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Can we write without empathy?

ask a writer

This is part of the “ask a writer” series. I received the following message from an aspiring writer named Doug. A lightly edited version is reproduced here with his permission.

I’m in Suzy V’s Seductive Beginnings [writing] class, and Chuck Palahniuk is doing a Q&A for us. In one particular question, he talks about emotional stakes in writing:

“A clever idea is amusing, but unless you have a personal stake in it, the charm evaporates.”

I’ve got pretty severe Asperger’s. I recently took an empathy test with a health care professional and scored almost ZERO. So, I’m basically a robot with a heartbeat, and I hate it.

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Poetry Is Necessary: An Interview with Laura Hamblin

I received my undergraduate degree from Utah Valley University. I could go on for ages about that experience, but the concluding line is this: It was an amazing experience, and the faculty there helped my work along is some really profound ways.

One of the professors who most influenced my work is Laura Hamblin, who is retiring this year. To me, this is a tragic loss to everyone coming through UVU in the future. Trying to snag some of that wisdom and share it with a wider audience, I asked her if she would do an interview with me. To my great pleasure, she agreed. Thank you, Laura, for agreeing to this interview. Now, let’s begin.

Rob Young / Blair


Rob: For those unacquainted with your work, how would you describe yourself? What style and thematic qualities would you say define your body of work?

Laura Hamblin

LH: In many ways I think my style of writing is rather traditional: free verse, hopefully relying on metaphors and concrete images. Early on I addressed the anxiety of relationships (failed relationships of course), loss and longing, the harm that comes from patriarchy, and the inability we all too often face to understand and to be understood, to see and be seen, to hear and be heard. More recently, probably because I’ve come to better terms with being a failed romantic, I am interested in the small, seemingly insignificant details of our shared experiences — rain in the early morning, the flight of birds, a dog sleeping on a couch.

RB: I​s there one poem of yours that would be a good starting point for interested readers?

LH: I think my poem “Letter to No One in Particular” addresses both the anxiety and beauty of solitude, and the small details of life that bind us.

RB: Your writing, to me, seems to touch on expected roles (societal, gender, religious), as well as topics intertwined with what we might term “peace and justice​”​ categories. It seems to me that your poetry is often contemplating, challenging, revealing, or even toying with these things.

How do you use your poetry (or other writing) as an instrument for these types of goals? And what, really, would you say your goal is?​ ​​Is writing inevitably a political act?​

LH: All writing is a political act in so far as all human interactions are political interactions—and by political I mean that all interactions are a negotiation of power. Although many of my poems look at gender inequality and the harm that is born out from such inequality, I rarely approach a topic with a political agenda in mind, or at least I don’t think I do. If my poetry does touch on expected societal, gender, and religious roles, I see it more as an expression of my personal experience rather than an expression of how I think things should be.

Second only to the death of my son, I would say being born and raised Mormon is the most difficult and ultimately hurtful thing in my life. It took a lot of what now appears to me to be courage and a commitment to honesty for me to find my way out of such a damaging patriarchal institution. At the time it only felt like a necessary means of survival. I see a lot of “closeted-disbelievers” who feel damaged by the LDS church and who don’t agree with various doctrines and policies, but who are too afraid to “come out” due to what they believe will be the terrible personal and social price they will have to pay. I say this to reinforce the idea that the most I can do in my poetry is to express my own experience.

RB: Now, here’s a mean question I like to ask poets: What exactly is a poem? What defines it?​

LH: What exactly is a poem? Humm—that is a mean question! Is it a trick question?! The most (and least) I can say is that poetry is an art form where the medium is language. . . .

Ok, I can say more. . . . I believe that poetry is the only art form where the means and the end is language. It seems to me that all other language art forms use language as a means to an end; hence the language serves something other than itself. Poetry, ultimately, serves language. Poetry is the opposite of propaganda.

RB: I learned a great deal about the craft while taking your courses at UVU. I would love to briefly touch on the areas where I felt you most helped my own work to improve. Let’s start with lyricism.

