Thursday, December 31, 2009

Girl Talk

My friend Julianna's made a bit of a stir with her Washington Post opinion, The Key to Literary Success? Be a Man--or Just Write Like One. Julianna has written a lot of decidedly female books, from poems on motherhood to a novel called Girl Talk, but her children's books have a male name on them:
But when I invented the pen name N.E. Bode for "The Anybodies," a trilogy for younger readers, I had to choose to be a man or a woman. The old indoctrination kicked in. I picked man. The trilogy did well, shortlisted in a People magazine summer pick, alongside Bill Clinton and David Sedaris. I was finally one of the boys.

Bode is, first of all, a terrific example of an intrusive narrator--a coherent character who lives, breathes, and whinges as he tells his Dahl-ish story. The Anybodies are shapeshifters and when Julianna does school visits she shows up with a rabbit in a cage and explains that Mr. Bode is someone else right now. It's a great conceit, and I recommend the series a lot for voice.

I considered taking on initials for my fantasy series and opted not to--my name's my name, and "A.E. Ursu" just doesn't have a good ring to it (with apologies to Mr. Housman). I knew, though, that there's a perception in kids publishing that fantasy is more readily accepted from men. Ms. Joanne Rowling's publisher famously suggested she take on initials because boys wouldn't read books written by women. The secret is out on that one, and the books seem to be doing okay. We're also told that boys don't read fantasy books with female protagonists--which I've found is completely not true. But whether or not boys will read female-authored and starring books isn't the point; what matters is whether the gatekeepers--sales muckety-mucks, buyers, critics--think they will.

Which is Julianna's point. Whenever this discussion comes up, people find themselves in the position of arguing that the "best" books can be objectivity defined. Publisher's Weekly, whose completely-male top ten books of 2009 list raised some eyebrows, shrugged that their list was not "politically correct," a response so obnoxious I keep writing and deleting sentences about it. (Here's a very considered essay by Salon's Laura Miller about the whole episode.)

A quick glance of the comments on Julianna's essay shows that it's really better never to read the comments. Most people are shocked, shocked that someone might posit that there's a gender bias in publishing, and if women aren't well-represented, they should simply write better books. (Trying to exonerate Julianna, one person said that a scan of her pictures on the internet proves that she's "ogle-worthy." A great moment in feminist history, to be sure. ) That response was inevitable, and I'm proud of her for sticking out her ogle-worthy neck, and for her new fantasy, The Ever Breath, which carries her own name.

Meanwhile, I'll say a good-bye to 2009 with this illustration from The Oatmeal's "Ten Words You Need to Stop Misspelling."

Happy New Year, all.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Writing Resolutions

For me year's end stirs up guilt and gung-ho. I'm at once celebrating another year of reasonable health and productivity, but kicking myself for not enough of either. Some wise French guy once said that we are inclined to two basic instincts: one to habit and one to change. I want to write more fiction in 2010 if I can kiss off the habit of writing less! If only I could be more Alcottish, as in Louisa May of course, the subject of an inspiring (at least for me) docudrama I watched last night.

Alcott, who died at the untimely age of 56 (and most untimely as it is also my age) wrote prolifically (and ambidextrously!) for the adult and juvenile markets. Fabulously wealthy from the sales of her literary and pulp fiction, she was once paid a fine sum to merely stand on a stage and rotate 360 degrees for her audience's viewing pleasure. No Heidi Klum, but no less and maybe more iconic.

No Klum or Alcott here, but I'm inclined to change this new year, to increased productivity, to writing stories, (even novels?) of the hearth and home and dogs, like my pup Scout.

I'll title the first LITTLE PUPS.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Ending the year on a cranky note.

I don't exactly know who Gly Maxwell is, but here's a quote from him. Or maybe her.
"The problem with most free verse is that it locates wisdom in the self and not in the language."
Fine, I think that's probably true. Most of the time, poetry is solipsistic to a fault: "Looka me, ma, I'm suffering. And my pain is so unique it has made me wise. So I wrote this sonnet."

But I wasn't thinking about poetry this morning vis a vis this quote. I was thinking about YA fiction. Where's its wisdom? Some of it is in the #$%&* moral to the story. (When people ask me about the moral to my stories, I tell them that if I wanted that I'd write it on a freaking note card and hand it out on street corners.)

And I know where the wisdom regularly isn't, and that's in the language. Lots of writers must be using some anti-thesaurus, some collection of whatever is most pedestrian and jejune. The MacSimile, the MacPlot.

Maybe that's why I read poetry more than I do prose. Here are the last few lines of a Victoria Chang poem that me a little less ornery:

as clothes in a dryer in
a laundromat at 3:00 a.m. might finally stop
unclenching and accept their entanglement.

When's the last time you saw a line half that good in YA fiction?

RK (who'll be a nicer person in 2010)


This year--with all its blather and bomp--is ending. The year that Sarah Palin published a book, that we might have gotten health care for the country, that J.K. Rowlings didn't publish a book, that the earth got a little warmer, the year in which we're trying to figure out if we like reading books on a small electronic box.

I'm going down to Stockholm, WI, where I have an old farmhouse on the edge of town under the bluffs. I'm going to walk in the deep snow, maybe out on the ice of Lake Pepin, see how the eagles are coming with their ginormous nest (big enough to fit a bear), and watch the fire crinkle away in front of me for a few hours. Then I will close the house down for the season. It's a relief and a sadness to shut off the water, turn the heat way down, and lock the door.

But endings are like that. I'm approaching the ending of a book and, surprisingly, I'm finding myself slowing down. I've enjoyed writing this book, and I'm nervous I can't quite pull off the ending I've envisioned for it, and so I'm lingering in this world for a while longer.

Endings are like that. You close the door and walk away. You write the final word and turn off the computer. You drink a glass of champagne and salute all that was and all that is to come, knowing we will all continue to read books, whatever form they come in, and we will all move through our endings with sadness and relief.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Stocking Stuffers

Sitting here in gray, sleety Wisconsin waiting for another child to arrive at the house. She's on the road from Minneapolis, just ahead, I hope, of this monster storm the weather people have been crowing about for days. As I wait, I've been rereading snatches from Alberto Manguel's wonderful History of Reading. Thought I'd offer up some little gems from his timeline of reading:

c. 4000 BC: With the inscription of signs of goats and sheep on a clay tablet the first reader comes into being.

c. 2300 BC: The first recorded author, the high priestess Princess Enheduanna, addresses for the first time a "dear reader" in her songs.

c. 420 BC: Socrates argues against reading. For him, books are useless tools, since they cannot explain what they say but only repeat the same words over and over again.

c. 1000: To avoid parting with his collection of 117, 000 books while traveling, the avid reader and Grand Vizier of Persia, Abdul Kassem Ismael, has them carried by a caravan of four hundred camels trained to walk in alphabetical order.

