Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

A writer is someone…

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Sep• 13•19

A writer is someone who spends years patiently trying to discover the second being inside him, and the world that makes him who he is: when I speak of writing , what comes first to my mind is not a novel, a poem, or literary tradition, it is a person who shuts himself up in a room, sits down at a table, and alone, turns inward; amid its shadows, he builds a new world with words. ~ Orhan Pamuk


More from Pamuk: his Nobel prize lecture My Father’s Suitcase

The potent opening of “Haunting Olivia” by Karen Russell

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Sep• 05•19

The weather is warm these days, but bearable and I’ve got a sprinklers running. My tomatoes are ripening so fast I need to check them every morning. Which isn’t that easy because one bed is an untidy jungle of branches, no matter how often I trim suckers.  I love the smell of tomato leaves on my hands, though the scent is hard to describe.  My harvest overfloweth, so I’ll have plenty to give away.

If you don’t have a lot of time for reading because you’re so busy writing, one thing you can always do is read and analyze story openings and ask yourself why the opening works or doesn’t. Here’s one worth studying from the talented Karen Russell, Haunting Olivia.

My brother Wallow has been kicking around Gannon’s Boat Graveyard for more than an hour, too embarrassed to admit that he doesn’t see any ghosts. Instead, he slaps at the ocean with jilted fury. Curse words come piping out of his snorkel. He keeps  pausing to adjust the diabolical goggles.

The diabolical goggles are designed for little girls. They are pink with a floral snorkel attached to the side. They have scratchproof lenses and an adjustable band. Wallow says we are going to use them to find our dead sister, Olivia. 

My brother and I have been taking midnight scavenging trips to Gannon’s all summer long. It’s a watery junkyard, a place where people pay to abandon their boats. Gannon, the grizzled, tattooed undertaker, tows wrecked ships into his marina. Battered sailboats and listing skiffs, yachts with stupid names–Knot at Work and Sail-la-vie–the paint peeling from their puns. They sink beneath the water in slow increments, covered with rot and barnacles. Their masts jut out at weird angles. The marina is an open, easy grave to rob. We ride our bikes along the rock wall, coasting quietly past Gannon’s tin shack, and hop off at the derelict pier. Then we creep down to the ladder, jump onto the nearest boat, and loot.   

I’m in (and practically swatting at mosquitoes),  how about you?

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Sep• 04•19

Do what  you can, with what you have, where you are. ~Theodore Roosevelt


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Sep• 01•19

Autumn Walk with Umbrella, R. Beal


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Aug• 23•19

There is one thing you should know about writing. It will inevitably lead you to terrible places, as you cannot write about something if you have not lived it. Though the most important thing to bear in mind is this: you are there as a tourist and and must always remain one. There was a very specific reason why you were blessed with the ability to  translate your sentiments into wordsit is to bring voice to suffering and torment. But do not be too indulgent with these experience of these thingsdespite how addictive suffering can behow easy it is to get lost down the twisted path of self-destruction. You must emerge from adversity, scathed but victorious–to tell your story and in turn, light the way for others.” ~ Lang Leav

Rest in peace Toni Morrison

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Aug• 06•19

Toni Morrison has died at age 88. Here is one of her many obituaries. Author of novels Beloved, The Bluest Eye, Sula, The Song of Solomon, and more, she taught us so much about the black experience, the power of language, and speaking truth. My favorite of her novels was Sula and 20-some years (or is it 30 now?) I can still remember a specific scene in which a character discovers her husband having wild sex with her friend, Sula. The description of her sense of betrayal and grief is depicted through her body and is as authentic and moving as anything I’ve ever read.

Here’s are a few of her words for writers from her address at the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm. It so worth reading in our troubled and terrifying times when language is being used as a weapon to oppress.  “Passion is never enough; neither is skill. But try. For our sake and yours forget your name in the street: tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light. Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear.  Show belief’s wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear’s caul.”

Meanwhile, keep writing, keep dreaming, shine your light


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Aug• 01•19

Advice from C.S. Lewis

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jul• 23•19

“If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who  achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are unfavorable. Favorable conditions never come.”

A Read for our Times: Stones from the River

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jul• 18•19

After trump’s latest hate rally and cries of “send her back” might I offer a lesson from history in the form of a beautiful novel, Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi? It’s the story of the rise of Hitler and how the German people were pulled into his madness and xenophobia. How easy it was to sway them, brainwash them, and demonize Jews and other minorities and outsiders.

It’s told from the viewpoint of Trudi  Montag, a dwarf, and the story begins in 1915 when she’s a girl. When you create a fictional story at least one character needs to be vulnerable—it’s why a child’s kidnapping makes such a horrifying, nail-biting tale, for example. We can all relate to feelings of vulnerability because we’ve all been children, dependent on adults for survival. In Hitler’s Germany only able-bodied Aryan types were seen as desirables and people with differences could be sent to work camps, murdered at whim, or be subject to brutal medical research.

Here is the opening:

As a child Trudi Montag thought everyone knew what went on inside others. That was  before she understood the power of being different. The agony of being different. And the sin of ranting against an infective God. But before that–years and years before that–she prayed to grow. Every night she fell asleep with the prayer that, while she slept, her body would stretch itself, grow to the size of other girls her age in Burgdorf–not even the taller ones like Eva Rosen, who would become her best friend in school for awhile–but into a body with normal-length arms and legs and a small, well-shaped head. To help God along Trudi would hang from door frames by her fingers until they were numb, convinced she could feel her bones lengthening; many nights she’d tie her mother’s silk scarves around her head–one encircling her forehead, one knotted beneath her chin–to keep her head from expanding.

How she prayed. And every morning when her arms were still stubby, and her feet wouldn’t reach the floor as she’d swing them from her mattress, she’d tell herself she hadn’t prayed hard enough or it wasn’t the right time yet so she’d keep praying….  

Keep writing, keep reading, stand for justice


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jul• 13•19

“The architects do blueprints before they drive the first nail, they design the entire house, where the pipes are running, and how many rooms there are going to be, how high the roof will be. But the gardeners just dig a hole and plant a seed and see what comes up. I think all writers are partly architects and partly gardeners, but they tend to one side or another, and I’m definitely more of a gardener. ” ~ George R.R. Martin