Cass Morris is a lifelong Virginian who completed her Master of Letters at Mary Baldwin College, where she wrote her thesis on Shakespeare’s evolution of the traditional narrative of male friendship. She earned her undergraduate degree, a BA in English with a minor in history, from the College of William and Mary in 2007, where she was accepted into the Alpha Delta Gamma honor society for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. Cass served on the boards of student theatrical production companies at both Mary Baldwin and William and Mary. She has been published in Renaissance Magazine, and her essay "Technical and Material Matters" appears in Shakespeare Expressed. She has presented at the 2011 and 2013 Blackfriars Conferences and at the 2012 and 2014 Shakespeare Association of America Conferences. She writes genre fiction, represented by Connor Goldsmith of Fuse Literary Agency. Her debut novel will be released through DAW Books in 2018.
As many of y’all know, I spent this summer working for Plato Learning, a company that runs mythology-themed summer camps all over the country. They’re inspired by and somewhat based off of the Percy Jackson series, none of which I had read before applying for the position. (I’m ten books in now). My job, as Quest Director and Chronicler, was to immerse the campers into the mythological world of Camp Half-Blood.
The whole experience was wild, and I loved it so much. Even when it was stressful, even when I was tired, even when it was 95 degrees and 99% humidity outside (which was every day except one). I’ve never worked with that age group (7-13yos) in so much depth. We’d occasionally do middle school workshops at the ASC, and sometimes I’d have tours for elementary schoolers, but most of my work there was with high schoolers and college students. My K-5 work at the science museum was very hit-and-run, 45 minutes with a class and then out. So this was new for me, but a lot of fun, because I actually love this age group. They’re old enough to be somewhat independent, they don’t need constant hand-holding, but they’re (mostly) not so old that they’ve abandoned make-believe. (This varies by kid, of course; some are 40 years old when they’re 5, whereas I, obviously, have never actually outgrown fantasy play).
So here are some things I learned at summer camp:
Kids Make Friends So Freaking Easily
Seriously. This is a skill children have that adults have forgotten. Put kids together in a group, and they’ll immediately sort out a social hierarchy with the ruthless efficiency of a pack of hyenas. Like a bunch of stray protons, neutrons, and electrons, they gravitate into molecules. It takes basically no time.
Established units can be hard to break into, mind you. If two kids came already friends, they sometimes needed nudging to branch out and include other people. That happened more with our sets of girls who came pre-packaged than with, say, sibling units — who were often perfectly happy to be separated.
But it’s just amazing to watch these total strangers figure out, in the space of a morning, who they share interests with, who they like to play with, who they want to be on a team with. It was brilliant to watch the older campers who were willing to take on a mentorship role with our itty-bitties.
Kids Worry Too Much about Being Cool
Okay, some adults do this, too, but there were so many times this summer when I wanted to take a kid aside and just be like, “Look, you can keep trying to be ‘cool’, whatever that’s even supposed to mean, or you can lean into the story of what we’re doing here. I promise you will have a better time if you lean into the story.” Every single camper that didn’t enjoy camp was a kid more worried about being cool than having fun. A few campers fell into a really interesting place, where I could tell they were on that cusp — old enough to start to feel that worry, but they could still be lured into forgetting it. Who they were around mattered a lot — those social groups they instantly formed weren’t always a good thing.
Take this one kid. Let’s call him Eric. Eric, week one, paired off super fast with another kid, who we’ll call Trey. Trey was a mopey zoo lion. He had his own problems with divorcing parents and being hyper over-scheduled — not a bad kid, but he tended to become A Problem because he was just absolutely not in the headspace to enjoy this camp. This camp has a fairly high level of buy-in necessary! You have to be willing to play make-believe. And Trey did not have the spoons to spare for that. Eric did. Eric wanted to be into it. Not always in the best ways — he was one of our murderbeasts who frequently had to be reminded of heroic conduct during swordfighting — but he wanted to be in the world. Unless he was hanging out with Trey. When they were together, they got into this awful feedback loop which led them to be disruptive, bully other kids, deride all our activities as “so cringe,” and generally make me want to dunk them in the lake.
Trey phased himself out and stopped coming to camp. And when he wasn’t there, Eric was so much easier to handle. Still a wildly energetic little murderbeast, but one who was playing the game. Playing it so hard that we almost had to tackle him sometimes, but also — in a moment that made me so proud I could’ve cried — the first kid to put down his sword and show compassion for one of the monsters the campers needed to befriend rather than attack. Once he let himself go and stopped worrying about how other people were judging him, he was fully immersed.
So many times during camp, I was grateful that I realized very early in life that cool was never going to be an option for me. I had to lean into weird, and I did so with gusto.
Mind you, once you get the kids to buy-in, they do so whole-heartedly. The kids who were there for the game — even though they were plenty old enough to understand the difference between fiction and reality — went all in. These were my favorite kids, honestly. The ones who wanted to unravel every riddle. Who were convinced every single thing they found in the forest was a clue — not just the things that were part of the Quest, but, well… Litter. Broken twigs. Park signs. Bird feathers. Mortals.
Yeah, kids. You reject that reality and substitute your own. Go for it.
What’s particularly wonderful is the ability they have to terrify themselves once they get into it. I was most proud of this with my monsters the last week, which were as creepy as I could make them on a budget. And the kids did not want to fight them. They were petrified. I had never heard them so quiet as when they were trying to sneak past these ghoulish creatures.
I remember that feeling, where the boundary between reality and imagination blurs. Where you manage to psych yourself up and actually feel the thrill of fear, the heart-pounding exultation of Being On A Quest. I miss it, not infrequently, but you hit a certain point of adulthood and it just gets harder and harder to summon. Getting to be the person who built it for someone else, though? That was fun.
Pratchett Was Right
I mean, he generally is. But what I said above about the murderbeasts? I’m thinking specifically about when, in Hogfather, Pratchett wisely tells us:
Most people forgot that the oldest stories are, sooner or later, about blood. Later on they took the blood out to make the stories more acceptable to children, or at least to the people who had to read them to children rather than to the children themselves (who, on the whole, are quote keen on blood provided it’s being shed by the deserving*), and then wondered where the stories went.
*That is to say, those who deserve to shed blood. Or possibly not. You never quite know with kids.
I’ve always been vaguely aware that, yes, this is correct. But it came into sharp focus when I realized I was spending a significant amount of any given day telling the campers that, no, they could not sacrifice one of their number to the gods. No, they could not sacrifice me, either. No, not their counselor. No, you may not catch a lizard and sacrifice it. No, you may not sacrifice a mortal (our term for the mundane folk wandering the park, often quite oblivious to our chaos). No sacrifices, I swear to Juno, if I have to tell you again!
We also tried to steer them away from language of death and killing when it came to dueling, whether each other or the monsters and villains that showed up during Quest Day. The idea is to defeat them, stun them if you have to (which is what our foam swords are designed to do), but murder is not heroic. (Never mind the example set by… Well, basically every Greek hero in the traditional mold. And most of the Celts. And the Norse. It’s been 3000 years; we’re supposed to have evolved from them — and several of our Quests did include things like Odysseus and Perseus apologizing for all the morally questionable things they did back in the day). We were more successful with some kids than others.
This, I knew instinctively and from my own youthful experiences, but these kids verified it for me. Leave a group of children to their own devices long enough — and it won’t take long — and give them liberty of imagination, and they will inevitably start a cult.
We had at least three in in four weeks, that I was aware of. One was to a pig-god of their own invention. One involved T-posing. (I’m still not really sure what that is; I am assured it’s a TikTok thing; no, I am not asking for further information.) One was dedicated to the turtles in the lake. They came up with chants. They performed summonses. And, of course, they wanted to perform sacrifices, because what good is a cult without sacrifice?
They’re Here; They’re Queer; I’m Jealous
I think one of the things that surprised me the most was that we had a few queer kids in every week. Some were very certain of themselves; some were still exploring, testing out new names or pronouns, trying on new identities. Which is fine, by the way! “It’s just a phase”, okay, so? That’s how kids discover who they are. They try things on to see what fits. Let them. I really love that camp was a safe place for them to do that. There were a few who wanted us to use one name with them during the day, but not use it in front of their parents.
What gobsmacked me, though, was how comfortable most of them were with it. The ideas weren’t baked-in for everyone. I overheard — and monitored — several conversations about what “trans” and “nonbinary” mean, but I didn’t hear any meanness about those things. Confusion, lack of awareness from some, yeah; but once it was explained, they pretty much all just shrugged and went on with the day. And so many kids already had that language. That was what astonished me! This one little boy, in discussing who his “godly parent” or patron might be, talked about Apollo. And he went on about different things, liking music, liking to be out in the sun, and so forth. Then he quite casually adds, “Plus, he’s bisexual and I’m bisexual, so that’s cool.”
Ten years old. Just pops out with that.
I was fully eighteen before I was able to reconcile that within myself, even though in a lot of ways it should have been staggeringly obvious well before then. But I didn’t have the language, and I didn’t have the comfort. I only knew a few people who were openly queer in some way (then; many have turned out to be in the course of time), and it was still much more furtively discussed. The counselors, who aren’t that much older than these kids, but enough to be just slightly more towards youngest-Millennials/oldest-Zoomers than these late-Zoomers/early-Alphas (is that really what we’re calling the post-Zoomers? Ugh), were also astonished. In just a few years, the awareness and acceptance has radically accelerated. (Representation matters, y’all).
