Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Advice from Albert Camus

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Feb• 18•21

“Find meaning. Distinguish melancholy from sadness. Go out for a walk. It doesn’t have to be a romantic walk in the park, spring at its most spectacular moment, flowers, and smells and outstanding poetical imagery smoothly transferring you into another world. It doesn’t have to be a walk during which you’ll have multiple life epiphanies and discover meanings no other brain ever managed to encounter. Do not be afraid of spending quality time by yourself. Find meaning or don’t find meaning but ‘steal’ some time and give it freely and exclusively to your own self. Opt for privacy and solitude. That doesn’t make you antisocial or cause you to reject the rest of the world. But you need to breathe. And you need to be.” ~Albert Camus, from Notebooks 1951-1959

More from Camus on making a life worth living at Brainpickings.com.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

From an Editor’s Desk: Writing Suggestions

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Feb• 09•21

I’ve been purging my office and as I  toss old receipts and rearrange books I’m finding scraps of paper with scrawls and tidbits on them. So I’m lassoing all these jottings. A single word on the back of an envelope says ‘waft’.  Now, waft is in my vocabulary, and I’ve used it in writing, but these lists always inspire me. Another envelope back includes: pinprick, squatter, fusty, quisling, shacky, gawk, wheedle, moonwalk, shirk, bupkis, wraith, servile, scuttle, torpor, badger. Because if you’re not constantly gathering words you’re not growing as a writer.

My next step is to figure out where to record these snippets.  If you’re an analogue type like I am, you might have notebooks stashed all over the place. In fact, I’ve decided to stash one in my car’s glove box. Wondering why I haven’t done this years ago since I often hear information on NPR that  I scribble on my hand as I’m driving. I’ve written here before about keeping a writer’s notebook, a lens to the world. Some jottings will land in my current writer’s notebook, while others will end up in specific ongoing projects.

Another notes says: Ruminate Productively. Question thought cycles. This one struck me hard. There was a tragic death in our family 3 weeks days ago and during the final weeks of  my niece’s life, my thoughts returned again and again to her suffering. And her parents’ suffering. And, of course, I suffered too, sad, worried for them all, grieving the unfairness of her shortened life.  I also tracked memories along years of family events and unearthed painful memories and tracked over old scars. In other words, unproductive ruminations.

The Poet’s Garden Vincent Van Gogh

Sometimes it felt like I needed a lifeline to yank me free of this painful undertow. So I’ve turned to poetry before falling sleep and reading verses during the day. Such solace. And I’m falling into the poems and marveling at the poet’s imagery and turns of thought. Poetry can teach all writers. Can help heal bruised and shattered hearts.

Here’s another morsel:  Track complicated emotions and contradictory thoughts. Since I’ve been quarantining for about a century now I’m getting worn down from too much time spent inside my head. Some days thoughts go skittering into strange places which then scare up unexpected emotions. Not always welcome emotions.  So, as I ‘hear’ unhelpful inner talk, I try to stop myself. Then I backtrack into whatever I was thinking or feeling. Slow it all down and linger there. Figure out where the thought originated. Listening in to a hidden (or noisy) part of myself. Then, as I’ve been telling myself for years, thoughts aren’t like the weather. I can do something about them; question or entertain them, discard, or act on them. Instead of allowing a storm to brew.

If you’re not prone to rumination be on the lookout for these complicated emotions on a screen or while reading a novel. For example, don’t you love it when you witness a  cocktail of emotions flicker across an actor’s face? Maybe as a painful realization dawns or a joyful understanding  blooms. How would you write that? Sir Anthony Hopkins starring in The Remains of the Day as the fusty head butler is an excellent example of how tiny face muscles can express a wide range of emotions.

But let’s get back to contradictions. I taught online workshops last fall  and in one workshop on subplots I explained the potency of contradictions while writing fiction. Contradictory needs and wants (or desires) within your main characters create delicious conflict. In The Remains of the Day, Hopkin’s character  Stevens is at war with the truth. He’s blinded by his loyalty to his employer, a Nazi sympathizer, and clings to his duties instead of risking emotional intimacy–needs he dare not admit to. His elderly father dies alone while Stevens  tends to an important dinner party and ignores the housekeeper’s–played impeccably by Emma Thompson– interest in him. The film is based on The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro and is written as a first-person account by  Stevens, a sometimes unreliable narrator.

