Defining Self and the Spirit of Writing with Kalisha V. Buckhanon


As writers, we are primarily readers, and so to know ourselves best as writers, we must first explore which works and writers have been most influential. Which voices have felt most organic? Which narrative settings have best captured our imaginations and connections? If we could disappear into the world of a single narrative work, which one would it be?

The literary landscape, both artistically and commercially, can be fast-paced and changing. Styles and voices can be as arbitrary as a Warhol moment then the massive literary horde moves onto the next “it.” For this reason, it is especially important for writers and artists to have a sense of self. It can help to remember that styles and topics are perineal as much in art as they are in any other pursuit. It can also help to have an anchor. And this anchor must be your own. It must be personal and deeply held as one might hold to her or his faith. As you continue to work through this lesson, keep this question with you: If you could disappear into the world of a single influential narrative work, which one would it be and why?

Writing is Tough

It is pure and total concentration, difficult enough as that is in our fast-paced and media-driven world, where constant technology input occupies our senses. For many, it is hard to even read a book. However, writing is an organized concentration all people can commit to for a set end goal and tangible product: a school essay, work report, diary entry, injury documentation, news article, legal brief, doctors’ notes, love letter, obituary. The world dictates and requires these forms of writing within a set structure to give their writers a push, a deadline and possibly even a penalty for lack of completion. Much of this writing can be creative, and some of it even spiritual.

But our kind of arts and entertainment writing (imaginative and day-dreamed) is on its own. Many outsiders see fiction and poetry as leisure or hobby. A bulk of the population misinterprets it as play alone, and its writers as romantic or even immature.

Some wonder if this work is even necessary. Though fiction and poetry have potential for more relevance and meaning to so many more people than a single homework paper turned in for a grade or a private diary entry, the world does not easily support their creation and production or the writers who do it. Many schools and colleges have cut English, literature and poetry study down in the curriculums to make way for more professional education courses. Yet, we all enjoy our kind of writing every day through the reruns of our favorite television shows, the bedtime books children experience, the favorite books we pass on to our friends and family, the movies playing at the cinema. We forget all this starts with a word. This is what makes our kind of writing so tough.

And, not only is it tough, but it has an infinite number of meanings for the infinite number of different people who can do it.

And, you can do it.

You can do it because you have loved to do it, either since you were a child as a compulsion or recently as an adult surprised by the gift.

You can do it because you realize how the industry and enterprise of writing affords many people to make a living doing work they enjoy, within the comfort of their own home or office.

You can do it because you have stack of notebooks or piles of papers or computer documents in testament to your work and talent as a writer, and now you want to shape them into objects and forms many others may now enjoy.

You can do it because you have worked in publishing, libraries, schools or other industries as a handler of books and writing for others’ learning and fulfillment; now you want to emerge to the forefront with your own work and books, with a wide understanding of all involved and how much work it takes to be successful.

  • “Spirit of Writing” exists for the purposes of providing camaraderie to you as a person involved in a passion and profession we spend an excruciating number of hours alone to do, and so hopefully the group momentum and knowledge of numbers here will benefit your motivation to work in relative isolation.
  • “Spirit of Writing” exists for you to return to or rediscover the force inside of you compelled to write and holding your stories inside.
  • “Spirit of Writing” exists for you to acclimate to the experience of having an audience, the necessary byproduct of creation and better half to your work.
  • “Spirit of Writing” exists for you to count up some completed pages to work with!
  • “Spirit of Writing” exists to start you to writing every day in one way or another (editing and revising counts as writing), like brushing your teeth.

A Place You Love to Write In

This can be as traditional or wacky as you want it to be. Sonali Deraniyagala wrote her memoir Wave, a hard account of losing her parents and children and spouse to the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka, on the corner of her bed in a small Manhattan apartment. Of course, transcendentalist writers were known for writing in cabins and outdoors. Perhaps you have a sunroom, or a desk in your urban bedroom with roommates, or a brand new study you have just decorated and built for this new start.

I write well in kitchens for some reason. Even when I have an office with the big fancy desktop or a part of my living room to set my wooden desk, I wind up at the kitchen and dining room tables with my laptop. I think it feels less like work for me that way, and accommodates my OCD compulsion to drink water and tea and coffee as I write.

Reading Assignments

“On Self-Respect: Its Source, Its Power” by Joan Didion 

Once, in a dry season, I wrote in large letters across two pages of a notebook that innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself. Although now, some years later, I marvel that a mind on the outs with itself should have nonetheless made painstaking record of its every tremor, I recall with embarrassing clarity the flavor of those particular ashes. It was a matter of misplaced self-respect….

“Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid

Wash the white clothes on Monday and put them on the stone heap; wash the color clothes on Tuesday and put them on the clothesline to dry; don’t walk barehead in the hot sun; cook pumpkin fritters in very hot sweet oil; soak your little cloths right after you take them off; when buying cotton to make yourself a nice blouse, be sure that it doesn’t have gum on it, because that way it won’t hold up well after a wash; soak salt fish overnight before you cook it; is it true that you sing benna in Sunday school…?

“On Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

I read the other day some verses written by an eminent painter which were original and not conventional. The soul always hears an admonition in such lines, let the subject be what it may. The sentiment they instil is of more value than any thought they may contain. To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all [humans], — that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost,—and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment….

Writing Exercises

Moving forward brings up the possibility of rejection, disappointment, criticism and peer review that may not even scratch the surface of understanding what you mean or intend. So, writers don’t move forward. They stay bottled up and stuck in wishing. No more! Declaring to yourself (and others) you are a real writer who commits to not only this course, but a full project, can feel pompous or too final if not scary. But getting the work and final pages done is the only way to find out what is on the other side for you.

See yourself as a person who stops smoking, quits drinking, starts dieting and otherwise breaks a bad habit (not writing) by talking about it every chance you get. This keeps you accountable to your writing spirit and legitimizes your work as valid. You can even say it aloud to yourself right now: “I am a writer, and I will get busy writing every day from now on.”

  1. Tell 3-5 people you are taking this course. Email a group of friends. Post it on Facebook or your favorite social media platform. Announce it at the dinner table. Phone a few relatives or friends. Let your co-workers know. Tell your classroom. This is the first and probably most important step to being successful over the next month. You have to put it out there you intend to be writing, reading and coming back.
  2. Task #2: Decide who you are in this now and why. This should be a simple “I am…because…” statement. Write this down as something like “I am a Poet because…” or “I am a Novelist because…” or “I am a Blogger because…” or “I am a Short Story Writer because…” or “I am a Memoirist because…” You can go into as much detail as you want once you designate those basics. Just so you know, my strengths lie in fiction and imaginative writing, although I do write essays and blogs. I help people best from those categories.
  3. Task #3: Write down or type up your goal in a specific mission statement including a)a numbers of what you hope to accomplish (poems, pages, chapters, etc…) and b) what you plan to do with the numbers. Then give us an excerpt from the work. Your mission statement should be clear and written or typed along with the excerpt, not just spoken. Some examples of this are: 1. “I will have two short stories polished in one month to submit to literary journals for publication.” 2. “I will refine 10 pages of my poetry in one month to publish in chapbook form.” 3. “I will finish the last three chapters of my novel and start querying agents.” 4. “I will type 30 pages of my life story up to go backwards or forward from until I have said all I wanted to.” 5. “I will edit 20 pages of something I wrote back in the day to share online.”
  4. Type your 1-3 responses up, follow with an excerpt of work you are most into right now, post on the group forum, and get to know each other.


Kalisha Buckhanon’s novels are CONCEPTION and UPSTATE. Her writing awards include an American Library Association Alex Award, Friends of American Writers Award and Illinois Arts Council Fellowship. She and her work have been featured in Essence, People, Guardian, London Independent on Sunday, Mosaic Literary Magazine, Colorlines, BlogHer, xoJane, Michigan Quarterly Review, Hermeneutic Chaos, Winter Tangerine Review, Atticus Review and more. She has taught creative writing, humanities and English through PEN American Center’s Prison Writing Program, Kankakee Community College and many inner-city schools programs, summer arts camps and library initiatives. She is a member of Phi Beta Kappa and Sisters in Crime, with appearances for the group as an on-air commentator on Investigation Discovery Channel’s “Deadly Affairs.” Kalisha has an M.F.A in Creative Writing from The New School in New York City, and a B.A. and M.A. in English Language and Literature both from University of Chicago. This lesson is from Kalisha’s Eckleburg Workshop, “The Spirit of Writing.” 

Evolving Origins: Writing Personal Loss As a Point of Departure with Rosebud Ben-Oni

Today, we will be looking at Writing Personal Loss as a point of Departure, and two very different poems in depth. Rather than think of departure as an ending, I’d like to delve into the idea of departure itself, and see what can grow from it. Think of all the people who are no longer in your life and the various circumstances surrounding each situation. How did these departures change or affect you? How did they point you in new directions whether in your work or in your actual life?


Elegy” by Natasha Trethewey

Traditionally, an elegy is a poem of serious reflection, usually a lament for the dead. Interestingly enough, Trethewey’s father was alive when she wrote this elegy; in real life, he had not actually departed the physical world. Does this change your reading of the poem, esp the lines “Your daughter,/I was that ruthless”? What might it say about Trethewey and her father? What themes do you see in this poem? Read the story behind Trethewey’s poem here.


What Work Is” by Phillip Levine

Is this a poem about work? And if so, what different kinds of work? How does the theme of work touch on his relationship with the speaker’s brother? Also, pay attention to the addressed, to the “you” in the poem. How does this “you” change? By the end of the poem, who is the “you?” What or who is the speaker losing/has lost/in danger of losing? How does this shape the poem? Hear Levine read the poem here.


