The Stalling Before the Writing (Or, the Tragic Plight of My Poor Nails)

Your deadline is a headlight zooming towards you on a dark road. It’s speeding, angry, coming at you with music blasting, yet you find yourself standing there, in the middle of the road—shocked into a dumbness, unable to move, hypnotized by the light that’s getting brighter by the minute. You can see the crash happening, so why don’t you move? Why don’t you write?

Or maybe you don’t have a deadline. An external one, I mean. Maybe your deadline is simply internal, self-imposed; the usual tug of war between the procrastination troll that lives inside the crevices of your ears and the discipline fairy who’s ironically a pretty lazy fellow considering his purpose—he comes and goes as he pleases; he’s never there when you need him and when you don’t need him he’s hanging out on your shoulder, legs dangling, cracking jokes and eating grapes.

You sit yourself down to write but a million and one things are not right with the state of your work space. A million and one minuscule things that don’t matter at all. You begin to think of all the people you know and wonder why you haven’t reached out to so-and-so, and maybe you should send them an email, so you do. You’re so thoughtful.

You paint your nails (if painting your nails is something you do) to prevent yourself from biting them (if biting them is something you do) because the waiting and the stalling makes you ache with anxiety. You hate that you bite your nails (if that’s something that you do) and wish that you would stop, as you’re doing it. You wonder if this is what crack feels like. You start a story with a crack-addict antihero then stop before the first paragraph is finished because… it’s a crack story.

You check a few more emails. You eat a cookie. You decide you’re still hungry even though you ate a meal not long ago, and just ate a cookie. You start writing a blog post (ha). You check your phone for notifications of any kind. You’re mad when there are none.

This is the stalling before the writing.

But at least you’re in your place. At least the page is in front of you. At least you know what you have to do.

Why is it so hard to begin sometimes? Is it fear? Is it your over-caffeinated brain? (You over-caffeinated because you thought it would help jump start your writing. But it’s been exactly one hour and thirty-four minutes since you sat down and all you’ve accomplished is managing to stay put in your writing chair.)

But at least you’re in your place. At least the page is in front of you. At least you know what you have to do. At least.

You breathe. Try to harness your thoughts. You put tape over your nails to keep from biting them. You can’t type with the tape on your nails so you rip them off and feel disgusted with yourself. When did this nail biting habit even start? You dive into a google search. How to stop biting your nails. Why do people bite their nails. What do sloths eat.

You pull up your page again and suddenly the whiteness becomes a halo. Suddenly, you’re in a trance; you start seeing your words dancing… they’re inviting you to join them. You’re transported. You finally hear the music. You finally found the portal—the portal to the writing. The stalling has ended. The stalling has ended. You rejoice, but not too loudly lest you become distracted again. The writing begins. It’s happening!

But now you have to pee.

What Does an Editor Actually Do? (Insights & Tips for Writers)

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As a writer, I know that editing is a crucial part of the writing process. Also as a writer, I’d like to say I know a thing or two about editing because naturally, I edit as part of my own process. But “edit” is a vague term. Everyone knows its general meaning, but what does the process exactly involve?

I attended a workshop recently (“So You Want to be an Editor?”) that shed some light on what an editor actually does. Learning about the editing process from an editor’s perspective was insightful for two reasons:

  1. It helped me better appreciate the role of an editor.
  2. It helped me understand the lens through which an editor edits.

I learned about the different levels of editing, the kinds of services an editor can provide, and the proper way to prepare a manuscript before sending it to an editor.

So read on for the insights! I’ll be sharing from a fiction writer’s point of view.

Editing in 3 Parts

  • Part 1. Developmental Editing – big picture

Developmental editing happens while the manuscript is being written or directly after it’s been completed. Developmental editors make critical evaluations of the content as a whole, asking questions like: does the story work? Is it believable and satisfying? Are there holes in the plot? Does the story make sense from a reader’s point of view?

It’s in this stage that major revisions take place and cuts to the word count are made. Does this section move the plot forward? No? Cut it. (So as you might guess, it’s in this stage that a writer might cry tears of pain over lost darlings, or challenge the editor on revision suggestions all together, which can make this process strained and difficult depending on the stubbornness/ receptivity of the writer.)  

