Where Do You Get Your Ideas?



“Where do you get your ideas?” is said to be the question above all others that writers hate getting asked, both because writers are so often asked it and because they often don’t have a good answer. You often aren’t thinking about where an idea is coming from, you just know to make use of the idea when it arrives. Also, each writer discovers ideas in their own separate ways, often in ways unique to them, so what may be a font of inspiration for one person may be a dry well for another. That said, to any aspiring writer on a quest for ideas, here are a few generally reliable sources:

  1. Your Own Life
    Many cartoonists in the underground comics movement preferred to write deeply personal memoirs instead of the outrageous superhero comics that were popular at the time because they strongly believed that “the stories that make up our lives are more interesting than the stories one usually encounters in comic books” (Chester Brown, The Little Man, p. 169). Even if your stories are full of superheroes or weird magic, you can give them depth by incorporating real feelings or events that you experienced. Stan Lee’s comics were ground-breaking in the 1960s because he made his superheroes, such as the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, wrestle with feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt just like he did, which made the characters far more engrossing than the two-dimensional superheroes published by other companies. Always be aware of what is happening in your life and think about how it can be brought into the stories you create. Every person has experiences that can serve as powerful inspiration.

  2. Your Passions
    What do you love to do? What dominates your mind? Alan Moore developed an intense fascination for Jack the Ripper that he couldn’t quite explain, and from that produced From Hell, a graphic novel that explores Jack the Ripper and the culture of Victorian London with extensive detail and vision. Neil Gaiman was always compelled by the blurring distinction between dreams and reality, and from that created Sandman – the story of the king of dreams, and perhaps the most influential comic book series of the 1990s. What is important to you? Is it medieval Spain, baseball, the city of Medicine Hat, or Korean mythology? How can you present it in a way that is uniquely yours? What do you have to say on the subject that could be explored through a story?

  3. The World Around You
    Things are constantly happening every day, and you can receive inspiration for a thousand pictures and a thousand stories just by going for a walk and being attentive to what is going on around you. A strange inscription in chalk on the pavement, a tired old woman who looks like she carries the weight of the world on her shoulders, a snatch of conversation overheard on the bus, a man screaming at his pet gerbil – all of these could be woven into some grand narrative. And then, of course, there is the news. Open a newspaper, and you encounter shocking events on the front page, detailed biographies in the obituaries, curious beliefs in the editorials – a wealth of ideas there for the taking.
  1. Other People’s Works
    The one piece of advice that all creative writing teachers give is that the best way to improve your writing, much more important than taking lessons, is to experience a lot of whatever kind of story you seek to create – an aspiring screenwriter watches a lot of movies, an aspiring novelist reads a lot of novels, and an aspiring cartoonist studies a lot of comics. By seeing how a lot of other people have done the sort of story you like, you learn what works and what doesn’t. You can also use their ideas as a springboard for your own, taking them in a new, creative direction. However, don’t be afraid to incorporate elements outside your chosen medium. Many movies have taken inspiration from novels, novels have taken inspiration from plays, etc. A large part of the success of the graphic novel series Sandman was that it took many of the ideas and sensibilities of the fantasy novel (detailed internal narrative, complicated story structures, etc.) and adapted them for the fantasy comic book.

Fairy Tale Flash Fiction: Menw


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For this week, the prompt for flash fiction submitted to #FairyTaleFlash is my favourite subject in all of folklore and literature: “Arthurian Legends: King Arthur, Excalibur, Guinevere, Merlin, Morgan LeFay, Knights of the Round Table, and more.” I decided to give a short character study on one of my favourite of King Arthur’s champions: Menw the Wise, one of King Arthur’s three warrior-wizards in Welsh folklore.

January 18, 2024

I am Menw, one of King Arthur’s three wizard-warriors. Merlin taught me my Art, and commanded me to obey and protect the king. But which of those commands takes priority? Should I disobey the king when his order would endanger him? When do I follow my own will?

image by Aubrey Beardsley

FairyTaleFlash: The Door


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For this week, the prompt for #FairyTaleFlash is “otherworldly land or portal/doorway.”

