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Between and Betwixt

Gold-Floral-Crescent-Moon-Mark-II-9 A labyrinth of moons might be an apt means of describing the gothic curves and spirals through which the moon moves in its lunar phases.  I always feel, catching a glimpse of it behind a roof and tangled in trees, as if the moon slides away even as I watch.  An elegant twist of time and planet … and the moon shifts, a hairsbreadth more curve shown or scraped away.

I am, in a phrase, betwixt and between.  Perhaps it is outright betweenity, an 18th-century word that captures this state.  And much like the moon, I look like I’m standing still even while bone and juice runnels through the rifts of me.  Job woes, of course, and a neverending round of to-do lists tangle like briars.  Add in eight cats, landscapes to honor while coaxing food from, and–banal and prosaic as it might be–a knee that cackles like a demented hen until I tuck a pillow under it, and I feel like piles of plucked salt waiting for the next big wind or tide.

Yet, in these low ebb moments, the choices of an hour and a life are clear, clean-cut, and macabre:  stay still to give up or keep shifting to try.  trees-under-moon-thumbnail

In that cloud-tossed spirit, I consider this obstinacy:  the six-minute essay.

For topics, try looking out the window and fixing on a single object–tree, cloud, tractor, cat, moon, grapevine trellis, compost barrel, old gate.

Or, draw from the plethora of arts-driven reality shows.  Think:  Face Off, Project Runway, Next in Fashion, The Great British Baking Show, Big Dreams/Small Spaces, or any tattoo, makeup, interior design, or garden challenge.  Try their websites, show schedules, and wiki pages to find the challenges they were given–plant flora to feed wildlife in winter,  use cubism special effects makeup to design living art, or make a dress from candy or hardware store materials. Try their topic as the inspiration for an essay, considering your experiences from the frame of that topic.

Topics are everywhere; pick one; another will be by in a moment.

Try this:

The first 6–thinking

  1. Select a topic.
  2. Set an alarm for 6 minutes.
  3. Let yourself freewrite, list, think, question, muse and generally mull over the topic you’ve selected.   As you do so, remember the key moves in an essay–scene, detail, reflection.  What mini-moment do you have that connects to the topic?  What details spring into your mind–a woman’s high-heeled shoe?  The ostrich you see in a front yard on your way to work?  The tiny pouncing cat tattoo on a friend’s finger?  What is a tension you feel or see when thinking of the idea implied in the topic–fear, grief, regret, the moment right before joy?

The second 6–writing

  1. Set an alarm for 6 minutes, immediately after the first alarm sounds.
  2. Write a six-minute essay.

Now, you have a draft; revise obstinately.  Keep shifting.

I was a thought, a dream, a fish, a wing
And then a human being …
The taste of berries made of promises
While the memories shift in their skins
At every moon, to do their ripening

Joy Harjo, “Granddaughters,” An American Sunrise


Furling Ekphrasis


In two days, I make my annual pilgrimage to an art show.  Specifically, I block out a whole day–should it be needed–to visit one small tent at a three-day festival that ties up the entirety of a thriving downtown for that time.  At the tent, a slim woman with straight black hair, a smile, a bow ever-at-the-ready, and a feast of swirling, furling color rolled onto canvas waits to greet visitors.  I have prints and canvases on my walls, postcards and greeting cards on my shelf, and saved files of her art to study between times.  This trip, dare I say it, is as close to a public demonstration of homage and pilgrimage as I make.

Manami Lingerfelt  draws on the mystical, the fairy tale, the wild, the energetic, the mythic, the tidal, the primordial, and the animal in murals that swoon across rooms and canvases that can crouch humbly in a corner or arrive triumphal in a brassy fanfare.  With titles like Look at my new tatoo (a whale adorned in swirling roses), Moonrise (a sphere composed of bubbling spheres atop geometries), and Special Delivery (an owl from which drifts of flowers are born from flight), a joyous burst of color and movement sprawl and play and drench.


And at the heart of her technique is the furled and furling twist, perhaps origami-like, perhaps the frissioning pearl at the heart of everything alive.  Like the center of a flower, a dizzying impressionist landscape of points and shades and ombres, each piece–be it mermaid or fox, sun or fork, jellyfish or tree–rests on a single premise:


roll up color into a tight twist.  And another, and another.  A stippled, pointillist effect, a congregation of murmuring, giggling twirls of sushi-like layers gather on her canvas to become roots and planets, octopuses and houses, hedgehogs and chakras, each wheeling in cubes or medallions or pyramids.  Like the rising tide of rolled paper art in crafting circles, she ties and binds and folds, in the earliest definitions we have of the word furl–a term reaching into the hazy days of ancient language, turning and layering into the humble fold and roll we know.

