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The Writing Life: On Searching for Purpose

by Bentley Clark

Out of Ones Head1

I have a confession to make: I don’t know what to write. Now, I don’t mean that I don’t know what to write for this column—although that is a monthly challenge and the source of much teeth gnashing. And I don’t mean that I have writer’s block—although I have been suffering from an extended period of creative constipation. I mean that I don’t know what to write. I have not found my artistic direction or purpose. I am unable to say, “I am a [insert genre here] writer” or “I write [insert form here]” or “I write about [insert insightful thematic topic here].”

In spite of attending conferences and workshops, reading periodicals and following blogs, and in spite of dabbling in several forms and genres, I have yet to experience the creative epiphany to spark my inner artistic tinderbox. The problem isn’t really that I am not drawn to a single genre or form, for all of this literary exposure, but that I am drawn to them all. I want to write scholarly articles for literary journals. I want to write whimsical flash fiction, thrilling short stories and mysterious novels. Oh, turn me loose on screenwriting and see what I can do!

So how to go about reining in this scattershot enthusiasm to focus enough to get myself some artistic direction? To date, I have tried the following:

1. Write what you know. If you’ve met me, you know that the thing I know best of all, my one true love and my arch nemesis, is food. And tea—sweet nectar of the caffeine gods. And yet, I would still rather eat than write about eating and cook rather than write about cooking. Don’t get me wrong, food is art, but I’m not sure that writing about it is my artistic purpose.

2. Find a platform. If a platform communicates your expertise to others, I have to ask “what am I an expert in?” Again… food. Well, that and having no siblings. So, clearly, these two things should be the foundation of my platform. They should be my purpose and direction, right? And yet, being an expert in a thing doesn’t make it your artistic purpose. Maybe my purpose is a genre or topic that I haven’t even tried writing yet. If that’s the case, then platform goes right out the window.

3. Reflect on prior successes. There have been periods in my life when I was prolific and confident. When I was able to strap a muzzle on my inner editor and just keep my head down and write. I wrote well and was proud of it. Shoot, I even won an award now and then. But looking to those times to find direction and purpose for my writing now—and for the future—invites terrifying questions that breed a certain artistic paralysis. Can I write like that again? Are my best days behind me? Best not to look back, really. Better to keep my nose to the grindstone and other platitudes.

There is a mystery and an alchemy to knowing what you are meant to write. I had a friend once tell me that she found her purpose while gently swaying in a hammock in the midsummer gloaming. Absently stroking her cat and nursing a mint julep, she merely conjured it from the magnolia pollen and sunset lithium.

Nah. Not really. But it does seem to be that easy for some, doesn’t it? That their personal identity and artistic purpose are synonymous. That they embody their purpose. I count amongst these purpose-embodiers my Facebook friends: the horror novelist, the science fiction screenwriter, and the contemporary poet. They all seem to have had that hammock-at-the-gloaming epiphany.

But for most of us, it seems more accurate to say that we stumble, drunken-college-student-esque, into our artistic purpose. During lunch at a UNM Department of Continuing Education Start to Sales Conference, my table mates all told stories about how they began writing one thing—a memoir, a travelogue, a textbook—only to discover that they were not, in fact, writing a memoir, travelogue or textbook. And it was the new thing, the thing they hadn’t started out writing that became their passion and defined their purpose. Perhaps that is all purpose-finding is: serendipity.

So, I will continue to proactively stumble towards my purpose. But, just in case my purpose is in search of me as well, I’ll hang my hammock at the corner where serendipity and epiphany intersect.

BentleyClark125Bentley Clark thinks her artistic purpose may have run away from home. If you happen to find it wandering the streets, alone and bewildered, please leave a comment.

This article was originally published in the June 2012 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

Image “Out Of One’s Head, Relax The Brain” courtesy of thaikrit /

Preparation, Poison and Pitfalls: A Follow Up to NaNoWriMo

by Bentley Clark

Out of Ones Head1Since writing the article “Are You Ready to Write a Novel in November?” regarding National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), much—or, as you will read, little—has happened.

In October, I was overcome with enthusiasm for writing fiction: the planning, the wordsmithing, the self-congratulating. I even read all of my back issues of Writer’s Digest. Oh, October was a gloriously productive month!

As November 1 approached and the 50,000 word goal loomed on the horizon, I bolstered my courage—as I do every year—with the mantra, “I’ve done it before, I can do it again. After all, I am a novelist.”

