Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

What’s Next?

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 04•13

©Jessica Page Morrell

      Sometimes you just have to trust the thing you claim to trust – and for me that is the shaping spirit of creativity. ~ Jeanette Winterson

     In long-ago times, as seems fitting, March was the beginning of the year and interestingly marked the resumption of war. In about 700 BC January and February were added to the calendar by a Roman king. January is named after the god Janus and he is the god of gates and doorways, openings and closings. Janus has two faces, back to back, which allow him to look both backward into the old year and forward into the new one at the same time. He is the spirit of the opening. Native Americans called January the wolf moon, the Anglo-Saxons called it Wolf-monath because wolves came into the villages in winter in search of food. Wolves howled loudest and searched furthest in January. With wolves about they hunkered down, kept the livestock close.

For me January will always mean the special beauty of snow and white and winter stars spangling the blackest sky. My child’s heart travels back again and again to those memories this time of year. Lacy, frost-etched windows and whisper quiet mornings. I remember most the deep silence, when every morning was a surprise: how much snow had fallen in the night? How cold was the morning? The blanketed world was far from colorless and rich in contrasts: the white of the snow and the flashes red and black as birds flitted in the aftermath of storms , the bare-branched trees, and the winter sunlight in every hue. And the smell of snow—part metal, part magic arriving on the wind. Icicles tapering, gleaming, silvery; beautiful and somehow cruel. Sleds, ice skates and toboggans. There was something endless about the snow in my childhood. It was epic. Arctic. It was a hushed, buried world.

By January there were wind-swept drifts piled shoulder high and the snow kept coming. At night as snows drifted down, they sparkled diamonds under the streetlights. And, of course, mighty storms barged through, with drunken, wild winds and heaping drifts, burying landscapes. You knew that in the woods bears were hibernating and that knowledge felt as if you were in on the most primal and fabulous secret. Ice was always underfoot no matter how hard you scraped with a shovel, and the cold wouldn’t lift. Snow prints crisscrossing the yard, the surface like lost maze walkers. Summer a far-off, distant land.

January required layers, endurance and good humor. You were fueled with hot chocolate, oatmeal, soup, and casseroles. And you were reined in. Because of the cold you couldn’t tromp lost in your imaginings along a river or creek, because you’d get frostbite. When skating or sledding you were forced indoors at intervals because you couldn’t feel your fingers and toes. The cold like a force, your breath sharp in your throat and clouding into the air.

So January is almost here and though our climate is relatively mild, let’s not lose the habit of winter. Let’s declare that even though we’ve recently unwrapped a new calendar, this month is designated for deliberate slowness. Almost everything we care deeply about, we accomplish with some nimbus of slowness and deliberateness, whether it is crafting a poem, tending a garden, or baking a pie. “The greatest assassin of life is haste,” said the poet Theodore Roethke. And yet so many of us feel rushed and time pressed.

For writers perhaps there is a lesson to be learned from a true January and a true winter. When the world is cloaked in mystery and so many hours of darkness, allow the quiet to sink in. Look inward as the season demands. And then start anew, but with quiet and unhurriedness. In these bare dawns of midwinter, you might want to begin the day with candlelight, silence, and solitude and end the day by tidying up, clearing away to face the next dawn with a clean desk, a fresh determination.

When you’re rested from the din and rituals and richness of the holidays, the shock of another year gathering before you, then gently, gently start pushing toward what’s next. A book idea or editing your NaNoWriMo project, finishing a short story collection, or polishing and submitting essays or poems. Maybe you need to read more or submit more or create a blog. Let it come to you like a midnight snowfall. Trust that it will land like midnight snow and ignite your interest. Perhaps it’s a new project or rethinking a discarded one. Perhaps you’ll imagine a character who you take into your heart. Trust that your what’s next is waiting. Trust that creativity happens in the quiet. Imagine the possibility of silence.

But since it is January, a looking back and forward time, push yourself toward untouched emotional territory in your writing. Let yourself really feel when you’re writing. We all have emotions deep made over the years. And we all need to call on them to make the writing authentic. Write with recognition and memory and trust. Experiment. Write in a notebook, not on a computer. Write in bed, fresh from your dreams. Write as if you’re embodying your characters bone upon bone, with the gnawing grief or spite or rage or whatever emotion that needs to be channeled. Write from the body so your characters can be felt and known. Find the intersections of theme and desire; push into the stream of a story.

If you neglected writing over the holidays, you can invite your writing back like an old friend. It’s time to find inspiration using untried methods, to rejuvenate what has been set aside and invite in originality. And carve out time for nothingness. If possible let a fire roar, and simply sit and gaze into it and allow time to wash over you. Allow yourself to feel fragile or tender or soft. And then start writing.

It’s also the perfect month to try out and change your daily routine, to create new writerly rituals. You might want to think back to all the risks you’ve taken and how they turned out. What small changes can lead to big results? Should you vow to finish each project before starting a new one? Should you enter competitions? Dust off an old manuscript and determine if it’s worth reviving?

January is also a good month to dial down your time on Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites. You don’t need to be so connected all the time. And yes, it’s a good time to make new resolutions, but they need to be linked to your values. What do you want to give to the world and how will your writing accomplish this? The rest of the year can be spent worrying about how the marketplace is changing, about branding and platforms and how often to tweet. This is the month for finding your original fire.

I wish you hushed and happy New Year.
This column first appeared in the January edition of The Willamette Writer. No portion of this column may be reprinted without permission.

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  1. Jessica, this should be required reading for every writer at the start of every New Year. You’ve inspired memories, and reasons to love January all over again. 🙂

    • jessicap says:

      Well aren’t you kind?
      Sometimes I think that resolutions and hup, hup, willpower only approaches just don’t work.
      This is supposed to be the quiet time of year. I love to live with the real sense of the seasons and I suspect you do too.

  2. Thanks for the inspiring article, Jessica. Happy New Year!

    • jessicap says:

      And thanks for being a reader.
      Your writing inspires me too. I love the way you imagine the future. Well, maybe not all the outcomes, but how your world feels so potent.
      Best, Jessica

  3. Shari Green says:

    Lovely and inspirational! Thank you so much.

  4. Jessica
    I’ve been wrestling with the slippery ice and low light of winter the past few weeks.

    I lost my older sister April 23rd, when she took a dramatic step and jumped 123 feet from the apex of the Ross Island Bridge. I know it was a well planned, conscious choice on her part, but the weight of her a absence showed up at my door for the holidays.

    Your eloquence and imagery this quiet morning took me through a shadowed inner door that opened to a landscape of beauty and sacred space. As a visual artist, it is a place that fuels my spirit.
    I cannot thank you enough.

    • jessicap says:

      Oh Mary,
      I’m so sorry to hear this. What a heartbreak.
      I’m not surprised the weight of her absence shadowed your holidays.
      I find poetry, music, writing, art help so much with grief, don’t you?
      All my best,

  5. Jessica,

    I hadn’t read your column in WW newsletter before and am very glad I did. It all rang true to me; your writing is imbued with great spirit. I also know the adoration of snow. Thanks for insights shared with us-I will keep working.

    • jessicap says:

      Appreciate you reading it Cynthia. I’m going to post some more columns here. However, I’m also collecting a bunch for an ebook.

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