You often see this dynamic at work in romance plots and subplots. For  example, a woman is attracted to bad boy types, but deep down she longs for marriage, stability, and kids. This scenario played out in Bridget Jones Diary by Helen Felding where readers and viewers recognized what was best for Bridget, but she did not. Bridget was beginning a new year and diary by vowing to cut down on cigarettes, alcohol and calories. Also on her  list was to find a stable man, but of course, chaos ensued in the form of  a fling with a bad boy. He was played with aplomb by Hugh Grant in the hit film version, while she overlooked stable lawyer Patrick Darcy (Colin Firth) until it was almost too late.

Or a former addict or alcoholic has become clean and sober. All is well, until he is somehow triggered and then slips back into the bottle or ends up visiting his dealer. Meanwhile, as your reader is begging “do not go into that liquor store. Do not screw this up.”  And this means  your reader might be feeling contradictory feelings too–sympathy for the addiction, but enraged at the character for buckling under pressure.

Contradictions create suspense and tension. Stay tuned because I’m going to cover this in more depth in the future.

This note was scrawled on a legal pad as I was reading a recent client’s manuscript: Villains MUST deliver. If you plop a villain or villainous group into your story they need to embody some form of evil and profound threat. He/she/they cannot remain offstage throughout.  If your villains don’t threaten or scare your protagonist up close and personal, then fix the bad guy or your plot.

These days my notebooks are filled with mannerisms and reactions from the novels I read. I’ve written here about crutch words, but in my work I notice that writers use the same emotional responses in their stories. Characters repeatedly look down, shrug, or are wide eyed. I read a novel recently where the author used ‘deadpanned’ five or six times. By the third deadpan, I was wincing.

Another reason to study other writer’s techniques is to create a more immersive reading experience. If you nail aftermaths or the viewpoint character’s experiences  they will resonate with readers.  Such as: startled chuff of laughter, a brittle silence settled between them, staring at him with dead, dark eyes, she flinches, settling uncomfortably, his heart started clattering around in his chest.

Here’s an easy one to adopt. As you build your career, beware of  comparing yourself to other writers. Especially writers who have been toiling away longer than you. Now, you can learn from other writers, emulate other writers. But if you read your favorite author and all you can do is groan about how you’ll never get to his or her skill level, then your thoughts are unproductive. Or if you’re stabbed by jealousy when friends land a publishing deal, you’re being small. Write more, envy less.

Write your first draft with everything you’ve got, but know this: you cannot revise a truly dreadful first draft. Just like you cannot breathe life into a corpse. Sometimes you need to start over. Or put the whole thing away for weeks or months. Or start a new story and let this one simmer on the proverbial back burner.  Making these hard decisions often come from honest, knowledgeable feedback. And sometimes, sadly, you sometimes need to pull the plug on a flimsy first draft.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Feb• 02•21

Words Matter

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 28•21

Writers need to understand the nuances of language, search out fresh expressions, and continually refresh their vocabularies. For me, language is one of the greatest joys of the writing life.  It’s hardly surprising when last month Merriam-Webster declared pandemic as the word of the year.  As if 2020 hadn’t already asked a lot of us. I don’t know about you, but the Black Plague always seemed so removed from our reality and the Spanish Flu a historical footnote. Yet here we are amid another one, masked and paranoid. Sheesh.

But English is an ever-evolving language and Merriam-Webster has also just announced that 520 new words have been added to the dictionary. I’m all for new words and word combos so we now have hygge,  second gentleman,  cancel culture, long hauler, and new meanings for pod and bubble. Somehow I missed that 535 words were added last April and include dark web, slow-walk, self-isolate, truthiness, deep fake, and PPE.  Apparently I was adjusting to self-isolating. This list was highly influenced, of course, by the pandemic.

If you want to hear about how editors decide on these additions, check out their podcast Word Matters. It’s a podcast for anyone who loved their English classes.

In case you haven’t read it, lexicographer Kory Stamper’s witty Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries it’s a delight. Part memoir, part expose’, we not only learn how she fell in love with language, but also how her gig entails spending a month refining a dictionary entry. And we’re talking words like take or do.

She writes, “We think of English as a fortress to be defended, but a better analogy is that English is like a child. As English grows, it lives its own life, and that is right and healthy. Sometimes English does exactly as we think it should;  sometimes it goes places we don’t like and thrives there in spite of all our worrying. We can tell it to clean itself up and act more like Latin; we can throw tantrums and learn French instead. But we will never be the boss of it. And that’s why it flourishes.”

Here’s a link to Stamper’s TED Talk on dialects, You Speak You.

A bit of good news: Amanda Gorman will recite a poem at the Super Bowl. Poetry and football. I call that progress.