A Week Is Long, But Not Long Enough
It’s amazing how much you can get to know a kid in a week, even at just a day camp like this one. Their personalities are so open, so much on display, and at that age, they’re so eager to tell you who they are and what they like!
But there’s a difficult side to that, too. A week is long enough to get a glimpse into their lives — and to see which kids, like Trey, are having a rough time. Or the kid with anger management issues and a lot of self-blame about them, who I had to talk down out of a couple of shame spirals. Or the hyper-competitive daughters of Nike whose bullying behavior could, I figured out, be traced to and in no small part blamed on a sports coach that appears to be an absolute monster.
I can learn those things in a week. But I can’t fix them. A week — or two or three, even, since we had some campers join us for more of the month — just isn’t enough time to dig in and really deal with the hard issues. I was surprised at how rough that was on me, and it made me realize that if I were to have a job where I was with kids full-time, like an elementary school teacher, I would just be perpetually emotionally exhausted. And I’m not a therapist or anyone else with actual training in dealing with those issues, anyway. I’m just a person who’s dealt with her own share of bad stuff and has developed some tools to deal with it.
The best I could do, I realized, was just… try to be a counterpoint in their lives. An example of something other than what they’d been taught by toxic influences. To show empathy and compassion, to say some words that I have found useful and meaningful in tough times, and to hope they remember that later.
So those are the things, by and large, that I learned at summer camp.
It was awesome. I want to keep doing this. Yes, a lot about it was challenging, but I loved being responsible for building a fantasy world, and these kids are fascinating and just so much fun.
I knew it was coming, of course. Last year was nineteen, so this year is twenty. Most years, I spend the eleventh day of September engaging with social media very tentatively. I mute a lot of terms. I don’t like the reminders.
Part of me hates that I’ve written this at all.
I was nine days shy of my sixteenth birthday, a junior in high school. I went to a magnet school, and that year we had transferred into a newly renovated building, so everything was so very shiny and new. I was still getting used to the layout and the fastest way to get from one class to another. I hated the “ergonomic” seats, which were oddly balanced and kept snagging my hair. That morning, I was in physics class, at a table near the door. We were doing something — I don’t remember what. It was still early in the year, but we were running some activity in small groups, maybe on velocity. The teacher wasn’t lecturing, I know that, because I was near enough the door to hear when another teacher came in and whispered to mine that a plane had crashed into the Twin Towers. ‘My gods,’ I thought, ‘what a terrible accident.’
If I’m remembering correctly, that class period ran from roughly 8:30 to 9:45. I may be off by five or ten minutes; it’s been a while. It’s been twenty years. I can’t line up exactly when we knew what early on, but by the time class ended, we were aware that it hadn’t been an accident, that there had been a second plane hitting the second tower. That happened at 9:02am. I think it had happened already by the time we heard about the first one, but information was filtering down to us in layers, you understand. Someone not teaching who had a radio or tv on heard something, and went to tell someone else, who went to tell someone else, and at that point, no one was telling the kids anything. We were overhearing hushed conversations and then whispering amongst ourselves.
Those whispers turned into a roar when the classes changed. The kids who’d been in study hall, and thus able to use computers during that hour, started spreading what they knew. And that, I think — and it seems so strange now, that certain moments of this day are embedded in my memory, and other things I can’t quite piece together — was when I heard that, at 9:37am, a plane had crashed into the Pentagon.
I sat down in my next class — 9:50am? Or thereabouts? — and began, very quietly, losing my shit.
My father, I knew, was on his way to the Pentagon that morning.
He worked in the Department of Public Safety in Virginia, and it was very normal for him to have meetings at the Pentagon. Not an every day or even every week occurrence, but nothing out of the ordinary. He was part of an anti-terrorism task force. He worked with the FBI and CIA and generals and Cabinet Secretaries. It was normal.
He had dropped me off at school, because I was still nine days away from being able to drive myself, and he was on his way to the Pentagon, and now a plane had hit the Pentagon.
Now, had I been in my right wits, I would have done the math. There was really no way he could’ve made it from downtown Richmond at 8:20am and been at the Pentagon by 9:37am. But it was nearly 10:00am by then, which was plausible if still unlikely, given I-95’s weekday traffic, and I don’t think I was sure then exactly when that strike had happened. We were all confused and frightened, and a fifteen year old’s brain is only but so well equipped to handle the onslaught of emotions and stress. So I was freaking out.
My creative writing teacher — the incredible Bear O’Bryan — walked into our room, always kept gloomy with low lights, wearing a stormy expression. He switched the radio on to NPR, said “Take notes,” and sat down. And that was it, for the next half hour or so. We mostly didn’t even talk. We listened, horror-struck, as the North Tower collapsed. (The South Tower had, I think, fallen during the change between classes). And then we heard that a flight had gone down in Pennsylvania.
I think that was when I really started losing my shit. Shaking and trying not to cry, because I was suddenly so afraid for my father. And Bear, wonderful, empathetic teacher that he was, noticed. He came up behind me and very quietly said, “Is there someone you need to call?” I nodded; I couldn’t even speak, because if I did, I was going to start sobbing. “Go.”
So I rushed to my locker — which seems so quaint now, when I think the battle to keep cell phones out of classrooms has been entirely lost. Back then, we weren’t even supposed to have them in school, but my parents insisted, and as long as I kept it switched off and in my locker all day, who would ever know? Well, I switched it on and dialed my father in a state of absolute panic, just daring someone to come find me in the hall and tell me I couldn’t have it. (Bear would have had my back; I knew that for certain).
My dad was fine. He’d been turned around halfway up 95 and was with the governor, back in Richmond. I think that was the first time in my life I knew what it was to be “sick with relief.” Everything that flooded through me then turned my stomach. Dad didn’t know when he’d be home — and my mother was in New Mexico for a conference, so I’d have to take care of my sister (then nine years old) tonight. Could I do that?
I guess? I had no idea. I was nine days from having a driver’s license. I promised him I would. There was really no choice. I’d have to try.
I don’t remember most of the rest of the day until I got home. I’m sure I spent lunch with my usual set of drama club friends. We must’ve been in the drama room; we always were, when we could be. I had Bear again, for AP Lit, after lunch. I can’t remember what my last class of the day was. Maybe Latin? Yes, I think it was Latin. After-school activities must have been cancelled, or else I would’ve had drama club. Or did I skip Fall Festival prep to go home to my sister? I can’t remember.
My sister was in the fifth grade. So I got to explain terrorism to a nine year old.
Mama had instructed me to stay online, because she and Dad would use email to be in touch. This was before smartphones, but they had Blackberries. The cell phone networks were jammed and unreliable, though. I hadn’t heard from Dad since calling him during 4th period. I made Cait do her homework and take a shower. I think we ordered pizza? Mama also told us not to watch tv, and while I obeyed her in that, I was getting a constant stream of information online.
I didn’t go to school the next day. Henrico must have cancelled, and since my nine year old sister couldn’t be left home alone, I stayed home, too. I remember being angry about that, because I wanted to hug my friends. It took Mama days to get home, because the airports were still shut down, so she and her colleagues drove back to New Mexico from Virginia. And Daddy was busy with the governor.
Over the next few weeks, I remember being torn between getting swept up in the patriotic fervor that seized the nation, and being terrified there was going to be a war.
Sweet summer child.
At some point that fall, my dad packed a cooler full of MREs and told me if something happened in Richmond — they were very worried about the Federal Bank being a target — I should take my sister and drive west. (He claims to have no memory of having done this, but it sure made an impression on me).
Trauma is ongoing. A lot of this story and how it touched my family for many years afterwards, and continues to, isn’t mine to tell. A lot of it is the stuff that touched my entire generation, all of us who were old enough to remember but not quite adults yet. And the fallout went on for years, is still happening. I remember opposing the Patriot Act, wearing black ribbons to school. I remember Colin Powell trying to sell the UN on falsehoods to justify a war. (The local news came to my AP Gov class to get our reactions; we were underwhelmed, unconvinced, unimpressed. I seem to recall they didn’t use a lot of our interviews in the actual broadcast, but relied just on the B-roll they took of us watching attentively). I remember the security theatre that mushroomed up, the trading of liberty for security that happened in increments, all of us boiling frogs.
Part of me hates that I’ve written this. Part of me hates dredging up the memory of adrenaline. A lot of me hates how it all gets flashed about every September, and I know it’ll be so much worse today, all over the media that I’ll be dedicatedly avoiding. So why did I? Why am I contributing to that public swell of tainted nostalgia?
I don’t know. I’m a writer who loves history. Marking important events and how they’re perceived later on is an instinct. It felt important to remember, even if I hate remembering, in more detail than I’ve allowed myself to do in a really long time, and to record that remembrance.
Many of my students weren’t born yet when this happened. None of my campers were. This day is something that has shaped their lives, but they’re a step or two removed from its reality. They have no memory of a day that is in some ways so vivid in my recollection, and in some ways a blur, or even a void. (Trauma is weird). I wonder what context they have, what connections they see. They didn’t experience firsthand how that day changed what “patriotism” meant in a fundamental way, how it became a poison and a weapon (not for the first time; certainly it long has been for some communities, but in a way that seems more all-consuming, more a total paradigm shift). They didn’t live through the steps that took us, inexorably but not inevitably, from 9-11 to 1-6.
