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The first place I learned to write with attention to style was in the military, where I worked as a paralegal. After four years there, I entered an undergraduate program at Columbia University, where, honestly, the vibes were more alike than different. In both instances the overarching goal was to employ language as a means of maintaining supremacy.

These days I won’t even touch the sonnet—that’s how sensitive I am to aesthetics of ideological imposition. There are macro-reasons why this matters (I highly suggest reading Fargo Nissim Tbakhi’s “Notes on Craft: Writing in the Hour of Genocide” or “How to Love This World,” the prologue to Isabel Zapata’s A Whale Is a Country) but for now, right here, I’ll simply say that using language to assert authority is not the kind of writer I want to be. It doesn’t feel good.

When I notice it creeping up in my writing, one way I’ve learned to curb the aggression of institutional tone is to stop whatever project I’m working on and write a letter or e-mail to a friend. I might tell them about the hummingbirds who prefer red drink in their feeder over preservative-free nectar. Or about the breakfast I made while it was raining. How I rolled the lemons the way I’d watched my grandfather do. It’s important that the person I write to be someone who I trust, and who I feel seen by, while I invite myself to be earnest and vulnerable as I share the most commonplace details.

(I don’t use “commonplace” lightly. I’ve learned that I’m strongest when I feel connected to who I am at the simplest scale. A body feeding itself. Feeding others. Being fed. A body remembering water. And that the material of my every day is what connects me physically to other people and landscapes.)

As I’m sharing, I pay attention to how my body softens through this exercise. Then I return to my writing project and—this is the very important part—I don’t write anything that moves me away from that feeling of softness. If I can’t say what I need to say in language that preserves the warmth and generosity of spirit I feel when sharing who I am with someone I love, then I don’t say it at all. At least not that day.

Saretta Morgan, author of Alt-Nature (Coffee House Press, 2024)  

Photo credit: Shaunté Glover