January 3, 2024

Ever since I was born, there has been a door in my basement. A black door covered in runes I cannot read. As there’s no door on the other side of the wall, logically this door must instead open to other worlds. I haven’t had the courage to open it yet, but hopefully I will eventually.

stock image

My Adventure with the Fatal Five


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I have struggled with depression and anxiety my entire life. When things got stressful, the Beast would rear and bury its claws into my back. It would rake, and I would howl, and I’d try to fight against it, and often fail. So much of my life has been defined by my mental health issues, and I’ve known that I need to overcome them, but for a very long time they weren’t things I talked about. They seemed like personal failures I needed to hide. I couldn’t look vulnerable. I couldn’t look weak. I needed to be strong. As I was trying to hide these issues, I didn’t search for such topics in the stories I consumed, and I certainly didn’t put them in the stories that I wrote. I just wanted to pretend they didn’t exist.

That all changed in the spring of 2019, when I watched the DC animated movie Justice League vs the Fatal Five. In this movie, a team of time-traveling supervillains called the Fatal Five arrive from the future to change history so that their enemies, the Legion of Superheroes, will never be born. They are pursued to our time by the superhero Star Boy, but his schizophrenia makes him unable to clearly explain his mission to Superman, Batman, and the rest of the Justice League. The only member of the League who can understand him is the Green Lantern Jessica Cruz, because her crippling anxiety helps her relate to Star Boy’s own mental struggle. The empathy and support that the two heroes provide each other give them the strength to confront their own issues, fight the supervillains together, and ultimately save the day.

Watching this movie was a shock to my brain. Here were heroes struggling with mental issues in ways I’d never seen on screen before. Here were heroes who knew what it was like to feel trapped inside their head, to have their brain refuse to obey them, to be torn apart by inner demons. They know what it’s like to freak out in front of people and have them not understand what’s going on. They know what it’s like to feel weak and pathetic and alone, despite having nothing wrong with their body. They know what it is like to be me.

I’m a shy, white, middle-class North American male, the stereotypical target audience of comic book superheroes. But in that moment, watching Fatal Five, I realized a part of myself hadn’t previously been targeted by the genre. I felt seen, and in feeling seen I realized to my shock that I hadn’t felt seen before. Perhaps if the movie was another kind of genre, it wouldn’t have affected me so intensely, but this was superheroes, a genre I’d been obsessed with since childhood. In fact, this was a superhero movie done in the same animation style as Bruce Timm’s Batman the Animated Series, one of the most influential shows of my childhood. These were the sorts of heroes I had grown up with, had seen as archetypes of strength and courage. But now I saw that they suffer like me. Their minds betray them like mine. They are like me. But that doesn’t stop them from being heroes and saving the world. As I watched Fatal Five, I broke down and cried.

Thanks to this movie, 2019 was the year that I learned to think more deeply about my mental health issues, the year I learned to speak publicly about them. It was the year that I realized that art could speak to my condition, and when it does, it can be powerful. That when art speaks to me about my mental condition, I feel heard. I no longer feel alone. And when that happens, I can make positive changes in my own life.

It was Justice League vs the Fatal Five that inspired me to consciously write about mental health, to make that my artistic goal. My next big project was to create Through the Labyrinths of the Mind, a graphic novel anthology in which numerous cartoonists created stories inspired by their own experiences with mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, ADHD, and PTSD. I myself wrote an adaptation of the Welsh legend “Geraint, Son of Erbin,” the story of an Arthurian knight who succumbs to crippling depression. In writing about the vulnerability of a hero from my own cultural heritage, I sought to echo the vulnerability of the superheroes that Fatal Five had shown me onscreen. I wanted to show that even the strongest, bravest people suffer inside their minds, and so it’s okay when we do.

Now most of what I write is related to mental health issues in some way. My protagonists wrestle with similar demons to what I wrestle with, and I think hard about how to present those struggles in a potent and insightful way. Before Justice League vs the Fatal Five, I just wrote what I wanted without thinking about how my unique experiences and thoughts could help people. Now I know that when I write about mental health, I can connect to people who wrestle with their own issues. By having my heroes struggle inside their heads, I can inspire my readers in the same way that Fatal Five inspired me. I can make them feel seen, and encourage them to accept themselves. No other movie or book has transformed me as much as this one did.