I don’t know why I wrote this, and so I don’t know how to end it. I suppose with a reminder that dissent is patriotic, that the best thing you can do for a nation you care about is hold it to account, and that my optimistic heart still believes it’s possible to change course from the one that fear put us on twenty years ago.
Running my Patreon for four years has been absolutely incredible. With nearly 700 posts and new material 2-4 times a week for everyone at the Patricians+ levels, this project has taken on a whole life of its own!
If you haven’t checked out my Patreon before, I invite you to watch my new introduction video! This will tell you a little about who I am, what I do, why I love Patreon as a platform, and what benefits members get.
This Special Offer will run from today, April 21st, Rome’s birthday, until May 13th, the last day of the Roman observance of the Lemuralia — because that’s the kind of nerd I am.
So what does this Special Offer entail?
1: Anyone who is a Patron as of May 13th will get a special social media shout-out!
I want to offer this to thank all of my patrons, no matter how long you’ve been with me! Any patron (who chooses to participate) will get a personalized shout-out from me on Twitter.
This can be for you yourself and/or for a cause of your choice — a charity you support, a GoFundMe you’d like to see fulfilled, a Kickstarter you want to see funded, a convention you want to draw attention to, anything like that. Or hey, if you want to make like it’s 1990s radio and have me dedicate a shout-out to someone special in your life, I’ll do that, too!
(Fine print: I do reserve the right not to shout-out causes I find morally repugnant. I’m pretty that no one who would support such causes would also be supporting me, considering I am Not Shy about my politics and moral compass, but I include this note for clarity’s sake).
After the Special Offer closes in May, I’ll share a Google Form so that you can let me know how you’d like your special thanks directed.
2: Special, limited-time sticker set!
Any new member who joins up between today and May 13th will get mailed these brand-new stickers I’ve designed to celebrate the world of Aven, as will anyone who increases their current pledge level in that time!
The first is based off of Rome’s unofficial motto, S.P.Q.R., which stands for “the Senate and the People of Rome”. It’s been used at least since 80 BCE to represent the government of Rome, and you can still see it all over the city on everything from money to manhole covers. It seemed reasonable to me that Aven would have adopted the same concept.
The second is of my own devising, for the Aventan mages: per nobis pro gentem means “through us, for the nation”. I played around with a few different mottos for them, but I landed on this one both because it’s nicely balanced and reflects common motto-structure, and because it reflects the civic responsibility that those blessed by the gods are supposed to demonstrate. (Although as readers of the Aven Cycle know, not all of them are as pious as they ought to be!)
3: If this Special Offer helps me cross my next Patreon Goal, I’ll design two more stickers!
They’ll also go to all new members and anyone who increased their pledge, and they will be rhetoric-themed! I’m not sure yet what they’ll look like — but maybe y’all will make me find out. 😉
Teasers and Temptations
Want to see some of the posts you’ll get if you pledge at the $5+ levels? Here are a few samples!
Back in November, I had the great joy of getting to “visit” (via video chat) a creative writing class at Clover Hill High School in Chesterfield County, VA — just south of where I grew up and currently live! They were participating in NaNoWriMo, and their teacher asked if I’d come speak as someone who had done Nano for a lot of years and was now living the writerly life. I was delighted to oblige.
Their questions were fantastic and thoughtful, and I really enjoyed chatting with them! With their teacher’s permission, I wanted to share some of those astute questions and my answers more publicly:
Did you start writing for fun or was this something you always wanted?
I’ve always been a storyteller, but when I was 11, I decided I wanted to be a novelist. Since then, there’s really been no stopping me. I don’t see writing for fun and writing professionally as mutually exclusive, though! I love the things I write professionally, but I also still write occasional fanfiction purely for my own pleasure.
Was there a particular teacher or friend or another person you knew personally that influenced you to become a writer?
I had several teachers who did a lot to boost my confidence. Bear O’Bryan, to whom From Unseen Fire is dedicated, was my creative writing teacher in high school. He was the first one to tell me that I could really, really do this. Actually, what he said was, “We’ll be studying you someday,” which I think is over-optimistic when it comes to literature classes’ general engagement with fantasy books, but! it was incredibly affirming to hear.
Do your parents support your writing? And if so, does that make things easier or harder on you?
This is an incredibly astute question from someone whom I am guessing has parents a lot like mine! Yes, my parents are incredibly supportive. They are my biggest fans and loudest cheerleaders. I am so, so grateful that for 24 years, they have believed in me and in my ability to do this. But it can be a weird sort of stressful, too! They love me so much that they can’t always understand why the rest of the world hasn’t caught on. I have to temper their expectations sometimes, which is hard when I also want to make them proud!
How do you get over writer’s block?
First, by not believing in it.
It’s like the Fae. If you name it, you give it power. If I’m having trouble focusing on writing, it usually means one of two things is going on: there’s something wrong with the story or there’s something wrong with me. If there’s something wrong with me — if I’m having a high anxiety day or a depressive fit, or if there’s something external with family or friends or work putting pressure on me, then I need to give myself room for that. Some days, the juice is just plain not there, and I can’t force it. If there’s something wrong with the story, then I need to figure out what that is. What pieces aren’t fitting together? What character is being railroaded into an action that isn’t right for them? Where am I going through contortions trying to justify a plot element?
So the better question is: How do I generate new words when I’m struggling and it isn’t a moment when I need to grant myself grace? When I need to buckle down but am having trouble doing so? There are a few things I try:
Change the scene: Sometimes I just need to jump to a new place in the narrative in order to reinvigorate my attention span.
Change the POV: Sometimes I’m trying to write a scene from the wrong character’s perspective — or I might have put them into a situation that’s wrong for them, an action that goes against the grain of their character.
Sprinting: This works particularly well during NaNo seasons, when there are word sprints on Twitter, but I can force myself to do it on my own using a good timing app.
How do you generate new ideas for writing?
Too few ideas has never been my problem. Too many is. I have to figure out what ideas are workable. That’s where the heavy lifting of being a writer comes in.
Where do I find inspiration? History and art. History is full of so many interesting stories, but what I really love is social history, how people have lived their lives throughout time. Art reflects that through a lot of lenses, cultural and aesthetic and political. I love looking at paintings and statues to see how artists represent themselves and the past, figuring out whether they’re presenting something realistic or idealized.
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
How much do you write in a day?
Utterly depends on the day and the kind of work I’m doing. During NaNoWriMo, the goal is 1667, and I usually do a pretty good job with that. Some days, I can go way past that, when I get into a really good flow. Other times, I might struggle to hit 200 in a day.
Editing is a different kind of work where the word count isn’t what’s important. I might be restructuring scenes, I might be condensing bloated scenes or plotlines, I might be staring at the screen trying to figure out what mystical ingredient I’m still missing that makes this perfect. That’s all work, too.
It’s important to remember, too, that “more words” does not always equal “better words”. A 2500 word day is not superior to a 200 word day if those 2500 words are self-indulgent padding or a pointless digression that I’ll end up cutting later on. The challenge is always finding the right words. I track my progress each day for the sake of accountability, to make sure I’m at my desk and focusing, but that can’t be the only measure I validate myself by.
Do you ever feel tired of writing?
I don’t think “tired of” is the right phrasing. I get frustrated with it, when I can’t figure out the solution to a plot problem. I get aggravated when the pieces aren’t coming together as well or as quickly as I’d like. And there’s a lot in the publishing realm that’s mentally and emotionally challenging in a whole different way, separate from the writing work itself.
There are times when I’m simply not in the right headspace to write. I have to acknowledge that and give myself room for it. When anxiety and depression are eating me, or when I have 80 papers to grade in a short span of time, or when, for instance, armed maniacs storm the Capitol and try to dismantle our republic, I have to give myself permission to have “off” days!
What’s the process for publishing a book and what’s necessary in order to get it ready for publication?
So, a caveat: This will look different for everyone. No one’s path is exactly the same as anyone else’s. I’ll also be talking about traditional publishing, which is different from the process for a hybrid author or a self-publishing author.
Write the book. Edit it. Get some beta readers — people who will read the book carefully and give you thoughtful commentary on it. (There are helpful guides online if you’re not sure what to ask them!) Edit it some more based on their feedback.
Query an agent. There’s a lot of advice out there on how to do this; broadly you want to make sure you’re choosing agents who are right for you and your book (ie, don’t query someone who doesn’t represent your genre) and you want to follow whatever guidelines are on their website. They may request either a partial or a full manuscript if they want to see more.
If you get signed, they may or may not take the book out “on sub” immediately. “On sub” means that your agent is submitting your book to editors at publishing houses. My agent, Connor, is an editorial agent; we did months’ worth of edits on From Unseen Fire before he took it out — and then we did some more when the first round of submissions didn’t land us a deal.
When an editor likes your book, they may still have to justify that to a board for approval. If the board says no, there’s still no deal. This happened to me; it happens to lots of authors. I mention it because it’s a part of the process that not many people talk about publicly, but it can be so nerve-wracking to wait for that news. I wish there were more resources preparing authors for being on sub the way there are so many resources for querying.
