Spiritual Memoir

An intimate conversation with sacred experience

Category: Craft (page 1 of 2)

Love in the Work of Writing


I write about love because I tell stories; and it is impossible, I believe, to tell any kind of powerful or valuable or meaningful story without writing about love.  And, too, I have found that it is impossible to write a story without love.  The writer must love her characters, must open her heart to them, give the whole of herself to them, in order for those characters to give themselves back to her.
                                            –Kate Dicamillo, “Characters who Love Again”

Today I’m pondering love’s role in the making of literature.  Love is a basic ingredient, like water in a soup.  Without water, you have no soup.

Before there’s any hope of writing well or of an audience appreciating your work, you must love writing itself.  You must love being alone, tending the wondrous workings of your own mind and heart. You must love questions.  You must passionately love the way silent stirrings inside you take form when given language.  You must adore words.  You must open your being to the many ways words change you.

Before there’s any chance of rendering your material with accuracy and interest, you must love it.  You must love people, in all their grit and grime and brokenness and inconsistency.  You must be willing to look as directly as you can at what is, and not shy from representing this truth to others.  You must love the truth.

If Kate Dicamillo is right and it’s impossible to tell any kind of meaningful story without writing about love, love itself must be our centerpiece—desire for it, lack of it, how it malfunctions, how it transforms, why we deny it, how it surprises, where it originates, how it ends…  Isn’t this the stuff of literature?

To connect well with readers you must love connecting.  You must love the intimacy of entering another’s story, and you must love welcoming others into your own story.

All this makes me wonder:  Couldn’t learning to write well, then, be an exercise in learning to love well?  Or the reverse:  Mightn’t learning to love well benefit our work?  Is it possible that writing instructors have been misdirected, giving our attention to teaching craft when in fact we should be working through the craft on the human heart?  Or is it possible that craft itself is our means for learning to love?

“Look,” writes Brian Doyle.  “I don’t know much, but I know these things uncontrovertibly and inarguably:  One: stories matter waaaaay more than we know.  Two: all stories are, in some form, prayers.  Three: love is the story and the prayer that matters the most.”

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

Giving Your Story a Plot

I can’t tell you how often I read early drafts of memoirs that are thorough, lively recordings of events, great for preserving family history but absolutely unsatisfying as memoirs.  First this happened, and then this, and then this… Even when the events are shocking, amazing, horrific, terrifying, or otherwise scintillating, the drafts read like flat historical records.

Some authors stop there.  Their purpose is creating a record of events, or simply getting down the story satisfies their needs.

But a record of events is not a memoir, and I’ve just discovered a new way to explain why.  I’m reading Janet Burroway’s master-text, Writing Fiction:  A Guide to Narrative Craft, awed by how smart and practical her advice is and by the ludicrous fact that this book is no longer in print.  Burroway’s exploration of the difference between story and plot is an excellent guide for writers needing to make the leap from a record of events to a memoir.

First, some definitions from E.M. Forster:  A story is “a narrative of events arranged in their time sequence.”  A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality.  ‘The king died, and then the queen died,’ is a story.  ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief,’ is a plot. … If it is in a story we say, ‘and then?’  If it is in a plot we ask, ‘why?’”

Burroway goes on to show how the “causal relation between what happens first and what happens next” helps a writer create a plot—that is, explore the “why”.  Forster’s first example (“The king died, and then the queen died”) is a record of events.  But when he gives the queen’s death in relationship to the king’s death we now have causality, emotional connection and disconnection:  plot.  “When ‘nothing happens’ in a story, it is because we fail to sense the causal relation between what happens first and what happens next.  When something does ‘happen,’ it is because the resolution of a short story or a novel describes a change in the character’s life, an effect of the events that have gone before.”  Characters are changed by events.  A story works when events change people and the reader knows why.

Isn’t this the great joy of writing memoir?  We know what happened but we don’t necessarily know why.  For this reason, a complete record of events is a great start.  You’ve written out all your scenes.  They’re in chronological order.  You know what material you’ve got to work with.  Then you can return to that draft and interrogate it.  What changed?  Why?  How?  When?  What’s the cause?  What’s the effect?  Who was I before / during / after this event?  What was my relationship to these events?  What is it today?

