Hi. I'm Jenna McGuiggan.
Join The List!

Sign-up to receive stories, specials, & inspiration a few times a month.

search this site

"True Names" Essay Named Finalist for Prime Number Magazine Contest

I am thrilled to have been a finalist for Prime Number Magazine's Creative Nonfiction contest for my essay "True Names." Eight finalists were chosen from 56 entries, with the three winners being chosen by author Ned Stuckey-French. (I'm happy to say that my friend and grad school colleague Laurie Easter won third prize.)

I'm still looking for a home (read: publication) for my essay, so I can't share the whole thing here, but I thought I'd give you glimpse of it. (Such a tease, I know.)

This essay is part of my manuscript-in-progress, a collection of linked essays called For All We Learned, The Sea, which explores landscape, belief, and the longing for home and belonging in all its many forms.

Here's the beginning of "True Names":

Etch-a-Sketch, Baja, Echo. The tour guide on the whale watching boat knows these humpbacks by name. She recognizes them by their tail markings, the designs they were born with and the wounds they've sustained since then. She announces each whale as it levers its broad tail out of the water like the dark wings of an enormous seagull. To my eyes, this display is an anonymous flash of rubbery black and white on the sun-dazzled water, but our guide assures us that unique patterns decorate each one, the whale tail equivalent of human fingerprints.

My husband and I are on a whale watching tour boat off the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts. At 115 feet long, the Hurricane II is billed as “the largest and fastest Massachusetts whale watching vessel north of Boston.” From that description I assume this is a boat of substantial size, but I don't know much about such things. For all of my trips to the seashore and my love of the coast, this is the first time I've left land for open water. Taking this tour was the one thing that James insisted we do on our vacation. His eagerness surprised me, he who cannot swim and generally avoids being in water above his knees. But the idea of whales had caught his fancy, and now they've caught mine.
"Look for a fluorescent green glow in the water," the guide says as the whales come closer. This is the telltale sign that a whale glides near the surface, the white patches of its skin reflecting back the otherwise invisible green of microscopic phytoplankton. I stare into the water alongside the boat, skeptical that I'll be able to differentiate between normal ocean-green and this special whale-green. But then the water looks like a neon lamp has lit it up from below, and sure enough, I spy a pectoral fin beneath the glow. This first sighting fills me with hope; I may not be able to name the whales, but I can spot them.

** ** **

I hope you'll be able read the whole essay somewhere in the near future!


Lunch and Heartbreak


Remember when blogging first became a craze and everyone was doing it and everyone was reading everyone else and there was no Twitter or Facebook or Buzzfeed quizzes to find out which cheese/shoe/fictional character you were? There was only your "feed reader" with dozens (or hundreds) of blogs that you tried to check every week. And we were all writing (and reading) about each others' lunch and heartbreak.

I say "everyone," but blogging was still new enough that it wasn't the pervasive thing it is now, and to be a "blogger" was still an interesting or odd or embarrassing or empowering label. Remember that? 

It's not that I'm not feeling particularly nostalgic about those times, I was just thinking about how blogging used to feel both more intense (higher quantities) and less intense (lower stakes). Nowadays, for me, at least, blogging often feels too cumbersome and heavy. I'm a creative writer, so I want the stories I tell here to be good. I'm a freelance writer, editor, and teacher, so I want the posts to be engaging and useful. There's a lot of pressure to write something interesting and sharable. Showing up just to say "hi" and tell you what I had for lunch or what's breaking my heart these days doesn't seem like enough.

But sometimes, lunch and heartbreak are what's on my mind. Sometimes, I don't want to blog so I can tell you a great story or teach you something. Sometimes I just want to say: "Hi. For lunch today I had last night's leftovers: gluten-free pasta with homemade roasted tomato sauce; grilled chicken topped with basil, prosciutto, and provolone; and sauteed kale, because I do love kale, which has nothing to do with its hipster popularity, I just like it."

And I want to say: "Hi. My heart has been breaking lately from all the usual suspects big and small: war, racism, death, lost friendships, people's lack of clean water, disease, economics, misunderstandings. Sometimes I have to sit outside and stare at the green trees to remember that I'm mostly fine and that I need to stop sweating the small stuff all the damn time because it's draining and pointless to sweat the small stuff when the big stuff is also chipping away at your joy. Does it really matter if my neighbors shake their heads at the weeds-as-tall-as-me that are growing in the front of my house? Should I really be fretting over how much I didn't accomplish today? Does it do me any good to feel anxious most of the time because apparently I've developed a sort of anxious auto-pilot that constantly runs in the background? The answer to all of these questions is 'No.' There's enough true heartbreak to go around without all of these little ones piling up in the corners of our psyches."

I'm not saying that blogging was better before. I'm not even pining for the days of lunch and heartbreak posts. I just wanted to say "hi," and to remind myself that not all online interactions have to be well-crafted essays or meaningful sales pitches or pithy status updates.