When an editor makes an offer, your agent will negotiate the contract. Connor got me a 3-book deal off of one manuscript and managed to hold onto audio and other rights so that we could sell those separately.
Then the editor has at it. You’ll generally have several rounds of editing, starting with developmental edits, which covers the big structural stuff — plotlines, character arcs, pacing, etc. There may be a lot or a little to work on there! From Unseen Fire still needed heavy lifting when it got acquired; Give Way to Night was already tighter by the time my editor saw it. Then, line edits, which addresses your word choice, sentence flow, the detailed stuff. Copy edits check for errors and consistency. Then, finally, proofreading makes sure the print copy is going to look exactly the way you want it to! (In theory; the occasional typo will still get through even if many eyes have been on it!)
Somewhere in there, you start talking about cover art, jacket copy, getting blurbs, and it’s all quite terrifying, because that’s when it starts to hit you that this is real and really happening and actual people are going to read it.
How long did it take you to write From Unseen Fire? How about Give Way to Night?
The drafting of FUF began in November 2011 (it was a Nano project!), and I finished it in June of the following year. Not every month was a heavy writing month — I feel like March and April I really slacked off because they were such busy months where I was working then. And then it took the rest of that year to edit into a shape that was ready for querying. Edits happened with both Connor and the DAW team, so it was almost six and a half years from initial drafting to on-the-shelf.
GWtN took longer to draft, even though the overall process was shorter. Some of that material was stuff that had been excised from FUF, so you’d think I’d have a head start — but so much of FUF changed during various rounds of editing that not much was useable as-is. I had to do a lot of alteration of that material to make it fit the new arcs. Then, I was also trying to write it during what was a very difficult year for me personally — and as a result, it took a long time to write what was not a very good book on the first try. The revision took about another six months, and that was much better, much stronger. I learned a lot through that whole process, with the result that I think Give Way to Night is an even better book than From Unseen Fire.
What’s the difference between writing the first book and then the second one?
Expectations. The first book, I wrote with a lot of hope, but with no one’s voice in my head but me. The second book, suddenly there are all these other voices. I was trying to make so many people happy — not just me, not even just my editor, but everyone who had read From Unseen Fire. I wanted to improve the things they thought were weak and give them more of what they thought were strong.
The problem, of course, is that not all readers agreed! I got really self-conscious about the things that readers criticized, but it was almost harder when there was, say, a character that some readers loved and others thought was pointless and boring. What do I do with that??The answer: Ignore it.
This is part of what took Give Way to Night so long to draft on the first go. I hadn’t yet learned how to tune out all that extra noise. I had to recommit myself to telling the story I wanted to tell.
I also learned my lesson about reading reviews. I don’t do it anymore. I have someone I trust look at them for me occasionally and send me the best comments.
Is it scary putting writing out there in the world and waiting for people to respond to it?
Yes. Horrifying. That in-between place when it’s done and dusted but no one’s read it yet is an absolute nightmare, because at that point, it’s out of my control. All I can do is hope I wrote a strong book.
Worldbuilding is a really big task and can be as detailed as an author wants. Where do you typically start when building a world (setting, character, theme, etc.)?
I tend to begin with an aesthetic. I have a sense of what the world looks like. That’s typically influenced by history. For the Aven Cycle, it’s late Republic Rome. For other projects I currently have on the back burner, it’s late-medieval Byzantium and early modern London. Then I start putting together characters to move around inside that world. I may still be designing the world at the same time! But I sort of build the dollhouse and the dolls simultaneously. One informs the other so much that it’s difficult to pull apart.
Is it difficult to keep track of character development from one novel to another?
No. Not for me, at least. Other authors’ mileage may certainly vary. I know who my characters are. If I have one particular strength as a writer, I think that’s it. So I have a strong sense of who they are at any given point in time, how they respond to pressure points, how they developed as they grew older, what they’ll grow into in the future, all of that. I can manipulate the world around them and easily see how they’ll react.
Now — Keeping track of eye color, ages, things like that, yes, that can be rough, especially for the tertiary and functionary characters that I spend less time with. I have spreadsheets for that and I still screw it up.
How do you write about characters or worlds that you haven’t experienced yourself?
A lot of research. Never-ending research, really, because it’s not just research about one historical period or place; it’s research about people and how we live. I try to expose myself to new ideas and to stories outside of my own life experience, so that I get a broader view of what moves and shakes people. I read a lot, fiction and nonfiction. I listen to a lot of podcasts. I never want to stop learning.
Thanks again to the students of Clover Hill for such wonderful questions! I hope my answers were in some way helpful.
Did you know? My supporters on Patreon get early access to posts like this, as well as weekly microfiction, explorations of rhetoric, behind-the-page shop talk, sneak peeks, and much more! Join for just $3/month to get access to the full feed!
Give Way to Night has been out for a month now! If you’ve had the chance to read it, be sure to leave a review on Goodreads, Amazon, Bookshop, B&N, and/or StoryGraph. Every little bit helps to introduce new readers to the world of Aven.
And if you haven’t picked up a copy yet, I know lots of booksellers who would be delighted to help you procure it! One More Page Books in Arlington, VA and the Island Bookstore on the Outer Banks of NC both have signed copies, and they’ll ship anywhere — or you can use Bookshop and still support indie bookstores!
I’ve been busy with some interviews and guest blogs to celebrate Give Way to Night‘s release. These are truly so much fun! I love talking about writing, and while it’s not quite the same as having an in-person event or a empaneling at a con, it does have the advantage of being available anywhere, any time. In case you missed any of them, here’s a round-up:
I am well into drafting Book 3 and hope to have that off to my editor relatively soon! Since January 20th, I dunno, it just feels like some massive psychic weight has lifted and I might be able to get some more solid work done? I certainly remember how I used to write, before 2016. If I can recapture that degree of focus, then the stories will start rolling fast and fierce!
[ETA March 2021: My page statistics suggest that a lot of readers may be finding this article through searches they’re doing for school. Wonderful! I’m so glad you’re here. If you’re in search of other rhetorical resources, I’ve recommended some of my favorites down in the comments. I do want to caution all students, however, that this blog post is exactly the sort of thing that will turn up on your teacher’s plagiarism checker! I’m happy to be a source, but be sure to use good citation practices.]
First things first: This poem is so good that when I finished the initial rhetorical markup, I felt buzzed. As much as I love rhetoric, that dopamine/endorphin/adrenaline rush doesn’t happen every time. Julius Caesar‘s “Friends, Romans, countrymen”. Richard II‘s deposition. Hamilton’s “Satisfied” and “Burn”. Every once in a while, the language is just so gorgeous that I swoon.
I will not have found every device worth noting in this poem. I imagine that for decades to come, I will be able to return to it and unfold a little more of its intricate beauty. Amanda Gorman has a delightful grasp of rhythm and imagery and the awesome power of our language’s flexibility and potential complexities. And she’s only twenty-two. Mercy sweet heavens, I cannot wait to see what else she gives us.
The dominant devices in “The Hill We Climb” are consonance and paromoiosis, both figures of repetition. Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds;paromoiosis is a little more complex, the repetition of sounds between words of adjacent or parallel clauses or lines. It is partly rhyme, partly slant rhyme, but importantly the combination of rhyme and some level of isocolon, parallel structure. I usually look at isocolon as a grammatical device, but in this sense, we might also consider it a metrical device, where the parallelism lives in cadence in addition to or instead of in grammar alone. Paromoiosis is, broadly, that not-quite-rhyme sense, highlighted by parallel structure. It’s the crash of waves within the larger motion of the tide.
Paromoiosis is what makes the poem feel “lyrical”, but it isn’t only aurally pleasing. Like many devices of parallelism, it will help you hear the equations as Gorman builds them and will call your attention to the ideas she is linking together. I won’t point out every instance of consonance and paromoiosis, because there are so very many of them, but I will draw attention to the uses that have a particular impact.
One more note before I dive in: I’ve seen a few different transcriptions of “The Hill We Climb” out there on the internet, and there are some slight variations between them. I’m using this one, but it may well not be definitive, so forgive me any minor deviations between this and the official, finalized version, which I suspect we will see in Gorman’s upcoming book. (Have you pre-ordered? I have!)
Gorman opens with aporia, a question which asks the audience the best way to go about something. In this, she presents her central concern: how do we move forward now, at this moment in time, from a past that has often been so dark? The antithesis (arrangement of contrast) between light/shade and the metaphor of the day breaking are important to a rhetorical concept known as kairos: the idea of the moment in which a text occurs. Kairos takes into account the occasion, the needs of the moment, and the greater social/cultural/political context. Here, the day/light imagery places “The Hill We Climb” squarely within the canon of the Biden administration: consider Biden’s inauguration morning tweet or some of the music played during the evening’s “Celebrating America” event (Jon Bon Jovi’s rendition of “Here Comes the Sun” and John Legend’s performance of “Feeling Good” were my favorites). Certainly Biden is not the first president to wield this particular metaphor, nor does it guarantee a sunnier period of time to follow — consider Reagan’s “Morning in America” campaign — but it is nonetheless both powerful in its own right and a thread that links much of the art surrounding this political moment.