I often talk about this as reflective work, plumbing the inner emotional or spiritual story, but Burroway has helped me understand that the link between inner and outer story actually is the plot.  In memoir, plot traces change in the main character.  This is as good a guide for revision as any I’ve found.

The Journey from Self-Conscious to Aware

The other evening I taught a lesson at the Loft that was meant to help beginning memoirists distinguish between the character and the narrator in their stories.  We create personas for ourselves on the page; the main character in every memoir is the younger self who experiences and is changed by events; we can also portray ourselves as a narrator looking back on these events.  For writers who assume the “I” on the page is also the living, breathing self, the lesson was tough.  Brows furrowed, baffled questions were asked, small groups struggled to figure out which “I” was which, and despair settled everywhere.

I’ve observed this happen whenever I teach some element of craft.  Say I reflect on the value of using sensory details; suddenly my students are overly conscious about not using sensory details and assume they’ve failed, or their writing grows ridiculously burdened with sensory details and does fail.  Or say I distinguish between prose that shows and prose that tells; suddenly my students’ acute desire to write scenes gives them writer’s block.

Craft instruction seems to set my students’ writing back a step.  Before the lesson the other evening, students were easily zooming in on the character and zooming back to reflect as a narrator.  Afterward they could barely function.

The funny thing is that most of us intuit what makes a good story and most of us come by strong story-telling skills naturally, effortlessly.  Learning the craft of writing is really a process of growing aware about these natural elements so we can make intentional decisions about them.  At first our stories control us.  As we learn to write and as we take a piece through revision, making deliberate choices about language and perspective and structure and theme, we gain control over our stories.  We author stories; we become authors.

The trouble is that the road to awareness passes through crippling self-consciousness. Take heart!  This too shall pass.  With practice, self-consciousness recedes into informed consciousness.  The more you attend to elements of craft in your writing, the easier it is to return to that natural state—only smarter, and with more power behind your pen.  Stick with writing and your awareness becomes your greatest asset.

You Are What You Write

When I teach, I often ask the question, “What’s at stake for you in this story?”  I’m not alone; it’s a common question in the world of writing.  Students are puzzled by it, however, and usually ask me to explain.

Really I’m looking for the intersection between the writer’s heart and the words on the page.  How does this subject terrify you, compel you, wrap its sweaty hands around your longing and jerk you into unexplored territory?  When a story nags, it always shares some fundamental passion with the writer.  It always taunts the writer with the promise of discoveries that cannot be made in any other way.  How does this project set you on edge?  What’s the rabbit hole you’ve been skirting?  Your writing will take you down.

For people who keep journals and new writers, writing is a natural extension of the self.  We don’t recognize any separation between the passion thumping in our chests and those black marks on paper.  The more we write and the more we learn the craft of writing, we find that our work isn’t us; it is a creation, it’s separate from us.  This is a good thing.  Only as we gain mastery over language and our ideas do we learn to craft our writing, shaping it to interact with audiences beyond our control.  We need a healthy detachment from our work for it to stand on its own two legs.

That said, I’m beginning to realize (through my own writing and my coaching of others) how easily we lose our initial, passionate, full-throttle, full-stakes relationship with writing.  Concern for how our work will satisfy an audience sucks the life out of our creative energy.  We forget our stake.

Recently I found this passage in Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing:

The core of your creativity should be the same as the core of your story and of the main character in your story.  What does your character want, what is his dream, what shape has it, and how expressed?  Given expression, this is the dynamo of his life, and your life, then, as Creator.  (43)

Oh, yes!  We don’t want our writing to flirt with our life, we don’t want casual dating, we want head-over-heels love leading to a life-long marriage.  So the question, “What’s at stake?” isn’t strong enough.  “How does your life depend on this piece of writing?” is more apt.  Answer that question and you’ve got it made.  –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

Dismissing, Then Welcoming the Audience

You must sympathize with the reader’s plight (most readers are in trouble about half the time) but never seek to know the reader’s wants.  Your whole duty as a writer is to please and satisfy yourself, and the true writer always plays to an audience of one.

