A Few Words to Inspire You in 2015 - Happy New Year, Writers!

by Barbara Westwood Diehl

A few thoughts on what inspires the work of BR editors, when they step away from their editorial tasks, along with some suggestions for fellow writers.  And very best wishes for a new year filled with all the pleasures of reading and writing!

I was so honored when editors at Joyland published my short story Chicken Necks at the beginning of 2014. The story, like most, is a collage of sparks and sights, but it was most directly influenced by a rescue zoo across the highway from Luray Caverns in the Shenandoah Valley. I was traveling on a writing fellowship and my original intent was to write a story about the caverns, a popular tourist attraction in an otherwise scarcely populated mountain town, but the second I saw the Luray Zoo, my focus shifted. The first time I visited the four-acre, mountainside zoo, I was the only patron there—it was just me and a 20-something zoo employee feeding the serval chicken necks. A lynx in a nearby cage, angry it wasn't his turn to feed, sprayed at me. While all of that shows up in the story, a lot is left out. Like when a goat escaped its pen and followed me around the zoo, instigating a wild-eyed Bengal Tiger to pace the cage's perimeter. Between the T-Rex statue on the lawn, the crocodile jaws that flank the entrance and the rescued animals themselves, it was just a place too magical not to write about. I imposed a life on the zoo worker, made up the narrator who loved him and used the zoo for a car's breakdown and an emotional one. Of course, I hide my own hurt heart in pockets of the story, but it's the wonderful rescue zoo, the brightest gem of Luray, that propelled it. My advice is to be willing to deviate from the original plan. Follow your gut into the plaster crocodile jaws—into any story.

Elise Burke


Per Contra will be publishing my short short story “Three Days Two Night” in the coming year. What inspired this one? First, an online workshop gave me a five-sentence frame to hang my story on. I think we all struggle with narrative structure from time to time, so having even a simple blueprint as a starting point gave me a sense of security. Second, as soon as I began the story, memories of Ocean City motels from my childhood bubbled up. The combination of narrative structure and memories of a particular place gave me a foundation to build my story on. Try a simple outline if you like to work with a safety net (you can always change it), and strip mine your memory for all it’s worth. You’d be surprised at what you can excavate.

Barbara Westwood Diehl


Turning Life Into Art

For me, as with most writers, stories germinate from the flash of scene sparked by real life, which instantly screams: Write me! It happens much more often than I am able to write them down, so I have to pick and choose the ones that seem get my imagination working. I am currently working on a story about my grandfather, and the way he fought us tooth and nail on burying his wife. There seemed to be enough drama in the event itself to carry the story, but upon reflection I asked myself: How much further can I take it? How can I use the tension already here and ramp it up to thrill my readers? How can I imagine this story into an even greater, adventure-packed piece? From there I inserted a great deal more tension, manipulated my grandfather’s character into an extreme version of himself, and now I have what I can finally call a decent piece of writing. The lesson here is that real life is a fantastic way into a story, but it is rarely enough. Don’t get stuck thinking to yourself, “But this is what really happened!” and then make the mistake of taking that as a free pass to not extrapolate! Your reader deserves to be wowed: to be taken on a ride of ups and downs and climaxes and surprise endings. Make no mistake! Accomplishing this is the writer’s task, and real life is just the beginning. So sit down, roll up your sleeves, and imagine life into an even more action packed, tension-filled, dramatic state. Accept nothing less than the thrill of a breathtaking experience from each and every story.

Amanda J. Fiore


Full Grown People published my essay Roman Holiday, about a trip I took to Rome with my now ex-husband for our anniversary 10 years after he proposed at the Pantheon. I started working on the essay for a literary travel writing workshop when I was a grad student at Johns Hopkins, and it began as a vehicle to compare two vacations to the same city 10 years apart. At first, I focused on description—the monuments, the food, the atmosphere—and then I began to use the setting and the differences in the way I experienced the city as a way to describe the differences in our relationship, then and now. In the end, it became more of a personal essay than a travel piece.

When writing about common topics (as I did in this essay with travel, Rome, and marriage), it’s important to find a fresh perspective so readers don’t have the “haven’t I read this before?” feeling. You can accomplish this by the specific details you choose to share about a well-known location, the language you use when you describe a scene, or the comparisons you make to draw parallels between places and/or concepts. I love metaphors, and as I was researching the Pantheon, I realized it could be a great metaphor for marriage. As I began to weave in information about the monument, I compared it to the different aspects of marriage I had experienced. This metaphor provided a new way of looking at both the monument itself and the institution of marriage.

Lisa Lance


Matador Network published my essay, Life Lessons From a Buddhist Monk and a Fish, about a day I accompanied a Buddhist guru to the aquarium. How did I have the honor of guiding such an important person around Baltimore's National Aquarium? From friendships and wanderlust I’ve developed for the Everyday. I spoke on the Baltimore Review panel at the Baltimore Book Festival about living like a tourist within your hometown, even during the day-to-day. Although meeting this particular monk was on the extraordinary side of my day-to-day, my friendship with the person who introduced us stemmed from the normal invitation to a dinner party. I think a challenge many writers face is figuring out what to write about. The craft of writing comes with patience and study, but the heart of a story must come through experiences. My advice is to make many friends and acquaintances. Get out from behind the computer and the books and try something new with somebody. Approach your city and its people with the curiosity and wonder of a traveler—with all senses of sight, sound, and adventure open.

Holly Morse-Ellington


"Much of what I’ve learned about life comes from plants—the seemingly endless varieties my father planted around our homes in towns along India’s west coast. Each time we moved, my father yanked us from the ground, tap roots and all and replanted us elsewhere, he in the center, the trunk of a great old banyan tree . . . One little root, the third child, never did thrive; she lived in a silver frame on my mother’s dresser, a little girl of five, never growing older as we did."  

Taken from "The Banyan Tree," published in 3 QR Review, and nominated for a Pushcart Prize this year, this piece is a tribute to my father, a botanist. At sixteen, not knowing what to major in, I chose botany, too. But first, I had to beg my father to send me, his girl-child, to college! None of his sisters or nieces had crossed that barrier.

Dear Reader, if you need a prompt, start with someone you passionately love or hate. Add an incident that evokes and flames that emotion. Stir it up. Write it out without any censoring. Go wild; let it be true or false. One day, you will serve it up as a short story, even a novel. Or creative nonfiction, if you stick to the truth.

Lalita Noronha

Happy New Year from all the Baltimore Review editors!