Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Teresa Sundmark: Mushrooms, Mycelium and Writing


Something about this winter, with its warmer than average temperatures and its lack of snow, has me thinking about gardening earlier than usual. Maybe it’s because the raised garden beds in my back yard are not hidden from sight, which typically allows me to stop thinking about them for several months at a time. In any case, while I’m waiting for the ground to thaw, I’m perusing seed catalogs and planning more projects than I’ll ever realistically have time for—that, and I’m educating myself about different aspects of gardening and composting and soil maintenance.  Recently in my reading I came across an article by Kenneth Miller from the July/August 2013 issue of Discover magazine called, “How Mushrooms Can Save the World.” 

I’ve spent a lifetime enjoying mushrooms—looking at them, eating them, searching for them—without knowing much about them. To me, it always seemed as if they just appeared out of nowhere. Needless to say, the article was enlightening and made me aware of my ignorance on the subject of mushrooms, and like most everything I come across, reading the article got me thinking about writing.  

Writing for me has always been about connecting. I don’t write in order to publish, I write in order to connect with other people. This isn’t to say that I don’t want to publish, it’s just that it isn’t the thing that motivates me. If publishing can be a byproduct of me writing something that means something to another person, then that’s just an added bonus. 

According to the article, “when you look at a mushroom, what you’re seeing is a fungus’s fruit. It emerges from a mass of fibrous tissue known as mycelium, which penetrates whatever material the mushroom is growing on. To the naked eye, mycelium resembles cottony fluff or cobwebs. Viewed through an electron microscope, however, it’s an intricate weave of branching, threadlike membranes whose structure resembles a network of brain cells.”  

In other words, those mushrooms don’t just appear out of nowhere. They are the result of a larger network of mycelium that mostly goes unnoticed.  

And I started to wonder, how much of a writing life is the stuff other than the fruit that becomes a published work? Most of it, actually.  Here’s just a sampling of the things we do that encourage the finished poems, stories, or books to emerge:  

·         We come here, to the 49 Writers blog for a bit of inspiration or to see what literary or book-related events are happening in our community.
·         We read articles having to do with books, authors, or subjects we’ve been thinking of writing about.
·         We meet with writer friends to offer support, to discuss projects, or to vent our frustrations.
·         We think non-stop about connecting ideas, and how those connections could be relevant to the writing project that we are either a) currently working on, b) setting aside for a while, or c) just thinking of for the first time.
·         We read actual novels, stories, essays, memoirs, poems or plays.
·         We reread the work we find meaningful.
·         We write critical essays that make us unfold and examine different aspects of writing.
·         Through social media we see what our writer acquaintances are up to. We celebrate their successes, (maybe even envy them a little) and we feel their pain if they’ve been dealt a literary blow.
·         We submit that short story, essay or poem that we think is ready.
·         We rewrite that short story, essay or poem that just isn’t getting published.
·         We post something online that has to do with writing.
·         We brainstorm.
·         We imagine winning a Pulitzer Prize.
·         We fantasize about our favorite author telling us that they love our work.
·         We pause and reflect on some beautiful thing we’ve read or seen or experienced.
·         We let ourselves know darkness and sorrow.
·         We attend workshops, classes, readings, and conferences.
·         We buy books to support writers we admire, even when we can’t afford them.
·         We see metaphors and similes in nearly everything. (writing = fungus)
·         We go back to school.
·         We teach.
·         We create space for ourselves, both physically and psychologically.
·         We participate in writers’ groups.
·         We ask questions—maybe out loud, or maybe to ourselves—in order to better understand a situation or a person.
·         On a good day, we may actually write something.  

Essentially, writing, when taken seriously, becomes a part of who we are, and with a few changes in the quotation about mushrooms and mycelium from above, we can see that published work—the product of our labor—comes into being as a result of connections. 

“When you look at a beautiful piece of writing, what you’re seeing is the fruit of a deliberate life. It emerges from an interconnected mass of previously written works, friends, family, acquaintances, colleagues, discipline, education, critical thinking, generosity, imagination, experience and desire.  These things penetrate every aspect of the writer’s life. To the naked eye, much of what a writer does resembles cottony fluff or cobwebs. Viewed more closely, however, it’s an intricate weave of a branching, threadlike web whose structure gives the writer the support needed in order to thrive.” 

Writing means different things to different people. For some, it’s about the process. For others, it’s about the final product. Either way though, I’d argue that those delectable morsels of writing that emerge from time to time are the product of something much larger and more complicated than we realize. Powerful writing—writing that connects—doesn’t just appear out of nowhere. 

Teresa Sundmark lives in Homer, Alaska. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from UAA. Her work has been featured in Cirque: A Literary Journal for the North Pacific Rim and is forthcoming in Stoneboat Journal. She blogs intermittently at


Anonymous said...

I like it!
My manuscript, oft bane of my life has a new moniker.
It is now my sweet little mycelium.

Teresa Sundmark said...

So glad I could help! :)