Why You Write

Though perhaps I should spend less time questioning and more time simply doing, I have always had a fascination with why human beings create art and, in particular, why we write. When you spend as much time as we do putting words down, it’s only natural to be curious about the engine that drives such persistent effort.

In What Your Writing Is Missing and How to Get It, I wrote about finding the “why” behind your urge to write. Based on Simon Sinek’s fabulous TEDx talk about starting with why, that post was a call to arms, urging writers to dig deep and discover the personal beliefs and quests that power their creative urges.

Half a year later, in a post titled Why We Write – A Novel Answer, I shared insights from Mario Vargas Llosa’s slim tome, Letters to a Young Novelist. I was intrigued by his theory that we write as an act of rebellion against the way things are. This felt familiar to me, and for the first time I saw patterns in the themes and characters that exist in the stories I love to read and write.

Though it’s an endlessly interesting topic to explore, I don’t expect I’ll ever have a definitive answer to the question, “Why do I write?” My guess is that the answer is a complicated mixture of elements that have to do with our cultural exposure, personal history, and the fact that creating art is simply part of human nature.

I mean, how can anyone look at the art and mythology of ancient races and, not see that making art is simply part of who we are? Throughout the ages of recorded time – from prehistoric times to contemporary ones – we have always spent precious time and resources making art. We have always adorned ourselves and our habitations with beautiful creations that served primarily to express ideas or aesthetics. We have even brought artistry to the building of our shelters and fabrication of our most basic tools. And, we have always told stories.

Some stories served a specific purpose. A story about a fellow cave man being eaten by some savage beast, for instance, would have served as a cautionary tale. Other stories taught particular skills or morals or the history of a people. At the most basic level, stories have been a way for us to say, “I was here.”

And perhaps that is still, in large part, why we write stories today. We write to make our existence tangible, to share our experiences, and to help us make sense of the great enigma that is life. (I’m betting on the answer to the question being “42.”) We write to connect the dots – in our minds, between events, and between people and ideas. If I think about it too long, the concept begins to feel like a dizzying bit of fractal geometry.

Again, I concede that the main thing is not to know why we write, but simply to do it. Still, as writers, we are naturally curious about what makes people tick and why things happen the way they do. We are compelled to follow the myriad paths of the What If; and we never stop asking questions. Also, there is something to be said for understanding our motivations in order to better channel and focus our efforts.

What do you think? What inspires you to write? What do you find most satisfying about the process and the result? Do you feel like there is some primeval urge embedded in your DNA, or do you think the artistic need to create is something more personal?


What I’m Learning About Writing:

A meditation on the similarities between writing and shoveling snow. 

My daughter, Meghan. My, but they do grow up fast! ;)

My daughter, Meghan. My, but they do grow up fast! ;)

As my fellow writers here have mentioned, we had a bit of snow here in New England earlier this week. The blizzard of 2015 dropped more than thirty inches of snow in my neighborhood and created quite a mess in the process. Although I am fortunate enough to have the support of dedicated snow removal crews armed with plows and other clean-up equipment, there were still places (like my second story deck) that required hands-on attention.

Clearing that deck took the better part of two hours. As I huffed and puffed heaving shovelfuls of the white stuff over the railing, I got to thinking about how writing can be like shoveling. It may be an odd metaphor, but hear me out.

Facing a writing project is not that different from facing a massive pile of snow. At first, the task seems insurmountable. There is so much to do and you have no idea where to start. You’re just one person with a modest tool (be it pen or shovel). How can you hope to accomplish so much with so little?

But, eventually, you realize that there’s nothing for it but to dig in – one word, one shovelful at a time. The work is not glamorous. There is no magic involved. You simply put your back into it and make progress one small step at a time. With each word on the page and each shovelful moved from here to there, you can see a little more of your story or (in my case) a bit more of my deck.

As you surrender to the process, you think less about the ultimate goal and focus more on the work that’s right in front of you. The world falls away until there are only words, only snow. You settle into a groove. Your mind and body ache, but you keep going because this is now all you know.