The History of Reading is a wonderful book. Should be required for writers.

Cheers. MQ

Monday, December 21, 2009

Best Books of the Year?

I’m not a good person to make a best of list, as I’m terribly behind on everything and usually get to books a couple years after the copyright date. But, of course, that’s not going to stop me.

The best book of the year for me—as it was for a lot of other people—was When You Reach Me. It was so good it actually destroyed me—I could not see the point in writing a book if it wasn’t going to aim as high as that and thus could not write at all. (This was not what my poor agent was intending when she sent it to me.) Several times while reading it I could feel something in my brain shift, like a statue you turn 45 degrees and it’s suddenly something completely else.

Everything Laurie Halse Anderson writes makes me want to flagellate myself, and Wintergirls was no exception. A student and I are talking about expressionism this semester—it’s dramatization of the interior landscape, art that doesn’t try to portray the world as it is, but as the character experiences it. Anderson’s prose—at once shadowy and piercing—so beautifully expresses the world of her protagonist.

In fantasy, I pick two sequels. The Ask and the Answer, a sequel to The Knife of Never Letting Go-a freakishly dark dystopian series about some particularly nasty futuristic Puritans (and one awesome talking dog.) I don't need to flagellate myself, because there's already plenty of flagellation on the page. And Sacred Scars, the follow-up to our common book, Skin Hunger. I’m in the middle of Libba Bray’s Going Bovine right now and I think that will end up on my list, for voice, humor, and for surely creating one or two more vegetarians in the world.

What about you?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Plucky Protags

Warning: Rant ahead
Disclaimer: My accusing finger also points back at me

I am a writer and teacher of writing. I am blessed to have just cause to spend hours a day messing around with language and story. I did not always want to be a writer; as a child my career aspirations were usually influenced by whatever book I was reading. When I was reading Cherry Ames, I leaned toward medicine. When Nancy Drews littered my bed covers I remember thinking about criminal law. I don't recall that Johnny Tremain triggered an interest in silversmithing, but then many details of childhood daydreaming have fortunately floated away into the ether.

But because most of my reading hours were spent rereading the Little Women trilogy and the Betsy-Tacy books, I often imagined myself as a writer. And Presto! Here I am.

I've published nine YA novels, and lo and behold, my protagonists have often--not always, but often--been independent, smart arts-oriented young women. This is all a long-winded introduction to the rant, BTW. One intended to establish my own guilt.

Yesterday I saw An Education, a recent movie about a teen in Britain who slips and slides on the road to adulthood. And I walked out of the theater nearly pulling my hair out. Could we please have a moratorium on plucky protags who discover that the path to heaven/adulthood/independence/LIFE is pave by books and writing? I don't care if it's true! I don't care if it's my own story! Enough!

I want stories I haven't seen before. I want to write those stories too. Make it up, imagine--tell a lie, for heaven's sake, and find the way to make it true.

Time for a walk. MQ

Pico Iyer

This morning in the TIMES, Pico Iyer (and if you don't know his non-fiction work, he's worth checking out) was writing about absorption. He lamented the lack of it in a world of celebrity and dazzle. And he celebrated sitting down with a book that turned out to be just okay but happily losing track of time, anyway.

The most arresting image in the piece was of someone leaning toward to tell a story she had been waiting to tell all her life. Who wouldn't absorbed? And who would say, "Excuse me. But I have to tweet seventy-seven people and tell them how riveted I am."

Engrossed and immersed, rapt and consumed. Isn't that what we want for our readers? Setting the bar any lower than that is a disservice to all concerned.

I'm not saying it's easy. We've all read about the new, hot novelist who is seven years old and flies his own plane. Then we pick up his book, and it's not even just okay. It's just a media event.

There's a great scene in "The Downhill Racer," an early Robert Redford movie. He's just set a record in the slalom; the press is all over him. Then a scorching mid-race time for a competitor is announced and everyone's attention turns to the clock. Here today, gone today.

Be brave. Lean forward and whisper the story you have waiting all your life to tell.

Buddy and I wish everyone the happiest of holidays.


Thursday, December 17, 2009

Lessons from Frog and Toad

The other night I asked Peter (the writer I live with) if he wanted me to read him a story. We were tucked in bed and he was reading some 700 page book on his ipod. Yes, his ipod. He didn't really want me to but I insisted.

So I read him a Frog and Toad story called "A List." The cadence of it was so nice. The story was so well put together. It was funny and sweet. A good story to read right before bed. And while I'm sure that kids would like it, it hit this adult very hard. Making lists is such an important part of my life. The story ends with Toad saying, "There. Now my day is all crossed out!" Don't we all know that feeling? When I finished reading it, Pete said, "That was nice."

I asked him if he wanted me to read him another one. He said, "No, thanks," and went back to reading a few lines at a time on his ipod. I finished Frog and Toad all by myself. I smiled all the way through and then my day was crossed out too.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Throw Them Out

So yesterday I was throwing out drafts of poems, and not sonnets or any other fixed form, either. Straight up poems. The kind I usually write.

It was fun. I've read poetry and written at it for so long now that I can almost never fool myself. Those opening lines really were irremediably stupid and loose, the similes strained, the endings predictable. The prognosis? Hopeless.

I'm very tender with these failures, but I don't do what some of my poet-friends do, which is save the best parts. They claim that sometimes, anyway, these scraps come together and make a kind of quilt. Maybe, but it's likely my scraps would come together and look like Viggo Mortensen's pants in "The Road."

What a blessing, really, to be able to spend four or five hours afloat in the medium of my choice. Did I fail? In a way; the poems will never amount to much. Was I successful? Sure, because just by showing up there was always the chance language would step forward and take me with it as it lifted off and landed far from this city or any other city. Somewhere, if I was lucky, absolutely angelesque.

70 and sunny after 2 days of rain. Buddy, as usual, prowling around and playing Lord of the Carpet.