Please read and listen to the NPR podcast “After Loss, Turning To Poetry For Grief And Healing,” which highlights Kevin Young’s amazing project. 


(1) For 1 minute, list the names of those no longer in your life. Make sure to time yourself.

(2) Assignment 1 verb and 1 noun for each name listed.

(3) Choose 1 of the names, and write in one sentence what you want to say that person. Say it from your gut. Don’t overthink it.

Write a poem addressed to this person no longer in your life. It can be an elegy, but doesn’t have to be. This is a very open assignment. The only requirement is that it addresses the person as if you are speaking directly to them.


Born to a Mexican mother and Jewish father, Rosebud Ben-Oni is a recipient of the 2014 NYFA Fellowship in Poetry and a CantoMundo Fellow. She was a Rackham Merit Fellow at the University of Michigan, a Horace Goldsmith Scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a graduate of the Women’s Work Lab at New Perspectives Theater in NYC. She is the author of SOLECISM (Virtual Artists Collective, 2013) and an Editorial Advisor for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. Her work appears in POETRY, The American Poetry Review, Arts & Letters, Bayou, Puerto del Sol, among others. She writes weekly for The Kenyon Review. Rosebud is the founding talent and voice behind “Evolving Origins.”

Evolving Origins: Homelands Are More Than Physical Spaces with Rosebud Ben-Oni

This lesson will be focusing on the idea of Homelands. A homeland is more than just a physical space in which one traces back her or his own roots. The idea of having a homeland, versus identifying one’s nationality, weighs heavier, particularly but no limited to those living in some sort of exile, be it physical, spiritual, familial, etc.

In his seminal work Imaginary Homelands, Salman Rushdie writes that “[i]t may be argued that the past is a country from which we have all emigrated, that its loss is part of our common humanity…human beings do not perceive things whole; we are not gods but wounded creatures, cracked lenses, capable only of fractured perceptions. Partial beings, in all the senses of that phrase. Meaning is a shaky edifice we build out of scraps, dogmas, childhood injuries, newspaper articles, chance remarks, old films, small victories, people hated, people loved; perhaps it is because our sense of what is the case is constructed from such inadequate materials that we defend it so fiercely, even to the death.”

For Rushdie, the past itself serves a homeland in which we cannot escape, or see clearly a larger picture, the true picture. Our perceptions, our own truths, are created from wounds and skewed visions.


Reading Assignments

Shadow Cities” by Andre Aciman

In his essay, Aciman writes that “I had come here, an exile from Alexandria, doing what all exiles do on impulse, which is to look for their homeland abroad, to bridge the things here to things there, to rewrite the present so as not to write off the past. I wanted to rescue things everywhere, as though by restoring them here I might restore them elsewhere as well. In seeing one Greek restaurant disappear or an old Italian cobbler’s turn into a bodega, I was once again reminded that something was being taken away from the city and, therefore, from me—that even if I don’t disappear from a place, places disappear from me.”

What do you believe Straus Park ultimately represented to Aciman?

Here are some poems in which authors deal with the idea (and often lose of) homeland:

Naomi Shihab Nye, “Blood
Charles Simic, “Cameo Apparence”
Mahmoud Darwish, “Who Am I, Without Exile?
Scott Cairns, “Homeland of the Foreign Tongue”

Writing Exercises

Writing Exercises for Your Own Exploration and Reflection

  1. Free Word Association: Without overthinking it, list the first 15 words that comes to mind when you think of “Homeland.”
  2. Now, list all the places you have lived. Even if you moved from a place at 6 months old, write it down.
  3. Thinks about how some of those places have changed; use Aciman’s essay “Shadow Cities” for inspiration. Choose a few, and explain how or why they’ve changed since you’ve lived (or still are living) there.

*Once you’ve completed these exercises, review in depth your answers to all 3.


Writing Assignment for Submission

Using your answers from the previous 3 exercises, write a poem about homeland(s). It can be any sort of homeland– it is not limited to the idea of an actual space. The poem should be an exploration of how you define the word. NO LENGTH REQUIREMENT.


Born to a Mexican mother and Jewish father, Rosebud Ben-Oni is a recipient of the 2014 NYFA Fellowship in Poetry and a CantoMundo Fellow. She was a Rackham Merit Fellow at the University of Michigan, a Horace Goldsmith Scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a graduate of the Women’s Work Lab at New Perspectives Theater in NYC. She is the author of SOLECISM (Virtual Artists Collective, 2013) and an Editorial Advisor for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. Her work appears in POETRY, The American Poetry Review, Arts & Letters, Bayou, Puerto del Sol, among others. She writes weekly for The Kenyon Review. Rosebud is the founding talent and voice behind “Evolving Origins.”