Anne Bean

I make delicious words. // I make words delicious.

Category: Writing Life (page 1 of 3)

Sow What You Plant

Or, some ways that being a freelance writer is a lot like gardening.

image: raised garden beds and containers in a front yard near a street

My actual vegetable garden. Definitely not my freelance writing career.

But, like, high stakes gardening where you don’t have a grocery store, so what you sow is what you harvest, and that’s both what you eat and where you get your money from.

And maybe you can do some trading with other farmers so you don’t have to, like, raise a cow if you were really just trying to focus on vegetable gardening. And sometimes you have a pretty well-balanced garden, but sometimes you’re like, hey, I have zucchini…and…zucchini. And then people are like “do you know how many people in this town have zucchini? I could definitely find someone to sell it cheaper than you’re offering.” But then, you can’t lower the price of your zucchini or give it away for free, even if people are like “but I’ll give your zucchini to such a big audience! It’ll be great exposure!”

image: zucchini growing in a gardenAnd in general you have to remember to do succession plantings or else your crops will all ripen at once and you’ll have like two hectic weeks where you make a ton of money, and then a huge dry spell where you have to wait for the new seeds to grow. And you have to pay attention to your garden every day or else some connections will run dry and some of your crops will die out, and you’ll have to plant them all over again. You have to pay attention to your garden every day. Weekends? What are weekends? Plants don’t recognize weekends.

And the thing is, you only have so much time and space to garden, and even if you have extra seeds, there is only so much space for them to grow. When your beds are full, they’re full! And if you’ve chosen to grow something that’s not a particularly good crop, or a crop that takes up a lot of space for a low yield, then that’s what you’re stuck with, and that’s the money you’re going to make.

And there are definitely seasons: sometimes some crops just don’t grow as well. There’s usually something you can grow to make it through, but sometimes taking care of the garden will take just a little bit of time and then you have a whole bunch of extra time on your hands to plan the next season or to feel a sense of existential guilt because your career path doesn’t look Normal. Sometimes everything is ripening at once, and you’re run off your feet.

And you’ve got to make sure that you’re talking to plenty of people around town who have a keen interest in vegetables. Sometimes you get a gig with some bigger institution like a restaurant, which is great because they’ll order a lot of vegetables from you. But sometimes you’re selling veggies to individual people.

Some lucky people have made this CSA site called Patreon work out for them, but you’ve got to be a specific kind of gardening operation for that to work.


Anyway I was going to write about freelance writing, but whatever.

On the Nature of the Soul, and Writing

I’ve been rapping for about seventeen years, okay? I don’t write my stuff anymore, I just kick it from my head, y’know what I’m sayin’? I can do that. No disrespect, but that’s how I am.

-Young Churf, from Ratatat’s “Seventeen Years”

I was rooting around in my basement, and *finally* found notes from my first advisory group with Rachel Pollack at Goddard College. And dang, there’s a reason why the lecture she gave had been sticking in my head for almost four years now.

“Here are three models of the soul and the body,” Rachel told us, seemingly apropos of nothing, after a brief discussion of writing habits. Such an arcane occult topic might seem unrelated to writing, but no. They were intimately connected.

fireflies in a jarThe first model she described was a divisive model: body vs soul. It’s the idea, perhaps spawned by Democritus, that a soul is like a tiny atomic particle rattling around in a body.

“Think of the soul,” Rachel went on, “as the essential quality of the story, while the body is the content and form of the story.”

If I think of writing this way, I imagine times when a single idea has carried into a variety of forms until it found the right one. Perhaps this is like how I function when I write journalistic articles: I query, and when an editor is interested in my work, I then flesh out the piece tailored to the market.

Consider the next soul metaphor: Instead of the body being a container for the soul, the soul instead secretes a body around it during the nine months of pregnancy. An accompanying Talmudic idea is that upon death, the soul is released and can move on to secrete a new body elsewhere.

What this means for writing, Rachel explained, is that what you want to say should be inseparable from the form in which you say it. I’m not sure if this is always true for me, but I like it as a goal. I like the idea that what needs to be said will secrete its own best form. When I am doing my best work, I feel this happening.

