Arts in English and Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program and provide a forum for peer critique and camaraderie, I promptly posted passages from one of my short stories (“Windmill Ridge”) and my novel-in-progress Time of Death and invited classmates to contribute their work.  I also published original essay excerpts on Jonathan Franzen and the waning of a literary America (“Antisocial or socially isolated?”, “‘Tis the good reader that makes the good book”), mirrors and reflective imagery in world literature (“Masks, Manipulation, and Madness”), and the notion of the invoked doppelganger in fiction (“The Self We Seek”), all of which I was studying in those first few months of back-to-school bliss.

362px-Th_Richter_Dame_in_der_BibliothekLike any creative endeavor, the site evolved as I did and soon reflected my deepening involvement in and abiding commitment to literary and academic pursuits.  In addition to promoting Chapman fiction and poetry readings and publication opportunities in those first years, I mined journals and the Internet for interesting and informative local events taking place beyond the university’s borders.  Details regarding local and national writing contests and Calls for Submissions were and still are also posted regularly.  In 2012, I added a section for the growing number of my guest blog posts, my interviews, and other places where I’ve stumbled pleasantly upon my own work in the cybersphere.

Followers know that I most often post poems and passages that have timely personal significance.  From my occasional struggles with insomnia and feelings of isolation to my simple delight in a book or summer peach, each post, like a journal entry, suggests precisely where I am intellectually and emotionally.  Early on I rejoiced to find pictures, particularly nineteenth century oil paintings, that evoked or complemented the literary piece I was posting, and I now spend nearly as much time searching for corresponding artwork as I do compelling literature.

Thanks to my passionate professors and their fascinating courses on Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetic Movement, the life and works of Virginia Woolf, female enchantresses of modern British literature, and Gothic and fantastic fiction, Wilde, Woolf, and the works of A. S. Byatt, Katherine Mansfield, Angela Carter, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Edgar Allan Poe were frequent early Archetype subjects.  Posts on Wilde culminated in November 2009 with the writing of my course thesis on The Picture of Dorian Gray (“The Act of Creation,” “Wilde Irony”), while Woolf reigned in the fall of 2010.  My essay on chaos theory and the butterfly effect in the works of Virginia Woolf remains my SophieAndersonTakethefairfaceofWomanproudest literary achievement to date and will serve as my Ph.D. application writing sample next year.  (Click on these links to review excerpts from “The I in the Portrait: A Bakhtinian Analysis of The Picture of Dorian Gray and “On the Wings of Angels and Butterflies: The Chaotic Journey to Woman in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse.”)

My penchant for Russian literature and philosophy was also soon discovered, and I immersed myself and, by extension, Archetype in Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Nabokov and began to examine just about everything through the lens of Mikhail Bakhtin.  Later courses exposed me to the intriguing life and works of Gertrude Stein (“Back to Bakhtin: The ‘I’ in Ida), Junot Díaz, Ralph Ellison, and many others, and every newly encountered author was explored here to some extent.

The craft of writing is another recurrent theme on Archetype; “Genetics-Based Grammarianism,” “In Celebration of Technique,” “Last Writes,” “More Is More,” “Not Quite Write,” “Drafting Perfection,” and “A Sense of Style” are my personal favorites.  However, it is the angst of writing about which I tend to muse and articulate most freely; “Why Write?,” “One True Sentence,” “Bird by Bird,” “Write About Now,” “Demons and Darlings,” “The Reality of Rejection,” “The Joy of Ending Well,” “A New Summer of Writing,” and “The Write Stuff” all convey my own grapples with the creative stall and feelings of inadequacy.

With the MA in English attained two years ago, a few modest writing awards under my belt (“Praise for Time of Death,” “On the Write Track”), and conferral of the MFA degree this past January, I’ve been in the process of considering what’s next these past few months – for me academically and literarily and for this site (“A Silent Abyss,” “A Beginning and an Ending,” “Writing in the Afterlife”). As I’ve mentioned recently on Archetype (“Это правда?”) and in an interview on TreeHouse, I’m planning to apply to various Ph.D. programs in English, Comparative Literature, and/or Rhetoric; however, with applicant admission rates of approximately four to five percent at local universities, I’m keeping the likelihood of acceptance in perspective.

GOTTHA~1Nonetheless, the pursuit of admittance will be next year’s undertaking and will, of course, be recounted here.  For the immediate time being, my focus will remain on submitting my short fiction and nonfiction work to various conferences and journals, launching a part-time freelance writing and editing career, and preparing for both the General and Literature in English Graduate Record Examinations.  (A list of my current study resources is provided in the sidebar to the right.)  And there is still the full novel to finish and market (“This is the Year,” “This is That Summer,” “Writing in the Aftermath”).

During the last seventy-two months, I have published 695 posts about literature, critical theory, writing technique, literary figures and events, submission opportunities, favorite poems and passages, articles of interest, books I’m reading, papers I’m writing, other literary blogs I’m following, conferences I’m attending, and demons I’m wrestling.  Archetype celebrates holidays, welcomes new seasons, and gives the occasional nod to lunar activity – and much-needed sleep.  Finally, personal aspects of my affective life and literary journey are memorialized and shared (“Write of Passage,” “Cartwheels Under the Arch,” “Pathetic Fallacy,” “Beyond Words,” “Finis”), even when the discovery and healing are mine alone.  I hope you will all follow me as this new narrative begins.





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