And then, you pause and look up and realize how much you’ve accomplished. You see the pages and pages of your story or the expanse of snow-free landscape behind you, and you wonder – for a moment – how it happened. It seems like magic, but you know better. You’ve learned that you can move a mountain one spoonful of dirt at a time, and – likewise – you can write a story one word at a time. In fact, there is really no other way to accomplish either task.

Interestingly, after I’d reached the opposite end of the deck and could declare this small piece of my world satisfactorily clear of snow, I went back to where I started and found that my early work had been a bit shoddy. At the finish line of my snow shoveling marathon, my attention to detail had swept the decking free of nearly all evidence of the storm. At the starting line, I had left patches of snow here and there, and the edges were a mess. Despite being exhausted, I set about tidying up the one end to better match the “good” end.

And so it is with revision and editing. Though you may not realize it, each word you write helps you improve your technique and skill, so that when you return to the beginning, you will find things that need improvement. But, this will not be disheartening at all, because part of the fruits of your labor will be the hard-won skill to remedy such shortcomings.

In the end, whether your accomplishment is a clear deck or a good story, you will know that you have earned the win.


What I’m Reading:

book station 11Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, is a dystopian novel that has won great acclaim from critics, readers, and authors alike. Though I’m not usually a fan of the genre, Station Eleven does not read or feel like your typical post-apocalyptic story. Set in a frightening and bleak world ravaged by a fatal pandemic flu, it manages to tell a very human story without resorting to the usual artifices of extreme circumstance or saccharine tropes. Though Mandel strips away the facades that mask the darker sides of human nature, she does so in a way that also illuminates the most beautiful and admirable qualities of our species.

From the book jacket:

An audacious, darkly glittering novel set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse, Station Eleven tells the spellbinding story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity.
One snowy night Arthur Leander, a famous actor, has a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. Jeevan Chaudhary, a paparazzo-turned-EMT, is in the audience and leaps to his aid. A child actress named Kirsten Raymonde watches in horror as Jeevan performs CPR, pumping Arthur’s chest as the curtain drops, but Arthur is dead. That same night, as Jeevan walks home from the theater, a terrible flu begins to spread. Hospitals are flooded and Jeevan and his brother barricade themselves inside an apartment, watching out the window as cars clog the highways, gunshots ring out, and life disintegrates around them.
Fifteen years later, Kirsten is an actress with the Traveling Symphony. Together, this small troupe moves between the settlements of an altered world, performing Shakespeare and music for scattered communities of survivors. Written on their caravan, and tattooed on Kirsten’s arm is a line from Star Trek:“Because survival is insufficient.” But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who digs graves for anyone who dares to leave.

As a writer, I was particularly drawn to Mandel’s exploration of how art might survive in (and even influence) such a harsh world. Though people in her future reality are reduced to the meanest existence and must expend almost all their energy and resources on mere survival, there are still those who live to preserve, create, and share art.

Though the scenes of desolation, cruelty, and heartbreaking loss were difficult to read, I took comfort in knowing that even in such an altered and seemingly ruined world, the artistic urge was not only alive, but ultimately an integral element in the rebuilding of a better tomorrow. Maybe that’s the point, after all.

And let’s not forget the blogs. Here are a few of my favorite writerly posts from this week:

The blizzard derailed much of my blog reading for the week, but I managed to take in a few posts that are well worth sharing:

Finally, a quote for the week:

survival insufficient

Here’s to finding your why and embracing the inevitability of art each day of your life. Explore. Discover. But also remember to just accept that the art is in you.

Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. i am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.

Friday Fun is a group post from the writers of the NHWN blog. Each week, we’ll pose and answer a different, get-to-know-us question. We hope you’ll join in by providing your answer in the comments.