The next two lines branch into other metaphors: there’s something interesting about “a loss we carry”, something that has weight and proves a burden through absence rather than presence. “A sea we must wade” also has conceptual curiosity inside it. A sea, after all, is not something you wade across. You might wade in the shallows, perhaps, but that’s not quite the force that the verb takes here. “Wade”, then, becomes meiosis, a reference to something with a name disproportionately lesser than its nature. Gorman does not say “a sea we must sail” or “navigate” or even “swim” — but “wade”, suggesting that the problem is perhaps both greater and lesser than we imagine. Wading is something done slowly, your leg muscles pumping against the water and perhaps the undertow — but it is not something you can do if you are, say, drowning.
The next two lines introduce some of the figures of repetition we’ll see throughout the poem, notably the consonance I’ve mentioned already and the devices of anaphora, repetition at the beginning of lines or phrases, and isocolon, parallel structure, typically a device of syntax. Anaphora and isocolon often work together, as they do in “We’ve braved”/”We’ve learned”. The metaphor of “the belly of the beast” following the imagery of the sea made me think of the trial of Jonah and the whale; I’m not sure if Gorman intended that particular connection or not, but if so, it becomes anamnesis, a reference which calls to mind past matters or another author.
The next few lines contain a particularly gorgeous arrangement. “What just is isn’t always justice” has a few different things going on. The repetition of “isn’t always” from the prior line is ploce, unstructured repetition of words. We see conceptual chiasmus, one of my favorite devices, in “what-is-isn’t-justice”. Chiasmus is, as I’ve noted elsewhere, a device which ties a knot, repeating either ideas or grammatical construction in A-B-B-A order. Sometimes that reflects a thorny issue, a character tangled up in a problem; sometimes it ties things off neatly, putting a bow on the issue. Here, I think we see a bit of both. America is a thorny problem, all over, but reducing the arrangement to its key words, “what is isn’t justice”, well, that does sum the problem up succinctly. It’s also very nearly antimetabole, which is a specific form of chiasmus repeating exact words in A-B-B-A order — and that takes us to the other clever wordplay that Gorman works into this arrangement.
“Just is” and “justice” are nearly sound-alikes, and Gorman links them by placing them in parallel position to each other (at the end of the lines and as balancing figures within the chiasmus) as well as through antisthecon, a device which substitutes a sound within a word. The harder “z” in “is” transforms to the softer “s” sound in “justice”. I would also argue that this transformation gives us an aural antanaclasis. Antanaclasis is a device which repeats the same word with a different meaning. A famous example is in Othello: “Put out the light, and then put out the light”, where the first “light” is literal, the candle or lantern he carries, and the second is metaphorical, Desdemona’s life. “Just is” and “justice” are obviously not exactly the same word, but the auditory effect is, I feel, the same. We are meant to hear them as equal, but not.
With “and yet the dawn is ours”, Gorman signals a move into the next phase of the poem, both recalling the imagery from earlier and stepping forward to acknowledge the present and future. “Before we knew it. / Somehow we do it” gives us the first paromoiosis, and I like that this one also shows us a progression from the past tense verb “knew” to the present tense “do”. The anaphora on “Somehow” carries us to the next thought, which similarly acknowledges that past/present/future tension in the comparison between “broken” and “unfinished” (syncrisis rather than antithesis, for the two items are not really in opposition to each other).
You may notice that I mark a lot of small omissions as either ellipsis or zeugma, and often I won’t comment on them. Ellipsis is a simple omission of a word or phrase easily understood in context. Zeugma is a device with multiple and sometimes competing definitions. The one I use is grammatical: one part of speech governs two or more others. From Cicero: “Lust conquered shame; audacity, fear; madness, reason.” The verb “conquered” is omitted from the subsequent occurrences. (This is why I consider it a device of Omission under my ROADS system, though you could certainly make an argument for Direction).
Another definition of zeugma, though, conflates it with syllepsis, which I consider to be a form of zeugma. In syllepsis, the governing word must be understood differently with regard to each thing it governs. From Alanis Morissette: “You held your breath and the door for me.” The verb “held” has a slightly different context as applied to “breath” or “the door”. It’s like antanaclasis, only you don’t actually repeat the word.
Anyway — here, “a nation” is the object attached to both the verbs “weathered” and “witnessed”. That I’ve marked it hypozeugma refers to the position of the governing word (here, at the end). Is it syllepsis? My instinct is yes, though I can’t quite unpack why I feel that we “weather” and “witness” a nation in different senses. Complicating the matter is that “nation” is synecdoche. Typical use of synecdoche is where a part stands in for a whole; here, the whole stands in for its parts. We cannot, really, witness a nation. A nation isn’t really a thing. It is always a sum of parts. What we both weather and witness, then, are the actions of the people who comprise the nation.
We see a form of zeugma again in the next line, “successors of a country and a time”, before Gorman moves into a short self-identification. She does this through enallage, a device which substitutes semantically equivalent but grammatically different constructions. Here, the use of the third person rather than the first. That substitution broadens her message: she is not only telling her own story, but a story in which other skinny Black girls might see themselves, too. The descriptions are short but powerful: “skinny Black” is simple enargia, a generic term for description; “descended from slaves and raised by a single mother” is appositio, the addition of a corollary, explanatory, or descriptive element. What makes it so rhetorically elegant, though, is the antithesis of “descended/raised” within that line, particularly since the contrast rests on secondary meanings of the words rather than only their strict function in the sentence. A small flourish, but the sort that I go absolutely giddy for.
The next stanza (of sorts; no transcription I’ve seen actually breaks the poem into stanzas, but I’m going to apply the term to where there are conceptual and lyrical breaks or shifts) echoes the prior, as the opening “And yes” forms paromoiosis with “and yet”. “Far from polished/far from pristine” has nice isocolon and consonance, but also strikes me as epanorthosis, an addition that amends to correct or make more vehement. “Pristine” is a more intense descriptor than “polished”.
The anamnesis to the Preamble of the Constitution inherent in “form a union that is perfect” is lovely. Gorman invites the listeners to think of the phrase she’s not-quite-quoting, but by leaving out “more”, she leaves herself room to explore the act of that striving —
–so that we get more nice repetitions echoing in the next line. Again, it’s syncrisis, ideas not precisely in opposition, but compared. We can never form a perfect union, between human foibles and the idea of what’s “perfect” always changing. But we can put in the work (and “forge” is such a great word there, invoking a craft that is so physical a labor) to create a society that has been purposefully constructed.
Gorman really lets the consonance off the leash in the next couple of lines, such that it becomes paroemion, where the consonance involves nearly every word in the sentence. The items in the series are taxis, a device which divides a subject (the country) up into its constituting parts (culture, colors, characters, conditions — all those things implied by the synecdoche of “nation” we saw before).
“And so” doesn’t quite pick up the “And yet/and yes” aural echo, but it’s still launching us into this next stanza. “What stands between us/what stands before us” is a lovely pairing of antithesis and isocolon, again hitting that idea of the present as compared to the potential of the future — a theme Gorman will open up more in the next few lines.
The conceptual chiasmus of “close the divide (action on a breach) – our future first (communal noun and primacy) – we must first (communal noun and primacy) – put differences aside (action on a breach)” is augmented by the consonance of f-sounds and the unstructured repetition of “first”, as well as the paromoiosis in “close the divide” and “differences aside”.
The next two lines give as fine an example of antanaclasis as you could ask for: “arms” as in “weapons” and “arms” as in brachial limbs. That balance is augmented by the isocolon of the phrases, the antithesis between “lay down” and “reach out”, as well as epistrophe, repetition at the end of the line (which I mis-wrote as epizeuxis in the markup there; ignore that). “Harm to none and harmony to all” has a similar balance to it, and again Gorman is playing with words. Rather than substituting a sound as in “just is/justice”, here she adds to the word to make “harm” into “harmony”; adding that sound is a device known as paragoge.
Notice, too, the anaphora/isocolon in the way each of these sentences begin: “We close”, “We lay”, “We seek”. This “we [verb]” pattern is one that Gorman returns to throughout the poem, stressing both the communal nature of what’s important here and the active quality.
Again we see synecdoche of a whole standing in for its parts: now the “globe” rather than only the “nation”. Then Gorman launches into a beautiful auxesis, a series which builds to a climax, augmented by isocolon, anaphora (“That even as”), and consonance throughout (grieved/grew, hurt/hoped, tired/tried). The last of those pairs is also another sound-shifting device, this time metathesis, transposition of letters within a word.
After three lines of parallel structure, the fourth is unlike the others, but connected through the “That” anaphora — and this is the line that gives us the climactic point, bringing us from the past to the future. We get a little bit of hyperbaton, syntactical disorder, a device common in Shakespeare but less so in modern English, as the usual phrase would be “we’ll be tied together forever”, but Gorman moves “forever” up, which better balances the aural quality of the line, I think. “Tied” transmutes the “tired/tried” pairing yet again, this time through syncope, the omission of a sound. “Victorious” is a small appositio, describing the condition of being tied together, and then Gorman follows up that addition with another, longer qualification.
Those next two lines are aetiologia, a figure of reasoning that explicates a cause for a given effect. If the effect is that “we’ll forever be tied together, victorious”, the cause is in the difference between defeat and division. Again, Gorman stresses that difference between a perfect union and a purposeful one. The lines are balanced through isocolon and antithesis, as well as mesodiplosis, the repetition of the same words in the middle of a line (“we will never again”).