But I never crossed the 50,000 word finish line. So, what exactly happened? In an attempt to uncover what went wrong, I examined my writing process. Surely it is no different from a million other writers’ and, in many circumstances, these very steps yield New York Times Bestsellers:

Step 1: Prepare
I hit the ground running with this year’s NaNo novel. A compelling main character marched out of the detritus of my brain and demanded to have her story written. Alexandra was flawed and passionate and went about the business of murder with determination and devotion.

In preparation for telling Alexandra’s peculiar story, I devoured books about edible poisons. Mealtime conversations began and ended with me regaling my husband with the innumerable ways I could kill him with carefully concocted culinary delicacies. I cataloged the poisons, made color-coded notecards and pinned them to my bulletin board with care and shiny, silver pushpins. Then, I drafted the outline: the victims, the motives, and the murders.

With my cohesive outline and new-found expertise in killing a man with roots, flowers and berries, I was convinced this would be my best NaNo novel yet. After my meticulous preparation, my magnum opus of obsession and retribution would well-nigh write itself.

Step 2: Acquire the Proper Tools
No magnum opus is self-written without the proper tools. This particular book demanded a package of blue BIC Triumph 537R Rollerball pens, a new Moleskine notebook, Scrivener writing software and a dark, gothic Pandora station. (The book also requested Red Vines and chocolate-orange Piroulines, but I had to draw the line somewhere.)

Step 3: Brag About Your Derring-Do
If you are going to do something as ridiculous as writing a novel in a month, you might as well invite those around you to gawk. To that end, I told my husband and my parents that I was participating in NaNoWriMo again this year. But, in light of my brilliant, self-writing novel-to-be, I also took my braggadocio a few steps further by telling my boss and my work colleague. And then I wrote an article about it.

Making these sorts of announcements holds a writer’s feet to the fire: write a novel or eat crow.

Step 4: Brew Many, Many Pots of Tea and Stare Off into the Middle Distance
PG Tips tea is absolutely essential for this step. And a well-chosen writing soundtrack can prove indispensable for world-class, award-winning middle-distance staring. (See Step 2.)

Step 5: Sit Down and Write
While Steps 1-4 are optional, Step 5 is not.

On November 1, I sat down with my pens, my Moleskine, my Scrivener and my Pandora station and began to write. I managed to knock out the requisite 1,667 words a day for the first week or so. Then life came knocking on my home office door. Illness and family crises forced my novel into the back seat. And my enthusiasm went with it. Copious pots of tea were consumed and the middle distance was masterfully stared off into, but the story stalled at 17,000 words.

Alas, in 2015, I was many things. A novelist was not one of them. However, in my 17,000 words, I set the scene for two murders, wrote the backstory of two unfortunate but likable victims and discovered the tragic reasons for Alexandra’s murderous predilections. The magnum opus was neither magnum nor opus. But it was, ultimately, a start. A fantastic 17,000 word start. And there’s something to be said for that.

Step 6: Bake a Crow Pie
Know any good recipes?

BentleyClark125Bentley Clark hopes to one day make a career of drinking tea, staring into the middle distance, and using phrases such as “derring-do.”

This article was originally published in the January 2012 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

Image “Out Of One’s Head, Relax The Brain” courtesy of thaikrit /

On Writer’s Block and Cannibalism

by Bentley Clark

Out of Ones Head1On a few occasions, I have joked in this column that I suffer from creative constipation. I now admit that I jinxed myself. Writing this month’s article has been like pulling teeth from a sloth—sure, they don’t move very fast, but have you seen those claws? I had intended to write about flash fiction this month and what I came up with was actually shorter than your average flash fiction story. So, the day before November’s article was due, I changed course.

It took some introspection, but what I realized was that the unfortunate, craptastic flash fiction article was a symptom of that mysterious and often incurable affliction: writer’s block. My determination to write something decent in spite of said block just led to more and more tsk-worthy writing. I kid you not, the article actually contained the following sentence: Clearly my cat had invited some burglars around for sandwiches and let the dog finish off the peanut butter. While terribly humorous and worth saving for another occasion, I was grasping at straws. Five hundred sixty-seven words and every last one of them crap.

At that point, I did what any self-respecting writer would do—I knit some gloves, hot-washed some towels, and took a nap. When I woke up, I reread what I had written, researched flash fiction on the Internet and then decided that I was inept, uncreative, and unworthy of love. Because, let’s face it, we all feel less than loveable when we put pen to paper and it goes nowhere. After wallowing in a bit of self-pity and throwing the hot-washed towels in the drier, I went back to the Internet and read some articles about the “myth” of writer’s block.