Monday, December 14, 2009


I go to Canada at least once a year to visit my oldest child, and I always love finding new (to me) Canadian writers. This year it was Marina Endicott, whose (adult) novel Good to a Fault is now a finalist for Canada Reads, the national everybody-reads-the-same-novel thing they've got going there. Good to a Fault was not only delightful reading, it was also a marvelous study in POV. I often reread passages just to admire how the narrative moved from character to character without a hitch, like a relay baton going from runner to runner and never getting dropped.

Kathleen Duey's Skin Hunger, one of the common books for the upcoming Hamline residency, has a dual narrative structure, and it's a book I've been recommending lately for writers trying to work with multiple story threads. We're studying it for setting (I think it was your pick, Mary Logue? Thank you!) but it also provides a marvelous study in structure.

I suppose one reason I was taken with the multiple narrators in Good to a Fault and with Skin Hunger's structure is that I have always stuck to a single narrator and vantage in my novels (Well, okay, there was one a long time ago, Come in from the Cold, that was split between two kids, but the split was so broadly defined that it felt like separate stories as I was doing it). With New Year's coming up, I think it's time for some writing resolutions, and whadya say we listen to Ron and make those resolutions risky ones?

So here I go: In 2010 I will break it open and try a multiple (but a closely-woven) thread/voice story.

And you?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Thoughts on a Cold Minnesota Winter Day

Lest the reader feel schadenfreude for us here in the tundra, forgetaboutit because both food and words taste better in the bone-cold of winter. I may eat my words after January or so, but today from the cozy den of my office, I’m content nibbling on others’ and buttered toast.

I’m reading Leonard Marcus’s Funny Business: Conversations with Writers of Comedy to see if funny books are written by funny people. I think I know a person’s comedic gift when I see it, but wonder how it translates onto the page. Or conversely, if the seemingly dour personality can split the reader’s innards with laughter.

Not all funny business is serious, but it often is. Marcus quotes E. B. White who said that while “the world likes humor,…it decorates its serious artists with laurel, and its wags with Brussels sprouts.”

Which author is your pick for children’s humor laureate (or sprouteate)?


What is Success?

My sister, who is a painter, and I were talking the other day about what constitutes success for us as artists. We were both trying to understand how to balance the creative process (the interior world of the mind) with the reaction to your art in the world (financial remuneration or critical praise). Don't read this missive thinking I have the answer to this question, but we did kick it around for a while.

Both of us felt that the happiness of making art, being in the actual moment of creating and feeling like you're in the flow, is an awful important part of being successful. We also acknowledged that sometimes you can feel like you are really on to something, that you are making something that is fabulous, and the next day that same piece of writing can so not work.

Neither of us could figure out the role of outward success. I feel that this part of being a writer has become less important to me as I get older, but maybe I'm fooling myself, or maybe my slight success is enough for me, or maybe it will change again. I guess that I feel more in control of the inward success, that it is more possible to control my own attitude toward my writing by working mainly on stuff that really grabs me.

Those are my thoughts for this day, a bitterly cold, bright sunshiny day in Minnesota.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Cool Retro Picture Books

Thanks to Daughter Number Three, I wandered over to Curious Pages, a blog by illustrators Lane Smith and Bob Shea that's devoted to older picture books. Lots of fun.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Guy Davenport

Guy Davenport has got to be the smartest guy in Lexington, Kentucky, and probably in all of Kentucky and many adjoining states. I hope he ambles over to Keeneland, one of the most beautiful race tracks in the country, but if he wants to stay home to think and write, that's okay too.

Here's a quote from one of his books. ("The Hunter Gracchus," for the record.) "Without desire, the imagination would atrophy. And without imagination, the mind itself would atrophy, preferring regularity to turbulence, habit to risk, prejudice to reason, sameness to variety."

Aren't those lovely words -- turbulence, risk, reason, variety? Especially turbulence and risk. Sameness can be wonderfully narcotic. And then there's his soporific pal -- safety: the craft book opening to a novel with one quirky character and two-and-a-half similes, the clever poem like a dozen other clever poems. Sometimes it just makes me want to drink the Kool Aid. And I'm talking about my work. Though I know I'm not the only one.

I remember chatting with a talented young writer in my community college night class and asking him what he was ashamed of. "Oh, man," he said, "I can't tell you that." Even without the specifies, I suggested that there was an energy to shame that really shouldn't be denied. His prose was serviceable and he knew the rules-of-writing. But his work didn't make my heart beat fast. It didn't take me hostage and make me want a tattoo. There was too much reason, frankly, but not enough turbulence and risk.

I know -- easy to say. But Christmas is coming, friends. You're never going to get that pony, anyway, and if turbulence and risk aren't to your taste, ask for something seraphic. Guy Davenport quotes a stanza from a Shaker hymn that just kills:

Love repays the lovely lover,
And in lovely ranks above
Lovely love shall live forever.
Loving lovely lov`ed love.

Rain yesterday in South Pasadena. Sun today.


'Tis the Season

Winter is here, as Marsha Q. reminds us, and I need to get cracking. My little boy’s birthday falls 5 days after Christmas, and given his large number of adoring relatives, that will mean an influx of presents. What he needs, really, is books—it’s getting to be time to put the board books away but that will seriously cut down on our nighttime selection, and while he’d be happy to hear the same five books every night, Mommy does like variety.

So, I’d love some suggestions of books to put on his list. The Hamline required reading list provided a nice guide for us to start building his library, and I’m please to say that he could now make pretty good headway into his annotated bibliography, if only he knew how to write. It’s fun to see him take to books like Make Way for Ducklings, The Snowy Day, and Madeline (Tonight I asked him if he wanted Where the Wild Things Are and he responded, very cheerfully, “No, it’s too scary!”)

I write novels because picture books are too hard, and watching what this almost-three-year-old takes to is an education for me. I’ve noticed how much he responds to language—both playful (Phyllis Root is definitely his favorite author) and lyrical, like On the Day You Were Born and The House in the Night. Unlike Ron’s garbage man, he’s not above a good llama/mama rhyme. Other favorites include Punk Farm (ask him what a cow says and he’ll reply with great convictions, “Boom, crash!”) The Best Pet of All, and Officer Buckle and Gloria.

The darker side of his library includes a vast number of Blue’s Clues books—I vaguely considered doing a lecture next residency on bad sentences using just these. We keep accruing more because we get so sick of the one’s we have. Somewhere, there’s a flaw in our logic but I can’t quite find it.