How would you define lyricism? And are there certain elements of lyricism that you feel are especially useful to focus on?

LH: I see lyricism as the musical quality of language. In many respects, lyricism is part of what makes poetry different from other genres—that is the degree to which poetry focuses on the lyrical qualities of language (in addition to a more concentrated use of figurative language). Lyricism is achieved in the utilization of assonance, alliteration, meter, rhythm, and rhyme.

RB: How can lyricism inform those working on genres besides poetry?

LH: I tell my creative writing students who are more focused on prose writing that when they utilize the lyrical qualities of language, any piece of their writing will be more beautiful, elegant, memorable, and poetic.

RB: One element of poetry that I’d not given much thought to prior to your class is that of line breaks, but working with you showed me the potential power of this “mechanic.” How do line breaks function in a poem? How can writers use them to good effect?

LH: I see line breaks as one more technique that can open up meaning in a poem. There are basically two theories, as I understand, of line breaks. One would suggest that the line should break where the sentence ends (or where there is a major point of punctuation in a sentence, like a comma). The other, which I prefer, suggests that a line should break in such a place where the word combinations suggest more, or other than they would where the sentence ends.

I believe the second is more interesting. Visually, the line is the smallest structure of poem (other than the word, of course). If a line breaks before the noun or verb, or at a preposition, the modifier itself is emphasized, and can often mean something other than, or different from, or in addition to simply a modifier.

I think a lot of interesting, and fun things emerge from the poem that might not otherwise be apparent. It’s most fun when the line ends up surprising you — the writer. Typically, in using this technique, the lines end up being quite a bit shorter, and sometimes that is important to consider. In most respects, as with everything else that goes into writing poetry, the individual poem should dictate how it should be written.

RB: I’ve heard you state that metaphor is mandatory to poetry.  Can you elaborate on that? What do you think metaphor can offer poetry?

LH: Metaphors are the soul and heart of poetry. I require my beginning and intermediate students to include a metaphor in every poem. As the beloved poet Robert Frost said, a good poem can mean one thing and at least one thing more. Literal language can only mean one thing. The metaphor enables the poem to mean at least one thing more, that is, it can means what the metaphor symbolizes.

RB: What can it offer to other genres?

LH: Of course metaphors can (and I believe should) be used in all types of writing. I believe all writing is enriched through the use of metaphors. Some subjects, like those of the spirit, can only be approached through metaphor. And that is where people have problems reading sacred texts — when they take metaphors to be literal. The problem can become a matter of life and death, as most religious wars, alas, are fought over metaphors and the interpretation of metaphors.

RB: I seem to recall you mentioning that one of your most productive times as a writer was when you had a job … maybe you can help me recall the specifics … with some kind of National Parks Service.  Can you tell us a little more about that time in your life?

LH: The summer of 2001 I worked as a lookout in a fire tower in the Kaniksu National Forest, in the panhandle of Idaho. I consider it a “poetry writing sabbatical” paid for by the federal government.

It was the best summer of my life. I was 23 miles south of Canada, and 80 miles from the nearest town of Priest Lake. During the summer only six people came to the tower. So I had a lot of time to watch weather and write poems. It was absolutely wonderful to be separated from technology and to have the space and time to think without distractions.

I would recommend it to any writer, but I understand that the majority of fire lookouts have been replaced with drones and computers as a means of siting fires. I did site six fires that summer—three of them were campfires, but you had to report anything that looked suspicious. I will say that in addition to writing I read sixty books and knitted three sweaters!

RB: Do you think it’s important for writers to put themselves in environments where they can focus on their craft?

LH: I think it is imperative (at least it is for me) to have solitude to write; otherwise I am unable to hear myself. Virginia Woolf said a writer must have a room of one’s own (with a lock on the door!) in order to write. Most of us don’t have the luxury to shut out our families and responsibilities in that way, but I know what she means. Every writer must figure out how to negotiate his or her own space and time to write. I don’t think there is a form which fits everyone.