Oh yes, my friends, there are indeed those who believe that writer’s block does not exist. “What?!” I hear you chorus with a well-placed interrobang. Yep. These writerly myth busters insist that writer’s block is all in your head. To which I reply with a belly laugh and a hearty, “Well, duh!” According to these myth busters: (1) my emotions are getting the better of me, (2) I’m afraid of what I want to write, (3) I’m afraid of success, (4) I’m second-guessing myself, and (5) I’ve exhausted all the good and original ideas.

Apparently, these are the real culprits of my clogged creative juices, not writer’s block. Myself, I’m more partial to: I know a whole bunch of words and punctuation marks, but I’m just not real sure how to arrange them all. There. See? I’m not blocked, I’m just overwhelmed.

It seems there are as many cures for writer’s block as there are reasons. Some of my favorites suggest that I should:

■ Eat snacks very slowly so that I can contemplate my writing. However, I’m on Weight Watchers, so there is no such thing as “snacks” in my house. At least not writing-worthy ones—Red Vines, Piroulines, or chocolate Hob Nobs.

■ Retool a fairy tale to get the creative juices flowing. All I came up with was, “Once upon a time, there was a writer who worked for hours and produced crap.”

■ Spend 30 minutes cleaning house to get my mind off of goal-directed think. (I think my husband may have written this one.) Sorry, husband, this “hint” simply isn’t going to work on me, I’d rather write crap than clean crap.

■ Write about someone I hate and send it to a confession magazine. First of all, what is a confession magazine? Second of all, with my luck, I’d accidentally send the piece to my mom who would lecture me about how it isn’t nice to hate people. You can dislike them all you want, but don’t hate them.

The most commonly espoused cure for writer’s block seems to be: write. Great. Except, I already spent hours writing my article. Then, I spent hours attempting to edit my article. Seems to me that sometimes “just write” isn’t the answer to the question, “Why can’t I write anything worth editing?” So, I decided instead to go with the cure used most often by computer scientists and Dads the world over—reboot the thing. I came to terms with the fact that the flash fiction article was crap and cannibalized the experience to write this one. I guess that means my answer to writer’s block is this: cannibalism. Do with that what you will.

Anyway, since I managed to write an article for the column this month, I suppose my writer’s block on the flash fiction article is a moot point—sorry to spend 800 words on a moot point. However, in preparation for next month’s article, I intend to eat some carrots slowly while vacuuming and re-working “Twelve Dancing Princesses” to include people I hate. Shoot, next month’s article will write itself!

BentleyClark125Bentley Clark watched “Gosford Park” four times while writing the failed article and this one. Feel free to opine about watching movies while writing in the comments below.

This article was originally published in the October 2012 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

Image “Out Of One’s Head, Relax The Brain” courtesy of thaikrit /

Are You Ready to Write a Novel in November?

by Bentley Clark

Shield-Nano-Blue-Brown-RGB-HiResEvery November, in addition to working my day job, shopping for the holidays and baking pies, cookies and other autumn goodies, I write a novel.

A fool’s errand? Perhaps, but I am only one fool amongst many. In November 2014, over 325,000 writers around the globe participated in National Novel Writing Month—NaNoWriMo to initiates. Over 58,000 participants successfully completed a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. Now in its 17th year, NaNoWriMo offers writers of all genres of fiction the opportunity—and excuse—to write their contribution to the canon of great world literature. Or, at least, to write what Anne Lamott affectionately calls the “sh*tty first draft.”

For a successful NaNoWriMo experience, I have found the following to be indispensable:

Internet Access
Fifty thousand words in 30 days is a daunting task, so it is important to find a community of writers who are facing the same victories and setbacks. The NaNoWriMo community is an incomparable support system. is a gateway to boundless encouragement, to connecting with NaNo Buddies and to exploring forums with topics ranging from “Backing up your work: How do you do it?” to “Are elephants capable of taking over the world?” Internet access can also be useful for wasting valuable writing time researching specific elements and the varied nuances of elephant coups d’etat.