So, what other books should we have? We have to wait ‘til summer, after all, for One Pup’s Up.

Monday, December 7, 2009


The weather guys are doing their best to scare us now, promising a big snowstorm for the next couple of days. We'll see. I do love a blizzardy view out my window, however, and look forward to that. Winter weather has played a part in a few of my books (all of which are set in Minnesota or Wisconsin, for the most part), but as I do a mental scan of the ones set during summer, I can't think of how weather played a role in those stories. Frigid air and paralyzing snow tend to provide a useful setting for the dramas involving my often emotionally numbed protagonists. Perhaps if I wrote more often about bawdy adolescents I would be more inclined to conjure up some summer heat.

Off the top of my head: The Long Winter (Laura Ingalls Wilder) has to be the best weather story ever. Other suggestions?


Friday, December 4, 2009

Time Capsule

Trying to catch up with all of you. I've been out of touch because my computer died on Tuesday. I almost threw up. I thought of burying it in the back yard, (I get emotionally attached to my machines) but first I needed to get my vital information out of it. Yes, I had a flash drive, but I hadn't used it more recently than a few weeks ago, plus it didn't have my emails on it. Tuesday was a very dark day. I took the two computers—old and new—to North Brain, which is Macintosh Geek Squad and they rescued everything on my old computer.

But, and this is my message for today, my new computer is now hooked up to a time capsule that saves info every hour or so. Pete has tried to explain to me how this happens, but I don't really care, just so long as it does. Don't learn the necessity of a good back-up program the way I did.

Much as I am not always happy about how much of my life takes place in front of this computer, when it was no longer there, it left a huge hole.

Glad to be back blogging and hope all of you, if you don't already have one, get a time capsule for the holiday. I still like hard copy myself.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

On Sonnets, Hollywood, and Buddy the Cat

I just threw last month's sonnets away, too, but put them on top of the garbage because last week I spotted one of my trash guys in Starbuck's reading Proust. Therefore, I thought he might have some helpful hints, something a notch or two above, "No more horizontal stripes for you, chubby boy." Or, "Llama/mama isn't the most felicitous rhyme I've ever seen."

I went to the P.E.N. dinner last night to introduce Kathy Appelt who won the kids' writing prize for THE UNDERNEATH. First of all, Pasadena is about 18 miles from Beverly Hills, but it takes 90 minutes to drive there during rush hour. We valet park her truck, Bianca is starved, so we go down to the coffee shop and pay $14 for an egg salad sandwich. Then sit upstairs by a fire and listen to people make deal after deal on their Blackberries. Hollywood is just a parody of itself. If you haven't seen Tim Robbins in THE PLAYER, rent it now!

Watching the Weather Channel reminded me of how cold it is in MN, so here's a haiku from Billy Collins:

Full moon on new snow,
and in the corner
an open can of white paint.

Buddy the cat says hello to everyone.


Monday, November 30, 2009


Just put a month's worth of sonnets in the recycling bin. Shoved them down deep too, in case the trash hauler has an eye for that sort of thing. 30 sonnets written over 25 days or so. For my eyes only--that's what kept me going.

Ron's challenge came at a good time for me as I've been between projects. I'm now getting ready to return to a novel I set aside several months ago. I'm looking forward to working on this story again, but I'm also tentative about jumping back in. I've been circling the novel for a few days now, doing some offstage work on it to help haul the story back from the depths. The first thing I did was simply list the scenes in order, best I could remember. Then I did some short sketches of the characters as I remembered them. I also rewrote dialogue for a number of scenes and did a couple of chapters in a different POV. Indulged in a few dream sequences. Made some maps of important locations. Wrote a couple of sonnets about the story.

Then I reread the thing. It was interesting to see where the exercises diverged from the manuscript. That's one of the things I love about offstage work--it dredges up the stuff that I keep tamping down because I get so focused on what I think will happen next.

I'm headed to the nearby campus library now to write. I plan to set aside the 100 pages I wrote last winter and start fresh. If the going gets tough I know I can always step away and make a list or draw a map or conjure a dream sequence. Maybe write a sonnet. For my eyes only, of course.

Sunday, November 29, 2009


Thanks for synecdoche, Ron. From assonance to zeugma, I’m full from and of Thanksgiving for all things poetic this last day of the holiday weekend. Zeugmatically speaking, I stuffed the bird, my mouth, and my feelings.

Good bird. Bad zeugma.


"The true mystery of the world is the visible." Oscar Wilde

Oscar knew what he was talking about, and for someone as gabby as he could be, he had a gift for synecdoche, a fancy term for the-part-that-stands-for-the-whole. Twelve head of cattle, for instance. (And let's hope those heads stand for the whole animals or we're all of a sudden talking about Surrealism.)

Writers tussle with synecdoche all the time: are the seven piercings in Lola's' left ear enough to acquaint the reader or among those piercings do we have to know that one is a cross and another a skull and another a tiny airplane? Or is the quirky airplane enough and the others just typical Goth dress-up?

One thing writers do is make the visible world vivid again. It's easy to get caught up in the quotidian and to find the stench of old ideas savory.

A poet named Nathaniel Tarn talks about "the rabbits in the divine upstairs that never could sing anything below."

A line like that just slaps me around. I particularly love "divine." I don't want to write like Mr. Tarn, but he makes me want to write better. Or maybe just lean back and enjoy the mess I've made of things.

Whoops! I have to go now. Buddy has climbed the avocado tree and is pawing at the window. Maybe he has a message for me from the visible world.


Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanks a Lot!

Pete and I are going off to his cousin's house for Thanksgiving. He's in the kitchen at the moment, cutting up vegetables for his Bagna Cauda. Besides trying to find the perfect title for his next YA book all of last week, he's been trying to figure out how to keep this dip warm without having a chafing dish. No one seems to have chafing dishes any more. They've gone out of style. He was balancing a ceramic bowl on top of a flower pot with a lit can of sterno in it and I was sure he was going to burn down the whole house. But I think he has figured out something safer--he went out and bought the smallest crock pot in existence. It would barely heat up a cup of coffee--but I think it will work.

But before we leave I wanted to wish you all a happy Thanksgiving and offer a poem.


Giving thanks isn't done
to have another piece of pie.

I don't give thanks so that the gods
won't take it all away next year.

