Hi. I'm Jenna McGuiggan.
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Moving Pictures: Virginia & North Carolina

I'm back home after 10 days down south. I started out by spending a weekend in Arlington, VA, for Barrelhouse Magazine's Conversations & Connections writers' conference, where I presented my One-Moment Memoirs workshop. I drove south to Richmond to see a dear friend, and then I kept going south to the Outer Banks for a few days of the 3 R's: rest, relaxation, & 'riting. Along the way I shared some photos on Instagram and social media. Here are a few videos from my travels. They're short and unedited, but I love them for the little glimpses they offer of my time away. 

I could watch the waves for hours -- and I do, every time I am fortunate enough to be at the seashore. 


I saw these birds (pelicans, I think) coming from a distance, and they flew right overhead. 

Most of my drive home was cloudy, rainy, and foggy, but for a little while in the Shenandoah Valley in eastern Virginia, I broke through to the sunshine. As the camera pans to the side, you can see the clouds caught on the Blue Ridge Mountains. 


May You Be Rooted Like Rock

haystack rock, cannon beach, oregon (march 2010)

May you be rooted like rock
That reaches down beneath the constant tide
And pushes tall into the air.
May you shimmer like sun-skimmed sand
Along white, white waves.
May a line of footprints lead you
To adventure and home and back again.
May your perspective be one of compassion and beauty.
May you ruffle your wings in the water
And flutter them dry on the breeze,
Plump with the knowledge that you are as permanent
And as temporary
As this land.

(I originally wrote and posted this in 2010. I re-posted it again in 2011 and 2015. And here it is again, because it's been too long since I said "hello" in this space; because spring comes around every year; because April is National Poetry Month; and because I'm dreaming of the sea, always.)


Invitation: Online Group Writing Studio (Feb. 27)

Each month in The Word Cellar Writers Guild we have at least one live, virtual event. This month, we're having Group Writing Studios. We gather via video chat for an hour to spend time writing "alone together." Each session includes a warm-up exercise, time to write quietly, and time to share (as you like). 

It was such fun that I thought I'd open up the next one to anyone who wants to join us. 

Group Writing Studio in The Word Cellar Writers Guild
Date: Saturday, February 27, 2016
Time: 3:00 - 4:00 p.m. (EST)
Online: Via Skype (include your Skype name in the "notes to seller")
Cost: $5 (or free for Guild members)  

Making time to actually write is one of my biggest challenges, and I know many of you share that struggle. These community writing sessions are an opportunity to come together and overcome our procrastination, fear, and excuses. We put our butts in our chairs, we put some words down on paper — and we feel better for having written! 

In today's session, our warm-up prompt came from Ursula K. LeGuin's book Steering the Craft: A 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story. The first chapter of the book is all about the sound of your writing, and she calls this exercise "Being Gorgeous:" 

"Write a paragraph to a page of narrative that's meant to be read aloud. Use onomatopoeia, alliteration, repetition, rhythmic effects, made-up words or names, dialect -- any kind of sound effects you like -- but NOT rhyme or meter."

LeGuin emphasizes that the point of this exercise is to "write for pleasure -- to play. Just listen to the sounds and rhythms of the sentences you write and play with them, like a kid with a kazoo. This isn't 'free writing,' but it's similar in that you're relaxing control: you're encouraging the words themselves -- the sounds of them, the beats and echoes -- to lead you on."

I tend to do this naturally in my writing. I'm usually acutely aware of the sounds and rhythms of my sentences, if not in the first draft, at least by the first revision. But not everyone writes that way. Some people are more keenly aware of other parts of the craft, such as the narrative arc or plot. Every writer has her own strengths and natural inclinations. The goal, I suppose, is to bring it all together at some point. (And that point is almost never the first draft.) 

I wrote a few paragraphs using the "Being Gorgeous" exercise. It's not the most beautiful or profound thing I've ever written, and it's not even particularly playful. It ends up being rather dark, which is fine, becuase the last few months have been a bit dark and twisty for me. I didn't set out to write about that, though. I wasn't sure what to write, so I just started with what was in front of me: an English muffin. As you'll see, the topic immediately morphed into something else. I thought I'd share it here as an example of how one thing can lead to another, and how a writing exercise or first draft can just be what it is: practice. 

"Being Gorgeous" writing exercise, rough draft: 

Toast crunchy with chunky peanut butter -- all the texture you can handle before noon. Let's face it, you don't handle much before noon. No one else is quite the nightowl youa re. You weren't made for mornings with their shiny new-day-hope, their blank slate sunrises.no, you carry things with you into the dark, dragging everything along from the blue hour of twilight to the blanket of night. Other people sleep in soft beds. Your bed is soft. Your partner snores beside you. And there you are: too much of nerves and memory to fall asleep. It's not insomnia exactly, is it? You sleep eight hours or more you just do it in a time shift, always five to six hours behind the rest of your timezone. You shut down the West Coast from your home in the East. You watch New Zealanders post their after-work cocktails on Instagram. You wish you could join them for chips and salsa. You would happily join the Brits for breakfast tea. Anything to skip over the interminable wait to just fall asleep already. 