Writing Time
If I manage to find 3 hours in the day to write and I average about 556 words per hour, I’m golden and will cross the finish line by 11:59:59 pm on November 30. Manageable goals are the key to NaNoWriMo success. Typically, getting 556 words on the page in an hour is nigh impossible as we writers pull our hair out for hours to find the right 556 words. Fifty thousand words is the goal of NaNoWriMo, not necessarily good fiction. In fact, travesties of good writing are encouraged: words can be misspelled, poorly chosen, grammatically incorrect or sheer nonsense, so long as they total 50,000. Many WriMos find that in November, sentence structure goes out the window, pronouns become optional and characters get three or four middle names, all in the name of word count.

Mardi Gras Beads
Writing a novel is serious work for eleven months of the year. Not in November. To stave off the tendency to take novel writing too seriously and to remind himself to enjoy the insanity, NaNoWriMo founder, Chris Baty, dons a costume Viking hat while he writes. I drape myself in cheap Mardi Gras beads. A friend of mine wears a Halloween witch’s hat. In addition to adding a bit of levity to the task at hand, costume pieces can remind well-meaning family and friends that you are committed to your goal and that they should interrupt you only when they are bringing you Nutella and banana sandwiches or when the dog has caught on fire.

It is no secret that notebooks are an essential tool for every writer. In addition to allowing you to jot down ideas and snippets of others’ conversation—in order to pad your word count—it can be interesting to document your emotional journey through November. There are days when 1,667 words fly from your fingers as though channeled from a higher power and there are days when putting together a single sentence seems impossible. November can have tremendous emotional peaks and valleys, all worth documenting.

In order to write a novel, you must silence your Inner Editor. Even more so in November. So, I also like to use my notebook to doodle portraits of my Inner Editor. Then I doodle a giant bear clad in clown regalia mauling him beyond recognition.

Stamina, Endurance and Resolve
It may be one of the shorter months of the year, but if you plan to write a novel in November, you must prepare yourself like a marathon runner. You must steel yourself mentally for the enormity of the task. You must recognize that there will be waxes and wanes of energy and enthusiasm. And you must learn to not look back because the goal is to cross the finish line, regardless of your state upon crossing it. And, most of all, you must have fun!

(Note: If this article was a piece of fiction and was written in November, I’d be 1.4% of the way there.)

To participate, sign up at

BentleyClark125Bentley Clark drinks far too much tea, cooks far too much food, watches far too many movies, owns far too many books, loves PBS beyond reason, and enjoys sleeping more than she’d like to admit.

This article was originally published in the October 2011 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

10 Rules for Imitating Author Ken Bruen

by Bentley Clark

Out of Ones Head1

In an effort to procrastinate writing this article, I did some research on the internet (read: randomly surfed the web for stuff) about my favorite author, Ken Bruen. Bruen is an Irish author of hard-boiled/noir fiction, and his Jack Taylor series is my weakness. In fact, I would sleep with the existing ten volumes under my pillow each night if it weren’t so uncomfortable and didn’t cause such violent dreams. When asked “What would be your advice to new writers?” Bruen responded: “[W]rite every day and read like a bastard. Imitate freely.”

The clouds parted and the writerly muses sang traditional gospel songs—I had found a reason to write about my favorite author. (Irrefutable evidence that procrastination works.)

I have heard the advice on more than one occasion—as have you—that imitating the writing of a highly stylized writer can be a great exercise to help an author get the hang of unique and distinctive rhythm, word use, grammar, punctuation, and storytelling. And that once you master the style of other writers, you are better able to define your own. In my experience as both a writer and a reader, Bruen is so outside the boundaries of conventional storytelling that his writing shouldn’t actually work. Instead, it is compelling and mesmerizing, yet peculiarly spare.

In case you’re interested in an imitation exercise, I put forth these 10 unlikely rules for imitating Bruen freely:

1. Write lists. Now, make them poetic. Use this passage as your guide:

He also put books aside, then later I’d get a parcel containing

and the hook
American crime novels.

2. Use local accents and vernacular. If you nail the timbre and context, you may not even need to explain their precise meaning. E.g., “Arrah, go on our that. It takes a real man to carry flowers.”

3. Make chapter lengths arbitrary. Write only as much as is needed for a particular chapter. Forty words are plenty, but try to keep each chapter to six pages or fewer.

4. Give your protagonist one—maybe two— redeeming qualities. Make him remorseless in his treatment of his mother. Make him unreliable and inexcusably violent. Make him an alcoholic and an addict. Now, give him a soft spot for swans and the homeless. Then let him weep at the death of his favorite publican.