FairyTaleFlash: A Christmas Job


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For this week, the prompt for #FairyTaleFlash is “stories that feature St. Nicholas, elves, or Krampus.” Well, as a long-term fantasy fan, I’m intrigued by how much more nebulous the term “elf” is in folklore than it is in, say, Lord of the Rings. For example, the first recorded references to “dark elves” and “black elves,” was in Snorri Sturluson’s medieval Icelandic text The Prose Edda, in which Snorri seems to be equating such beings with dwarves. This would make sense if you use “elf” in the more general sense to mean “fairy”; dwarves are subterranean fairies who like darkness. An interesting thing about that is that it could mean that Santa’s industrious workshop elves may actually be dwarves. Which inspired from me this very short piece of flash fiction:

December 12, 2023

My parents were shocked when I started working in Santa Claus’ shop. My family’s been blacksmiths since the moment we were changed from maggots to dwarves, and they couldn’t see a dwarf in any other life. But I like fresh air — claustrophobia is crummy for a dwarf.

Image by Hans Gude


FairyTaleFlash: Christmas God


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For this week, the prompt for #FairyTaleFlash is “a Christmas ghost or a gothic Christmas tale or a strange/weird Christmas story.” There’s an intriguing theory that elements of Sinterklaas, the Dutch version of Santa Claus, were inspired by the Norse god Odin. The theory doesn’t have anything substantial to support it, but part of the fun of writing fiction is running with ideas too vague or unproven for a reputable scholar. So here’s my Christmas flash fiction:

December 7, 2023

Though Santa Claus is based on St. Nicholas, some people have noted similarities to the Norse god Odin (a flying steed, all-seeing wisdom, etc.). They don’t realize that this is because Odin has disguised himself as Santa as a scam to steal modern worshippers.

Odin and Santa Claus

Flash Stories from #FairyTaleFlash


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Over the last couple of years, I’ve gotten heavily involved in the community of mythology, folklore, and literature hashtags on Twitter and other social media, such as #MythologyMonday, #FairyTaleTuesday, #WyrdWednesday, #FolkloreThursday, etc. Every week, each one posts a new theme, such as “ocean” for one #MythologyMonday week, and then “fruit” the next week, and they repost any posts that people make that are about elements of mythology, folklore, etc. that are related to the theme and use the hashtag. So, for example, on the Monday that #MythologyMonday posts about “ocean,” the site would then repost any myths people referenced about the ocean, fish, etc. The most unusual hashtag is #FairyTaleFlash, a companion to #FairyTaleTuesday. While every Tuesday, #FairyTaleTuesday reposts any fairy tale or fantasy factoids about its current theme, #FairyTaleFlash will instead repost any fantasy flash fiction (fiction small enough to fit on a single tweet) that follows the same theme.

Back in 2022, I created a few of my own flash fiction for #FairyTaleFlash.

May 23, 2022

Theme: Fables with morals
Every day a sparrow sat chirping on a man’s balcony. Eventually it annoyed the man enough that he drove her away. Once no bird was claiming the balcony, a huge goose moved in. His honking was far more annoying than the chirping, and he far harder to drive away than the sparrow was.

(the moral of this story, by the way, is “if you try to get rid of your problems without thinking carefully about it, often they will get replaced by something worse.”)

Jun 7, 2022

Theme: Stories from an animal’s point of view
Every bear clan tells tales of human-shifters. Each day I dream of being able to put on human form and walk among them in their strange metal forests. Of accessing strange human powers such as opposable thumbs and ability to read. Imagine what that would be like.

June 14, 2022

Theme: Unusual romances
“Didn’t I tell you I could arrange a feast grand enough for all our wedding guests?” the raven groom said.
“I should never have doubted you.” The raven bride gazed at the bloody battlefield. “How romantic! Everything’s perfect.”
The flock of ravens descended on the broken corpses.

It’s a fun challenge, creating a story within a couple of days that’s only a few sentences long. Hopefully I’ll be able to get back into the right frame of mind to start doing #FairyTaleFlash stories again.