Thanks isn't for the people around me
to think I'm swell. I give thanks

so that once in a while all the good
that is in me has a place to go.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Homework is Rarely Poetry

I just got back from a little gig in a Ventura high school. Just an hour or so up the coast from Pasadena. The high school has been decimated by flu; I met three different classes, one of them with about ten kids. Last students standing, so to speak. Or sitting in this case with their baseball hats on sideways.

You never know -- I saw these kids twice in two days, and on Day #1 I'd given them little assignments. Which led to an intense discussion in the ten o'clock class about writing-on-demand. A few claimed they just couldn't do it and had to wait for inspiration. I told them my butt-in-the-chair theory. They said, "That's you, dude." I asked them what they did about homework. They couldn't wait for inspiration, right? "That's homework, man. Not poetry."

They had me there. Homework is rarely poetry. And to prove to me that waiting paid off at least four of them brought me their journals and showed me what gifts Inspiration had given them. I looked at the many, many pages then suggested the Hot Spot exercise.

That agreed with some but, like green peppers, not everyone. They ascribed to the First Thought/Best Thought theory. I said that I revised constantly. They called me dude again.

They were fun to work with -- smart and opinionated and snarky. My kind of people.


P.S. Nice to see Anne, I believe, reading Kerry Madden. She's a pal of mine, used to live in L.A., just moved to Birmingham for a tenure track teaching job. Amazingly sweet-natured and generous. She'd be a great guest at Hamline!

Happy Thanksgiving

My enduring contribution to American verse is a Thanksgiving poem I wrote when I was 9. This, I can say definitively, is the best poem I have ever written.

There you are, plump and juicy
My innocent little turkey Lucy
We'll feed you up
Nice and plump
So on Thanksgiving we can dine on your tasty rump....

And it goes on. It may not surprise you that I became a vegetarian some years later. This Thanksgiving I will be in charge of the Tofurky. I thought perhaps this image might inspire a sonnet in Marsha Q.

I like cooking because it satisfies my need to be creative without having to write anything. Pie is my superpower; my secret is to find a good recipe and follow it. Here's the best pumpkin pie recipe there is. We'll also be having Leek and Wild Mushroom Stuffing, Spiced Cranberry Sauce with Zinfandel (Halve the sugar, seriously), Green Beans with Crispy Shallots, and mashed sweet potatoes.

This is a good time to give thanks for everyone I've met at Hamline. It's such a wonderful feeling to show up for residency and realize, All of these people write children's books! What a lovely thing to have such a community. Happy Thanksgiving, all.

Monday, November 23, 2009


I ran away for the afternoon a few days ago and landed in paradise. A friend had told me about the Prairie Moon Sculpture Garden along Hwy 35, about an hour away from where I live in western Wisconsin. I find it helpful to look at art when I'm in a fallow writing period, and I hit the jackpot at Prairie Moon. I love thinking about this retired farmer creating this place and all the travelers chancing upon it. This photo is of the artist's self-portrait. More photos are on the website linked above, but they sadly don't convey the impact of walking among all the varied pieces (about 40) in the garden.

Ron often reminds and encourages us to enjoy writing and keep our eyes on what is being created. Herman Rusch, self-taught artist, left a roadside treasure that offers the same message.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Take THAT!

I am sitting in a hotel room in sunny Philadelphia, where the National Council for Teachers of English is having its annual convention. Fellow Hamline prof Alexandria LaFaye put together a panel on using fantasy in the classroom with Bruce Colville (!) and me. Bruce is hilarious--though given his books it would be odd if he were quite dour in person. It's great to be around so many English teachers, but I found myself hyperconscious of the things I said. I didn't want to land in their Stinkpots.

Kerry Madden put this picture up on her blog this morning. This was done by a high school student named Rayna McGuire, inspired by Charles Baxter's advice to get your characters up a tree and throw apples at them.

Poor characters. The things they go through just to exist.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Stinkpot Expanded and Reading Outloud

I did a reading last night. I've been doing quite a few readings lately. It was a poetry reading, which I always get the most out of. I hear my poems again. I see people nod or frown or smile, sometimes even laugh. I read my poems on the faces of my audience.

On a completely different subject or rather back a few posts, I'm totally into the Stinkpot. But I'd like to suggest that we expand it to bad writing in general, not limit it to incorrect grammar. Peter will occasionally read me some really bad sentences written by some decent writers. It can be stunning. Not that I don't find bad sentences when I read--but, again, having them read outloud makes them even worse. You can't skip over them.

Also, the ticks we have in our writing. At my last writing group meeting it was pointed out to me that I had several characters "drop their heads" and I was asked to demonstrate. Yup, this writing stuff is hard work.


So I've been sick and feverish and both weird and wierd and watching a lot of daytime TV. Anything to make the time pass. Reality show knock-offs on obscure cable channels. "So You Think You Can Stand," for example. I have so shame.

So I fell in love all over again with Aaron Sorkin's "West Wing." Jeez, what a good show. Sharp writing, camera movement like Robert Altman's, rapid fire dialogue. Watching it always made me feel better. And its excellence served to remind me that a couple of things I was working on were just crap. Maybe fever burns away the delusionary bullshit that is usually made palatable by nine-year old bourbon?

Illness is not always a bad thing. Alternative doctors especially say, "Well, your body just needed some time away from whatever has been bothering it." Could be true. And one of my favorite novels -- "The Moviegoer" -- was written by a young medical student who contracted TB before he could start a practice. As he recovered, he started to write, something he was clearly meant to do, anyway.

I tried, by the way, to keep up with the sonnet-a-day assignment but couldn't after "fever" rhymed with "Leave It to Beaver" and then with "cleaver." I really didn't like the direction that was going.


The Future

For those interested in picture books of the future, check out this video.

I think it's interesting too that some recent articles on the future of e-reading machines like the Kindle have downplayed those devices and instead banked their money on phones as the devices most likely to be used to read books. Has anyone read a novel or any lengthy piece of text on an I-phone yet? I can see this taking off with YA fiction. In fact I can imagine publishers devising Teen books that would be marketed primarily for phone downloads.


Monday, November 16, 2009

The Stinkpot!

The ever-brilliant Ms. Chall has given us a place to come together to discuss the usage errors that drive us batshit crazy, and I am forever grateful. Sometimes you need a community if you are going to heal.

In college, I had a relationship that began to turn sour when I received an email with the word, "wierd." I imagined saying to our future offspring I know this is how Daddy spells it, but it's wrong. This conversation would have to come at an age when said offspring should be believing that his parents are infallible, and the ensuing psychological trauma would take years of psychotherapy to repair. That stuff's expensive.