QUESTION: I was talking with some fellow writers this week about a feeling general feeling of apathy and exhaustion that’s been creeping into our bones recently. Wondering if anyone else is feeling this way and if you think it’s related to this season of winter. 

hennrikus-web2Julie Hennrikus: Well, I have a May 15 deadline, which helps motivate me. I’ve got the book plotted, and have a daily “write this scene” goal. But honestly, if I didn’t have the deadline, I would totally give into eating cookies and reading. Lack of light, cold, layers of clothes, tough commutes–they all add up to blech. Blech does not help creative juices flow IMHO.

headshot_jw_thumbnailJamie Wallace: There are many things I appreciate about winter in New England – achingly blue skies, pristine snow fields, piercingly bright stars in the clear, cold night. I love the way winter’s fresh air invigorates body and soul, and the way the shorter days and tempestuous weather invite us to indulge in cozy pleasures. But, despite these joys, there are many things I dread about the season between the winter solstice and spring equinox. Though winter holds sparkling moments, those treasures are often all but lost amidst the gray expanse of days that seem to linger much longer than possible. I do have moments of wanting to just call it a day, curl up on the couch under a blanket, and let the rest of the world spin away without me. I also think that the solitude and quiet of winter invite reflection, and sometimes we are not content with what we discover. We find ourselves questioning our actions and choices and purpose. This may be uncomfortable and even disheartening, but I think it’s an important part of our creative process and our creative lives. So, even though it makes me cranky, I try to accept and even embrace this season for the gifts of insight it can bring.

photo by M. Shafer

photo by M. Shafer

Deborah Lee Luskin: I do sometimes experience “apathy and exhaustion in my bones,” but usually the last three weeks of December, when the world is so dark. Holiday candles and celebrations help me through that time of year, but I get tired of them, too, and greet January with joy. I love winter, even when it’s gray and especially when it’s white. Skiing, snow-shoeing, ice skating, sledding – I love it all. I get outside as much as I can, even if it’s just to shovel and bring in wood.




Today was a snow day for many/most of us in New England. I live outside of Boston, and it has been snowing for 30 hours. We have about 2 feet of snow, which for city living is a lot. I am warm, cozy, and safe. My snow day was not the same as it was when I was younger. Thanks to technology, I could, and did, work all day.

My life works because technology helps. Because of my smartphone, I can read and do a far amount of work anywhere. I can work on my book any place, any time. I can collaborate on documents thanks to Google and Dropbox. If I need to see someone, there is always Skype or Google hangouts. But today as I was writing work emails, creating a google document for an upcoming conference, streaming a show from NetFlix , and making a list of the Canva.com images I needed to create for social media, I realized I was failing at a snow day. I paused for a minute to look at the blizzard outside, and I thought about snow days of days gone by. Days when not being able to go to work meant that you couldn’t work. Pre cellphone days when leaving town meant leaving communication resources. I spent some time wondering–was it better then?

One big difference is that back in the day, I wasn’t running a small business. And I also didn’t have a book contract. Both of those things alter the definition of free time. That said, technology really is a game changer. Examples include:

Because of technology, we were prepared. I know that the storm didn’t behave exactly as predicted, but there was still time to shut down trains and buses, and streets, so that folks weren’t put in harms way. It kept people safer.

I teach a class at Emerson College, and got emails, calls, and texts letting me know that school was cancelled. I was able to update the class website. This was another change for me–back in the day, I loved school cancellations. Now, I’m not sure how I am going to change my syllabus around to accomodate makeup days, and online components may help with that.

With an internet connection, and my laptop, I can work at home, easily. I can also keep working, as easily. Having a office to go to creates better, though not perfect, boundaries.

I am going to be housebound for another day. I will keep up with work. But I am also going to build in some knitting time, and perhaps a walk through the snow.

I need to get better at snow days.

A Nor’Beaster


8:00 a.m. Southern NH


Quick update. We are in the 18 – 25 inch zone with the worst of the snowfall yet to come.

We have heat, electricity, coffee, hot food, and plenty of books – which basically makes New Hampshire not such a bad place to be right now.

Let’s keep it that way.

Write on my friends.

9:20 a.m. Southern NH - my poor son may not see his car again until the spring thaw.