When I came upon these words in Strunk and White’s classic writing handbook, Elements of Style, I felt pleased as punch.  For years I’ve tried to convince writing students to surround themselves with a safe, protective bubble as they draft projects and begin revising.  We all know how concern for our audience can loom over our shoulders, pestering us with questions like “What will your mother think?” and “Who will give a rat’s ass about that?” and judging our language or ideas as inadequate.  As soon as we allow that dreaded entity, “the reader,” into our writing room, we begin censoring and performing.  We deny our brilliant but quirky inner voice the freedom to emerge.

“A careful first draft is a failed first draft,” Patricia Hampl writes.  What happens if you give yourself permission in a first draft to be messy, heretical, revolutionary, stupid, and otherwise embarrassing?  Your inclination may be to approach your second draft like Stephen King does: “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.”  And while I agree in principle, I’ve found that even the initial stages of revision benefit from a general disregard of audience.  How else can we ask the probing questions that will churn up more risky material?  How else will we feel safe enough to identify that pulsing heartbeat?  Often our real motivations for writing emerge after our material is on the page, and we need the freedom to be honest with ourselves without concern for our readers’ pleasure.

As every writer knows, it takes real will-power to set the future reader aside and “play to an audience of one.”  Whether at the beginning of a project or well into revision, this practice is about peeling away layers of deception to arrive at a core reality—one that comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comforted, as Mark Twain is reported to have said.  Our work needs us to be fully present, not distracted by what others will think.  This is what gives the process of writing the quality of serious spiritual listening, and what invites us into our better selves.

The corollary to this intense privacy is equally valuable–for writing to flourish we must at some point welcome the audience.  If a writer only considers the self the primary audience, the work becomes solipsistic and sloppy.  Our own minds, however bright, are only so big; our own lives, however expansive, are inevitably limited.  When we write solely for ourselves, as we do in a private journal, we human beings have a propensity to navel-gaze and obsess.  Unedited journals almost never get published for this reason; there’s simply too much shlock for most readers.

If we never consider an audience as we write, our work’s growth remains stunted.  The discipline of considering the reader is absolutely necessary to the development of creative work.  All art is essentially dialogue—between the artist and the viewer, between the artist and all artists who have come before, and between the artist and society.  The artist’s awareness of this conversation is what launches a work from the private realm into the public.  In literature, it’s this awareness that helps a writer identify the universal elements in the particulars of his or her narrative.  By setting our work in the context of history, social movements, religious thought, psychological explorations, and other external forces, we link the smallness of our memories (or imagined world) to that web of commonality that connects us as humans.  We remove ourselves from isolation and participate in community.

I believe the best time to welcome the audience into our writing process is after the first or second draft, after we’ve searched for the heart of our work and risked exposing some truth.  Gradually, as we move through the drafts, we can begin to ask questions that might open our story to external readers:  Have I introduced my characters, my setting, my questions thoroughly?  Why might an anonymous reader be interested in this work?  How might I capture his or her attention and raise the stakes?  How might I make my experience (or my character’s experience) available to the reader, so he or she is a participant rather than an observer?  What in my story touches the human experience, that cord of connection we all share?

Every spiritual journey worth its salt brings the journeyer back into community, where the fruits of solitude can provide nourishment beyond the bounds of one individual life.  Likewise with creative practice; what’s born in privacy gains texture and merit by moving into the public realm.  The craft of writing well is really a rigorous discipline through which we open our internal world to another, or to the Other.  This, I believe, is essentially what revision is about—seeing our material again and again, with eyes other than our own or with sight broadened by the wider world.                        –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

Language that Shows

When tweaking language during the final stages of revision, strive for clarity first. Language is meant to communicate. Sound, rhythm, pacing, word choice, sentence structure, punctuation, paragraphing—all stylistic choices—should convey the content rather than call attention to themselves. Take Strunk and White’s advice: “The beginner should approach style warily, realizing that it is an expression of self, and should turn resolutely away from all devices that are popularly believed to indicate style—all mannerisms, tricks, adornments. The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity.”