Sometimes, you just want to connect. Sometimes, you just want to say: I ate this. I'm worried about this. I'll be okay, and I hope you will be, too.


The "Beautiful Giveaway" Winner (plus a special offer for all)

Thank you to everyone who commented on the last post with a Verbal Snapshot! I loved reading your little moments and snippets as they rolled it.

Congratulations to Dolly of From My Cherry Heart, the winner of the "Beautiful Giveaway"!

Bella Grace is such a beautiful publication that I wish I could send a copy of it to each of you. Since that's not possible, I hope you'll pick up a copy for yourself. (Also, remember that the Bella Grace blog hop goes on for another month.)

A Beautiful Weekend Sale: 

To add a bit of beauty to your weekend, I'm offering 20% off titles in The Word Cellar bookshop through Monday (Aug. 18).

If you had fun writing your Verbal Snapshots and want some inspiration to keep writing, download Alchemy Daily: 30 days of writing prompts, inspiration & magic. (This weekend the price is just $11.20.)

The prompts and inspiration in the Alchemy Daily ebook are bite-sized, like daily doses of tasty creative juju. Think of it as your invitation (and good excuse!) to take time for yourself and your creativity every day.


If you'd like a beautiful book of prose, poetry, and photography to hold in your hands, order a copy of Lanterns: A Gathering of Stories. This collection features work by seven women writers and artists, all celebrating the power and beauty of creative community. (This weekend, the price is just $14.40.)

This 50-page book features work by Darlene J Kreutzer, Liz Lamoreux, Jen Lee, Rachelle Mee Chapman, Lisa Ottman, Jena Strong, and me.


Here's wishing you a beautiful weekend!

** ** **

{Stay in touch: Join the email list for stories, specials, & inspirations.}


Verbal Snapshots: Capturing Beauty, Adventure, & Life (plus a giveaway)

{Update 8/15/14: The giveaway winner announcement -- plus a special "have a beautiful weekend" sale for everyone -- is posted over here.}

I'm delighted to have an essay in the premier issue of Bella Grace, a new magazine from Stampington & Co., and to be giving away a copy of it to one of you.

The tagline of this gorgeous publication reads, "Life's a Beautiful Adventure."

And isn't that what so many of us writers, artists, and dreamers are after: The beauty and adventure of our days?

Of course, not every moment is infused with joy and wonder. There are chores to be done, bills to be paid, troubles to be navigated. But in the midst of it all, we're looking for the sparks, the slivers, the shimmery moments of magic and connectedness. 

Many of us capture these glimpses of life's beauty and adventure in images that we share on social media or tuck away for our own eyes.

She sat on the ferry and ate cherries from the market. That seemed like a good life to her.But sometimes there's no time to snap a picture. Sometimes the scope of what you want to capture is too big, too small, or too fleeting for any camera lens.

This is the time for Verbal Snapshots.

Verbal Snapshots are those tiny moments of time when the day takes you by the hand and whispers in your ear, "Pay attention to this. To this world. To this life. To this moment."

And so you do.

As a writer, language is how I make sense of the world, and so much of what I write blooms from simple moments of beauty, joy, wonder, or oddity. The scribe in my head is always taking notes, jotting down bits and bobs that catch my eye. Through words I strive to capture and convey the glints of beauty and adventure tucked in-between the folds of everyday moments.

I wrote my first Verbal Snapshot on Twitter a few years ago when I spied an elderly man in a suit riding a red and silver bicycle. I didn't get a photo of him, but I wanted to capture the image, so I described it in the verbal equivalent of an Instagram:

"Grey-haired gent in tan sport coat and slacks, riding a shiny red & silver bicycle past the post office on Good Friday."

Since then, I've made an ongoing practice of describing the moments in time that catch my eye, my heart, or my fancy. These little "language-grams" are my reminders to pay attention to the world around me and to look for the stories waiting to be told.

The Beautiful Giveaway:

At the bottom of this post, I share a few of my favorite Verbal Snapshots. But first, I want to invite you to share a snapshot of your own. To celebrate the publication of Bella Grace and the beautiful adventure that is this life, I'm giving away a copy of the magazine. And to sweeten this already sweet pot, I'll also include a copy of Lanterns: A Gathering of Stories, a 50-page chapbook of words and images by me and six other amazing women writers and photographers.

To enter for a chance to win a copy of Bella Grace and Lanterns, please leave a comment below with your own Verbal Snapshot -- or simply one word describing how you feel in this moment. (It doesn't have to be poetic or clever or perfect. Any description of a moment or image will do!) I'll leave comments open until 11:59pm (ET) on Thursday, Aug. 14, and I'll announce the winner on Friday the 15th. >>I'll choose a winner using a random number generator, so don't worry about making your snapshot the "best," just have fun with it!<<

A few of my favorite verbal snapshots:

Vintage cherry-red Volkswagen Beetle trundling along with a dark green Christmas tree strapped to the roof.