Developmental editors work hand in hand with the writer to transform the manuscript into the best version of itself that it can be. Developmental editors play a vital role in the writing process, especially if a writer isn’t trained on the craft.

  • Part 2. Copy Editing – mechanics

Copy editing happens after the content has been finalized. It’s often referred to as line editing because it deals with improving sentence structure, grammar, punctuation, and spelling. It’s concerned with coherency as well as style consistency. Copy editors fact check if the writer requests it, but that usually comes at an additional cost (unless it’s already built into the editor’s pay rate).

  • Part 3. Proofreading – final check

Proofreading happens after the book has been formatted. It’s the polishing phase, the last chance to check for errors before the manuscript is sent to the printer. Proofreaders do the final read-through, they iron and wax the final product, checking for errors that may have slipped past the copy editor. If you’ve ever seen a typo in a novel, it’s because the proofreader didn’t catch it. (They’re only human after all!)

Other Services an Editor Might Provide

Most editors will specialize in only one of the above levels of editing. Or if they do all three, they will likely charge a separate fee for each one. Below is a list of other services an editor might provide:

  • Writing coaching
  • Manuscript evaluation
  • Ghost writing
  • Research
  • Fact checking
  • Indexing

Apparently an editor will rarely work on book design and formatting. That’s the role of the publisher.

Standard Publishing Protocol for Manuscripts

When you’ve finally settled on your book’s final draft and are looking for an editor to review your work, it’s good to know that editors expect the following:

  • Your manuscript should be in Microsoft Word, 12-point Times New Roman font, and double-spaced.
  • You should know how to use Word’s Track Changes feature because that’s what editors use to perform corrections; it’s the primary method of communication between writer and editor during the back-and-forth feedback process. Some editors will agree to teach you how to use Track Changes, but the lesson might not be free.

Other Good Things to Know:

  • Editors use the Merriam-Webster dictionary as a standard for spelling and the latest edition of the Chicago Manual of Style for style (unless a style guide is provided by the writer). In some cases, depending on the kind of book, the editor and writer work together to create a style guide.
  • A novel manuscript should be at least 40,000 words. Anything below would make it a novella or short story. Manuscripts over 140,000 words (with some exceptions, depending on the kind of book) are considered too long. It doesn’t mean an editor won’t work with you, it just means your manuscript will require more time and work—and your word count will experience some major cuts in the process.

Do Writers Need Editors?

If your goal is to publish, then the short answer to this question is yes.

But editors cost money, and unless you have a day job that pays handsomely, I’m guessing your bank account isn’t bursting at the seams because, well, you’re a writer. So you might ask yourself: do I really need an editor? If money is an issue, you might say you can manage without one. You might have a trusted friend who can review and provide feedback on your manuscript, or you might commit doing the editing yourself.

There is one inherent problem, however, with the business of editing your own work: it’s your work, so you can’t help but view your work through your lens as the writer—and the whole point of editing is to critically examine the writing through the lens of the reader.

Regardless of how skilled and talented you are as a writer, you need an objective perspective on your work—someone without any emotional attachments to the words, someone who can lend a fresh pair of eyes on words you’ve practically memorized by now.

As a writer, your ability to be 100 percent objective is nearly impossible. You know all the ins and outs. You know your own intentions. You know all the “hidden” meanings. You think your symbolism is ingenious and your metaphors all wonderful and perfectly clear.

Writing Is Hard (and Editing Is Hard, Too)

As if writing wasn’t already difficult, sometimes editing can feel even more so. Why? Because it’s the process of dissecting your hard work, of holding it under a microscope and prodding it until the loose parts fall out (even if those loose parts are your favorite).

You don’t want to prod. You hesitate to change the words because you worked so hard to get them on the page in the first place. It hurts to have someone tell you (someone you may have only just met, someone who may have only just met your story and who therefore doesn’t “get it”)—that your story needs some alterations.

A writer needs thick skin like a polar bear needs thick fur.

In the workshop, they talked about “difficult” writers (usually fiction writers, by the way). Difficult writers are the writers who aren’t receptive to feedback, challenge the editor too much, are too defensive, too sensitive, too overly attached to the original version of their manuscript, too unwilling to see the greater vision. So another lesson I took away from the workshop is that a writer should learn to trust their editor, and keep an open mind during the editing process.