But within the scope of clear language are many choices, and fine writers opt for words that show as well as tell. Let’s look at a passage from Patricia Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories:

When I am the reader, not the writer, I too fall into the lovely illusion that the words before me which read so inevitably, must also have been written exactly as they appear, rhythm and cadence, language and syntax, the powerful waves of the sentences laying themselves on the smooth beach of the page one after another faultlessly.

But here I sit before a yellow legal pad, and the long page of the preceding two paragraphs is a jumble of crossed-out lines, false starts, confused order. A mess. The mess of my mind trying to find out what it wants to say. This is a writer’s frantic, grabby mind, not the poised mind of a reader waiting to be edified or entertained.

These paragraphs feel effortless, unpretentious, and perfectly clear. But look carefully at Hampl’s choices. In the long, undulating sentence about reading, she pairs “rhythm and cadence” and “language and syntax,” simulating “powerful waves” of sentences. In the paragraph about writing, she omits the “and” in her list: “crossed-out lines, false starts, confused order.” She follows this with two incomplete sentences, giving her readers a visceral experience of stopping and starting. The word “grabby” is colloquial, tactile, and low-brow. Her language shows as well as tells.

Whether readers are conscious of these choices is irrelevant. Readers feel language; we have bodily responses with or without consciousness. Writers succeed when every aspect of their work serves the work’s heartbeat.
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

Language 2: The Right Word

Great premium is placed on language in our literary culture today. Is it fresh? Is it witty? Does it dazzle? The question I wish reviewers and publishers would ask about language is “Is it true?” We need writers who name the vast diversities of our reality with language that illuminates rather than obscures.

Truth, of course, is relative. But the truth I’m referring to isn’t singular or objective; it’s resonant, as full of mystery as fact. We’ve all had the experience of reading a passage that describes a familiar object or event in a way we’ve never considered but which feels absolutely right. Here are a few of my favorites:

The rooks too were keeping one of their annual festivities; soaring round the tree tops until it looked as if a vast net with thousands of black knots in it had been cast up into the air; which, after a few moments sank slowly down upon the trees until every twig seemed to have a knot at the end of it. Then, suddenly, the net would be thrown into the air again in a wider circle this time, with the utmost clamour and vociferation, as though to be thrown into the air and settle slowly down upon the tree tops were a tremendously exciting experience. –Virginia Woolf’s “The Death of the Moth”

Woolf’s image of a knotted net is an accurate description of birds rising and returning to a tree. The comparison aids the reader; we see more clearly because of it. Both the image (quite ordinary) and the language (quite simple) help the reader experience this moment. Nothing in this passage calls attention to the language or the author.

She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation. Then Janie felt a pain remorseless sweet that left her limp and languid.
–Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God

Here’s a passage where language does call attention to itself, but not for the sake of the author’s self-aggrandizement. Rather the extreme word choices here—“panting breath,” “sanctum of a bloom,” “love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree,” “a pain remorseless sweet”—help us understand Janie’s teenage point of view. Janie knows extremes of passion that are inconsistent with the dull prospects of the rest of her life. Inhabiting her perspective is intense, ecstatic, and memorable.

The truth revealed in these passages is dual. First, these authors name their physical reality accurately and beautifully. They represent the “facts” on the page in a manner that is fresh but also accountable to real human experience. Second, they choose details that point through physical reality to some emotional, spiritual, relational, or psychological truth—the inner story.

But it’s possible to create resonant truth with expository language as well:

It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is a commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength.
–James Baldwin, “Notes of a Native Son”

Even abstract words, placed well and applied intelligently, can make beautiful prose. Note how Baldwin’s repetitions ring like bells. Note how, despite the complexity of these sentences’ construction and the paradoxical nature of the ideas he’s conveying, his words are quite plain. Above all, he wants to communicate. The integrity of his language extends naturally frm the integrity with which he explores his struggles with racism.