The Changing Merlin


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Merlin in Sword in the Stone

With the exception of King Arthur himself, Merlin is the most famous character from Arthurian folklore. He defines the wizard archetype so perfectly that whenever an English story references some wizard, it’s usually Merlin, even if otherwise King Arthur doesn’t make an appearance. He’s part of the backstory in everything from children’s fantasy such as Harry Potter and The Talking Parcel to superhero tales such as Black Knight and The Demon. Like King Arthur, Merlin’s name is so well-known and so linked to an archetype that people often don’t realize how little they know about the character. They just think “yeah, Merlin – he’s an important wizard. I know what wizards are like – big white beard, staff, pointed hat, and either a traveler’s cloak or a robe full of stars. He can do all sorts of crazy magic and is a benevolent mentor to heroes.” However, Merlin’s origins are a lot more complex. Appropriately for a shapeshifter, Merlin’s story has taken on many forms.

Merlin in History of the Kings of Britain

Like many legendary figures, King Arthur originally existed in a largely oral tradition. It was the 12th century that gave us the first cohesive biography of Arthur, with his prominent appearance in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. This book was also the first appearance of Merlin. His mother was a virgin princess and his father some sort of spirit (a demon or a fairy – it’s not proven which), which has granted him the gift of prophecy. As a boy, Merlin reveals to the British tyrant Vortigern that his tower keeps falling because underneath it a red dragon battles a white dragon, which predicts how Vortigern will be defeated by Ambrosius, whose throne Vortigern has usurped. After Vortigern’s defeat, Merlin becomes the advisor of King Ambrosius. Later Merlin transports Stonehenge from Ireland to Britain to serve as a memorial for the British slain by Saxon treachery, prophecies Ambrosius’ death and the coming of King Arthur, and finally disguises Ambrosius’ brother Uther Pendragon as Gorlois in order to sleep with Gorlois’ wife Igraine and produce Arthur.

In many ways, this Merlin is similar to the later one of more familiar stories. He is already performing many of his most memorable feats, such as moving Stonehenge and transforming Uther. He prophecies King Arthur. He is half-human. However, this Merlin never meets Arthur directly and he isn’t really a wizard. Merlin’s only explicitly supernatural ability is prophecy, and he transports Stonehenge through vaguely defined “machinery” and uses “medicine” to change Uther’s appearance. You’re supposed to view him as scholar and scientist rather than a magic-user – a startling notion to appear in a medieval text.

Merlin in Le Morte d’Arthur

Later authors would turn Merlin into a full-blown wizard as well as have him stick around long enough to guide King Arthur in his early years. Not only would he transport Stonehenge and transform Uther through magic, but he would also perform numerous other supernatural feats – many of them involving changing his own form or others. These authors also made Merlin a more morally ambiguous figure – presumably because they felt any wizard (even one whose ultimate goal was good) could not be entirely virtuous. He’s still on the right side, King Arthur’s side, but behaves horribly when not on his mission. This Merlin loves to toy with people, refusing to explain himself and only telling people what he needs to in order to get them to do what he wants. He chuckles when he gazes at people’s future and sees they’ll die an ironic death. He sexually harasses his apprentice Nimue until she entombs him in a tree. This is the Merlin of the Arthurian romances, and especially Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur – the most famous Arthurian text.

Merlin in Excalibur

The character of Merlin gets transformed again in modern stories, such as T. H. White’s novel The Once and Future King and John Boorman’s movie Excalibur. These authors smooth out a lot of the rough elements of Arthurian heroes, such as King Arthur’s vengeful pride, Lancelot’s berserker rage, and Merlin’s disquieting nature, making them unequivocally heroic. Now Merlin is an entirely benevolent wizard, King Arthur’s kindly mentor, and surrogate father figure. In the Sword in the Stone installment of Once and Future King, Merlin is even Arthur’s tutor, transforming him into various animals to teach him about life. This is the Merlin most modern people think of – friendly bearded guy giving useful advice and casting some fancy spells. This is the Merlin that inspires Gandalf.

Sometimes earlier versions of the character still make appearances. Mary Stewart’s series of Arthurian historical fiction leans into Merlin being a prophet and scientist instead of a wizard, and the first book (The Crystal Caves) closely adapts Merlin’s appearances in History of the Kings of Britain. Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court features Merlin as a manipulative charlatan and Phyllis Ann Karr’s Idylls of the Queen has him as a fanatical lunatic.