5. Keep your descriptions to a minimum. Let the reader fill in the blanks. Keep the locales of your novel’s most important happenings vague and let the action within them be your focus. For example: a major setting in Bruen’s The Guards is Grogan’s, “the oldest unchanged pub in Galway.” Want to know what it looks like? This will have to suffice: “…it remains true to the format of fifty or more years ago. Beyond basic. Spit and sawdust floor, hard seats, no-frills stock.… The bar is free of ornamentation. Two hurleys are crisscrossed over the blotched mirror. Above them is a triple frame. It shows a pope, St. Patrick, and John F. Kennedy. JFK is in the centre.”

6. Regularly switch point of view from first- to third-person and back again. Let your reader get inside your protagonist’s head, yet still be able to omnisciently follow the action.

7. Make innumerable local references. Do not explain them. Do not apologize for them.

8. Use little to no dialogue attributions. See how far you can take this. One page? Maybe two? To make this work: a) begin with a simple attribution at the outset of dialogue; b) keep sentences short and language clipped—most people don’t speak in full sentences, so why should your characters?; c) make sure that each character’s intention within the dialogue is so clear that there can be no question as to which character is speaking.

9. Create a compelling central plot. Ignore it. Draw your readers in with a mystery—a murder or a mutilation will do—then have your private investigator wander in and out of scenes that might move the mystery to a resolution. Try solving the mystery halfway through the novel; now, make the last half as un-put-down-able as the first.

10. Define your protagonist by his favorite books, movies and music. Send your readers off to read other writers, to watch movies they’ve never heard of and to populate their iPods with undiscovered music. Point them down a media rabbit hole. When they come out the other side, they will better understand your protagonist. Odds are, they will even re-read your novels to affirm this newfound understanding.

Good luck. And if you succeed at all of these, let me know, because I’m sure I will want to sleep with your book under my pillow, too.

BentleyClark125Bentley Clark just about had a heart attack when she thought her computer mercilessly murdered the final draft of this article. Share your most heart-stopping and gory story of writing loss in the comments below.

This article was originally published as “On Imitation” in the August 2012 issue of SouthWest Sage, and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

Image “Out Of One’s Head, Relax The Brain” courtesy of thaikrit /

On Write What You Know

by Bentley Clark

Out of Ones Head1Write what you know. This ubiquitous advice is espoused on the first day of writing workshops, classes, and seminars all across the country. Need a story idea? Write what you know.

Story not going as planned? You must not be writing what you know. Won the Edgar Award? Congratulations, you wrote what you know.

As I’ve been polishing a short story for a contest submission, I’ve been trying to figure out what this advice means and whether or not I have successfully put it to work in my own writing.

Aged and experienced writers—whilst sitting in wing-backed chairs at their club, drinking brandy and comparing leather elbow patches—must discuss this advice on a semi-regular basis.
Someone muses about writing and knowledge and they all nod sagely. They jovially pat one another on the back and exchange the secret handshake. Oh, yes. These writers know what it means to write what you know.

Yet, for many of the rest of us, the subtle—and even the overt—meaning of “write what you know” seems open to interpretation. Some opine that the advice should be taken literally: Live in New York; write about living in New York. Grew up poor; write about growing up poor. Others assert the advice is a commandment to write about your truth-with-a-capital-T: Married to an alcoholic; write about the mutually destructive nature of co-dependence. No siblings; write about loneliness and feelings of alienation. No doubt, both approaches have led to great literature.

One of my favorite authors is a lovely, well-coiffed, happily-married, mother-of-two living in Dorset, England. She also happens to write dark psychological thrillers with disturbed main characters who perpetrate garish misdeeds. So, given this paradox, how does “write what you know” come into play in her work? Surely she doesn’t actually know how to kill a person with a scold’s bridle. Not literally anyway. Not the actual mechanics of the task. And I doubt when she was in the planning stages of her book she looked to her diary to consider which of her recently successful murders to mine for her craft. But I bet she knew what it was like to loathe a gossip monger enough to want to murder her. (And what better way to accomplish it, really, than with a scold’s bridle?)

Now, while I admit I live for the vicarious experience of doing something unseemly, something taboo, I also find myself questioning the mind that created the experience for me. With stories that contain even the hint of something untoward, I assume that the writer knows whereof they write and I fear the same.

So, imagine my surprise when a character came galumphing out of the shadows of my imagination about a year ago demanding that his rather grotesque story be told. As soon as he appeared, we had something of a come-to-Jesus-meeting, he and I. I sat him down and informed him that I was not the right person to write his story—I am a nice person from a nice family who doesn’t write about the sort of deeds he had in mind. Rather self-righteously, I also informed him that I couldn’t write his story because I don’t know a single thing about who he is or why he wants to do the things he wants to do.