Rachel’s example here was Phillip K. Dick: his lifelong obsession over what is real and what is not, i.e. the soul of his work, kept secreting different bodies. So while he wrote a lot of different novels, many if not all of them shared the same soul.

Rather than focusing on What You Want To Express, Rachel suggests, you can open yourself up and let the story be primary in order to short circuit your own authorial control. I think this could be particularly salient when trying to fictionalize stories that are heavily grounded in your own life.

Rachel’s third soul metaphor was this: The soul is larger than the body. The body moves through life to give expression to the soul. “Allow the story to inhabit something larger than itself,” she said. And every story we tell is a part of a larger cultural tale that goes untold much of the time. So when I speak, I hope I am helping to tell a story about not only the time and place that my body is moving through to give expression to my soul, but about a time and place that’s bigger than my one body’s journey. Long story short, I think this is one reason why I write about fairy tales?!

Let me know if this makes sense or not. And what you think of it. If you want to read more of Rachel’s smart occult writing or science fiction/fantasy that busts open the mystical mysteries of the everyday world, check her out.

Failure and its Opposites

I’ve been taking a fantastic improv class through Seattle’s Pocket Theater. Each class we touch on an essential concept of improv, and a couple of weeks ago we did a whole class on failure. It was wonderful.


A classic failure bow

We started out talking about how we deal with rejection, all fifteen or so of us, sitting around of the wood stage. Overall, we seemed to deal with rejection…poorly. And it was kind of a relief to hear, honestly. It validated that I’m not the only one who feels sore disappointment or frustration at rejection. Most of my rejection is professional: the lot of a writer is to offer up things constantly and have them rejected in a not-always-timely manner. One woman talked about how she tends to minimize rejection and pretend like she didn’t want the thing as much as she actually did. And, whoof, I feel that one. I realized that in familiar territory, like submitting short stories, I am quite comfortable with rejection and easily able to move on the the next step. But in a less comfortable context, like sending out pitches for articles and interviews, suddenly I’m afraid and uncomfortable. Several folks talked about dealing with rejection through avoidance, i.e. through not trying in the first place, and not risking rejection. One cannot avoid all rejection, of course–we need jobs and the occasional other human beings to function. But the scarier, more life-affecting the potential rejection, the easier it is to avoid.

The improv class continued on with a frank discussion of failure. “You are going to fail today,” said our instructor, Kathleen. “It’s okay.” In fact, it was important. Kathleen taught us to do a failure bow: little bow or a curtsy or an arms-rasied-by-the-ears gymnast’s flourish. At the same time, we practiced saying, loudly and enthusiastically, “I FAILED!”

Then we played a number of games designed to make the participants eventually fail. For example, we played Overwhelm, a game where one person mirrors another’s movements while simultaneously answering question from a third person. Eventually, a fourth person was added, who would say numbers that the person in the hot seat was expected to count up from. (“Five!” “Six.” “What did you eat for breakfast?” “Eggs.” etc.) This and other games gave us a chance to practice failing and acknowledging failure in a safe environment. I found it hard, during Overwhelm, to admit that I was overwhelmed. It was easier to let the numbers go–to ignore them and focus on the questions and movements. This may be a metaphor for some larger aspect of my life, but I am not sure what. Hopefully not my business and accounting skills.

After the games, we were invited to consider (via journaling or quiet contemplation) the following questions:

  1. What is the opposite of failure?
  2. What do you associate with failure?

The first layer that occurred to me was that success is not the opposite of failure. Another woman in class put it really well: If you’ve just produced something that’s wildly successful, you may be struck with the sudden fear of making the next thing–or more specifically, failing at the next thing. So success and failure aren’t exactly opposites, even if they are related in some way. I have heard the truism, “failures is not the opposite of success; it is the gateway to it,” which is beautiful and true and exactly what I don’t want to hear when I’m in the throes of rejection.

So what else, then, might be the opposite of failure? The best I could come up with that day in class was stasis–never trying anything, therefore never experiencing failure. I get that same sinking stomach disappointment feeling when I’m a) being rejected and b) realizing my window for trying a thing has passed. But as much as the physiological feeling is similar, I think the two situations are fundamentally different. In the case of realizing it’s too late to try, I have that sick regret in stomach, but also a secret relief because the risk has passed–things will be the same–I won’t have to try out a thing and risk rejection. In the base of actual rejection, I am disappointed, but not with myself in particularity because I know I’ve tried. That I did something.