Don’t be a difficult writer.

And don’t despair, either. As the writer, you hold the power to make all final decisions—a good editor will always respect and adhere to that.

Bottom Line

If your goal is to publish, your goal is to be read. That being your goal, it’s important to keep in mind, throughout the editing process, that your editor’s goal is to transform your book into the best possible version of itself that it can be—to make sure your story ultimately moves your reader.

That’s right, even though the editor technically works for you, he or she actually represents the reader, like a lawyer represents a client. But at the end of the day, the end-goal of both editor and writer is, or at least should be, the same. The end-goal is for the work—the story—to come alive.

Because the story, as you know, is its own entity. It always has been, from the moment it was first planted in your brain as a tiny idea with gigantic potential. Sure, your story is a reflection and an extension of you; but once you release it into the world, it becomes a reflection and extension of the world, and of every person who reads it. And how magical is that?

I hope you found these insights helpful. Do you have any others you would like to share? I would love to know!

5 Things I Learned from My Month as a Vegetarian

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Black bean & chickpea salad

Meatless March: A 31-Day Challenge, or Shall I Say, Lifestyle Change

A few months ago, I wrote a post about me contemplating the idea of becoming a vegetarian. While I haven’t taken that leap as of yet, I did go meatless this past month and have decided to make it an annual tradition, one that I’ve cleverly named—you guessed it—Meatless March.

Meatless March turned out to be not as difficult as I’d thought it would be. When I first began, it was more about shifting my mindset than resisting meat cravings. In fact, my meat cravings were surprisingly minimal. (There was that one time on the bus when a guy sat next to me with an oil-stained paper bag filled with fries… the smell reminded me of burgers, and, well, I had a few daydreams about eating a burger. End of confession.)

A month may not be a very long time, but it was long enough for me to reflect on my food choice tendencies. So now that Meatless March is over, post-reflection time is at hand. Here are my 5 takeaways from the month:

1. An Experience for the Palate

When you think about putting restrictions on your diet, you don’t think expansion, you think elimination. But Meatless March actually expanded my palate by encouraging me to experiment with new vegetables and ingredient combinations. I’m sure it helps that I’m in no way a picky eater and I love vegetables, but even if that’s not the case for you, going meatless can be a great way to branch out of your regular go-to foods. It will just take some additional thought and effort. Which brings me to…

2. Creative Cooking Fun

I had a ton of fun discovering new recipes and food blogs! I would have never come across this delicious West African peanut and sweet potato stew were it not for this awesome recipe list, which I would have never sought out if not for Meatless March. And because I enjoy cooking, it was a fun creative challenge coming up with new recipes or making vegetarian versions of familiar ones. Also, this eggplant lasagna is amazing.

I’ve heard that people who become vegetarian can sometimes gain weight because they end up eating more carbs to substitute the lack of meat. I made a concerted effort to not fall into this trap. I love pasta, so I could have easily forged a million different pasta recipes to get me through the month, but I ended up making pasta only twice. I actually became addicted to lentils—there are so many ways to make lentils!

As a result of these cooking adventures (and the consequent commitment to meal planning), I ended up dining out less frequently and packing lunch for work pretty consistently. So I saved money that way, in addition to saving at the grocery store since I wasn’t buying meat.

3. Mindful Eating & Living

Taking a break from eating meat made me more mindful of my food choices. When you have to be selective, you naturally have to think things through and scan for options you may not have considered before.

One of the main reasons I did Meatless March was a desire to become more aware of my eating habits. It was also part spiritual, as practicing this restraint made me appreciate food more—as well as my easy access to the plethora of food options around me. Fasting of any kind opens up windows for reflection.

We tend to live on auto-pilot most of the time, reaching for the same ingredients whenever we grocery shop, rotating the same recipes whenever we meal plan. It’s comfortable and easy to stick with the familiar. But comfortable and familiar is not how we expand our perspective.

That said, grocery shopping and meal preparation definitely required more thought. Because I’m a nerd and love learning new information, I took it a step further and actually took to looking up nutritional facts on various vegetables (curiosity for what I was eating had increased) as I thought about what to buy for the week.