One of my favorites, Turtle Moon, shifts these furling rolls into muted shades of russett and cinnamon, highlighted by a few turns of peach and straw, to mark the earth upon which a turtle perches, neck straining up to the smiling moon.  The rolls transform now into hexagons in rose and tangerine, pumpkin and cream against the blued skin of the creature.  Crystal cubes fall with the flowers into the cool nightscape, a lemon yellow light drenching the moon’s pate.  To the side, a bare white tree snags grains of salt, flecks of sand, flicks of ice, and dancing flakes to show us the season around the quiet conversation between turtle and moon.  (2016, oil on canvas)

  1. Find a piece of art that arrests you, even if only for a split second.  (Think broadly:  architecture, a boy’s perfect first-date outfit, a statue, a plate, your kindergartner’s finger painting, a gallery or museum piece, a velvet Elvis, the intricate movement of a b-boy dancing, jewelry.)
  2. Describe it.
  3. Describe it again.
  4. Imagine you have a one-inch frame.  Put that frame somewhere on the art.  (Think narrowly:  Elvis’s belt buckle, the boy’s shoe, a doorway of the building, the purple blob in the finger painting, a nearly-hidden cat in the gallery piece, the b-boy’s elbow in a windmill, the clasp.)
  5. Describe only what you see in the frame.
  6. Pull these layers together.  Think of this as ekphrasisand as an opportunity to speak what you see.

provide a glimpse of the joyous beauty of life … 
to spread this happiness to the world…

–Manami Lingerfelt, Artist Statement

(Please visit Manami’s website to see her art; Turtle Moon is on the portfolio page.)

Gothic mapping


As a child I wanted to be a cartographer.5723170618_036e48e1d2_b

I think it came from the maps of Narnia and Middle Earth in the books I read or perhaps the cross-country move at age seven.  I spent the next two years looking at license plates on the interstate (when I wasn’t reading books).  I know now, as someone who thinks whatever direction I’m facing is north and who inevitably makes the wrong turn when in doubt, that I would be a terrible map-maker.  Instead, I understand that what I truly wanted to be was a map-collector, someone who held, if I may use the collective noun, an atlas of maps in my mind and my body at all times.  I wanted always to be in more than one place.

Think about the last time you went to your hometown; you were at some point, I would argue, in more than one place.  That day on that road … and other days on that road … maybe even historical days on that road if your local library or high school was forward-thinking enough to offer a local history course.  Or, you had a weird uncle who made you read local history books.  You know from those visits or that relative that the map gets smudgy, layered, heavy.  (Btw, I had neither of those.  I had a college project that brought me to one of the most excellently layered and smudgiest places we have in this life:  an archive.)  We’re walking through ghosts even in broad daylight.

My hometown has a tough, secretive history, one we are taught to forget even though we leave Freudian slips and Sherlockian clues all around us.  I live in that part of the South where uncivilized wars were fought on people’s doorsteps, where the annual battle reenactment is of one those people lost, and where that war is the beginning of history.  Yet, a scant twenty years before that war, those same people–or some very much like them–brought the guns and laws to enforce concentration camps and genocide before thousands walked the trails to the territories.  Shh.  This is not to be spoken of.  Except in these ways:  everyone has a little Indian princess somewhere in their DNA and school mascots, city seals, and library statues should hint at that buried history.  Why were there so many statues of Sequoyah in my hometown, I wondered one summer.  If I’d asked that before I knew about archives, maybe I wouldn’t have learned.


(Go deeper.  Before settlers and tears, ancient metropolises spanned the continent, connected by river-roads and bird-men; how many mounds were raised by ancestors?  how many razed by farmers?)

Is this not tremendously, amazingly, horrifyingly gothic?  The past haunts; the monsters we are and were–and the monsters we imagined anyone else to be–haunts; our ghosts haunt.  Space becomes packed with history; history shifts into labyrinthine spaces.


  1. Find a map of your hometown, your nowtown, or sometown you find compelling.
  2. Start layering events, people, objects on the map–personal, historical, local, national, now, then, and way back then.  (Archives help; start at the library and historic society; don’t stop there; every place is bigger than it seems.)
  3. Choose one spot on the map.  It might be a house, a road, a field, a memorial, a murder, a wedding, a train crash.
  4. One layer at a time, smudge that map.  If four elements converge on that spot, give them each a page.  Details, dialogue, memory, snippets of history, pictures, figures, laws, book titles, ordinances, grocery stores, fourth grade teachers.  (If you really, really like this, read William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highwaysit will help.)
  5. Imagine that each layer is a ghost, a haunting, a curse for another layer.  Choose two of these and write a page each on those as well.
  6. That part you chose not to think about?  The story or history or action that was too uncomfortable?  That picture the librarian found for you that was too troubling?  Write about that, too.  1 page.
  7. Now you have a gothic map of one space on this wide, troubled earth.  Revise obstinately.  Try to see:  how do we live among such hauntings?  how should we?

“The crux of the modernist relationship with the Gothic:  both are preoccupied with the passing of time, with history and its relation to the present, with personal, psychic histories–but gothic texts characteristically refigure this preoccupation through a different lexicon of sensation and horror at odds with the realist impulse of much modernist writing”

(The Routledge Companion to the Gothic 42).