And yet even this run-of-the-mill not-quite-insomnia is preferable to the fear of sleep that gripped you in your darkest hours. Then, all day was dark. Your circadian rhythm and your nerves were shot. You existed in a haze of half light, not eating, not sleeping, not really even awake. Or maybe you were too awake, a tingling network of nerves, all fear and fear. Something had broken apart inside of you, as though your body and your spirit were disconnected, a breakdown of communication between the two, trapping you inside of yourself. Your body a wild horse. Your spirit-rider terrified to get back in the saddle. You lay down to sleep and you bucked yourself awake at any little sound, even of your own breathing. 


I hope you'll join us for the next Group Writing Studio on Saturday, Feb. 27. 

To be part of it, you can become a member of The Word Cellar Writers Guild, or just sign up for the event.


Words & Moments of Being with Virginia Woolf

Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations — naturally. They have been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries. And that is one of the chief difficulties in writing them today — that they are so stored with meanings, with memories, that they have contracted so many famous marriages. The splendid word "incarnadine," for example — who can use it without remembering also “multitudinous seas”? (Virginia Woolf, "Craftsmanship")

In this, the only known recording of Virginia Woolf's voice, Woolf reads from her essay "Craftsmanship," which she delivered on a BBC radio show called "Words Fail Me" in April 1937. (You can read the transcript here and learn more about this recording on the Virginia Woolf Society website.) 

Virginia Woolf was born this day in 1882. I first encountered Woolf in college when I read To the Lighthouse, which has lodged itself inside of me as very few books have. I always say that it's a novel one must read either very quickly or very slowly in order to make sense of it. Woolf moves so deeply and yet so quickly between the exterior, physical world and the interior worlds of her characters, that the only way to imbibe it all and allow the meaning to soak into you is to do one of two things: 1) read at breakneck speed, letting the waves (of details and ideas and thoughts and emotions) wash over you so they leave a general impression upon your psyche; or 2) read slowly and deliberatley, picking your way phrase-by-phrase among the heaps of details, ideas, thoughts, and emotions, so that you can carefully examine each one and place it in your psychic pocket.

When I first read To the Lighthouse, I had to read it fast. I couldn't make sense of it any other way. I had to just keep going, pushing myself through the pages—or rather, letting the pages pull me through the story. Years later I read it more slowly, which I suppose helped me to understand it better. But honestly, nothing compared to that first encounter with the book, even though I didn't realize how exciting and pivotal it was at the time of my first reading. I just knew that Woolf seemed to give language to moments and impressions that I'd assumed to be beyond language. 

More than a decade later, I discovered that Woolf had a name for these kinds of encounters: "moments of being" or "shocks." I wrote about this phenomenon in the critical thesis I wrote in graduate school.

Here's an excerpt from that thesis, "Spinning a Web of Wonder: Capturing and Conveying Awe on the Page." It gets to the heart of how Woolf uses words to give shape to seemingly ineffable experiences.  

Virginia Woolf believed that we encounter awe—during what she called "moments of being"—throughout our days. In her essay "A Sketch of the Past," she describes a Tuesday in April that contained more than the average number of moments of being. She mentions the contentment she experienced in writing the first few pages of the essay, in taking a walk, and in reading Chaucer with pleasure and the memoirs of Madame de la Fayette with interest. She also notices that the countryside "was coloured and shaded as I like—there were the willows, I remember, all plumy and soft green and purple against the blue."[i] These may seem like small, insignificant moments to a casual observer, but Woolf was attuned to their beauty. Still, she viewed these kinds of moments—in which we are acutely aware of our surroundings and experiences—as the exception, not the rule, in everyday life. In the same paragraph she writes: "These separate moments of being were however embedded in many more moments of non-being. I have already forgotten what Leonard and I talked about at lunch; and at tea; although it was a good day the goodness was embedded in a kind of nondescript cotton wool. This is always so. A great part of every day is not lived consciously."[ii]

The moments of being that Woolf described above are the more mundane sort: simple moments of awareness, pleasure, or beauty. She makes no claim to experience wonder within them, although I think she probably did, especially in that willow tree "all plumy and soft green and purple against the blue." But Woolf has also described another kind of moment, which she called a "shock."