Merlin in Marvel Comics

Perhaps the most complex exploration of these different versions of the character is Merlyn in Marvel Comics’ Captain Britain and Excalibur – when he first appears to give Captain Britain his power, Merlyn (or “Merlin”) appears as the benevolent father figure of Once and Future King to Brian “Captain Britain” Braddock, but later this proves to be a façade as the true Merlyn is a far more amoral manipulator, like the Merlin of Malory and the Romances. It’s implied he went all T. H. White because that surrogate father-figure and tutor is who Brian would most respond to, fulfilling a hole in the lonely boy’s life and appealing to his childhood fantasies of being a knight and belonging to something greater than himself. A Malory Merlin pretending to be a White Merlin to manipulate someone into doing what he wants is very on-brand. Later, the character seems to be invoking the original Geoffrey of Monmouth scientist Merlin as a lot of the character’s “magic” is revealed to be alien science – he’s even linked with the Doctor, the hero from the British science fiction show Dr. Who. It’s hard to know how much of this is intentional, especially because figures such as Geoffrey of Monmouth are rarely read these days except by medieval scholars. However, it is intriguing that these Marvel comics do seem to be engaging with all versions of Merlin, whether accidentally or on purpose.

Many King Arthur characters are vastly different from themselves in different interpretations – Queen Guinevere in particular has a talent for appearing as a virtuous hero or a sinister villain or anything in between, depending upon the needs of a particular story. But I’m especially fascinated by how different these versions of Merlin are. If the Merlins of Geoffrey, Malory, and White all hung out together, they probably wouldn’t like each other very much.

One of the reasons I love the stories of King Arthur is that they’re so mutable, able to be changed into whatever purpose they’re needed. It’s fitting that one of the changeable parts is the nature of Merlin, the shapeshifting wizard who is most famous for helping Uther Pendragon take on a different form.

Defining What I Write


I’ve been spending a lot of my time trying to figure out what to call the sort of stuff I like to write — stories set in the modern world that use the supernatural as symbols to explore the psychological and emotional states of the protagonists. Though many of the stories are dark and some cross over into horror, I wouldn’t say that “horror” is a good umbrella term for this style in general. “Urban fantasy” is usually the term given to fantasy stories set in the modern world, and I find it’s a little too general for my taste. It tells nothing of the ambiance of the story, which matters more to me than the story’s physical trappings. The type of fantasy I’m going for are the deeper realities, the common ground of the stories of Algernon Blackwood and Jorge Luis Borges, and the comics of David B and Junji Ito. I needed to find some term that encapsulates works such as these and demonstrates how I feel about my own writing.

One may ask why it is so important to define what kind of thing you’re writing. Shouldn’t you just write what matters to you without thinking about how to classify it? Isn’t it limiting to give it a label? There’s certainly validity in that stance. However, I became especially intrigued about how to classify what I like to write when I decided to enter the UBC program because I realized that if I get a better sense of what, then that can help me figure out why, and if I can understand why I write, then that can help me in directing my work going forward.

I realized that for me it’s less important whether a story has anything literally magical than that it feels like magic. In exploring these psychological states, I want to produce a sublime sense of awe in the reader, what it would feel like to touch some deeper reality, some unnatural, sublime presence beyond their kin. I got a far truer taste of this kind of “fantasy” in Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical novel Sword at Sunset, whose protagonists feel like pawns of fate playing out some mythic tale, than in Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman’s Dragonlance Chronicles, a story of wizards & dragons far more prosaically told. I then realized that there is an obvious word to describe this experience of an unnatural presence beyond our comprehension — “occult.”

The word “occult” comes from the Latin “occultus,” which means “hidden, concealed, secret.” In English, it can be used to mean something generally hidden or mysterious (“occult matters such as nuclear physics”) or more commonly used to mean something related to the supernatural, often with somewhat sinister overtones (“he joined an occult secret society dedicated to demon summoning”). This linguistic linking of “secret” and “supernatural” intrigued me, and I realized that it was able to really define what sort of stories are fascinating to me. Stories about the uncovering of spiritual secrets, the moments when someone discovers something profound that forces them to reevaluate their relationship to the universe, for good or ill. It’s the vision of Heaven or Hell that alters someone’s relationship to God, the ghost that forces them to confront their mortality, the magic spell that causes their reality to warp. It’s about feeling like you’ve reached the edge of your conventional view of things, and your next step will take you beyond the fields you know. It’s about that sublime uncertainty more than about any actual specific fantasy images. That sublimity is what fascinates me.