Two trains on parallel tracks pass each other in opposite directions. For a split second, the engines look ready to kiss.

Tiny parade route: Dozens of flags festoon neighborhood lawns, marking utility lines in red, blue, green, orange, yellow, white.

Candlelight glow through white paper wrapper. Empty mason jar. Broken grey seashell. Small black stone with white stripe.

White petal confetti on wet spring green grass.

For more of my Verbal Snapshots click here, or follow me on Twitter and Facebook to see these snippets as I publish them. You can also play along with the hastag #VerbalSnapshot.

Don't forget to leave your Verbal Snapshot or single word of the moment in the comments below for a chance to win a copy of Bella Grace and Lanterns.

(Other Bella Grace contributors will be hosting giveaways over the next month, so be sure to check out the full Bella Grace Blog Hop schedule here.)

** ** **

{Stay in touch: Join The Word Cellar email list for stories, specials, & inspirations.}


Thoughts on Creativity & Quiet

In this post about creativity and time, I claimed that "Creative work needs time and space to breathe."

For me, silence is an integral part of that creative breathing space.

Creativity craves quiet. Creativity craves a chapel.

{click to Tweet}

"A chapel," writes Pico Iyer, "is where you can hear something beating below your heart."

I like to write in silence: no music, no background chatter, not even a clock ticking too loudly. I need to be able to hear the words trying to come through me. I need the quiet so I can hear the melody of the language.

This isn't to say that one can only write in literal silence. I could, if given the chance, write to the sound of the ocean surf. Birdsong and trees rustling in the wind suite me fine. And I know writers who do some of their best work in cafés with the hustle and bustle of the room as background, or listening to music through headphones.

For each of us, there are sounds that allow us to tap into the chapels of our creativity, sounds that enable us to hear the rhythm of our hearts and something beating below that.  

We need whatever version of sound or silence permits us entrance to the stories waiting for us to tell them.

Eudora Welty said it beautifully. In her book One Writer's Beginnings, she wrote that she hears a literal voice when she reads and when she writes.

It is the voice of the story or the poem itself. The cadence, whatever it is that asks you to believe, the feeling that resides in the printed word, reaches me through the reader-voice. I have supposed, but never found out, that this is the case with all readers ― to read as listeners ― and with all writers, to write as listeners. It may be part of the desire to write. The sound of what falls on the page begins the process of testing it for truth, for me. Whether I am right to trust so far I don’t know. By now I don’t know whether I could do either one, reading or writing, without the other.

My own words, when I am at work on a story, I hear too as they go, in the same voice that I hear when I read in books. When I write and the sound of it comes back to my ears, then I act to make my changes. I have always trusted this voice.

Welty is also known for saying that she listened for stories. 

Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. I suppose it's an early form of participation in what goes on. Listening children know stories are there. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole.....

I don't know how Welty listened for her stories when she was on her own. I don't know if she sat in silence, but I know that she didn't have the same temptations I face when I sit down to write on my laptop. She may have been distracted or tempted away from the page by many things, but she never had to fend off the siren songs of the Internet.

Oh Lord, this little white box on my lap and its magical, invisible companion, WiFi. Was there ever anything so marvelous and so terrible? I love this white keyboard (and my high school typing teacher) for the gift of being able to capture my thoughts in nearly real-time. I love the connection this device gives me to the world, real connections that break the bounds of anything virtual. It is ease and comfort and connection, all wrapped up in silicone and hard drive. And yet...

I know that when I hop around the Web, watch YouTube videos, surf the TV set, I turn away and feel agitated. I go for a walk, enjoy a real conversation with a friend, turn off the lights and listen to Bach or Leonard Cohen, and I feel palpably richer, deeper, fuller, happier.

Happiness is absorption, being entirely yourself and entirely in one place. That is the chapel that we crave. ~Pico Iyer

I like the chatter. I like tweeting and updating and commenting and posting. I even believe them to be one way I feed my creative spirit. But too easily I can get caught up in the noise of it all, in the twitchy, buzzy, fuzziness that doesn't make me happy, that doesn't deepen my thoughts.

If I want to write more consistently, I know that I have to invite in the quiet that I crave. I could go for a walk, or sit in the dark listening to music, as Iyer describes. I could read. (I constantly have to remind myself that reading is part of my creative process. I think I'm still incredulous that something I love so much could be so good ― even necessary ― for my artform. But really, could it be any other way?)  I could stare out the window and daydream. All of these things restore me to myself, which, in turn, restores my creativity to me. 

It turns out that I need silence not only when I'm writing, but in the spaces in-between the acts of creation. The silence is part of the "time and space" that our ideas need to breathe.

What does your creativity need? What is your kind of silence? What is your creative chapel?

Source:"A Chapel Is Where You Can Hear Something Beating Below Your Heart" by Pico Iyer, originally published in Portland, Winter 2012, reprinted in The Best Spiritual Writing 2012, Philip Zaleski, editor

(This post was originally published in a slightly different form in February 2012.)