If you live in Philadelphia and love books, you can rent a bookstore for a COVID-style date.

Is your word list growing? As we head into February, in the midst of political turmoil in the US and other places, amid a pandemic, how are your writing plans going?

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

A warning & some cheer from Lang Leav

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 20•21

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 must always remain one. There was a very specific reason why you were blessed with ability to translate your sentiments into words –it is to bring  a voice to suffering and torment. But do not be too indulgent with your experience of these things –despite how addictive suffering can be–how 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

Words are Powerful

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 11•21

“But words are things, and a small drop of ink, falling, like dew, upon a thought produces that which thousands, perhaps millions think”~ Lord Bryron

Give Sorrow Words II

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 10•21

The fog has lifted and a pale sky revealed, the tall firs that ring the neighborhood still. Looking out it seems as if the world is holding its breath.

I’ve written here before about following Shakespeare’s  advice in Macbeth to, “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o’erfraught heart and bids it break.” If ever there was a week to break our hearts we’ve just trudged through it.

Eyes glued to images of mayhem, violence, insurrection, lunacy. We’ve heard the lies, the gaslighting, the excuses, the demands. We saw the noose.  The marauding members of our military. Elected officials joining the throng. The Nazi symbols. The Confederate flag marched down the corridors of OUR Capital.

We’ve watched and heard with dread the shrill, unleashed madness in radicalized, far-right followers.

All seemed so inevitable, didn’t it? As if we’ve been long expecting this. As if we’ve been holding our collective breaths.

But when the TV is off, your head on your pillow, or you’re out walking your dog, what is your body whispering? Can you put words to that clenched knot in your gut?  Where does choking rage lodge in your body? Where is your sorrow housed or has it overtaken you at times?  How does your throat feel?

Write from your body.

Are you feeling strung out? Blurry? Limbs weighted down? Stirred up beyond reason?

Write from your body.

Which particular images and sounds most set your heart stampeding in your chest?

Write from your heart.

Because writers need to use all parts of life to tell their stories. Use the painful rawness of your emotions, the map of your body. Give sorrow words. Write them down. Day after harrowing or difficult day.  Loan them to your fictional characters. Track them for a memoir or essay. Store them in a place you can find them again. Because emotions such as these must be shared.

Meanwhile, please help instill hope in children whenever you spend time with them.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, keep finding wonder,  have heart

Routine, be it ever so humble…

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 04•21

There’s  often gloom outside my windows as I sit here lately, punctuated with storms and downpours. Sun breaks do occur, but mostly I’m grateful for this infernal wet after last year’s droughts and too-close-for-comfort wildfires.

And these smudgy skies are good for reflection and planning. Now that the holidays are over I’ve been shoring up my routines and habits. Like many people, the pandemic threw off  me off balance.  I found myself exhausted, wooly-headed, and gripped with bouts of lethargy. Distracted and resentful that a trip to the grocery store was fraught with life-threatening danger.

Now, I don’t have kids at home squinting over laptops and emptying the refrigerator. I also don’t live with annoying housemates, nor have I been suddenly cut off from work buddies since I’ve worked at home for years. But in the Before Times I lived among fictional dystopian scenarios, not living through actual ones. This particular dystopian reality has shaken me and sometimes isolation is chokingly real. As the pandemic death toll climbs and new strains are morphing, I’m venturing out less and less often. Sure I text with my besties, but I’m also taking part in fewer live conversations and actual gatherings. Did I mention it’s been raining a lot?

Which means I’m rethinking things so I don’t lose connections to people who mean a lot to me. Which means I cannot drift, waste time, or ruminate too much on sad news and wretched circumstances.  Which means I cannot spend hours doomscrolling or switching on CSPAN or newscasts, agitated and worrying about might be.

Passionate about politics for decades, this whole political mess in Washington has been a distraction beyond description. On days when it seems more theater than reality I can scarce turn away. On days when it seems democracy itself is on the line, I’m bedeviled and pissed off. I follow House votes, Senate floor arguments,  committee hearings, pundits pontificating, historians explaining, Justice Department machinations,  protests growing shriller, and study reporting,  political columnists, newsfeeds, Twitter feeds, voting lines, and lawsuits. The list goes on and my inbox runneth over. The drama, the stakes, the ire all draw me in like a cartoon magnet until too often I look up guiltily to acknowledge another hour has vanished.

While smugly informed, gentle reader, you might recognize the results were chronic stress. Making me jittery and struggling to concentrate.

Too often missing the poetry of everyday life, including its wonders and tiny miracles.