I lift weights, including Olympic-style barbell lifts. If you lift weights, you learn warm-ups and form and how to protect yourself as you lift–but you learn something else, too. You cannot lift your maximum wights, or establish how strong you are, unless you are willing to fail. Failure is an active process for lifting barbells. If you are squatting a weight and realize it is too heavy to stand back up, you ditch the weight by hopping forward and letting the barbell slam to the ground behind you. If you are deadlifting a weight and it is too heavy, you don’t sacrifice your form and strain your back, you drop it. Likewise with the clean, where you bring the barbell from the ground to a front rack position, holding it across your collarbone and on your fingertips. If you can’t get the bar lifted to that point of momentum-based weightlessness that allows you to drop under and catch it, then you left you and step back. The weight drops to the mat. It’s loud. It thuds.

Anne catches a barbell in front rack position, while doing a clean

Me, working up to failure. 🙂

The first Olympic lift I learned to ditch was the clean, and I had to get over an awkward clump of embarrassment. “Oh no!” my reptile brain screamed. “I made a loud noise!” But then a calmer voice, outside of the moment said, “Anne. Are you actually worried about making a loud noise in a gym filled with sweaty people whoa re all also lifting heavy barbells?” No, I realized. My instinct, conditioned in a world where taking up space while female is frowned upon and failure is outright condemned, was to be polite and quiet and not risk to the point where I had to bring attention to myself: I failed! Take a bow! Once the thought, “You don’t have to be polite in the gym” was planted, once I saw people stronger than me ditching weights, then it didn’t feel panicky or odd to let the weight thud to the ground. And I found I could improve my lift maximums significantly in way I wasn’t able to before failure became a part of my routine.

My goal is to take this practice of active failure and apply it to my creative work. I do already in some ways. I often show up to my writing and comics groups whether or not I have an idea or feel confident. And sometimes it feels like an awful slog, but occasionally I surprise myself and come up with something just by giving myself time and space. The more chances I give myself to fail, the more I give myself chances at all. So I’m endeavoring to fail early, fail often, and as Beckett reminds us, fail again, fail better.

What do you think the opposite of failure is? How do you deal with rejection? How do you seek or avoid failure?

And finish things. Then start new things. Then finish them.

That’s the advice Neil Gaiman wrote down for me in a little blank book.

every damn day01

It’s good advice, particularly in combination with Terry Pratchett’s advice from the same book: “30 minutes every day! Every damn day!”every damn day

The last several months of last year, i.e. the time I wasn’t updating this blog, feel like a bit of a blur. I’m not sure, on first mental glance, what I spent those months doing. I did quite a bit of teaching. I did half of a NaNoWriMo and got 26K words before sputtering to a halt. I really like the story I’m working on, I just…stopped. I’m not sure why, or what I was doing. And instead of over-analyzing what happened, I’d like to get back on the horse and ride. For half an hour. Every damn day.

Aside from writing, I’d like to actually commit time to reading paper books, rather than assuming it’ll just happen by osmosis like it does for reading online articles. Much of this blog may just end up being me responding to reading and/or highlighting craft techniques from books I’m reading. In my MFA at Goddard, we had to write a seemingly infinite of short papers, called annotations, wherein we picked out one craft aspect of a book and did a close study of how it worked. Some found annotations tedious, but I thought they were incredibly useful. At the same time, they’re nothing I’d really choose to do on my own without some external something, i.e. grad school. Or a blog. There are a lot of books, furthermore, that I started in 2015 and didn’t finish. So I’d like to finish those. And then start new ones. And then finish them.

So here I am, again making my way back to the page with my tail between my legs. It’s easy to beat myself up for taking a fallow period because beating myself up about stuff feels very Useful and Virtuous, when in fact it is neither. The page isn’t judging. Or going anywhere. That’s the beautiful part of a writing practice: you can always come back. You can’t go home again, as they say, and you can’t cross the same river twice…but you can always come back to the page and finish things. Then start new things. Then finish them.