The ones that really get to me these days are "loathe to" and "phased" (to mean "fazed"). You see them everywhere--published books, weekly magazines. If you see me in a corner somewhere twitching, that's probably why.

For your grammar-nerd needs, I recommend After Deadline,* the New York Times' Stinkpot.

*Though please note that the recent entry implying there could ever be such a thing as excessive use of em dashes was obviously written by someone with unresolved psychological trauma.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Style Stinkpot

Ever find yourself dying for the want of proper grammar, mechanics, and punctuation? Do you lose a speaker’s point because he’s used the subjective case pronoun rather than the objective? Do you fantasize late-night correction of misspelled traffic signs? Are you jazzed by the merits of serial commas?

If you cross the centerline at the sight of “Watch for Busses,” cringe at “…between you and I,” laugh out loud at signage like “Sanitary Sewer,” or chronically resist the urge to correct egregious errors of style, then The Storyteller’s Inkpot: Elements of Style Stinkpot blog is for you.

Go ahead—get it off your chest. You know you want to. You may even need to. You’ll have a better day. And we’ll be better for your effort. Think of it as writer’s hygiene. Don’t suffer in silence! Dump it in the Stinkpot. What stylistic gaffe drives you loco?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Writing, Readings, and Kids

I'm glad folks like/are liking my do-it-every-day assignment. I've been writing unusually badly lately, and it's been weirdly delightful. But after I've fallen down the stairs every morning (so to speak) I take another hour or two to look at old poems that might need some work. And that goes really well. So does the painful and embarrassing stuff make the revising easier? If my studio is a junkyard, I seem not to be able to make that newly towed-in Volvo even turn over, but I can tune up a Chevy that's running rough.

On another matter: a couple of poet-friends and I gave a reading uptown. It went well enough, but the crowd was reserved. Turns out that a lot of them were college students who showed up for extra credit. Afterwards, one of the other poets (Charles Harper Webb) and I were working the crowd and when people said that they'd enjoyed themselves we asked why they didn't seem to be having a good time since we tend to read funny poems. "Well," one girl said, "It was a poetry reading. I thought it'd be all serious."

Little kids get read to all the time and some of that is poetry that makes them laugh. Goofy rhymes and ridiculous situations and all the rest of it. But after a certain point, most poetry does turn serious like milk, I guess, goes sour. (Look for the expiration date on your next quart of poesy.) And then, God help me, there's high school which is where Billy Collins says poetry goes to die.

High school. The droning teacher in a warm room. The knife-through-the-heart-of-any-poem question: "What was the poet trying to say?" A tough act to follow.


Monday, November 9, 2009


I live in western Wisconsin, about ninety minutes due east of Minneapolis/St. Paul. Yesterday I drove to St. Paul for a thing at the Red Balloon Bookstore celebrating the reissue of the Betsy Tacy books. These books have been periodically brought back in print by HarperCollins, but this time the publisher restored original cover art and, what's very unusual, brought the books out in its adult classics division, not under a children's imprint. This is good news for people who love these books. I am one.

I always pass the 3m headquarters when I go to St. Paul. The main building there is designed to suggest the green plaid on Scotch tape. I don't use so much tape, but lord knows I use Post-its, the product that must earn daily prayers of thanks from 3m stockholders. I'm using lots of them now as I prepare for the January residency at Hamline. I read with Post-its, marking spots in the prose worth noting, for better or worse. Things like graceful transitions in and out of flashbacks, clunky descriptions, swell dialogue. I know a lot of writers and teachers do this. Lately I've forced myself to put the days' worth of Post-it passages into the computer every night because, the gray matter being what it is as I age, it doesn't take long for the scrawled comment on the Post-it (usually accompanied with an exclamation mark indicating my delight in the discovery) to become completely cryptic, both because the handwriting is illegible and because I can no longer remember the thrust of the insight that merited a hot pink sticky note. I am, in effect, annotating my annotations.

I am BTW, still writing sonnets, three inspired by Project Runway. MQ

Friday, November 6, 2009

Picture Book Challenge

In light of writing something daily, how about a picture book text in less than 100 words, though it may take more than a day. Recall Victor Hugo’s quote, "Sorry this letter is so long. I didn’t have time to make it short!" Ruth Krauss's classic picture book, The Carrot Seed, contains 101 words, but arrived in the larger package of 11,000. I think what I like about writing daily is the badly part. If I have to tell a story in only 100 words, I'll focus more on a clean narrative than perfect words. I can always wreck it with perfection later.


I love that Marsha has taken on Ron's challenge, his original challenge of writing sonnets. The longer I'm in this biz, the more I see it's about doing the work every day. My new book of poetry, HAND WORK, came out of a year of writing a poem every day. Not a sonnet however. And out of 365 poems, I managed to find 76 that I didn't mind putting out into the world. Not too bad.

We don't often talk about how much bad writing one has to do to get to the good stuff.

We also don't talk about the quality of steadiness, how important that is.

When I'm cranking hard on a novel, I try to write three pages every day. This consistency helps me stay in the world of the book. I carry the story with me for the rest of the day, I sleep with it, and in the morning I'm ready to write a few more pages.

I can hardly wait to read one of Marsha's sonnets. Or see a character from Ron's challenge come to life in a story.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Hands on Writing

Ron's challenge (see post below) is a wonderful one. Character development is what I do most of the time anyway, so I took a deep breath and decided I should try the sonnet thing, but in honor of National Novel Writing Month I am modifying the challenge to only 30 days & 30 sonnets. I played catch-up the first two days and now have four very bad--extremely bad--but structurally correct sonnets in a notebook. Wish me luck.

I am writing in long hand, something I rarely do anymore. My handwriting is terrible now and so the computer is a blessing. But it's wonderful to again have the tactile experience of watching a word form from the pen in my hand. It's also nice to pound the pen and beat out the rhythm, though doing that reminds me of why I didn't go far as a young piano student and why the dance classes in junior high phy ed were such torment; I couldn't even deal with the two-step.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Here's a writing challenge for you!

Here's a thought. And, actually, an exercise. I was talking to another poet about writing a sonnet a day for three months. We'd both done that in the past. Way in the past for me. And we'd both enjoyed it in a masochistic way. The rules were/are simple: one 16-line sonnet per day seven days a week. But they don't have to be good. Whew! Thank God for that last sentence.