9:20 a.m. Southern NH – my poor son may not see his car again until the spring thaw.


For those on the east coast, now is the time to truly hunker down and not travel those roads once the snow starts.  Please remember to check on the welfare of neighbors and the elderly.

We’ll see you all on the other side.


Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com) She writes about her chickens for GRIT, Backyard Poultry, Chicken Community, and Mother Earth News.


Within a few hours, we, who are located on the east coast, are scheduled to be hit with the worst snow storm in history.

Usually, when there is a forecast for snow, the kids put a silver spoon under their pillows (and wear their pajamas backward) in supplication to the Gods of School Cancellings. This time, I don’t think they even need to bother. We’re expected to get WALLOPED with up to 3 feet of snow (depending on which news channel you follow.)

For us Granite staters, this is not as big a threat as it might be for those people living in a city. We’re kind of used to snow. We know that when the forecast predicts a serious winter storm, it’s time to stock up on candles, easily grillable items, and water. We move the snow shovels near the front door. We know to locate the stack of extra warm blankets and to make sure there is enough food in the house for the family and pets. We also dig out our favorite board and card games. The operative phrase is “hunker down.” We know what to do.

Not to be blasé, but we tend to have the attitude of “been there, done that.”

These days, my kids are older, they can, for the most, fend for themselves. That dread of having to change diaper after diaper without electricity, water or heat is over, now my kids see loss of power or confinement due to snow as a bit of an adventure. They are able to find their own wool socks and gloves. Age does have its advantages.

Those of us who are writers and who live with constant snow storms in the winter also know to locate the books we’ve had (forever) on our to-read list and put them in a pile near our reading chair (along with a book light and a heavy blanket.) We locate that notebook filled with ideas for a new project and place it alongside the book pile with a few pens ready for us to crack it open again – hello friend, nice to see you again. In essence, we prepare for our own writers’ Christmas morning, filled with expectation, new beginnings, and excitement. Bring it on.

Do we have concerns? Of course. Our house in under tall pines and if the winds predicted for Cape Cod somehow move east, we might be in trouble with falling limbs. We don’t have a generator, so if the electricity is off for an extended time (we’ve lost it in the past for up to seven days) we have to be concerned about frozen pipes. We know where to go for help, over the years, (especially when the kids were little) we’ve tended to be frequent fliers at the Red Cross emergency centers where we’ve taken showers and at times even found a warm place for a little one to take a nap. And, of course, there are the chickens that we need to be concerned about – we must make sure they have a constant (thawed) water supply.

But we’ll cross those bridges when we get to them. For now, we don’t know what will happen and we are “cautiously optimistic.” All we know for sure is that tomorrow is expected to be a snow day, an historic snow day, and like the child of my youth, I’ve got to admit, I’m looking forward to the excitement of it all.


For those on the east coast, now is the time to truly hunker down and not travel those roads once the snow starts.  Please remember to check on the welfare of neighbors and the elderly.

We’ll see you all on the other side.


Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com) She writes about her chickens for GRIT, Backyard Poultry, Chicken Community, and Mother Earth News.

“Confident Writer” … it’s not a phrase you hear much, is it?

pin confidenceEarlier this week, I wrote and published an off-the-cuff confession about my habit of downplaying (and even demeaning) my writing in front of others. It’s not something I’m proud of, but I’m glad I chose to share my weakness, because it turns out that I’m not alone. Many of you apparently have the same knee-jerk reaction to innocent questions (and even compliments) about your writing.

Anyway, there were some wonderful comments on the post and the conversation got me thinking.

Sara Foley, for instance, pointed out that, “We have this funny thing that being a writer means a) being paid for writing b) a certain type of writing.”

And, bluecarpaintedgreen noted that, “Admitting you’re working on fiction pieces is a form of vulnerability, as it can hint at hopes and dreams; it’s personal.”

Soul Writer (aka Renee Brooks) offered a bit of encouragement, “It seems that we tend to put ourselves down a lot – especially as artists, and I do think a lot of it has to do with comparing ourselves to others. We just have to recognize that we are all relevant and that our gifts and talents deserve expression – no matter what.”

