Get Inspired Mondays, Writing

Where You Need to Be to Write a True Story — Guest Post by Keija Parssinen

Today’s post comes to you from novelist and poet, Keija Parssinen. I think you’ll find that her writing drips of intelligence and vivid, honest images, with prose that often reads like poetry. 


Where You Need to Be to Write a True Story

It’s hard to get inspired in Missouri in the winter. Everything is the color of dirty dish water—the sky, the leafless trees, even the snow after a day on the ground. Life becomes muted and interior, a reflection of the dimmed landscape. Your writing takes on a studied, quiet quality that you never noticed before.

But one day, you see a fat, red cardinal, all puffed up and sitting on a branch outside, or a squirrel leaping hopefully, only to land, comically, with a small poof in the middle of a three-foot snow bank. Relief from the neutrals. Proof of life. Take notice of the tiny things—they will sustain you through the long cold season, through your own creative hibernation. Gather the images in your cheeks. Save them for later, for when the ground of your mind becomes soft and loamy once again, for when you sit down to write and cannot stop.

Also: seek out schools. In schools, children are told, “You can be a writer. Yours is a worthwhile pursuit. Reading and writing are wonderful.” Hear these things often enough, and you will be reminded not only why you write, but also, that writing is meaningful. In schools, the kids who love to write are given shiny, beautiful talismans for their efforts—gold stars, foil-wrapped chocolates, the teacher’s gleaming, toothy smile. Remember the time when writing was a pursuit of pure love. Forget agents, editors, word counts. Remember: love.

Awaken in the middle of the night. Go to the New York Times home page. Look at all 278 photographs of the Libyan revolution. Wonder where the women are. Cry over the old men crying over the bodies of the young men. Marvel at the man who walks across the desert with no shoes, carrying a rocket launcher on his back. The other men have shoes. What happened to his? Read Qaddafi’s quotes: “We will come house by house, room by room. It’s over. The issue has been decided. We will find you in your closets. We will have no mercy and no pity. The world is crazy, and we will be crazy, too.” See that villain is still a viable career option in the modern world. Read: Many wonder what will happen if the rebels force Qaddafi to step down. Libya has no infrastructure for the transfer of power. They are not Egypt.

Remember Egypt. The people in the square. The flowers in the tank gun. The way the military did not brutalize their own people. Take heart. See that words like freedom are not just uttered by men in dark suits with flags on their lapels.

Life’s narratives are all around us. The small and the large. In the backyard. On the front page. The lean man walking along the side of the interstate with his steel-frame backpack. The friends divorcing. The madnesses seizing the minds of people you know. The fear of becoming a company man. The closed-door talks at the office park. The threat of children. The protests in the squares. The bloody crackdowns. The fat kings and fleshy dictators scrambling, nervous at the sudden energy of their people. The fifty workers still on shift at the Fukushima plant. The radioactive steam.

Anne Lamott says anyone who survived childhood has enough material to write for a lifetime. But in case that is not enough, or perhaps you are bored with it by now, notice how you, a global citizen, are standing on the precipice, watching the world—of self, of friends, of family, of countries—struggle. It is just where you need to be to write a true story.


Keija Parssinen is a novelist, a poet, and a teacher of fiction writing. She is a graduate of Princeton University and received an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was a Truman Capote Fellow. Upon graduation, she earned a Michener-Copernicus award for her novel, AGAINST THE KINGS OF SALT, which will be published by Harper Perennial in January 2012. She directs the Quarry Heights Writers’ Workshop in Columbia, Missouri. You can find Keija at her blog, on Facebook, or by following her on Twitter.

This post was part of Get Inspired Monday! — a series created to help you dig into your week and find inspiration in unexpected places.

22 thoughts on “Where You Need to Be to Write a True Story — Guest Post by Keija Parssinen”

    1. Thank you for reading, and for your kind words! Just checked out your blog–can’t wait to share it with my students at QHWW 🙂 I know they’ll appreciate the advice you give there.


  1. Beautiful post. As you say, life’s narratives are all around us….quiet lives of desperation. And yet the beauty of a cardinal in winter. Enough material to write for a lifetime (and for some of us, maybe almost too much to bear). Yet, remember love. Thank you so much.


    1. I know it’s hard to remember that love sometimes! Writing can be such a beast of a pursuit. But then you find that moment, or that story, and you just fly, and all the struggles are worth it 🙂


    1. So true. There’s a dictator in my current novel project, and there are, quite unfortunately, many, many rulers I have used to make his composite.


  2. A beautiful, powerful post. Life’s narratives are, indeed, all around us. Some of the greatest writers, who have the ability to touch our souls, have written about ordinary people experiencing ordinary events.


  3. Thank you so much for being here, Keija. Your post was lovely, sobering, and inspiring all at once. One of my favorite parts, “Remember the time when writing was a pursuit of pure love. Forget agents, editors, word counts. Remember: love.” So true, and something that’s especially hard to hang onto when you’re pursuing publication.

    I have to add that talented writers run in this family. I met Keija by way of her sister Tarja — the witty genius behind These two are definitely going places with their writing!

    Thanks, all, for your comments~


    1. Amanda, thank you so much for inviting me to be part of “Get Inspired Mondays.” The Monday posts are such a nice thing to wake up to at the start of the week, and I definitely _do_ find inspiration–on Mondays and other days–from what you share on your blog. Many, many thanks!


  4. Amanda – this is truly a wonderful series. You’re making me enjoy Mondays, damn you.

    Keija, gorgeous post. I’m obviously hormonal, but it brought tears to my eyes. The winter months are long and it’s so easy to lose inspiration – but we must only scratch the surface, muster a little curiosity, and there it is. A story.


  5. Keija. Wow. What a brilliant post. I love your style. I rarely cross paths with poetry, but if it’s anything like this I am going to start looking around new corners for some.


    1. reading poetry somehow gives my writing a jumpstart. it’s a great way to kick off a writing session, if you find a poet you really love! i can’t get enough of charles wright or wallace stevens. thank you for reading!


  6. Keija,

    This is perfect: Forget agents, editors, word counts. Remember: love. And, I so appreciate your reminder that we, as writers, are constant observers. That’s how we fill our place in the world: observe, take note, write about it.


  7. Christi, I love the idea of writers serving some kind of purpose in this world of ours. Journalists do it a bit more obviously–I’ve been reading a lot about repressive regimes threatening/torturing/killing their journalists lately. Observation, and translating observations into words, is very powerful indeed. But you’re right…creative writers keep watch, too, most definitely!



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