I am not Anne Bean, either.

photo of the Goddard College grounds

Pictured: a magical land where I got a lot of things done. (Goddard College)

My wonderful former advisor from Goddard College, Susan Kim, wrote an article on the alumni blog about deadlines. Susan Kim is a New York City television writer, playwright, teacher, and more. She has a zillion fascinating and important irons in the fire at any given time. And she gave me considered, wonderful feedback on the 30-page packets of material I’d send her in like two days. Considering that she was doing this for me and six other students over the course of a weekend along with her other jobs…color me impressed. Perhaps I have put her on a bit of a time management pedestal in my brain…

So in this essay, “Putting the Dead in Deadlines,” she refers to me:

Are you as crushed by time (or more specifically, the lack of it) as I am? From their process letters, 99% of my advisees seems to be or has been… and the 1% who wasn’t was probably Anne Bean, a graphic novelist who graduated from the program a few years ago. Formidably organized, she had created a color-coded flowchart that mapped out every minute she had to read, write, and fulfill her degree requirements; and by sticking to it, she managed to sail through the program like she was piloting a luge.

I am not Anne Bean.

Aheheh. Heh.

Honestly? I am not Anne Bean, either.

Let me take you back to my elementary school years. I went to a Montessori school, which had the following system regarding late assignments: your late assignment was recorded on the Late List. If you accumulated more than two late assignments, you had to stay in during mid-day recess and work on them. I averaged six to eight late assignments, and rarely went to recess. This may have been an instinctive defense against playground bullying, but that’s another story for another day. Point is: time is incredibly difficult for me. I wouldn’t say that I’m not crushed by time. I just write down the nature of the crushing.

The flowchart Susan refers to is my Anal Retentive Spreadsheet (or ARS if you will) that I use to record my time. I have used the spreadsheet on and off since I learned about it from Wendy Call in 2010 or so. When I use it, things generally go well for me. All I do is record, in 15 minute increments, when I have done useful things in a variety of categories (writing, paid freelance work, unpaid freelance work, admin stuff, etc). I can see where I’ve been putting my efforts, where I need to spend hours, and whether or not I’ve done enough self-care lately. (Damn right self-care is on my chart.) I also use Asana, which is project management software, for both my own work and my work with Minor Arcana Press.


When I read Susan’s essay this morning, I was both touched and wracked by impostor syndrome. Oh gods, I thought, I’ve fooled them all. They think I’m this basically organized person who doesn’t binge-watch Netflix instead of blogging and pitches to appropriate markets every Wednesday and generates new work on a clockwork schedule. Instead, I haven’t even started my ARS for October and after binge-watching like four episodes of a TV show that I have already seen, I have spent my day face-rolling over my own keyboard in a futile attempt to craft a decent pitch for various feminist pop culture magazines, while simultaneously second-guessing if this is even the best use of my time. My day has been a melodrama written by time management’s evil twin.

But then I remember the voice of my other Goddard advisor, Rachel Pollack. One time we talked about the concept of the authentic self. “I’m not sure why people put so much emphasis on the authentic self,” she said. “Why not consider what the fraud self has to teach?”

Even if my luge-piloting hyper-organized writing persona is a fraud self, I’m pretty into her. I want to glean her wisdom once more. Susan Kim continues her essay talking about the reality of there never being enough time, about bouncing back and forth between the screaming deadlines and chipping away at the work until it’s done. “As writers, all we can really hope to do each day is generate pages,” she concludes.

I think that’s why I’ve had a growing sense of unease the last month or so: I have been so caught up in minutiae that I have not been generating pages. My graphic design jobs have been waning and my desire to be, say, writing pop culture criticism for feminist magazines has been waxing. The urge to generate pages is strong. My level of organization right now is all over the dang place. And I oscillate between trying to reclaim the systems of organizations and writing in furtive bursts.

So reading Susan’s essay this morning, as much as it made me have a moment of flailing guilt for not somehow controlling time and space with my mind, was pretty darn reassuring. It was a reminder to get off the loop-de-loop of time struggle and calm down. Focus on the pages. When I have meaningful deadlines (like, say, a grad school program…cough) I tend to work really well. Deadlines give me strength (sorry, Douglas Adams). I still have my fraud self’s luge, all I have to do is build a track. Quantify the crushing of time. And if I manage to generate pages, call it a good day.

Readings and Workshops and NaNo, Oh My!