Such a story doesn’t need to have the literal supernatural. The brilliant movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind is incredibly occult in my definition of the term, as it’s all about how the coming of aliens transforms everyone’s views of reality and forces them to confront the wider universe. Robertson Davies’ psychoanalytical novels such as The Manticore are also occult as their explorations into Jungian symbolism force the characters to uncover the secrets of their psyches, which transform their relationship to the universe and themselves. They’re both about the feeling of touching some great truth, one so transformative that it almost feels supernatural. Now, most of my own occult stories are explicitly supernatural, but I’d like to think that they have more in common with Close Encounters of the Third Kind or The Manticore than they do with Harry Potter. I certainly want to capture that numinous feeling. I want my readers to feel like they’re peeling off a level of reality and encountering something hidden and profound underneath.

In short, “occult fiction” is what I like to write.

Christmas and Not Dead Yet

Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge

I can’t believe it’s Christmas, 2021. So much has happened this year. I can’t believe it’s been more than a year since my last blog post. All right, I can believe the last part. It’s been a hell of a year. I’ve been busy doing all sorts of things. There are certain years in one’s life that are transformative. Almost alchemical. You know as you’re passing through them that they are shaping you, and you’ll be very different when you come out the other side. “Behold, I tell you a mystery: we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed….”

What is different? Well, I’m further in my Creative Writing MFA at UBC. I only have one semester of classes left, though my thesis is certainly going to take longer. The classes have been intriguing. A fiction class that has helped crystallize the parts of my writing that need more work, a graphic novel class that has inspired me to try creating a collage comic strip entirely myself instead of relying on someone else to draw it, a teaching creative writing class that has shown me how I can be a better teacher, and a writing for children class that has shown me that the Welsh King Arthur story I want to write would work very well as a YA book.

In addition, I got married to the love of my life, published my anthology on mental health with Cloudscape Comics, and have continued to teach at Langara (and been developing my teaching techniques there). Also the stress of work, school, and the global pandemic have forced me to lose myself in new interests. I’ve gotten very engaged in the various elaborate and creative fashion choices of haute couture (especially the mythology-inspired stuff of Thierry Mugler and Guo Pei), and I’ve finally got involved in social media.

It’s a weird moment to basically sit up and say “Are you telling me that there are people on the Internet interested in talking about 1980s role-playing games, 1990s Marvel trading cards, 1930s horror movies, and general factoids of superhero comics and mythology?” Of course intellectually I knew that to be true, though it took this year to emotionally realize it. I’m actually retweeting people, engaging in twitter discussions, following podcasts (especially the erudite yet hilarious Oh Gosh, Oh Golly, Oh Wow! podcast for the Excalibur comic), that sort of thing. In particular, I’ve gotten engaged in the network of folklore-related hashtags (#MythologyMonday, #FairyTaleTuesday, #WyrdWednesday, #FolkloreThursday, #FaustianFriday, etc.), in which every week on the day of the relevant hashtag, you post factoids relevant to their current theme. It’s bizarre how marvelous it has felt to post folklore factoids and read what others have posted – quick consumption of obscure mythic facts is certainly my biggest addiction. It’s such a soothing experience to be in communication with so many people deeply nostalgic about the same things I am. It seems like a weird thing to fixate on, but considering how important nostalgia and pop culture factoids are in my life — there it is. The world is a frightening and chaotic place.

I am expanding my interests to new areas, perfecting my writing prowess, and moving forward with my life. Right now I’m still overwhelmed with MFA-related stuff, so I’m certainly not relaxed. But it is nice to know that through all this I am becoming a more engaged person. I am building a community of associates, getting more involved in more interests, and of course soon I’ll have a nice MFA degree to be proud of. I am being changed, and it is nice.

Happy holidays!