His solution to the problem of my ignorance was to hound me for months. I would be sitting in the car at a stoplight and he’d tell me all about the career he wanted or about the type of girl he would date. I would be shopping at Target and as I walked past the shoe department, he would pick out the pair of shoes he couldn’t live without. In short, this character of mine was working to ensure I would have no time to myself if I didn’t put his story down on paper.

So, I opened up a new document on my computer and I wrote his story—filled with the things I know: idiosyncrasy, obsession, solitude, and a singular need to capture the world as I see it. My character had already fleshed out (no pun intended) his physical appearance and the comings and goings of his everyday life. The only gap left in my knowledge was the scientific details and consequences of his deed. Easy research.

Now, I can’t say that I have the answer to the definitive meaning of “write what you know.” But I can tell you that by infusing a character with some of my truth-with-a-capital-T, I was able to create a piece that I’m quite proud of. Even at the cost of having to research pig putrefaction.

BentleyClark125In 2011, Bentley Clark had a conversation with the character she writes about in this article. Click here to go to Anne Riley’s blog to read that exchange.

This article was originally published in the May 2012 issue of SouthWest Sage, and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

Image “Out Of One\’s Head, Relax The Brain” courtesy of thaikrit /

On Finding a Reason to Join the Crowd

by Bentley Clark

Out of Ones Head1

I attended my first SouthWest Writers Saturday meeting a couple of months ago. By the time I got there, all the seats were taken, so I stood in a back corner of the room. I began meet-and-greet by circling the room, smiling at people and idling near interesting conversations. When I gathered the nerve, I made a beeline for the most densely populated part of the room with every intention of adding my perspective to some rousing debate. But by the time I made my way into the hub, my heart was racing, my palms were sweating and I felt as though my expression had gone wild eyed and maniacal. I beat a retreat to the food table, grabbed coffee and a cookie, and tucked myself back into the corner from whence I came.

Standing there terrified and praying that the crowd wouldn’t turn on me like an angry mob of rabid zombies—have I mentioned that my anxiety is both wildly irrational and excessively creative?—I wondered why I seemed to be the only writer completely paralyzed by her own introverted nature. Goodness knows, I can’t have been the only introvert in the room. And yet, if there were others, they were so graceful in maneuvering their way around that particular obstacle that no one was the wiser.

Dusting cookie crumbs from my shirt, I wondered what motivates introverted writers to behave so against the grain of their nature in situations such as this. Myself, I am hard-pressed to think of more than two things that I value enough artistically to push through the hyperventilation and flop sweat to have a discussion with complete strangers. Then I remembered a lovely encounter my husband and I had on a recent weekend in Santa Fe.

We were having a quiet breakfast at Bishop’s Lodge. The restaurant was empty, but for ourselves and a well-dressed older woman contentedly dining alone. At the end of our meal, as we rose from the table and moved to push in our seats, the woman politely motioned us over to her table. My husband and I were taken aback and a bit incredulous. She just wanted to thank us, she said, for our genteelness and consideration. She appreciated that we didn’t talk on our cell phones during the meal or make her an unwilling participant in our conversation by talking too loudly. She told us it was refreshing to have a peaceful breakfast out and to be able to hear herself think. Or, more accurately, to have a peaceful breakfast out and to be able to concentrate on editing.

As it turned out, she had been editing the galley of her novel while dining. When I asked her about the progress of her editing, she smiled courteously and mildly cursed the “find and replace” function of her editor’s word processing program. But when I asked her about her novel, she transformed from a quiet, unassuming diner to a passionate artist and enthusiastic salesperson. While she maintained her impeccable decorum in discussing her novel, her eyes lit up, her vocabulary became peppered with hyperbole and she leaned in so close to us that she nearly put her elbow in her eggs. The novel she was editing was the first in a series that married theology, spirituality and history. And while this combination isn’t my usual fare, her exuberance made me want to run out and buy the first copy to hit the bookshelves.

I clutched my Styrofoam coffee cup to my chest and willed myself to breathe deeply, and thought about the impetus for her transformation from mild-mannered Lone Diner, valuing quiet and solitude, to enthralling Intense Writer, discussing theology with strangers. Quite simply, I had asked her about a piece of work that she believed in, that she had worked on for years and that she now wanted to share with others. Discussing and promoting her book were so important to her that there was nothing else she could have done in that moment but passionately broach taboo subjects with two random fellow diners.