To begin to understand what Woolf meant by the term, let's look at a shock that occurred during her childhood: "I was looking at the flower bed by the front door; 'That is the whole', I said. I was looking at a plant with a spread of leaves; and it seemed suddenly plain that the flower itself was a part of the earth; that a ring enclosed what was the flower; and that was the real flower; part earth; part flower. It was a thought I put away as being likely to be very useful to me later."[iii] Not all of Woolf's shocks were as benign or pleasant as this, but experiencing them eventually led her to reach the philosophy "that behind the cotton wool is a pattern; that we—I mean all human beings—are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art."[iv]

I consider shocks to be a subset of moments of being, and the kind that are closer to my idea of an epiphany or moment of awe. I interpret Woolf's two terms as being different in degree, not quality, so for the purposes of this paper I’ll use the two terms interchangeably.

The experience of reading Woolf for the first time in college was a shock for me. Before that, I'd experienced plenty of moments of being, instances when the curtain of everyday life lifted to reveal some larger truth. There were occasions when my state of mind and my environment aligned to create a sort of harmony; moments when a particular slant of light or the sound of distant church bells altered my mood or sense of self so profoundly that I felt simultaneously in the moment and beyond it. I'd lived such moments, but I had no name for them. I didn't even realize that other people experienced anything similar.

But then I read Woolf's To the Lighthouse and felt a sensation that was the opposite of having the wind knocked out of me. I experienced a breathgiving infilling as I read Woolf's descriptions of apparently random, fleeting moments of thought or sensory input and their profound effects upon her characters. I recognized these moments of being immediately, but it would be many more years until I learned that she had a name for them.

At the beginning of To the Lighthouse, six-year-old James Ramsay sits on the floor of his family's seaside vacation home. As he cuts out pictures from the illustrated Army and Navy Stores catalogue, his mother promises him that they will finally go to the lighthouse the next day if the weather is fine. Upon hearing this good news, James "endowed the picture of a refrigerator…with heavenly bliss. It was fringed with joy."[v] In an instant, Mrs. Ramsay's promise, James's emotions, and the picture of the refrigerator fuse into one glorious moment of delight.

Woolf describes James as belonging "to that great clan which cannot keep this feeling separate from that, but must let future prospects, with their joys and sorrows, cloud what is actually at hand, since to such people even in earliest childhood any turn in the wheel of sensation has the power to crystallise and transfix the moment upon which its gloom or radiance rests."[vi] James Ramsay’s happy moment of being was a shocking revelation for me. Not only did I vicariously experience his joy, I had my own moment of clarity when I realized that I wasn’t alone in this way of being in the world.


[i]           Virginia Woolf, "A Sketch of the Past," in Moments of Being, 2nd ed., ed. Jeanne Schulkind (San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., 1985), 70.

[ii]           Ibid.

[iii]          Ibid., 71.

[iv]          Ibid., 72.

[v]           Woolf, To the Lighthouse (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955), 9.

[vi]          Ibid.


Come to Your Senses: Writing Sensory Details

Do you write with your body, mind, heart, or soul? In other words: When you write, are you focused on the external or internal world?

Some writers tend to focus on the internal world of thoughts, ideas, and emotions.

Others pay more attention to the external world of sensory details, actions, and descriptions.

Neither approach is wrong, but too much of either can lead to lopsided writing. One way to enrich your writing is to combine the inner and outer worlds so that you have a balance between them.

I used to write almost exclusively from my head and heart, with a strong focus on thoughts and feelings. There might have been some action, but there was little description. For example, my essays could have been summed up like this:

First this happened, and then this other thing happened. This made me feel certain things, but then someone said something, and I felt this other way. Next, I said something and this other thing happened, which made me think more deeply about it, and my feelings changed.

An essay like that, coming only from the head and heart, can lack texture. As a result, readers probably won’t resonate with the story, especially if they don’t already know me and care what I think and feel. Yes, it’s possible to write a compelling piece without the five senses, but it’s much harder to draw readers into the world of your story without those senses.

To create the world of a story (or essay or poem) on the page, you need to bring in the rest of your body.

You need the five senses: taste, touch, sight, smell, and sound. You need concrete, physical details and descriptions.

Writing that lacks sensory details usually feels flat and lifeless. You can enliven your work (and give it depth and texture) by learning to pay attention to the tangible, physical world — and by bringing those concrete, sensory details into your work. This will help you to create a written world where meaning can take root.

If you'd like to learn much more about using the five senses to add texture and vibrancy to your writing, please join me in The Word Cellar Writers Guild. Each month I present a different writing module (like a mini e-course). December's theme is Come to Your Senses, and it includes tips on how to slant and shade sensory details to create meaning, metaphors, and connection with readers. Learn more and join The Writers Guild here.