RB: On that topic, I’ve often wondered how effective academia is at being a productive environment for writers.

Setting aside the value of helping the next generation of writers and the financial dimension here, do you think academia fuels the work of writers who teach? Are there any pitfalls or opportunities you would highlight for those considering this path?

LH: I can only speak of my own experience as a member of academia…. I love being in the classroom and interacting with students. But I do find it challenging to be creative and to be a professor. At Utah Valley University our teaching load is four classes a semester, and half of our load consists of composition classes. That means I am teaching four writing-intensive classes each semester.

Students only learn to write by writing, and I feel responsible and compelled to respond as fully as possible to their writing. So I spend a LOT of time grading. Every weekend I take home stacks of papers and poems to grade. It takes a toll on my creativity. I don’t find myself being terribly productive during the academic year, but luckily we have summers when we aren’t required to be in the classroom.

RB: Shifting gears, I hope you’ll indulge me in a cliche question: Where do you get your ideas?

LH: My ideas for writing come from being awake. I don’t mean that in a snarky way. I believe that writing is as much about seeing as it is about language. I find hiking a valuable way to get into my head and keep my eyes open. Also, I am inspired by reading poetry. I think I come up with my best ideas after I spend a lot of time reading poetry — until I feel as though I am swimming in language. Then combinations of words come to me. I am drawn to the sounds of words. I think most of my poems begin with the sounds themselves.

RB: And now a few questions that I try to ask in every interview: First, what other advice do you have for aspiring writers?

LH: I would advise aspiring writers to write and to read! I find it amazing how many of my poetry students don’t read. I assign my students to read five books of poetry a semester, and you’d be surprised how often people complain that it’s too much work. One would never consider becoming a musician without listening to music. I’m not sure why it is different with people who want to write poetry. Reading is an absolute necessity. Read widely and deeply.

RB: What books or writers do you feel every aspiring writer has to read?

LH: What are my favorite books? What books have been most valuable to my writing? My favorite book is the one I read last…. The poets who have most influenced my writing include Sylvia Plath (more so in my youth), Jane Hirshfield, Rainer Maria Rilke, William Blake, Martin Buber, Mary Oliver, Stephen Dunn — there are so many — William Butler Yeats. Rilke is probably at the top of my list.

RB: And what do you believe to be the purpose of writing?

LH: C. S. Lewis once said that we read to know we are not alone. I think we also write to know we aren’t alone. I used to think that poetry could save the world. Here’s my argument: what if, before any country went to war we had an international rule that mandated soldiers studied for two years the language of the country they were to invade. Then they spent one year reading the major poets of that language. And only after that could anyone attack. I presented this idea once to a class where one of the students was a veteran. He got red in the face and started shaking his fists and sputtering, “But, but, but, that wouldn’t work! No one would go to war!” Ha!

That was then; now I don’t think the world can be saved…. We’re past salvation. But beauty is valuable. Now I believe that poetry is necessary and worth it because beauty is necessary and worth it.

RB: Thank you again for your time and your wonderful responses, Laura. And thank you for everything you’ve taught me over the years.

For those interested in learning more about Laura Hamblin, here’s her author bio as listed with her major book of poetry, The Eyes of a Flounder:

Laura Hamblin writes of good mothers and bad, women who married and those who didn’t, lovers and “Celibacy at Forty-two.” Her “weird sisters” forage for mice and toads and contemplate silicone implants. Some of her characters demonstrate pregnancy envy, while others seem content to share a space with three dogs and a cat.

She muses on the different roles assigned to girls and boys: “boys with shellacked / faces play basketball. / Closer to god … / they know power, / … I begin to bleed, / am taught with the other / girls to crochet, to knit / … Dark skein— / unraveling girl.”

Contemplative and satisfying, Hamblin’s observations on religion are particularly poignant, such as watching her son baptized at eight to “wash from him sins he did not commit.” One of her weird sisters attempts repentance but then thinks of killing swine. Playful, full of meaning, her poems contain overlapping layers of understanding that prompt further contemplation.

