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What I Learned About Writing This Year…from Unstressed Syllables

Cake and Ice Cream

Tomorrow, we shall have cake and ice cream.
We shall throw bright-colored pips of paper into the air
and don comical conical hats with elastic chin straps
that break too easily
and we shall laugh.

We shall hold hands and spin in circles
and smudge our lipstick on each other’s lapels
in our exuberance.
We shall shove the chairs to the edges of the room
and dance bravely because we’ve proven ourselves able
at holding back the night.

We shall lift our glasses and let the toasts rain down
upon each other’s heads along with our contentment
at knowing we have shined a light.
We shall look each other in the eye
and affirm that yes, it’s real, yes, there’s life here.
We shall nod once, deeply, and our solemn smiles
shall morph into the happy grins of children
who know the joy of a right path
well and truly taken.

Tomorrow, we shall have cake and ice cream.

A Year in the Writing Life

We writers are all about capturing in words the things the rest of the world doesn’t know how to say. Our job, dear inklings, is to take in hand those intangible emotions of humanity’s most ephemeral experiences and turn them into a collection of symbols that make sense to the people who read them. There’s a terrible kind of magic at work when a writer puts pen to paper: an alchemy of words, blood, and sensory input, a bubbling mixture that’s hot to the touch and stinks of death and glory. Sometimes, the courage to stir that icky stuff is hard to come by.

You just read a snippet of my courage. I don’t always have a lot of it; I’m still recovering from too many years of not protecting my creative self. But a little bit of courage is there. A dollop of fortitude. A dash of spunk. Even a sprinkling of audacity here and there, which makes me blush and giggle.

Today, my snippet of courage has come to you in the form of a poem: my attempt to convey via symbols the intangible emotions — the happiness, the wonder, the impish delight — I feel at the realization that Unstressed Syllables will be a year old tomorrow.

When people ask me what I write, the first thing I tell them is, “Novels.” The second thing I tell them is, “A weekly column for a writing resource site.” “Novels” sometimes makes me lose people. The phrase “writing resource site” pretty much guarantees a spreading ocular glaze and a smile that looks polite but is really begging me to stop talking about stuff that brings up memories of 9th grade comp teachers named Mrs. Clothilde Savage who wore pastel prints and smelled of Gorgonzola.

What if I changed my answer to the “whatdoyoudowithyourtimeanyway?” question? What if, instead of telling them I’m a columnist for a writing blog, I told them I go to the shooting range every day and fire at live monsters for target practice? Or what if I said I spend the day trying over and over to stay on the bull for more than 8 seconds?

I could tell them that. It would be true.

I also step out onto the sparring grounds, slam my facemask into place, and raise my sword to parry the first blow. I climb into the fighter jet and check all my gauges, straps, and doohickeys before taking off to practice maneuvers in my assigned airspace. I paddle around in the deep end of the pool because I’m not sure I trust that diving regulator yet.

I do all of that. ’Cause I’m a writer.

My novels, my poems, my short stories — those are the war zone, the rodeo ring, the battlefield, the danger zone, the deep ocean. And for the past year, Unstressed Syllables has been my training ground.

Before I joined Unstressed Syllables, I was a writer. I was an unsure, discouraged, undisciplined writer — but I was a writer, nonetheless. After a year in my training ground…I am a writer who sometimes still falls prey to uncertainty, discouragement, and poor time management.

But. I’m not a victim half as often as I used to be. This place has made me a better writer. This place has made me a better person: one who believes in herself more, communicates better, is quicker to recognize that lovely creative spark in others, and derives more joy from her craft than ever before.

It’s not just the articles that have tested, taught, and trained me. You, my darlingest inklings, are such a great part of everything Unstressed Syllables means to me! You’ve laughed and mourned with me, you’ve rolled your eyes and chuckled at my antics, you’ve thanked me, critiqued me, questioned me. Best of all, you’ve let me know What My Writing Means To You, and that is a gift I cherish. You, my dear readers, have made me a better writer, too.

My thanks to all of you. My thanks to Aaron, who talked me into this. 😉 May the next year bring more than we could ever hope for.

(And deepening trust in the diving regulator.)

Photo credit Julie V. Photography.

6 Responses to “What I Learned About Writing This Year…from Unstressed Syllables”

  1. Josh Unruh says:

    I love your first paragraph! (not to slight the poem, though)

    I don’t think it’s an accident that spelling has the same etymology as spell and that grammar comes from the same word as grimoir. When people ask what I do, I’m going to start saying “most of the time I’m a stay at home dad, but the rest of the time I MAKE MAGIC!”

    • Courtney Cantrell says:

      YES! Josh, I love it. That is exactly the right answer, and I shall being employing it myself henceforth. Except the part about being a stay at home dad. ;D

      I’d never thought about the spelling-spell, grammar-grimoir connection. That’s cramazing. I bet there’s a really cool fantasy story somewhere in there about the connection between magic and language, and the metamorphosis from grimoir to grammar…hmmmm…

  2. Aaron Pogue says:

    That’s beautiful, Courtney. I love the poem.

    Thank you for everything you’ve brought to us. You’re amazing.

    • Courtney Cantrell says:

      Thank *you*, Aaron. I feel continually honored to be part of everything that Unstressed Syllables, its readers, and you, its creator, have to share.

  3. El Edwards says:

    Happy Birthday Unstressed Syllables 🙂 I thought you were loads older than just one year. That’s testament to how fab a teacher you are Aaron. Thank you for your site and for all the encouragement and support and awesomeness you bring to this little corner of the web.

    And thank you Courtney for your column. You bring sunshine to my week and belief when my heart is doubting. I second Aaron. You are amazing.

    • Courtney Cantrell says:

      Aw, thank you, El! And thank you so much for telling me what my writing means to you. How lovely and encouraging to hear I’m having that effect on someone! You just made my week. 🙂