And Meatless March was a great conversation starter. By talking with friends and family about what I was doing and why, I’d like to think I was shining a light on our culture’s obsession with eating way too much meat. (There’s endless information out there on how meat consumption direly affects our health and the environment, not to mention the unimaginable cruelty animals suffer in the meat industry, so I will not even open up that can of worms. That’s another post entirely.)

The point is—everything we do, every choice we make, has an effect. Too often do we turn a blind eye to those effects because we’re too afraid or can’t be bothered to face them. This experience has really made me want to know where is my food coming from?

I believe we are all connected—all living creatures, the earth, our consciousness, all of it. So I want to know where I stand in the context of the larger system. That chunk of meat in the freezer section, how did it get there? How long has it been sitting in its packaging?

I want to know what are my choices contributing to? How can I make better choices? I don’t want to be a blind consumer. I don’t want to feed an ugly beast.

4. I Eat a Lot of Cheese

c23214a0f75f661f6f12d5a1dea27e72Okay so now to lighten things up a bit: I love cheese and I have always loved cheese. 🙂 (I even love cheesy jokes—ha.) This would have been an ENTIRELY different experience, and a true challenge, if I had gone vegan instead of just meatless.

As I look back on the meals I’ve had over the course of the month, I must say… I see a lot of cheese. I’m not really sure if this has always been the case and I’ve become more aware of it because no meat cleared the way for a clearer view—or if I ate more cheesy dishes and snacks because of no meat.

I try to avoid processed foods as much as possible, but cheese… cheese is a processed food VIP in my book. Still, now that I’ve observed that I probably eat more cheese than I should, I will take some steps towards moderation. (Yes, there was cheese in my dinner tonight…)

5. I Don’t Really Need to Eat Meat

I suppose my biggest takeaway is that meat doesn’t need to be on my plate in order for me to enjoy a meal. Meat to me is definitely delicious but it’s not a necessity for deliciousness. And while I admit that the last week of the month had me craving certain meat dishes, I think it was more that I was craving those dishes as a whole, as opposed to the meat specifically.

Throughout the month I rarely felt that my meals were lacking. I always felt full and fulfilled after eating. In the beginning it did take some getting used to and I did miss the substance of meat, but after a while, it felt pretty natural.

A month may not be a long enough time to make me officially “enlightened” on the subject of vegetarian living. I’m sure this blog post would look differently if I’d gone an entire year without meat. But the truth is, if you would have asked me a few years ago how I felt about vegetarianism, I would have probably told you that I didn’t understand why people did it.

But over the years, and especially now, I finally understand it in a way that I hadn’t before. To all the vegetarians and vegans out there—I respect you, and I guess I feel that my increased understanding has helped me connect with you more.

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So Now What?

Without going too deep into this, I feel I must also share that I don’t believe there’s anything inherently wrong with eating meat. But I do believe there’s something horrifically wrong with the way the meat industry operates. And this desperately and urgently needs to change. 

I don’t have any grand solutions to offer (I’m no Temple Grandin), but my own personal solution is to reduce my overall meat intake, to incorporate more vegetarian and perhaps even vegan dishes into my eating rotation.

Because at the end of the day, I enjoy food very much. I love trying new recipes and cuisines. And I love my body. And I love animals. And I love the earth and the bountiful gifts she has to offer. So moving forward, I will strive for variety when it comes to my food choices. Variety and balance and mindfulness and always—without exception—deliciousness.

So until next year’s Meatless March, stay healthy and merry… and savor your food as you chew!

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My zucchini & chickpea stew creation

Ta-Nehisi Coates On Writing

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I’d never heard of Ta-Nehisi Coates until the 3-minute and 40-second clip below that I happened to click on yesterday. His take on writing is so accurate and so heartfelt that I’ve watched this clip several times now.

He talks about writing being an act of courage because it’s a process about failure, which he says is the main reason more people don’t write. Writing, after all, is the desperate and often obsessive attempt to transcribe an idea in such a way that it becomes a mirror image of what you’d imagined in your head. This being an impossible feat drives a writer to madness revising over and over again:

You try to go from really bad, to okay, to acceptable. You never really get to that perfect thing that was in your head.