The authors I respect most choose their words with integrity. They do not seek to impress; they seek to discover, to uncover, to name what is. Fresh words serve the story.

So how do we find language like this? I’m no authority; I’m still seeking it myself. But here are a few techniques that serve me well:

  • In early drafts, write quickly and plainly. As best as you can, use your natural language. Because you are a unique person with an inherently fresh voice, your language will be fresh if you show up on the page.
  • Throughout revisions, return to a journal to reflect on your work. Writing for no audience eliminates strain and self-consciousness from language.
  • When clichés appear, take note. Keep going if you’re writing an early draft, but later return to these passages and ask yourself what this easy language is covering up. Clichés usually show us places we’ve taken on others’ explanations of the world rather than inventing our own. They always point to shallowness in our thinking—an acceptable naming of reality rather than a naming that digs.
  • Strive to serve the story and not some sense of writerly writing. Choose words that reveal, not conceal. Use the thesaurus to find accurate words, not fancy ones.
  • Use the dictionary. Whenever you are uncertain about a word’s meaning or its implications, look it up.
  • With each crucial word choice or description, first ask yourself, “Is it true?” Only then ask, “Is it fresh?”
  • Read Strunk and White’s Elements of Style every few years. Their advice is spot-on and modeled by their language: “Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

Language 1: Triage

I’m a great proponent of the triage method of revising:  Take care of the big problems first and gradually work your way down to the details of language.  In the abstract, this is a great philosophy.  If there’s such a thing as a time-saver, prioritizing like this is it.  And generally writers DO pay more attention to word choice, sentence structure, rhythm and sound the closer they get to publication.

But the truth of the matter is that writers, to varying degrees, can’t help but pay attention to language from the very first draft.  On one extreme are writers who must perfect each sentence before continuing to the next.  While this method works for some, I wouldn’t recommend it, as it poses far too many opportunities for a newer writer to get stuck.  Most of us get attached to sentences we’ve polished, and this attachment interferes with our ability to remain flexible and open-minded about our work.  It’s awfully hard to lop off a chapter that took you six months to write or to fundamentally restructure an entire book when all the sentences are beautiful.

On the other extreme are sloppy drafters who spew out text, trusting that revision will tighten and clean up their prose.  I know writers who, when unable to conjure up the right word, insert asterisks instead.  Preserving the flow of ideas is too important; the right word can always come later.  When we’re not attached to particular words, it’s much easier to play with the larger elements that form a work—structure, character, themes, plot, voice…

Most writers fall between these two extremes.  We try to stay loose but can’t help but consider our word choices.  Luckily, language is quirky.  Just as a strong working title can give direction to a draft, the right word can unlock material rather than the other way around.  An accurate description can reveal a character’s nature to the writer.  Precision in word choice can expose new concepts worth exploring. There are benefits to occasionally slowing or even stopping one’s “flow” to deliberate over language.

The trick is to discern which words or sentences are worthy of careful construction early on and which are distractions from the hard work of composing.  There’s no easy answer.  Generally, though, if we stay alert to our motives we can tell which is which.  Is a particular quest for accurate language motivated by genuine questions about the content?  If so, your work with language helps reveal the heartbeat and is worth pursuing early on.  Is your struggle with language about presenting your material to the reader?  If so, consider tackling this work later.  Better find the core of your story first and then polish the surface.  –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

Life Behind the Writing

A critical but usually unspoken component to writing well is the quality of the human being who writes.  Is he or she smart?  Thoughtful?  Curious?  Provocative?  Original?  Has he or she done emotional research to undergird the story?  “Living a conscious and reflective life is a prerequisite for writing a memoir of substance,” writes Judith Barrington.   Likewise with poetry and fiction.  The written word may be wiser than the human who wrote it, but never by much.