The Liminality of Paragraphs

Prompting …

I like cracking open texts.

When I read, I scavenge for nuggets of insight, the words or the tiny paragraph that makes a sonic click in the brainpan.  Sometimes I’m so preoccupied with how Sherman Alexie manages to write me, for a split second, into the world he lived in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, of a poverty so fixed that a veterinarian for a sick pet is not an option–“A bullet only costs about two cents, and anybody can afford that”–that I miss the plot altogether.  I come out of a book or poem with a charm of phrases fluttering like finches instead of plot or setting.  Then, I dive back in for the second reading and the third, ransacking the verses, the chapters to see their structures, expose their spines.  Sometimes, I’ll close the book afterwards and press it against my chest, as if I’m trying to make it whole again.  Sometimes after I’ve pared a Mary Oliver poem down to the image that made my heart pound in “Rain”–“The spider is asleep among the red thumbs/ of the raspberries”–I’ll read it slowly, softly without stopping.


I do this to my owwaterfall-1082026_960_720n texts as well, those half-drafts and cut-up paragraphs, those deluges of words in a file and too-late-night-handwriting in a journal.  I write the way I want; then, I crack it open.  I break it.  Breaking is a violence–taming, subduing, shattering–but I like these older meanings from pre-Germanic languages surviving inside German, migrating to English:  “to break” is to break into, to rush into; then, to burst forth, to spring out.



That is one of my richest desires; to see the spaces between chunks of text, paragraphs if you will, as liminal.  As a threshhold to be walked into, as a new space to be excavated, felt,  filled, written, lived within, left empty if needed.

  1. Take a draft at any stage.  Type it up.  If it is not already divided into lines or paragraphs, chunk it up a bit.  Go with your instincts; there’s no right or wrong “break.”
  2. On the electronic copy, at the end of each chunk, line, or paragraph, make a page break (Control + enter).  Each paragraph, line, or chunk is now on a separate page.
  3. Pick a page.  Any page.
  4. Write.  Write the thought underneath that chunk or extend that chunk.  Describe in minute detail or move the camera to a new vantage point in that material.  (Don’t worry about repetition; each page is separate right now.)  Write a different pov or the day/night/minute/year before/after that chunk.  Write an association or a fact.  Just freewrite stream-of-conscious style.  Write.
  5. Do this for every page.
  6. Pull all the pages back together, eliminating the spaces, keeping all the new material you found when you cracked it open.
  7. Begin the tedious, joyous work of sorting, shifting, aligning and sifting that is revision.  Revise obstinately.


… dazzling and tremendous, how quick the sun-rise would kill me,/
 If I could not now and always send sun-rise out of me.

–Walt Whitman, Song of Myself


Hold, Keep

A writing prompt …

I spend as much time on the thesaurus as I do the etymological dictionary.  Writing is about seeing then seeing then seeing.  The synonym behold has that seeing depth in its early definitions–to hold, to keep.  To see so clearly that we keep what we see.

Annie Dillard’s essay “Seeing,” most recently published in her new collection, The Abundance, shows the variety of ways one might see.  After a bit of rhetorical analysis and reverse engineering to decipher her moves, I’m learning to behold differently as well.

Strive with this prompt:earth-405096_960_720

  • Choose an -ing topic (ice skating, chewing, stapling, mangling, believing, wrecking, sidewalking, pontificating, growing, singing, etc.).
  • Write, in verse or prose, about the topic from at least 6 of the following perspectives, 5-10 minutes each:
    • A childhood memory of the action
    • A time someone did the action better than you
    • A scientific or technical fact about the action
    • The opposite of the reaction
    • What happens when there’s too much of the action?
    • The dangers of the action?
    • What is needed to make the action more real?
    • Two different ways to do the action
    • What is hard about doing this action?
    • The secret to doing this action
    • An image that captures how strange (wonderful, wrong, difficult, good, etc.) the action is
  • Find the best bits.
  • Revise obstinately.


… truth need not be fact …

Madeleine L’Engle

An obstinacy of buffalo

A writing prompt …

The verb “to sit” has as part of its definition these actions:  to remain, to continue.  That is a wonderful approach to writing.

I like collective nouns as much as eytomologies, and when I write, I put a sign on the door that reads “an obstinacy of buffalo.”  I find that I need that much remaining and continuing power.

To be obstinate today, strive with this prompt:

  • Find a sit
    dandelion-843357_960_720greenuation or experience in which you and at least one other person was involved and of which both of you have (slightly or largely) different memories.
  • Write, in prose or verse, your memory of that moment.
  • Write, in prose or verse, their memory of that moment.  (If you can talk to them before writing, so much the better!)


  • Set the clock for at least 12 minutes, turn off your censors, and generate an intuitive theory of why memory works the way it does in this particular moment with you and this particular person.
  • Goal–a gestalt or an ephiphany.  Write until you see these moments, yourself, and the other person as strange.
  • Revise obstinately.





 … all shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well

St. Julian of Norwich