As I read the comments, I started wondering about what I could change so I don’t cringe when responding to the seemingly innocent but dreaded question, “What do you do?” I’m still pondering this quandary, but here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

Expectations. Lose them. 

I don’t know much about Buddhism, but I’m fascinated by the influence expectations have on our happiness. These insidious little buggers pop up everywhere like little rain clouds casting shadows on our lives. Maybe you expected to have been published by now. Maybe you expect people to think less of you because you haven’t been published. Maybe you expect people to assume your writing is just a “cute” hobby.

Expectations back us into a corner. They set us up for failure before anything has even happened. Even positive expectations can create additional stress by increasing your odds of disappointment. It’s human nature to jump ahead, abandoning the present moment in order to try and predict what will happen in the future. But, in my experience, it doesn’t achieve much. Better to stay in the moment.

Comparison is evil. 

Comparing ourselves to others is also human nature and even more pointless than harboring expectations.

Though there may be points of similarity between one path and another, no two writer’s journeys are the same. Your experience is unique, but that doesn’t make it any better or worse than any other writer’s. It just makes it different.

When we compare ourselves to others, most of us tend to come out of it feeling inferior (more of that darn human nature). I’ve heard it said that the only person you should compare yourself to is the person you were yesterday. Have you grown since then? Have you learned anything? Have you gotten stronger in your craft? That’s the only acceptable comparison to make.

I said in my confessional post, “When someone asks you about what you do, they aren’t asking you to compare yourself to your ideal of a writer … They don’t deserve to have all your I’m-not-a-real-writer baggage dumped on their heads.” Remember that.

Let no one judge you, but you.

On a related note, you need to know and truly believe that no one has the right to judge you, but you. To date myself, Seinfeld had it right – you (and only you) are the rightful master of your domain. Other people can have their opinions, but yours is the only one that matters.

This is a particularly hard bit of advice for me to swallow because I tend to value Other People’s opinions over my own. Even if they are not in any way qualified to act as arbiter, I am easily persuaded that their two cents is worth way more than my own.

Dollars aren’t the only way to measure value.

Speaking of cents, it’s also important to remember that whether or not you are paid for your writing should not be the only measure of its worth. But, you already knew that.

Think about why you write and why you love writing. Is it because of the money? Not usually. Maybe you love the feeling of discovery as your words materialize on the page. Maybe you love the fulfillment you feel when you create a story out of thin air. Maybe writing brings you contentment and peace, or perhaps it inspires you to live your life more fully.

If you’re made to feel like your writing is “silly” or “indulgent,” remember all the riches it brings to your life. If the other person can’t understand that, I’m going to officially chalk that up as their loss.

It’s a work in progress, but I feel like I’m on the right track.

How about you? How do you manage the “What do you do?” question and all the angst it can bring?

What I’m Learning About Writing:

roller coasterMomentum is a seriously powerful writing tool.

I feel like I may have mentioned this before, but I’ve realized that writing tasks are kind of like roller coaster rides. When I’m just starting work on a piece, I feel like I’m settling into my seat, buckling up, and getting a tingling sensation up and down my spine. It’s a little nerve wracking. I don’t know what to expect. I’m afraid.

As I begin to write, it feels like my coaster car is clicking slowly up the track, each word landing on the page like the cog in the chain lift that pulls me up that first ascent. And then, as I start to gather speed and I can see the first peak, I feel my creative juices flowing more freely. I reach the apex, and looking down the other side have a moment of clarity about where I’m going and how I’m going to get there. Elation!

And then – whoosh! – everything becomes a blur as I hurtle down towards the next turn and the next incline. Up and down, around and around, loop-the-loop and upside down. Suddenly, the words are coming faster than my fingers can fly on the keyboard.

And then, just as suddenly, the ride is over and we’re pulling back into the station. I’m a little dizzy, but exhilarated. My hair, like my first draft, is a bit of a mess, but that’s okay. Now that my feet are back on solid ground, it’s time to start editing and revising. But, that’s a whole different ride.