He talks about pressure being a catalyst for creative breakthroughs. Which makes sense when we think about survival of the fittest, and the way diamonds are made. Comfort zones are breeding grounds for perspiration and daydreams, but being under pressure triggers the fight or flight response—you either fight (persevere) or flee (give up).

I’ve heard and read endless advice on writing. This section of my blog is dedicated to the writing process because I find it therapeutic write about. So of course I’m aware, as I’m sure you are, of the number one advice on writing—that perseverance is key.

But there’s something about the way Coates delivers this familiar advice. Perhaps it’s the look in his eyes or the honesty in his voice or the eagerness with which he shares his thoughts. Whatever it is—his words had an effect on me, and I hope they have an effect on you too.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Writers, Where Do You Write?

Finding time to write is undoubtedly a struggle sometimes. But what about the “where” of writing? In what kind of environments are you most productive? Do you enjoy the silent company of fellow writers or do you prefer the silent company of your pet instead? How about couch vs. desk, kitchen table vs. bed? Coffee shops, anyone? The library?

Today I had a date with my writing and a writer friend at a very cool place called Story Studio. The occasion was simple and wonderful: all writers were welcome to come in between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. for a Write In. All you had to do was show up with your laptop and inspiration in tow, find a comfy spot to call your own, and WRITE.

We make appointments for doctors, meetings, social gatherings, romantic dates. We schedule vacations, dinner time, and for the dog owners out there—you know the importance of scheduling your routine around little fluffy’s bowl movements. So it makes perfect sense then the importance of making an appointment with your writing.

“Guard well your spare moments. They are like uncut diamonds. Discard them and their value will never be known. Improve them and they will become the brightest gems in a useful life.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

I don’t guard my writing time as well as I should. I’m too flexible and easily prone to putting it off if an occasion or commitment presents itself. But if you have an appointment to go somewhere for the purpose of writing—well, I’ve found that that can make a big difference as far as follow-through and productivity are concerned.

Home is where comfort (and the dog) is so of course I can conveniently promise myself that I’ll write on such-and-such day or when I get home or after I hang out with so-and-so or once this episode is over.

But home being where comfort is can be the problem in and of itself sometimes. Home’s comfort can quickly turn into napping or binge-watching your show (because let’s face it, the next one is already loading) or sudden inspiration for washing dishes that can effortlessly overthrow your writing goal.

They say when you’re preparing for a phone interview to dress the part even though they can’t see you. Why? Because if you’re too comfortable, it can relax your mindset too, so you won’t be as sharp and alert.

I think the same thing applies to writing. Of course I’m going to write at home 80% of the time probably. (Winter in Chicago, enough said.) And if you have an office in your home or the perfect little writing nook that you decorated with inspiration—my point still stands. Because you’ve created a designated space that you can go to for writing time. The trick is to set yourself up for success.

Because if I wake up on a beautiful weekend morning and tell myself, I’m going to write today, my chances of writing will double if I actually go somewhere for the purpose of writing. They’ll triple if I make plans to meet someone to write with. Because once I reach my location, I’m going to have to write. I’m suddenly on a concrete mission that involved putting on pants and leaving my house (and my dog). And as much as I love coffee and my own company, I probably won’t sit in the coffee shop sipping and daydreaming while my laptop is closed before me and others are writing around me.

And that’s the other thing. Other writers. Surrounding yourself with productive energy—with others who are on a similar mission—can be positively infectious. Invite a writer friend  or find a local Write In to attend.

Writing is a solitary, low-maintenance activity. I read somewhere that J.K. Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book—or a large chunk of it—on napkins. You don’t need much to write. Unlike making music, you don’t need a producer, a sound engineer, a studio, accompanying musicians, audio equipment—you don’t need anything but yourself and something to write on.

So try making an appointment with yourself to go somewhere the next time you plan to write. It can really help tackle self-discipline and procrastination. Put it on your calendar, tell your friends: sorry, I can’t; I have somewhere to be. Dress the part, pack some snacks, put your laptop in its case—you’re on a mission, after all—then show up.

Swap comfort zone for writing zone and see how much you can get done.

