Close up of a Redbud tree branch with small pink flowers

Here’s How to Use Ross Gay’s Strategies to Write Better Prose

I didn’t know Redbud flowers were edible until Ross Gay ate one.

I watched him do this during a 2023 Virginia Festival of the Book conversation he had with Aran Donovan about his books, Inciting Joy and The Book of Delights.

The event felt like writer’s church, where the scripture on how to write better prose is life and the pastor is an artist who’s both so open it feels holy, and so real you’re laughing alongside him about the misguided essay he once wrote for a big event that included twenty instances of the phrase “Fuck Steve Jobs.” 

Listening to Ross taught me not just about writing, but about what it takes to build a writer’s soul.

Until now, my relationship with delight and joy has been largely mixed. I have Complex PTSD. My brain’s default wiring makes it easy to dismiss the good in favor of ruminating on the bad or dangerous.

The same thing can happen when I’m writing. In the throes of a heavy draft, heartache and delight can feel mutually exclusive, or it can feel like joy is something to put off until either later in the manuscript or later in my writing process.

It doesn’t help that I’ve felt misunderstood by people and groups who claim we should remain forever and always in states of joy and delight, like our shadow sides are something to be discarded.

Ross takes joy and delight  in a new direction.

He defines delight as “the occasional glimmer of connection we feel”—whether it’s the dandelion seed lighting on our hand, the first buds of spring, or a stranger’s unexpected smile. Joy is the depth of our connections and something that’s always available.

We access joy and delight, not when we set our sorrows aside, but when “we recognize sorrow is in our midst and tend to one another.” By welcoming the commingling of joy, sorrow, and delight, we embrace the beauty of life—and come to see the wondrous things embedded in heartache and the longing within each victory.

Ross uses both his poet and essayist lenses when writing his books.

“A poem,” he says, “is a place to explore the unknown—a music that can get to things that are inexpressible in the sentence.” By taking us to unexpected places, poems invite us into the mystery, which is a place where we don’t have to figure it all out.

Essays, on the other hand, are where we wrestle with what is and find our place within it—which, to me, makes stories the laboratory where we explore both the known and unknown, and their limits.

To say Ross’s talk, and our brief exchange afterward, changed my life is an understatement. I was amazed by how present he remained while on stage and when signing books. Never worrying about whether he had an answer, never trying to be some kind of sage. He was just this lanky guy in a “You Belong Here” hoodie and pink ball cap with a hummingbird on it who loves his garden.

Want to build more delight both in your life and your readers?
Make delight a daily practice. Many years ago, my dear friend and soul sister, Joan, taught me to start the day by asking life/higher power/a partner/dear friend for a surprise. After making your request, spend the rest of the day looking for it. Once you find it, say thank you. Use this practice to strengthen your muscles of perception and attention.
From this awakened state, write with greater specificity. Build a world, then fill it with sensory details that are so vivid you can taste the air.
Once you’ve built that world, take yourself and your reader to an unknown place. Find the heartache in winning the prize, the freedom inside the jail cell, the wonder in sanding floors.

In the second chapter of Inciting Joy, Ross writes about his father’s battle with liver cancer. Where this is headed is clear from the first page. But just when you think you know the ending, Ross takes a long look at his unconscious father. “I notice that my father had freckles sprinkled around the bridge of his nose and his upper cheeks. It was like a gentle broadcast of carrot seeds blending into his skin, flickering visible from this distance. It was through my tears I saw my father was a garden. Or the two of us, or the all-of-us, not here long maybe it is. And from that what might grow.”

So, let’s begin this practice right now. Please do me the honor, , of hitting reply and telling me about your most recent delight. (Mine is the feel of my sweet cat, Foxy’s, soft belly fur.) If you can’t think of one, taste the flowers on the Redbud in your yard, or look for the bird you’ve been missing all winter, or stop and feel the contours of your face. Then send me an email with your answer so I can delight in what you’ve discovered.

Until next week, may the delight you experience open new doors of creativity, and may the ones you walk through help you always write on.

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