It’s fall, the latter half of September, a time when I traditionally contemplate three interconnected things: what my goals are for the next year, how I’m surviving the dark Northwest winter, and what I’m doing for NaNoWriMo. National Novel Writing Month badge that looks like a video game start screen For the first time in a few years, I’m working on an actual novel that I intend to do exciting things with–the past few Novembers I’ve either been in grad school, writing totally for-funsies novels that I don’t revise, or writing comic scripts. This November, I am planning to write a long-form fantasy fairy tale retelling of a fascinating Romanian fairy tale which is called, depending on the translation, “The Girl Who Pretended to Be a Boy” or “The Horse That Saved a Kingdom.” Both of these are plot points. I’m setting it in a fantasy version of 1500s Transylvania, and it should be a wild ride. Before NaNo, though,  I am teaching two workshops through the Seattle area NaNoWriMo community to go over basic novel structure and let folks do some skill-sharing before November.

Pre-NaNoWriMo Workshops

Tuesday, September 22nd

5:30-7:30 PM

Douglas-Truth Library, East Yesler Way, Seattle

Saturday, October 3rd


Greenwood Library, Greenwood Ave N, Seattle

  In the meantime, I’ve been working on a new short story, and you can hear me read it at the next installment of Seattle Fiction Federation! SFF is a great local reading series dedicated to fiction: there are four featured readers, plus an open mic. Whoever wins the open mic gets to feature at the next reading. If you’re in the Seattle area, come check it out!

Seattle Fiction Federation #5

Monday, September 8th

Richard Hugo House

Upcoming Writing Times!

picture of baby ducks. in a row.In the spirit of having my ducks in a row, come see me at any of the following rad events:


August 23rd, 2015, 7:30PM

The Pocket Theater, Seattle, WA

Tickets $10 online, $14 at the door-
“Ogopogo is a variety lit. series spotlighting local poetry, prose, playwriting and more!
Feat. Jesse Minkert (Poetry), Robert P. Kaye (Prose), Anne Bean (Multimedia), and Daniel Tarker (Playwright)”

For the record, “Multimedia” means an exciting slide-show-with-essay, much like Stock Photo Hell: Live!


Release Party for Arcana: The Tarot Poetry Anthology

August 26th, 2015, 6-9PM

Hugo House, Seattle, WA


This event celebrates the release of Minor Arcana Press’ third anthology, Arcana: The Tarot Poetry Anthology. I designed this book and it’s a beaut, outside and in. It features art from Seattle artist Siolo Thomson’s Linestrider Tarot, and contains 78 poems inspired by the Tarot.

From 6-7PM, local Tarot readers will be reading cards (for $, but you love supporting local readers and these are quick/cheap readings), and from 7-9PM, various local poets will read their work from the anthology, and editor Marjorie Jensen will read her work and talk about the project.


Seattle Fiction Federation

September, 2015, details TBD

Hugo House, Seattle, WA

Seattle Fiction Federation is a neat reading series run that has two parts. In the first part, four features read (including me next time, hooray!). In the second part, there is an open mic where the audience votes on a “winner” to feature as part of the next SFF reading. I’ll post more details closer to the event.

Wilderness, Stars, and Productivity

I didn’t post last week because I didn’t think to schedule a post in advance, and I was in the woods. I went backpacking with my Dad in the North Cascades, the Glacier Peak Wilderness.

2015-07-15 08.35.20There’s something really satisfying about getting out of cell phone range. Perhaps it’s that being disconnected from the Internet is such a rarity these days. I love the Internet, I love connection between people and the communities that can be built when the Internet’s not too busy being horrible to itself. But it’s still a hubbub of voices that, once in a while, should be silent.

2015-07-15 13.11.39It’s a lot like the stars, really, except opposite. In the front country, the stars are quiet. From Seattle on a good clear night, you can make out major constellations; everything else is blocked out by light pollution. In back country, in the North Cascades, the major constellations are almost drowned out by the volume of other stars. The full arc of the Milky Way becomes visible. Two of the nights I was out I got up in the middle of the night, to look at the stars. Both nights I saw a satellite moving in its measured way across the sky, a reminder of the connection to the rest of the world. I could look down the knife edge of the galaxy and think about what I was seeing, a giant cross section of the unimaginably enormous place that is in turn an unimaginably small place in the whole of the universe.