What I’m Reading:

book breadcrumbsThis week I finished reading Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu. This young adult novel is a retelling of The Snow Queen with bits and pieces of other fairytales woven into its shimmering, icy fabric. It’s an exciting story with edges of sadness – a story about growing up and discovering truths you never asked to know. It’s a tale of going into the dark woods and learning that they are so much darker and so much more complex than you ever imagined. The rules don’t work the way you thought they would and no one is who you expected them to be.

But, you also find out that even when you don’t understand the rules or know what you have to do, you can still accomplish things everyone told you were impossible. And though you might not have the fairytale ending you thought was there for the taking – was due you – you will find out that, in truth, the story never ends … and isn’t that better?

Ursu’s language is so beautiful it’s almost poetry – not only her word choices and sentence structure, but the overall cadence and rhythm of her narrative. I especially liked the musical way she uses repetition of words and imagery. It’s nearly hypnotic.

I read Breadcrumbs because of an essay I read in the Full Grown People anthology. Rebecca Stetson Werner’s essay, Into the Woods, quotes Ursu’s novel several times and I was intrigued in particular by this quote,

Now, the world is more than it seems to be. You know this, of course, because you read stories. You understand that there is the surface and then there are all the things that glimmer and shift underneath it. And you know that not everyone believes in those things, that there are people—a great many people—who believe the world cannot be any more than what they can see with their eyes. But we know better.

Anne Ursu, Breadcrumbs

Yes, we know better.

And let’s not forget the blogs. Here are a few of my favorite writerly posts from this week:

Finally, a quote for the week:

pin the way you see

Here’s to discovering your confidence and riding your personal writing roller coaster with your hands in the air and a rebel yell. 

Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. i am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
Roller Coaster Photo Credit: OliverN5 via Compfight cc

Friday Fun is a group post from the writers of the NHWN blog. Each week, we’ll pose and answer a different, get-to-know-us question. We hope you’ll join in by providing your answer in the comments.

QUESTION: Do you share your work with your partner or spouse?


wendy-shotWendy Thomas: I have a *few* select friends with whom I am willing to share a work-in-progress. My WIPs all feel so naked and exposed – they tend to initially be so raw that I can’t bear the thought of my spouse (as much as I love him) making comments or pointing out mistakes. Instead, I share my work with a few other writer friends who’s opinions and skill I wholeheartedly trust. It takes a long time to build up that kind of a relationship, but once you have it, it’s golden.

As far as my other work, well it’s on the internet, in essence I share that with everyone. No worries there (in fact sometimes I will text my husband and say “You have GOT to read today’s post!!!”

hennrikus-web2Julie Hennrikus: I have found that showing my work to people who love me isn’t the best way to get feedback. Not that I can’t bear the idea of their thoughts on my WIP, but more that they hold back a bit, or think everything is wonderful. If I did get honest feedback (that character is flat), I would probably tend towards defensiveness, which isn’t helpful.

My sharing circle is small, and trusted. And a group I’ve developed over time.

Diane MacKinnon, MD, Master Certified Life CoachDiane MacKinnon: When I used to show my writing to my husband, I’d get comments like, “it’s good” or “I liked it.” Since those comments were not especially helpful, I stopped showing my writing to him. Then he started writing more and we started having conversations about writing. So I showed him my writing again, asking for specific feedback, and his comments, while still succinct, were very helpful. He’s never going to line edit what I write, but he’s very helpful when I ask him, “Does this flow well?” or “Does this feel like I’m trying to make more than one point?” or even, “Does this make sense?”

My twin sister is my go-to reader. I’ll show her anything I’m working on and her feedback is always helpful and very detail-oriented. She spots typos in pieces I’ve read too many times to see the mistakes.

My critique group is also very helpful with my writing. I work on my fiction, even first drafts with them.

In reading this over, I see how lucky I am in all the people I have who I trust to read my work.



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