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The Spirit’s Strength is Infinite

My triathlon experience taught me many things last year, but the biggest lesson remains this: Persistence, dedication and hard work can take you anywhere. You just have to have the courage and will to keep going, no matter what perceived obstacles litter your path. The body may be limited in its physicality, but the spirit’s strength is infinite. Discipline is channeling that strength, and perseverance is believing in its power.

The Miracle of Mornings

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Even though waking up early can be a struggle, I’m glad I have somewhere to go to every morning. I’m glad that I’m needed, that people are expecting me, waiting for me, and happy to see me when I arrive.

Sure, I could opt to live a life of sleeping in. Of dreaming for just a little bit longer as I clutch my dog and smell her ears for just a little bit longer. I could opt to wake when I please, without urgency, and I could make showering optional (imagine the gallons of water I’d save).

But what kind of life would that be? A cyclical drudgery. An eventual restless wandering. Even larvae live with purpose.

We are creatures of habit. Some of us thrive on routine, some of us thrive on the thrill of not knowing what’s next (though really, nobody knows what’s next). But we are all creatures of habit. So I will make my new habit this:

To rise each morning purposefully and gratefully, a willing recipient to the day’s embrace, which is in no way owed to me. To recognize the miracle of mornings. The way they kiss my cheek each day, without fail, without judgement, never wanting anything in return save for gladness, as I flutter my eyes awake.

Sometimes life feels like…

Sometimes life feels like an endless wave,

you hold your breath to go under only to be tossed up again,

and you laugh as the water splashes over your face.

Sometimes life feels like an impossible hustle, an unrealistic

juggle, a priority war between do’s and don’ts and wants and needs

and why’s and what if’s.

Sometimes the lines between wishes and goals and dreams blur

into a disorienting cloud that swallows you whole so you can’t breathe.

Excuses hang around your neck like jewelry—or nooses,

depending on your creativity.

The infamous “they” say better to die trying than to die wishing,

but dying isn’t even the point, is it?

The point is living.

What if… I were a vegetarian?

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I’m thinking about becoming a vegetarian… possibly, maybe. I love eating chicken, beef, turkey, lamb, bison, goat, and seafood. So if I do become a vegetarian, it would be purely an act of mind over matter.

I was privileged to be raised in a household where we could afford to include these meats in our diet. And I was fortunate to have an excellent cook for a mother (from whom I draw so much of my cooking inspiration).

My mother was so good about keeping our diet balanced with plenty of vegetables, many times making veggie-only dishes for the occasional break from meat. I guess my mother was pretty fortunate too to have non-picky eaters for kids. (My brother doesn’t like onions but I’ll give him a pass…)

I’ve never questioned eating meat because… eating meat is something I’ve done all my life. I love food. How can you question something that smells and tastes so good? Besides, meat is deeply integrated in the cuisines of my heritages, so it’s a cultural experience too. Plus there are nutritional benefits.

But… now that I’ve experienced and been exposed to more of the world and lived through some pivotal years of my life, I’ve decided it’s time to reevaluate my values and ideologies on matters that I’ve always accepted as is. I think it’s good practice to reevaluate your way of life at various intervals, in an effort to live consciously. A sort of “Are you good?” “I’m good” “Okay, let’s carry on then” check-in with yourself.

The winds of life inevitably bend us, break us, or make us determined to stand our ground. So where am I determined to stand my ground? And where would I rather adapt, change, grow… based on what I know now that I may have not known before?

Deciding to become vegetarian is definitely not something I would do overnight, for a New Years resolution, or off an emotional whim. This isn’t an announcement that I’m moving in that direction (a- I’m not one for announcements and b- I have turkey chili waiting for me at home). This is merely an exercise in reflection… me sharing a topic I’ve been ruminating over recently for a number of reasons. So I welcome your thoughts… meat-eaters and non-meat-eaters alike.

More to come in an upcoming blog post.

Absence.

When there is no writing,

I find myself in the middle of a road,

as alone as one feels without a phone,

night draping my shoulders — a long,

heavy cloak dragging behind my heels.

Trees so tall they morph into darkness

bulge beside me — grand, continuous

borders blocking all muses from my mind.

A half-moon follows me, casting a grey

gaze on this place of no words, and

all I see are shadows.