When I started this discipline, I was floundering a bit, writing what struck me as the same sort of poem in the same way. Sonnets were so, as they say, not me. And though they were never my favorite form, after a month or so I was much more comfortable with them. And they had a wonderfully astringent effect on my writing style. It was a lot harder to write a loose, lazy line of free verse when I'd been counting iambs for sixty or ninety days.

I know most Hamline students aren't poets and don't want to be, so here's a variation on that exercise: write a one-page character sketch every day for ninety days. I've had the most luck with this by putting the pen to the paper, eschewing grammar and spelling, and never stopping to think until the page is full of what this character looks like, smells like, dines on, dresses like, has lubricous thoughts about, etc.

Some writers end the third month with ninety characters! Then they go through, find the ones that call to them, and ask what it is those characters have to say to the other characters and each other! Some writers find themselves -- more or less unconsciously -- writing about just a handful of characters under different aliases! As if the facets of one character have entire personalities of their own.

It is a whole other way to write a novel. Messy and surprising.

If you try this, let me know how it works out.


Sunday, November 1, 2009

Is That A Spiderwick Behind Your Foucault?

A nice essay
in the Chronicle of Higher Education from a literature professor who accidentally becomes addicted to children's fantasy books. The whole thing is worth a read, but I particularly like this:

I suspect that as we get older, our taste in books leans toward more-realistic narratives, ones in which we can find some glimpse of ourselves. Yet to deny ourselves the magic, the wonder of stories, simply because we are adults is sinful. In a postscript to his review of Philip Pullman's The Amber Spyglass, Michael Dirda writes, "Children's literature counts as some of the most imaginative writing anyone could want." By spending several months reading children's and young-adult fiction, I rediscovered not only what made me a reader in the first place, but also something essential about myself: my imagination.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Ghost stories, anyone?

We've had a ghastly October. It's rained more than half the days, it's been below average temps, and the worst is yet to come. That's what I wanted to write about today. The weather. And how it affects my writing. I've grown up in Minnesota. There are some things about winter I like: the first snow, snow angels, sledding, heated car seats, hot soup, saunas, fires. I also like the way the land looks in winter, more sculpted. I won't bother with my list of what I'm not so crazy about.

But one thing I really love about winter is all the writing I get done. Even in college, winter quarter was always my most productive. I pile my books up around me, get a hot beverage of some sort, and get to work. There's little reason to go outside, less distraction, and a certain blankness in the world that allows my mind to go on a binge. So while my garden goes dormant, my desk seems to be growing projects.

It's Halloween tomorrow. Why don't we all write ghost stories?

Time Flies

At a school visit earlier this week, a third-grade girl complained to me that time was going by too fast. As if proving the point, I had no time to probe for her meaning. Perhaps she mimicked an adult's comment or attitude, but I worried that a child should feel this pressure, a hurriedness that I assume only older folks like me experience. Of course I resented the usual constrictions of time at her age: come-inside-time, bathtime, bedtime. But what I most strikingly recall is that waiting for the good times--my birthdays, Halloweens, summer break--seemed as long as a lifetime. I heard my great grandma say one Fourth of July that Christmas was just around the corner. What?!? Where was that corner?

Learning fractions the next year helped me understand: as an octogenerian, a year was about 1/80th of Great Grandma's life, a mere sliver. But at 9, my tour around the sun was 1/9th, a hulking slab of life, luckily shaved thinner every year. I'd just have to wait a little longer to escalate.

No doubt times were simpler in my own childhood. I didn't have to take charge of much except my pet rabbit Harvey. Nor did I control much of anything. Not my bedtime, or what I ate for dinner, or where I had my birthday party (always in our unfinished basement). But I did have one freedom and that was choosing the books I read. Free run of my parents' bookshelf, unlimited trips to the library, and a good flashlight stalled time within the pages of another world, a private world where the only measure of passing time was how close I was to the end of the story. Time faded as the world of the tale grew larger and never caught up because that's how books were, a dream outside of time. And still are.

To hell with fractions.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Internet Will Save Us All

This week came the news that Scholastic asked Lauren Myracle to change a same-sex couple to a straight one in her new book, Luv Ya Bunches.

When she refused, they opted not to carry the book in their book fairs. A spokesman for Scholastic said the company often asks for changes to “meet the norms of the various communities that host the fairs.” Myracle did not budge.

This is no small thing. Scholastic represents money and sales for children’s book authors. To refuse them is to take money out of your own pocket—both actual and potential. It might not just be an issue of sticking to your guns, but paying for day care or college or simple time to write.

We talk a lot about book banning in children’s literature. Stories of various books getting removed from schools and libraries make the news (including that of our own Lisa Jahn-Clough.) But we don’t often hear about the books that never got through the gatekeepers at all for fear of protest. SLJ had an excellent article about self-censorship--bookstores, schools, libraries that don’t buy a book because they fear a backlash. And it’s not just these gatekeepers, as the Scholastic story indicates, but the publishers, too. A few years ago, Simon and Schuster asked a picture book writer to take out a photo in a fall-themed book of a child dressed as a witch. He refused, and Simon and Schuster released him from his contract and ultimately sold the book to another publisher.

It’s scary, sure. We just want to tell stories, and the prospect of getting removed from shelves--or never getting on those shelves at all--is a terrifying one. But there’s something new happening. A few months ago, a small internet storm exploded over the US edition of Justine Larbalesteir’s Liar, published by Bloomsbury. The protagonist for the book is black, but the publisher put a white girl on the cover. Justine protested, but they did not change their minds and sent out advance copies of the book with that cover. But then people started to read the book, and they (shockingly) noticed the discrepancy and started to talk. And blog. And tweet. Soon the story was all over the kidlitosphere. And after awhile, the noise was too loud, and Liar had a new cover.

And that’s what's happened with Luv Ya Bunches. Within days, Scholastic backtracked. They were scared of angry letters--and they got them, but not from the side they were expecting.

It’s a new era. Stories of book banning and related stupidity will spread quickly. There are a ton of kid’s lit blogs out there--writers, editors, librarians, reviewers, and readers--and their audience posts the stories to Facebook with links to online petitions and contact information for the perpetrators. A petition to Scholastic garnered 4000 signatures in 48 hours. Thanks to the internet, we have a voice now--we have thousands of voices. And children’s literature will be stronger for it.