Writing classes don’t address these questions, for good reason; little can be done in a school setting to address a student’s basic nature.  Perhaps when writing teachers despair of ever being effective, this is why.  Unfortunately, many writing teachers shy away from teaching revision as a result.  Creating writing prompts is easier than helping writers to jettison egos, generate new narrative structures, and discover the emotional undercurrents that will become unifying themes.

But to never address the inextricable link between creative writing and the human creator is a mistake.  We write, innumerable authors claim, to find out what we think; personal discovery is intricately interwoven with the effort to make art.  Fiction writers are consciously or unconsciously engaged in exploring the workings of the human psyche; memoir writers thrive on the interchange between memory and the present; poets understand poetry to be not just a craft but a lifestyle.  A writer genuinely interested in improving his or her craft won’t get far without also striving to see the world (and therefore live in the world) afresh.

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

Beginnings and Endings

The last thing that we find in making a book is to know what we must put first.
–Blaise Pascal

Why do new writers assume they must begin writing at the beginning and end at the end?  Of course this is a silly question.  We read from beginning to end, so this order seems obvious.  And getting the beginning right before moving forward is a time-honored writing technique.  Unfortunately in practice it can seem forced, deadly even, and often causes writers to get mired.

Beginnings are almost always the last part of a story to come together.  If we don’t know what a story is about—it’s heartbeat—until deep into revision, how can we possibly know how to begin that story?  Beginnings must do a terrific amount of work:  They must introduce characters, setting, conflict, the narrator’s voice, and the writer’s emotional stake.  I recommend setting aside the beginning until you know your material well enough to then also know how you want to introduce it to the reader.  Likewise, don’t worry about how a piece will end until late in the writing timeline.

Instead I suggest first writing (and rewriting) those scenes and reflections you find the most compelling.  Use the Ouija board technique:  Where in your project do you feel energy?  Following our curiosity is a good policy; we want to track down mystery; we need to ferret out those places of tears and surprise.  Compelling material makes us want to write.  Our interest helps us prioritize.  When we have nothing to learn from a scene, it’s probably not worth writing.  When we’re highly engaged in a scene, usually we have a stake in its outcome.  Interest level is a gauge we must learn to heed.   Eventually we’ll have a mass of text in which we’re highly invested.  Only then is it valuable to ask, “Where does this story begin?”

At times the story begins with the plot.  In other words, the outer story follows a direct chronology, and we must be faithful to that chronology.  When this happens, revision requires that we order our scenes from the start of action to the end.  At other times, the story begins at the start of an emotional quest.  Say you’re thirty-six, attending your uncle’s funeral, and learn for the first time that your father served in Viet Nam.  Looking back over your life you can see the consequences, but why hasn’t he ever told you?  The quest begins with the funeral but takes you back in time, through history and memory, and forward in time as you confront your dad.  In other words, the emotional hook is your beginning rather than the first event chronologically, and the plot of your story proceeds with that emotional quest.

Stories can also begin with a lyrical moment that conveys the heartbeat or with reflection that highlights the narrative voice in relationship with the subject matter, or they can launch directly into the action.  Regardless, beginnings always introduce what’s at stake.  A reader enters with the question, “So what?” and expects an answer immediately.

Endings, on the other hand, needn’t be conclusive; they needn’t tie up all the loose threads nor land on a definitive answer to your mystery.  They should, however, illuminate movement.  A reader needs to land at a different place from where he or she began.  As Judith Barrington advises, “In your search for the right conclusion, don’t fall prey to what has been called the “triumphalist imperative,” which favors completion over complexity.  Don’t shortchange the reality of life in which significant events are rarely put aside in a moment of insight, but continue unfolding into the future.”

Endings “grow inevitably from the stories themselves,” writes Dennis Covington.   An essay can pose a question, explore it, and end by asking the question in a new way.  A story can trace a character’s transformation from one state to another, better or worse.  A memoir can move from a haunting emotion through memory to understanding of the haunting emotion, without resolution.  Regardless, all stories contain within them their endings—even in memoir, where our lives continue beyond the bounds of the story.
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

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