The next section begins a new thought, but it’s tied to what came before through homoioteleuton, a device I am guaranteed to never spell correctly on the first try. Homoioteleuton is much simpler than it sounds: the similarity of endings in adjacent or parallel words: here, “division/envision”.
The “vine and fig tree” allusion is anamnesis on multiple levels. Gorman has acknowledged it as an easter egg for “One Last Time” from Hamilton; through that, it is also an allusion to George Washington, who used the phrase in his letters often, and to Washington’s original source, the Bible. Gorman thus positions herself in this literary heritage and positions this poem’s kairos as part of the ongoing American and human experiences.
“Own time” forms paromoiosis with “own vine”, which is a marvelously subtle way of transitioning to her next thought: “victory” picks up from “victorious” several lines earlier, through polyptoton, the repetition of a word in a different grammatical form.
Gorman echoes her “arms” dichotomy with the antithesis of “blade/bridges”. I absolutely love the phrase “promise to glade”. She elides a bit: “the promise we make to the glade” would likely be the full expression, but in condensing it, she’s given us something delicate and beautiful, like a seed to nourish. Too, she has personified the glade, that idea of the place of the vine and fig tree, as something you can make a promise to. Personification is known as prosopopoeia; Gorman endows the dual idea of the land itself and the vision of the future with human qualities.
Then, the poem’s title, “the hill we climb”, comes in through exergasia, the repetition of the same idea in new words. Much of this poem, really, is exergasia in a broader sense, but here Gorman immediately augments the “glade” with the “hill”.
The past/present/future progression continues in the next stanza, as Gorman imagines us not only receiving the past (“a pride we inherit”) but also participating in it (“the past we step into”). “Repair it/inherit” gives us another nice paromoioisis, underscoring that weaving together of history and modernity, which then brings Gorman to the immediate past.
Again, kairos is important. Though Gorman never names the insurrection or those who participated in it or prompted it, everyone watching knew exactly what she meant by “a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it”. That awareness was heightened by her physical location at the time she delivered this poem: on the very west front of the Capitol, which two weeks earlier had been stormed by terrorists. Both verbally and visually, Gorman participated in a reclamation of that space for the America she describes as being possible, the forged union of purpose.
Zeugma carries the “force” down from the antithesis of shatter/share into the next line, “would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy”. The following line, “and this effort very nearly succeeded”, is almost jarring in its simplicity, lack of rhetoricity, and lack of lyrical connection to what precedes. That feels deliberate. It is a line meant to shock recognition into us, to remind us that the reclamation was by no means certain.
But, Gorman reminds us, “while democracy can be periodically delayed / it can never be permanently defeated”. Apart from the ploce of certain words, the consonance of th e”d” sound, and the paromoiosis, I feel like there might be a bit of anamnesis in here, too. The “delayed/defeated” phrasing and the general cadence reminded me of the legal maxim “Justice delayed is justice denied”.
I ought to have marked “in this faith” as exergasia on “in this truth”; together, they are part of a hyperbaton as well as a hypozeugma. There may be anamnesis there, too, as the form “in [blank] we trust” recalls the nation’s motto “in God we trust”.
(As a sidebar, could we as a nation please ditch the Red Scare era religiosity and go back to e pluribus unum? Such a better aspiration — and something which speaks to communal effort, not fatalism)
Another Hamilton easter egg follows in the anamnesis of “history has its eyes on us” (“on you” in the musical). This line personifies history (prosopopoeia again) and also gives us another chiasmus: “eyes – future (temporal state) – history (temporal state) – eyes”.
Gorman now start threading together many of her themes: the idea of what is just or justice returns through ploce; the common responsibility rises in “on us”, “we feared”, “we did not”; the past-future connection shows in “heirs”. We get homoioteleuton in “redemption/inception”, polyptoton of “inherit” from several lines back into “heirs”, and meiosis of “hour” to describe not only the very long day of the insurrection but this whole era of American history we must confront.
I really love the line “we did not feel prepared to be the heirs of such a terrifying hour”. That fear, I think, is a feeling many of us have had, whatever our age, when we have to confront the idea that this nation is not guaranteed. Democracy is not safe if left unattended. It is a fragile and delicate thing which requires so much hard work — but Gorman is optimistic about our ability to keep it going. Paromoiosis links “power” to “hour”, and she does one of my favorite things for a writer to do when she makes a metaphor about writing in “author a new chapter”.
These lines form a nice little capsule all on their own. We get antithesis of “once we asked” and “now we assert”, contrasting not only the past with the present, but question with declaration, and thus uncertainty with certainty. Then, antimetabole: “prevail-catastrophe-catastrophe-prevail”.
The “we [verb]” structure continues, as it has throughout the poem, in “we will not march”, and we have more antithesis between “march back/move to” and “what was/what shall be”. Gorman then describes for us what, exactly, shall be, in an act of chorographia, the description of a nation. (The whole poem, in a sense, is that, too, but here we have it in miniature). “Bruised but whole” and “benevolent but bold” I ought to have marked as syncrisis, since they are comparative but not necessarily contrasting terms. I love that she puts two “but”s in a row and then caps it off with an “and”; it makes a nice progression within the description.
The next few lines have neat little anaphora, this time not of a full word or phrase, but of the prefix “in-”. Gorman returns to the idea of “inheritance” again, this time thinking not about what we have been heir to but what we will leave for others. “Blunders/burdens” is another syncrisis, and once with a sense of escalation in it. A blunder is a mistake, a slip, an error, something that arises not through ill intent but through incaution; but it can create misery down the line, growing exponentially as it gets passed down if it isn’t (as Gorman noted earlier) repaired.
Her cadence is really starting to gallop here. It starts in the chorographia, and as we charge into the four lines beginning “If we merge”, the pace becomes relentless, and Gorman drives that home through the rest of the work. We have lots of little devices of repetition throughout these lines, as you can see: we also get a neat new one, anadiplosis, the repetition of the same word at the end of one line and the beginning of the next. Anadiplosis has a laddering effect, an apt device for a poem with much imagery of building and climbing. I think all the intertwined consonance augments that effect, too, one idea building upon the previous and laying the ground for the next.
“Legacy/birthright” hearkens to the past/future dichotomy again, as does the chiasmus of “leave behind-country-one-left with”. I know I go on about this a lot, but chiastic structure is so beautiful. I love what it does to cadence; I love how it ties ideas together. Chiasmus is satisfying; that bobbing in-and-out sensation feels secure, somehow. It lands in a way that echoes the confident optimism that courses through this whole poem. Because so many of these things aren’t certain or secure, of course — but if we “author the next chapter”, if we write them into the future, then they can become so.
“Bronze-pounded chest” is just a hell of a phrase. Turning the noun-verb pair of “bronze-pounded” into an adjective is anthimeria, another favorite device of mine, which transmutes a word from one part of speech to another. It recalls, too, the language of the “forge” from earlier in the poem — something that is a labor, that takes time and effort to construct. It calls up imagery of armor, a bronze cuirass protecting the heart. It calls up imagery of statues. And yet it has breath; it’s not something metal, it’s something that lives.
And then she kicks off an absolutely astonishing sequence that’s doing so many things at once. This is one of the places where I just about swooned. So many of the devices Gorman has shown us so far, she showcases simultaneously in this sequence.
So. She returns to chorographia, this time describing the nation in more detail, region by region.
There is syncope and paraomoiosis when “we will raise” turns into “we will rise”; there is anaphora in the repetition of “we will rise” at the beginning of successive lines, driving the point home.
There is auxesis, in that it will build to the climactic idea of “every known nook of our nation and every corner called country”; there is taxis in that it considers each region as a component of the whole.
There is prosopopoeia in “gold-limbed hills”, giving the west a body; there is enargia in the descriptions of the northeast as “windswept” and the south as “sunbaked”; there is appositio in further describing the northeast as “where our forefathers first realized revolution”; there is epitheton (a pithy descriptor, as in “rosy-fingered dawn”) in “lake-rimmed cities”.
Those descriptors then form a grammatical synchysis stretching across the lines, which is A-B-A-B structure (as opposed to the A-B-B-A of chiasmus). Gorman alternates the hyphenated descriptors with the single-word ones: “gold-limbed – windswept – lake-rimmed – sunbaked”. (Note that this is one definition of synchysis; another is less organized, taking hyperbaton to extreme disorder. In this use, however, the device is purposeful).
And then, not quite content with that big auxesis of the regions, Gorman embeds another one in “rebuild-reconcile-recover”, with the series augmented by anaphora/consonance.
She gives us no time to breathe, charging onward: the consonance in “known nook of our nation” and “corner called our country” recall phrases from earlier in the poem. Hyperbaton places “people” ahead of its descriptors “diverse and beautiful”, and then she adds through appositio/epanorthosis: “battered and beautiful”. One does not negate the other.
In the last part of the poem, Gorman returns to her opening metaphor and opening day/shade antithesis. It is not a question now, but an assertion, just as in the “once we asked/now we assert” lines. We will step out of the shade. In appositio, Gorman tells us that it is not just light but “aflame”, drawing even stronger contrast between the light and the dark. That also indicates that we are the source of the light — which I feel is a pretty big message! And she’s gonna hammer that home in her final lines.