Anyway, all that’s to say that I enjoyed not having the Internet for five days. I didn’t miss social media at all. It’s the sort of thing that I use and enjoy, but it becomes a way of mentally treading water. A way to avoid doing anything, and yet still feeling productive.


Productivity is a funny thing. A corporate buzzword, is it a quantitative measure of the amount of work you do, or is it a qualitative matter of how much work you think you’ve done? Because those two don’t always match up, particularly as a freelancer. My tendency is to always feel like I’ve done little, even when I have accomplished much. An offshoot of impostor syndrome, perhaps? Thankfully, the same organizational tools that keep me doing anything are the ones that keep me honest–remind met that I have, in fact, been productive. While I don’t do eight hours of productive work per day (I usually do 4-6 hours, in all brutal honesty), I didn’t use all eight of the hours of my business day productively when I was an office assistant, either. A lot of my days were frittered away by little distractions. Now at least I can be honest about when I’m distracted and when I’m productive. At this point I use two systems to keep track of myself: a to-do list in the form of project management software called Asana (free! online! good!), and a spreadsheet to keep track of my time based on one Wendy Call introduced me to years ago. These are my spider-web strands that I catch time with.


The wilderness is very simple: much of your day is involved with meeting your basic needs and getting from one point on a topo map to another point on a topo map. Front country gets complicated. The stars go quiet and the buzz of to-do lists, projects, work, and social media start up again. But the lovely thing is, we’ve got both.

Readings for June

Sometimes I am a writer who does Writer Things!

I have two readings coming up this week:

The Very Last Breadline

Breadline-300x200On Wednesday, June 17, I will be a feature in The Very Last Breadline, the final installment of the Breadline series of literary readings. The event will be held at Vermillion gallery/bar in Seattle. The featured artists are myself, Shae Savoy (poet extraordinaire), Amy Glynn, Steve Barker, and Trenton Thornley. There will also be copies of the four-year retrospective Breadline Anthology, hot off the presses and designed by yours truly. (Yes, I am a book designer, go look.)

What shall I be reading at Breadline? O blog followers, it’s time for Stock Photo Hell: Live! I’ll be distilling and abridging the whole of Stock Photo Hell, a just the best/weirdest/most awful/most confusing bits version.

Tukwila Revealed

On the Solstice, June 21st, I will be part of a large-scale art and poetry exhibition in Tukwila, by Seattle’s only river, the Duwamish. The Duwamish is a highly polluted urban river that nonetheless has a vital ecosystem surrounding it.

From the site:

Tukwila Revealed is an epic exploratory walk along the southern reaches of the Duwamish, centered on the Allentown neighborhood of Tukwila. Through art, science, and historical inquiry, Tukwila Revealed aims to explore ecological, social, developmental, and literary elements of the Duwamish River. This event, held on the 2015 Summer Solstice, is open to all. Stay for the entire duration or join in at any point along the route.

I will be hanging out with some trees, offering tree meditations. Participants will be offered an opportunity to sit against, lay down under, hug, or otherwise commune with a tree while listening to a guided meditation.


If you’re in the Seattle area, come check out these awesome events!

Moving Beyond The Canon

Or No, I’m Not Saying We Should Stop Reading Moby Dick.

panels from Jeff Smith's Bone; Thorn falls asleep when Bone reads Moby Dick

It really is okay to like Moby Dick.
(from Jeff Smith’s canonical comic, Bone)

In literary circles, one often finds the concept of the literary canon floating around. It’s a set of books, which have never been defined officially to the best of my knowledge, that are, like, The Books That Shaped Western Civilization. They’re the type of books that Real Deal Writers Should Have Read Already. (*cough*) And while there are some titles that frequently show up, from classical to modern, it’s not a really set text. Even Wikipedia isn’t sure what’s in the Western Canon, and merely offers a list of links to other people’s lists.

One of the most frequent critiques of any of these lists, though, is that they are overbearingly filled with dead white European guys. In fact, the 60-volume “Great Books of The Western World” set published in the US by Encyclopedia Britannica in 1952 contains works by four women: Jane Austen, George Elliot, Willa Cather, and Virginia Woolf. There are no writers of color represented. The product was also sort of an albatross around Encyclopedia Britannica’s neck in that it sold poorly and later got criticism for not only being a Dead White Euro Guy bible, but also it was apparently quite hard to actually read because of the formatting…in essence, it was more of a 60-volume status symbol than anything else.