6 Simple Ways to Kick Writer’s Block in the Teeth

So you’re struggling with writer’s block. Here’s the good news: You’re not alone. Great writers throughout history have had staring contests with blank pages. Here’s the better news: If you use the right strategies, writer’s block can be overcome. This article will teach you four simple strategies for kicking writer’s block in the teeth.

1. Write garbage.

Writer’s block happens when the complex and sensitive neurological process of creativity gets disrupted, typically by stress and fear. One way to overcome that anxiety is to dive into the work by writing as much garbage as you possibly can.

In other words, get writing in your project, regardless of how awful, useless, or nonsensical that writing is. This is useful even if all you do is spew words onto the page that you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, you will delete later. The point isn’t necessarily to find the right words but to get yourself writing. You’ll be surprised how quickly this breaks down anxiety and gets you to a place where writing feels natural again.

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5 Guidelines for Writing a Strong Female Character

[Banner image courtesy of flickr by Blue Stahli Luân]

People talk a lot about writing strong female characters. Writers and readers everywhere always seem excited when a story features a female as the main protagonist. This is likely because of the seeming rarity of such stories. We could cite examples to the contrary all day, but that doesn’t change the fact that the stereotypical storybook “hero” throughout literary history has been a man. In this light, it could be a relatively new thing, this female hero. It’s becoming more prevalent, but is still rare enough that the gaming distribution platform Steam has a specific tag for “female protagonist.”

But what does it take for a female character to be “strong”? Well, here’s some tips to help examine your literary laudable lady.

1. Badass characters are not necessarily strong characters.

The difference here might be a bit self-explanatory, but it’s also an important one to understand. One might watch a movie and see a female character who makes a habit of making incredible acrobatic stunts whilst simultaneously beating up dozens of bad guys. They’ll see this character and say that she’s a “strong” female character. But what they really mean is that she’s a badass.

Contrary to common belief, this doesn’t make a character “strong.” A strong character is a well-written character; a character with depth, personality, flaws, strengths, and attachments. A strong character is one that makes mistakes and learns from them. A character’s worth is not defined by the number of enemy grunts they can dispatch in a single scene.

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Key Takeaways from the Science of Stories


I recently had the chance to watch a video from Stanford’s MediaX program that explored a scientific study on how, why, and which stories impact us. The video itself is rather lengthy and a bit rambly (and uses Comic Sans in its presentation), so I wanted to save you the trouble of viewing the presentation itself and pass along the key takeaways—as well as make some of my own commentary. Let’s get to it!

1: Stories Are Deeply Rooted in Our Species

According to the research gathered and conducted by Kendall Haven and his team, stories are deeply rooted in human neurology and psychology, going back further than 150,000 years. As Haven puts it, “We’re hardwired for stories.” The notion here is that the transmission of knowledge, wisdom, identity, and beliefs was substantially aided by the structure of a story. As an increasingly social group, early homo sapiens were able to make use of story for both social and survival functions.

2: “Storification” Is Pre-Conscious Behavior

When we take in information, it isn’t our conscious mind that transforms that information into a narrative structure. Rather, when knowledge is communicated, the brain transforms it into a story before it ever hits the conscious mind. This “storification” process happens to almost all knowledge that is transmitted to us, and it happens through what Haven describes as a “neural story net.” That neural story net is a sub-region of the brain that helps us make sense of incoming data, and re-structuring fact into narrative seems to be one of its primary functions.

3: Storification Distorts Factual Information

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Procrasination, Stimulants, and the Creative Process

Neuroscience of Writing




Why do we, as writers, procrastinate so damn much? Why do so many of us depend on caffeine, cigarettes, and other stimulants? And why are alcohol and other mind-altering drugs so often used as creative crutches? These questions don’t have definitive answers, but a look at the neurological element can give us some insights into some of these less-than-ideal patterns.

Let’s take each of these items in turn.

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