If this level of enthusiasm and passion for writing is at the heart of the conversation and buzz at our Saturday meetings, I am simply awestruck. Awestruck and humbled. Awestruck, humbled, and determined to find that piece of work that will propel me into the throng with wild abandon, leaving my introversion in the corner with a cookie.

BentleyClark125Though it has virtually nothing to do with this article, Bentley Clark wonders if zombies can get rabies. Opine and give her a piece of your mind in the comments below.

This article was originally published in the April 2012 issue of SouthWest Sage, and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

Image “Out Of One\’s Head, Relax The Brain” courtesy of thaikrit /

On Being Woefully Platformless

by Bentley Clark

Out of Ones Head1I first heard the term “writer’s platform” in 2009 at the annual From Start to Sales Writers Conference at UNM Continuing Education in Albuquerque, New Mexico. As I am given to daydreaming, I imagined a café at a London train station populated with authors feverishly writing in poetically tattered Moleskines.

The term “writer’s platform” is now ubiquitous in writing publications and at writer’s conferences. In an effort to educate myself on the matter, I have recently read innumerable articles defining the writer’s platform and attempting to clarify its purpose.

The most concise definition I found comes from Christina Katz:

“Your platform communicates your expertise to others.”

And the purpose of this platform? Well, to get you published, of course. Rumor has it that an effective writer’s platform can market you, your craft and your expertise even whilst you sleep. Almost better than that, it can create a built-in audience for your future publications—an audience that will buy your work without the publisher having to do anything more than typeset your words and print them on paper.

By my count, then, there are really only two elements to an effective writer’s platform: communication and expertise. And while I know that neither of these is a terribly complicated concept, when you throw technology and the information super-highway into the mix, I become bewildered, confused and, quite frankly, creatively constipated.

Now, communication I get: I can send e-mail and I can operate a cell phone (so long as it isn’t “smart”). Only, that’s not really what any of the articles mean by communication. They are, in fact, referring to this very small, entirely approachable and not the least bit intimidating list:

  • Websites
  • Blogs
  • Guest posts
  • Tweets
  • YouTube-style videos
  • Newsletters
  • Speaking engagements
  • Published articles
  • Media interviews
  • Social networking
  • Facebook
  • Free e-books
  • Spin-off products
  • Teaching classes

Look, that’s a lot of work. And, honestly, I am lucky to keep my full-time job, cook an occasional meal, and keep my pets fed while simultaneously publishing one article a month and penning a couple of really bad, really short stories. Of the items on this list, I have: 1) this column; 2) a Twitter account that I don’t use; and 3) a Facebook page that is frequented primarily by family members and high school friends. That’s about 21% of the communication I’m supposed to be putting out there in order to build my platform. That’s failure on anyone’s grade scale.

And what exactly am I supposed to be communicating? My expertise, apparently. The thing that sets me apart from other writers. The thing that has landed me my (theoretical) built-in audience: my loyal blog subscribers, Facebook fans, Twitter followers and enlightened students.

Only… I’m not sure I have any expertise. No. Really. I have been racking my brain over this for several weeks. What am I an expert in? I have mastered filling a hot water bottle with boiling water without burning myself. I know a thing or two about baking really delightful popovers. And I can fold a fitted sheet like a pro. But are any of these the expertise that I can build a platform on? I think not. Perhaps I am meant for a platformless life.

For reassurance and guidance, I turn again to Christina Katz:

“In my opinion, it’s a platform connected to a person’s inner reality rather than some clever juxtaposition of external ideas or a volcanic explosion of personality that [is] the most compelling and lasting….”

Well, now, that’s something I can work with. I definitely have an inner reality. It is filled with frilly pillows, empire-waist dresses, china teacups, and string quartets. And goodness knows I wouldn’t begin to know how to cleverly juxtapose external ideas, and I would never want my personality to volcanically explode under any circumstances.

So, in short: I am failing to effectively communicate my indiscernible expertise. But I can be reticent and unfocused and still be successful, right?

One last return to Christina Katz for a much-needed pep talk:

“If you don’t have a mission or a purpose or a raison d’etre, then guess what? No one is going to listen to you. And why should they? There is an awful lot of noise out there and people have personal lives and they can’t spend the entire day staring into their computers waiting for you to say something or inspire them to action or entertain them or whatever it is that your writing sets out to accomplish.”