Spines of the Great Books series

photo: Wikimedia Commons

Let’s talk a bit about the etymology of “canon” with help of our old friend the Oxford English Dictionary (which you can log into with your library card number, hooray). “Canon” originally meant a law or decree laid down by the Roman Catholic Church’s ecclesiastical council. Later it morphed from meaning just church law to specifically which books of the Bible were officially okay to worship… As the OED says, “The collection or list of books of the Bible accepted by the Christian Church as genuine and inspired. Also transf., any set of sacred books; also, those writings of a secular author accepted as authentic.”

To me, this begs the rather large question of what “genuine” and “authentic” mean in this context; furthermore, “genuine” and “genius” share a word root: gignere (to beget) gives us gen- as in genital, generate, genuine, genius. Thus, I find myself spiraling back around to the notion of “genius” as a thing that writers may or may not have. And going back to the OED, “genius” was originally one of the types of Roman ancestor-ghosts, basically a tutelary or attendant spirit. There were also genii loci, or spirits of place. Djinni are related to genii. Overall: a genius was an external thing that might influence you or live within your spirit. This meaning was still used in Europe for centuries thereafter, but came to imply more of a spirit within a person–shoulder angels and shoulder demons, for example. At some point, perhaps the 1600s, genius began to be used as “Natural ability or capacity; quality of mind; attributes which suit a person for his or her peculiar work.” (definition 7b, OED)

So I propose that perhaps we are only geniuses because of our family of influence–our canon. Not The Canon, but a canon for each person, wherein they converse with their literary tribe. That’s not to say that one should not be reading Moby Dick, but rather than one should read canonical works that pertain to one’s own work and literary quest, keeping in mind that barriers to publication reflect social barriers in general. There are voices that are easier and harder to come by, and it’s worth reading a little of everything.

For example, if I were to shortlist *my* fiction and poetry canon (because comics, nonfiction, and film are a whole different ball game and I don’t have all day), it would go something like this:

  • Plato, The Symposium
  • Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
  • The I Ching
  • Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji
  • Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy
  • Collected poems of Jelaluddin Rumi
  • Pu Songling, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio
  • Pretty much the entire Pantheon Fairy Tale and Folklore Library (full disclosure: I have only read the Grimms, Andersen, Italo Calvino’s Italian Tales, Aranasev’s Russian Tales, Japanese Tales, Indian Tales, and Latin American Tales from this specific series)
  • Thomas More, Utopia
  • John Milton, Paradise Lost
  • William Shakespeare: The Tempest, Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, MacBeth, King Lear
  • Christina Rosetti, “Goblin Market”
  • Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads
  • Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
  • William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair
  • G.K. Chesterton, Alarums and Discursions
  • H. G. Wells, The Time Machine
  • Lynd Ward, God’s Man
  • Yevgeny Zamyatin, We
  • Nella Larsen, Passing
  • Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita
  • The poetry of Gregory Corso
  • Ursula LeGuin, Earthsea series
  • Howard Schwartz, Lilith’s Cave
  • The Arabian Nights, trans. Haddawy
  • The poetry of Anne Sexton
  • Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber
  • Toni Morrison, Beloved
  • Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
  • A. S. Byatt, The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye
  • Tamora Pierce, Tortall series
  • Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, There Once Was a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby
  • Kate Berenheimer (ed), My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me
  • Helen Oyeyemi, Mr. Fox; The Icarus Girl
  • The collected works of Terry Pratchett
  • Patricia Lockwood, Motherland, Fatherland, Homelandsexuals


I could go on. This feels incomplete and I’m sure I’ve forgotten many important things. I realize I need to read more fiction by black writers. And I didn’t really get into the poetry I like, either. Or go very far in depth with all the sci-fi and fantasy and dystopian stuff. I realize I do have a lot of dead white euro guys on there. While that’s not wrong, I’m working to fill in the gaps in the rest of my canon, which is an ever-changing creature, much like my own work.

What’s in your canon?
Tell us in the comments, friend.

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