The idea that the “dawn blooms” is catachresis, a misapplication of words that nonetheless makes a certain degree of sense. Dawn breaks; flowers bloom; yet somehow the words feel right together. It’s the sun, after all, that encourages the flowers to bloom. Notice that we are active here, too! Day comes “as we free it” — and that “free it” sets up the paromoioisis that makes her final couplet so strong and memorable.
The last three lines are epitasis, her summary of the message of the whole poem, neatly encapsulated. The last two lines rely on repetition, with only one word different. That difference feels like epanorthosis: a correction that makes the message more vehement and reminds us of our duty. It’s not enough to see the light; we must be it.
So! That is my initial analysis of this truly dazzling poem. As I said at the top, I imagine I will look on this again and see different bits of excellent wordcraft as I return to it with fresh eyes in the future. “The Hill We Climb” is a magnificent work, and I very much hope teachers are already making adjustments to place it in their curricula.
If you’ve enjoyed this rhetorical analysis, it’s the sort of thing I do every week over on Patreon! Pledging at $1/month gets you immediate access to the full Hamilblog, a breakdown of every song in Hamilton, as well as the ongoing Shakesblog, where I’m working my way through Romeo and Juliet, and any other works that I do in-between the primary projects.
Last week, I received unfortunate but not unexpected news: RavenCon, my hometown SFF con, is having to cancel in 2021. Their dates are in April, and with a vaccine not likely to be available to the general population until summer, there’s really no way to hold the event safely; furthermore, Virginia is currently tightening strictures on large gatherings (as well they should), and there’s no telling when they might open back up. It’s the right choice; it’s the necessary choice; it’s an expected choice. It’s still sad, and I will miss seeing everyone in April.
RavenCon is one of the first conventions having to face the unfortunate reality of missing two years due to the pandemic, as their April date means they were one of the first to have to cancel in 2020. I want to make sure that we can come back strong in 2022.
That’s why I donated a story to the Corvid-19 anthology! Yes, you read that right; Corvid-19. Every story in this 210-page anthology features, in some way, the corvidae family of birds: ravens, magpies, crows, coughs, the whole lot.
This benefit anthology has just launched on Kickstarter! In addition to digital or print copies of the anthology, you can also claim benefits ranging from RavenCon buttons and stickers to Tuckerizations (getting your name in a published book as a character), writing critiques, or a bundle of the books which were nominated for the Webster Award.
My contribution to Corvid-19 is an Aven Cycle exclusive short story. The main character is no one you’ll see in the novels — though you may recognize her from the Mages of Aven microfiction series, if you’re a Patreon backer. Her story takes place before From Unseen Fire begins, and it also includes a rendition of the founding of Aven. Have you ever wondered why Aven is Aven, and not Rome? Well, here’s your chance to learn the answer!
I’ve also had a sneak peek at the other entries in the anthology, and they’re delightful. Drawing on ancient myths and modern science, exploring a variety of speculative styles, there’s truly a story in here to delight any fancy.
So I encourage everyone to back this Kickstarter! Not only will you be getting some smashing fiction, you’ll be helping a local con survive this pandemic so that we can gather together in 2022!
I am beyond delighted to announce that From Unseen Fire has won this year’s Webster Award, bestowed by RavenCon in recognition of “outstanding achievement in genre writing by a Virginia author”! Thank you to everyone who has supported this book and shared the love!
And if you haven’t read From Unseen Fire yet — you’re in luck! My publisher is currently running a sweepstakes!
Click through here to enter! There’s plenty of time to get caught up on the world of Aven before Give Way to Night comes out on December 29th. And if you have already read From Unseen Fire? Enter the sweepstakes and maybe you’ll win a copy to give to a friend! ;D
A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled across a Tumblr thread that made me incandescent with rage; I remain tweaked enough about it to make this worth posting. If you follow me on Twitter, you may have seen my initial rant on the topic. It involved a new trend among fanfiction writers to charge commissions for writing fic.
I went down a rabbit hole. I shouldn’t have, because all it did was make me livid. Some of the arguments were so staggeringly entitled. Just breathtaking.
Y-Yes? Fanfiction should remain free. It has to.
It’s wild to me that one type of entitlement seems to be responding to another. If people are really bitching and moaning because they can’t find fics specifically catered to them — Well, they’ve misunderstood what’s going on. Fanfiction is such a gorgeous thing precisely because it’s born out of a writer’s relationship with the original work. You as a reader don’t get to demand that their relationship be what you want it to be. You go looking for what’s there and hopefully find something to delight you. You are accepting gifts that the writers have put out there for anyone who wants to enjoy them.
Now, there have always been fic exchanges and such where requests may be filled, but that’s still happening in the spirit of sharing mutually in excitement over the source material. Outside of that, if you can’t find exactly the fic that tickles your fancy, the answer has always been: Write it yourself!
The solution is not to decide people should accept commissions for derivative work!
I feel like these are the same people who defend piracy with the “all knowledge should be free, I’m just sticking it to The Man” arguments — which are equally ill-informed, ignorant, and just a cover for selfishness. (I’m restraining the impulse to delve into that tangent for the moment, but just know, given the current shape of how writers are compensated and in lieu of a currency-free society a la Star Trek, there is absolutely no ethical justification for book piracy). Apart from the illegality, your actions are not going to hurt the people you think you’re hurting. Accepting commissions for fanfic jeopardizes sites like AO3 and undermines the entire foundation that allows fanfic to exist for public consumption in the first place.
And then there’s nonsense like this:
Sugarplum, d’you know why we don’t have a platform like that? Why we cannot, should not, must not have a platform like that?
Fair Use is the legal defense against accusations of copyright infringement that protects, among other things, satire and educational use of materials. Whether or not it applies to fanfiction is, honestly, murky at best. To my knowledge, no statute has yet added fanfiction to the list of things explicitly protected by Fair Use. It’s just the best defense we currently have.
Here’s what the Organization for Transformative Works, the company that runs AO3, has to say about it:
What exactly is fair use?
Fair use is the right to make some use of copyrighted material without getting permission or paying. It is a basic limit on copyright law that protects free expression. “Fair use” is an American phrase, although all copyright laws have some limits that keep copyright from being private censorship.
Fair use favors uses that (1) are noncommercial and not sold for a profit; (2) are transformative, adding new meaning and messages to the original; (3) are limited, not copying the entirety of the original; and (4) do not substitute for the original work.
It’s worth noting that I’m largely talking about US law here, though I believe the UK has similar statutes and understanding of derivative works. Fanlore has a lot more in-depth information, but at the base of it all is this: the current Fair Use defense depends upon not profiting from the derivative work.
Case law has seen mixed results, and when the authors of derivative works have prevailed, that has usually hinged on the critical or parodic nature of the derivative work. While the OTW argues that fanfiction is sufficiently transformative by nature, providing a commentary on the original works, that has by no means been settled into law. Copyright holders and publishing houses simply have not chosen, in most cases, to press the point. But if you start profiting off of your derivative works? If that becomes a common trend? If you have the utter gall to try and build a website based on that concept? You will be baiting them to come after you — or decide to use your infringement as a reason to screw over a content creator.
Here is my authorial understanding of the issue with copyright law and fanfiction (with the caveat that I am not a lawyer): The reason many authors still won’t take a public stance condoning fanfiction and why almost no author will read fanfiction of their own works? Is because of the legal jeopardy it can put them in. If an author is considered to have abandoned their copyright, their intellectual property can be redistributed. Not defending against infringements — like fanfiction that violates Fair Use! — can be grounds for being considered to have abandoned copyright.
It is not impossible to imagine a situation where an author, “failing” to defend against copyright infringement perpetuated by someone taking commissions for fic based on their work, has their IP taken off of them and handed to another writer. Now imagine a publishing house doing that to an author who is a member of a marginalized community and handing their characters and ideas off to a more popular author (who is likely not of that marginalized community). It’s not impossible. It might not even be improbable. A lot of publishing “wisdom” already purports that there’s more value to be found in piling all your eggs into a basket of proven ROI. You see it in how it’s the already-successful authors who receive the largest advances and the heftiest marketing budgets. Fanfic commissions, like piracy, could directly jeopardize the original content creators — but they’re not going to hurt The Man a bit. If anything, they just hand the Powers That Be more tools they can use to control who gets to produce what kinds of content.
“But Cass?” some people may be thinking. “You’re a professional writer. Surely you agree that writers deserve to be paid for their work?”
Well. Yes. They deserve to be paid for their work. Derivative works are not the same. And I say this as someone who’s written derivative works for a very, very long time. Longer than these commission-hungry ficcers have been alive. I know the difference between work I do as a hobby and work I do as a job — The same way that if you cook a meal for your family and friends, you don’t expect to be paid for it, but if a caterer prepares that meal, you’d damn well better pay them. Now, maybe your friends and family reward you in some other fashion — cooking for you at another time, bringing wine, bringing dessert, etc — but that’s not payment. You’re not doing it to get paid; you’re doing it to share joy.
Fanfiction is supposed to be an act of joy.
I mean, it might be rage-joy, as you reclaim what you believe the source material has irredeemably destroyed. As I’ve said before, sometimes fanfic is a love letter to canon, sometimes it’s a strongly worded letter of correction, and sometimes it’s 95 theses on what canon did wrong nailed to a door. But it has always been something done for the sake of doing it, born of attachment to the original material. It is, inherently, a leisure activity. If you view it as an income source, you have fundamentally misunderstood what it is. I mean, apart from the fact that you’re breaking copyright law, you have just absolutely missed the point of fanfiction.