Argh! I’m doomed! Doomed, I tell you!

BentleyClark125Bentley Clark isn’t sure whether the phrase is “racking my brain” or “wracking my brain.” You can assist her with the distinction by leaving a comment below.

This article was originally published in the March 2012 issue of SouthWest Sage, and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

Image “Out Of One\’s Head, Relax The Brain” courtesy of thaikrit /

On Making Legal Writing More Interesting

by Bentley Clark

Out of Ones Head1I get paid to write. There is much jet-setting and hob-nobbing. I wear pearls and go to fancy, fancy parties. I pluck fascinating characters from the ether and build exquisite worlds around them.

Nah. Not really. I do earn most of my living by writing, but I am a paralegal, so the bulk of my job is writing incredibly boring, yet incredibly important court documents. Incredibly boring. If you’ve never picked up a court pleading, you are missing out on a really satisfying nap.

And yet, storytelling is the very foundation of our legal system—replete with character archetypes, story arcs and plot twists. However, unlike a John Grisham novel or the TV series “Damages,” the actual story-telling is absolutely mind-numbing.

Take for example this passage: “Counsel for Petitioner spoke with Respondent on the phone on January 32nd and informed him that he needed to contact counsel when he had a date and time that he wished to retrieve his belongings from the marital home.” Succinct, informative and not overly verbose. Only what the court needs to know; no more, no less.

I think the court would rather I paint it a picture:

The fragile peace of the mid-summer afternoon was shattered by the violent pummeling of the front door. Jane froze in the doorway of the kitchen and watched as if paralyzed as the glass of sweet tea slipped from her hand and shattered on the just-swept hardwood floor. She knew this day would come. Though the police had removed John from the house only days before with a warning that he was not to return, Jane knew he would never heed that warning.

“You better let me in.” John’s voice, low and hostile, tripped into the house through the open living room window. “I know you have the yellow extension cord! If you don’t open this door right now, I will kick it down! That’s my yellow extension cord and I’m not leaving without it!”

In fear for her well-being, Jane turned on her heels back into the kitchen to call 911. Brimming with adrenaline, she knocked the phone from the counter. It fell to the floor and exploded into pieces.

I know the court would rather read something along those lines. I have no doubt that the client would rather have her story told to the court as a narrative. And I would rather have left the bone-dry style of expository writing behind after my freshman year in the English department.

As I am not allowed to use narrative in my daily professional writing, I have been toying with the idea of using rhetoric and persuasive argument. Mind you, I have no training in either. But, I have been taking note of the correspondence from opposing attorneys that comes across my desk. My favorite example of this style of writing so far has been something along the lines of:

Dear Ms. Bentley’s Boss,

My client and I have grown weary of working with you to hash out a visitation and custody plan for her son. We feel that your client is a big poopy-pants and we have decided that he is not playing nice so we are going to take our toys and go home. If your client would like to see his son, he will have to provide my client with the following: a pink Big Wheel with befringed handlebars (circa 1979), a hair off the great Cham’s beard (circa 1598) and a box of assorted Godiva chocolates (cream-filled truffles removed). Should your client choose not to comply with these requests, then we never want to hear him say “I love my son” again.


Tommy Picked-Last-in-Team-Sports, Esq.

Using this attorney’s example, I have been crafting a new pleading to the court. Tell me what you think:

Your Honor,

Seriously. Mr. Doe is such a horse’s behind. He will not stop calling Mrs. Doe to demand the yellow extension cord. She gave him the orange extension cord when he was removed from the home by the police, but he really wants the yellow one. Honestly, Judge, I have no idea what the difference is between the yellow extension cord and the orange extension cord.

Oh, and he wants the brown laundry hamper, not the white one. And he wants all the tea cups and half of the dessert plates. Thankfully, he doesn’t want the beer stein collection. Katy bar the door if he wanted the beer stein collection!

Anyway, Judge, I digress. So. Yeah. Could you tell Mr. Doe to stop being a booger-eater and have him call us instead of breaking down the door to get to the yellow extension cord? ‘Cause that would be really cool.



BentleyClark125Bentley Clark is tickled silly that she found a way to work “Katy bar the door” into a column. You can praise or admonish her for this by sending her a message here.

This article was originally published in the February 2012 issue of SouthWest Sage, and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

Image “Out Of One\’s Head, Relax The Brain” courtesy of thaikrit /

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