Enter routines and habits to the rescue. Routines are a lifeline. Scaffolding. I’ve written about it here before. I’m starting small on re-upping former habits because small successes are easy to keep repeating, laying the ground for bigger accomplishments. For example, for some odd reason I stopped wearing earrings. It doesn’t seem like much, but I love earrings, own many pairs, some dear to me. So I’m wearing earrings as I have for years.

This might sound trivial, but this bitsy practice still shifts energy,  gives me a pick-me-up.

My life unspools best when my surroundings are orderly. Since childhood I’ve made my bed every morning. I vacuum regularly, give the house a good cleaning every season, washing curtains, moving furniture to vacuum behind, cleaning windows. My Midwestern ancestors were good housefraus, lives structured around meal making, housework, and laundry. Their houses smelling of lemon Pledge and baking bread. Despite this upbringing and spending years in restaurant kitchens, I’ve also fallen into a wee bad habit of abandoning dirty or greasy pans to soak in the sink. Sometimes a day or two passes and I ignore them or guiltily replenish the sudsy water from time to time. I hadn’t realized how much I dislike scrubbing pans until my energy was depleted. So I’m no longer allowing pans to fester no matter the elbow grease required.

As long as I’m confessing, I’m also removing clothes from the dryer right after it jingles merrily. Because I’ve been ignoring it, though I did step into the laundry room and push the button to send the clothes round for another fluff. This too might sound trivial, but I’ve noticed that procrastination leads to more slacking. Mail and recycling piles up. Clothes and items to be donated mound on the only chair in my bedroom. Or I end up with an office cluttered with papers and detritus. Which is why I’m starting small.

My bedtime routine that begins with turning down the heat and checking the locks and ends in bed with a book is a comforting anchor to end my days, so now I’m homing in on my mornings. For years I woke at dawn and wrote first thing until about 11, then showered and took a break. But my sleep habits these days are erratic, my editing projects demanding, and the aforementioned obsessive news consumption highjack my mornings. Thus, I’m avoiding my  phone and iPad first thing. Leaving the TV off.  Writing before editing. It’s blissful.

Because I’m re-establishing structure throughout the day. Foundations. Sanity-producing order. Which leads to productivity.

I’ll report back here as I rebuild my scaffolding, limit my doomscrolling, and wrest back my time for more writing. Because this all has to do with peace within and accomplishment. And I’ve got some fabulous, positive writing techniques to share, so stay tuned.

What I’m reading: Alison Luterman’s essay Fire All Around in the January issue of The Sun.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Write a new story in 2021

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 01•21

2020 was a cruel, exhausting, nightmarish, wrung-out, surreal shambles of a year. So much to bear, grieve, and confront, sometimes with heart-hammering fear. So many adjustments to make amid an onslaught of shocking death tolls and Biblical plagues including swarmclouds of locusts.  In the West the wildfire damage and scars have brutally changed the landscape and ruined lives. Black and brown citizens are still being murdered by police.  So much loneliness and aching for those we could not spend time with.

But here we are at the beginning of another January. Working remotely and wearing masks and waiting for our vaccines. Wary yet clinging to hope.

Whatever you wrote or did not write, lullaby yourself because whatever you’ve chalked under 2020 is okay. And a do-over is possible.

If you wrote regularly you have much to be proud of.

If you finished a big project or  took part in NaNoWriMo you’re a warrior.

Not so much accomplished? Give yourself gentle pass.

Fallow fields can still grow.

You made it through hard times. You witnessed. You managed by innovating and reinventing and caring. You dug deep into your own depths of resilience. Hugging your own empty arms

Turn the page and write a new story in 2021.

Even though large swaths of our future is unknowable, we can still  make doable plans, choose attainable goals.

Mine are simple. Do the hard things. Seek out silver linings. Keep appreciating small wonders. Celebrate what deserves celebrating.  Love deeply. Read more poetry. Support writers, musicians, and artists.

Experiment with and invent new recipes. Buy carryout food from locally-owned restaurants.

Practice kindness and grace. Use my voice. Notice the world through a writer’s eyes. Gather words. Capture thoughts onto the page. Write letters.

Hike new paths. Breathe in the Pacific.  Meet new trees. Grow new flower varieties. As I said, doable.

If you still need a New Year’s boost, here’s a performance by poet Amanda Gorman, “The Miracle of Morning.” She’s a former Youth Poet Laureate who published her first poetry collection at 16.

Keep dreaming, keep bearing witness, have heart.

And please wear a mask.


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 01•21