“But some fanfic writers work really hard!”
Yes. I certainly did. Would you like to know how much research I did on pre-Norman England and Scotland in order to write historically accurate Hogwarts Founders fic? It was way more than JKR ever did into that period, I can tell you that. (She seems to think the 11th and 15th centuries were indistinguishable, to say nothing of metalworking and gem-cutting techniques that wouldn’t evolve for centuries but I digress). Or would you like to know how many schematics of Federation and Klingon starships I have saved to my hard drive? The extensive family trees I’ve drawn? The hours spent teaching myself details about the lead-up to the French Revolution that no teacher ever though essential enough to impart? The sheer total tonnage of trivia permanently lodged in my head about a galaxy far, far away?
Many hobbyists work very hard on their hobbies. They invest time and energy and money into their leisure activities. That doesn’t mean you’re entitled to be paid for that investment. You’ve chosen to do it.
I took fic writing very seriously. I still do! I don’t write a lot of fic these days, but when I do, I put as much of my heart into it as I do my original works. And back in the heyday of my fic-writing, on LJ, ohh, I took such pride in being known for what I did. It was within niche corners and small fandoms, but I won contests and cherished every comment and celebrated when my works appeared on rec lists. I sought recognition, even when the only tangible reward was a little graphic to post in my bio. I wanted people to acknowledge how hard I worked and, frankly, how good I was at it.
But I never, ever, ever sought to make a dime off of it. The very concept would have been absurd, and I knew full well that we all put those “not mine, just borrowing the characters!” disclaimers up precisely so there could be no doubt of that. (This is how I know I’d do well in a Star Trek style “prestige economy” as interpreted by Manu Saadia: I am very happy when striving to be acknowledged as the best at the thing I’ve chosen to do; I am unhappy that we live in a world where financial value is the only kind of acknowledgement society accepts as real).
Your hobby might be great training for a job. But it’s not a job. A hobby is leisure. That distinction is actually important, not only for your mental and emotional well-being, but as a way of pushing back against certain capitalistic pressures dominating our world. And that brings me to the thing I actually want to talk about. (Yes, all of that was just build-up).
Your hobbies do not need to be monetized.
When I had this rant on Twitter, a friend pointed out that the younger generation has been indoctrinated to believe that their hobbies only have worth if they are making money off of them. The pressure to “go viral”, the monetization of TikToks, affiliate marketing, IG influencers — It all sends the message that it’s not enough to enjoy something and share that joy. No, you have to make a Brand out of it. If you’re not getting paid, it’s not worth doing.
It honestly makes me so sad.
I mean, underneath the fury I’ve been wrangling since becoming aware of this whole commission debacle, I’m just heartbroken for all these people who are viewing fic as a commodity rather than a freely shared gift. It’s so cynical and so depressing and such a capitulation to the very worst aspects of how our society is constructed.
It ties into something else I’ve thought, which is that people who’ve been on the internet since, oh, 2007 or so had a fundamentally different experience than folk of my internet-generation. (I reference Gretchen McCulloch’s Because Internet for an explanation of internet-generations, which may overlap but are not synonymous with traditional societal generations). If you were on the internet in the late-90s and early-00s, especially if you are what we would now call Very Online, you sort of had to build your own experience. I started teaching myself html to build my AOL Hometown page and really refined those skills on LiveJournal. I learned how to link to an image and how to turn an image into a link. I learned about hex codes so that I could find just the right shade for my background.
That’s not the way it is now. Everything is pre-packaged for you. There’s no customization in Facebook or Twitter besides being able to upload a header banner (the dimensions of which you cannot control, and which will change without notice several times a year). In some ways, yes, that’s easier; it’s nice that most blogging sites now automatically include white space around an image without my having to set the h-space and v-space for them. But at the same time, I hate having sacrificed customization for convenience. It’s so frustrating to want to change something and not have these options available to me, because the Powers That Be have decided, nope, these margins are correct, this much white space is correct, this color palate is correct. Corporations have control of our online experience. And that feels inextricable from the urge people now feel to monetize what they do on the internet.
We have confused hobbies with jobs. We have forgotten what hobbies are. We have forgotten leisure. The pressure to always be productive and performative has reached absolutely ludicrous force.
And the thing is, I am not innocent of falling into this mindset. I am deeply uncomfortable on days I feel like I’ve “done nothing”. I post to my Patreon three times a week, and I’m constantly trying to entice new members to join up. It’s part of my hustle. But I do try to maintain some barriers between my hobbies and what I do for cash. Someone once suggested that I sell my embroidery on Etsy, and I had to gently push back: No. Embroidery is something I do for myself, for the sheer pleasure of it, and something I give as a gift to people I love. I do not want that to become something I have to fret over because it’s not giving me good enough ROI.
I feel there’s another larger issue here, too, which is the loss of art for the sake of art. And leisure for the sake of leisure. I’m not enough of a theorist to go too deeply into that, but I suspect others have said clever things about it. It fits hand-in-glove with the increased corporatization of our world. Algorithms drive everything. Movies plots are influenced by focus groups. Everything is a Brand. And I do not believe that encourages the proliferation of good art. It makes art safe, predictable, palatable. Boring. It discourages invention and innovation.
Fanfiction has long been a push back against that corporatization. It’s a reclaiming of storytelling for and by the public. Fanfic commissions are playing into capitalism’s hands.
So that ties back to what I was saying before, about how, yes, you might work very hard on this hobby. But you should be doing it for the sake of the final product, for the pride you can take in that work, for the pleasure of sharing it with others. Not because you expect to get paid.
I don’t want to discourage fanfiction. That is the last thing in the world I want to do. I owe my career to my experience writing fanfic, and it would make me the happiest person on the planet to discover someone had decided to write Aven Cycle fanfic, even though I could never read it. But if I discovered someone was profiting off of that fanfic, I’d be furious — not least because it would be so galling, considering the various legal and financial eccentricities of how authors are currently rewarded for their efforts. Someone else making money off of my stories could very well impair my own compensation, and nothing in the world will convince me that would be fair.
What I want people to remember is the spirit fanfiction is supposed to come from — not the hustle, not the monetization of the internet, but the attachment to the original material. Fanfiction is supposed to be something you do for you, before anyone else! And that is liberating! You can do whatever you want! No one’s going to come tell you that you have to change something, tighten the pacing, get rid of that character, take out that scene, add a conversation about this topic. You are beholden to no one but yourself and your own pleasure — and how often is that true, in our modern world? Own that.
If you want to make money off of writing, I support you in that as well. Going from fanfic to pro is an increasingly common track in publishing! I’ve been on multiple convention panels about it. But you have to do it with your own characters and concepts, or with those already in the public domain. It’s a different sort of endeavor than writing fanfic — because it is work, it is a job, not a hobby. Writing professionally means doing a lot of the large and small hard things that you don’t have to worry about as a ficcer — and then you get compensated for that work. Now, the issues related to that compensation in current structures are many, but they are entirely separate from the issue of fanfiction.
And, of course, there are other options if you want to be paid to write — journalism, for instance, which is another place many well-established authors have started. I want more people to be able to make a living off of writing, I want opportunities to be open to more people and to people from more backgrounds than most traditional avenues currently support — but that does not mean opening avenues to profit off of fanfic.
tl;dr? Don’t flipping try to make money off fanfic. You’re breaking the law and missing the point.
I’m having a lot of wobbly emotions about that. It’s a sucky year for birthdays in general, since we can’t meet up with friends and loved ones to celebrate. But 35 is a big mile marker, and to have that go by without being able to have some sort of festivity is, honestly, really bumming me out. If we’d gotten a handle on the virus over the summer, I’d have planned a proper shindig. A costume party, probably. Fun and dancing. Something to reunite me with the people I adore, so many of whom have seen me through many birthdays, and help me feel that the too-rapid passage of time isn’t something to despair over.
So… want to help perk me up? Pre-order my book!
I know that sounds odd, but it could actually go a long way towards leavening my attitude about my progression into a new demographic box. Here’s why: So, as I announced last week, the pub date for Give Way to Night has been pushed to December 29th, 2020.
This has made pre-ordering even more important than it usually is. The week after Christmas is going to be a tough place to get recognition. I’ll be too late for all the “best of 2020” lists and too early for the “most anticipated of 2021” lists — and, of course, everyone’s holiday shopping will be over! People using gift cards will be something of a boon, but really, I need my devoted fans to pre-order. And if you’re buying it for someone else, hey! Wrap up that pre-order receipt as a holiday gift. 😉
Book sales across the industry are looking pretty grim this year, and for a sophomore author, attempting to establish herself past her debut, making as strong a showing as possible will be really critical. If you are able to pre-order Give Way to Night, know that not only are you guaranteeing a treat for your future self, but you will have my deep and abiding appreciation, because you will have helped show the industry that I have what it takes to keep at this.
Also helpful? If you’ve read and enjoyed From Unseen Fire, tell people about it! Leaving reviews is great, but so much book-buying happens because of word-of-mouth recommendations. A birthday hype machine rolling into action would be fabulous.