Dystopian Worlds

Off to Canada for a few days later today. My oldest daughter and her husband live in Waterloo, Ontario, and so my husband and I make the trip fairly often. I always look forward to discovering some Canadian writers when I'm browsing the wonderful Words Worth book store in Waterloo.

I checked out the store's site and noticed that this weekend they're having a YA Dystopia fest, celebrating all the YA novels that are set in dystopian worlds. The Giver is perhaps the best known such YA novel. I suppose The Hunger Games would qualify too. Others? Of course, I suppose much YA fiction could fit under that banner because don't so many YA protagonists feel their worlds are far from Utopian?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Honoring language

" . . . the sheer joy of maximum effort for the sake of excellence." Boy, there's a noble idea. And when it comes to writing fiction (for some reason "maximum effort" doesn't seem to resonate me when it comes to poetry), I understand it.

I think it goes back to the idea of enjoying writing. Working hands-on with a chosen medium which is, in our case, language. And making the time spent the end in itself. Nice if a novel or story turns up, but not essential.

I've probably said this before: language likes to be honored for itself and not just just for what it can do. For instance, nouns don't always like to line up with a lot of other words to make a sentence. Nouns sometimes prefer to hang out in front of the convenience store and let adjectives try to bum cigarettes. Sure, it's tempting to hook up with some verbs when those tool up in a convertible. But sometimes they prefer only the company of their peers. Pizza crusts at their feet, beholden to no one and nothing.


Monday, October 26, 2009

S.E. Hinton

I spent Saturday teaching an all-day workshop on writing YA fiction. Fun, but exhausting. At some point during that day we were talking about S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders, a book which continues to echo in so much contemporary YA fiction. A couple of years ago Hinton published a collection of stories for adults and was interviewed at that time by Vanity Fair. In the interview she uses the term "first-person narrative once removed," which I suspect means a peripheral narrator. She also talks about the importance of endings; like our Mary Logue, Hinton savors that final image. I think I'll rustle up a copy of the story collection, Some of Tim's Stories, and acquaint myself with that once-removed first person.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Left with Hope

I think there are "happy" endings and then there are satisfying endings. I'm especially aware of the latter, because when one is writing mysteries, your readers let you know if they don't feel you have answered all the questions.

I would say happy endings are when you come to the end of the book, close it, and feel that there is hope in the world. Which doesn't mean everything has turned out the way you wanted it to at the end of the book. I think an ending should both give a sense of closure--that this story is done, and a sense of the world of the book continuing, that life goes on for these characters.

One thing I'm aware of in writing the end of a book is what is the last image I want to leave the reader with--what is my parting gift to them.


Would someone please care to define "Happy Ending"? What are the elements that are present when you're satisfied with a book's conclusion?

Just asking. Thanks.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Dirty Books

I'm reading THE CHEERLEADER, by Ruth Doan MacDougall. I know of many women who came of age in the 70's who say this book was a favorite, primarily because of the sex in the story (set in the 50's, it was published in 1973 and reissued in 1998). Well, yes, there is some, but as someone who discovered Harold Robbins's novels when she was a teen, let me just say MacDougal was a white glove writer when it came to sex.

I'm teaching an all-day workshop this Saturday on writing YA fiction. Prepping for that and reading THE CHEERLEADER has started me thinking about the appeal of adult fiction to teens and the line between YA and adult fiction (and I'm using "adult" in the broad sense, not X-rated, though of course more than a few passages in any Harold Robbins novel might qualify as X-rated). Many teens move back forth so easily; John Grisham, Mary Higgens Clark, and Stephen King are a few of the old guard adult writers who continue to attract a wide teen audience. But do teens read adult fiction for scintillation (and education) anymore? I suspect...not so much.

What were your favorite dirty books during your teen years?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

One more...

One more incident from Asilomar, where my wife caught a ripper of a cold.

The students and I had nearly two days together, so we got to know each other pretty well. The members of the Cambria Writing Group are all friends, but they don't cut each other much slack when it comes to analysis. One of the topics that came up was the difference between an autobiographical poem that stuck to the so-called facts and one that took liberties for the health of the poem.

Who'd really argue for the former, right? That goes in a diary. But a couple of the folks were pretty adamant about truth: if in fact somebody went to Walmart he or she shouldn't say Piggly Wiggly Market even though the market has better reverb in the poem.

Here's the interesting part -- one of the gals who strongly favored taking liberties brought in a poem with some guttural-sounding words, and when somebody pointed out that they were at odds with the tone of the piece she said, "But that's what really happened." Of course her friends jumped all over her.

She had a hard time letting go, though, and after dinner took me aside and asked if she couldn't keep those grating consonants. Tongue in cheek, I told her she could keep one. So the next morning there was a revised poem -- a veritable field of daffodils except for the single aloe plant.


Why the Internet Was Invented, Part 376

Via Mo Willems' site, a fan-created poster for the not-upcoming not-release.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Hand Work

This is a rug I hooked of my house in Stockholm, WI. The cover of my new book is also a hooked rug of my house, but I don't have a photo of it so this one will have to do.

Just a quick note to all that my new book of poetry, HAND WORK, is hitting the streets this week. And I'm hitting them too--doing readings in all sorts of places like the Textile Center in Minneapolis and even a small rug hooking shop in Minneapolis, not to mention Once Upon a Crime, a mystery bookstore here and a new theater in the very small town of Stockholm, WI. I love doing readings in places where they're not normally done. I think it makes me reconsider what I do. Makes me work a little harder. Reaching out to readers wherever they might be.

Where's the oddest place you've ever done a reading?

Happy National Day on Writing!

The National Council of Teachers of English is sponsoring the National Day on Writing, today, October 20. It is not a Hallmark-card holiday in which you buy your writing mentor cupcakes--though I think that's an excellent idea and should be explored--but rather a celebration of writing in all its forms. The website offers celebrities speaking about writing, and in this glorious world by "celebrities" they mean not the Jonas Brothers, but writing luminaries like Laurie Halse Anderson, James Cross Giblin, Katherine Patterson. You and yours can also submit to the Gallery of Writing. Should we do a Hamline local gallery?

I stopped to question why the NDOW prepositional subcommittee chose on. Yes, the appropriate preposition doesn't announce itself--you can quickly get rid of amongst and betwixt, but why on as opposed to, say, of or for?

On implies something more philosophical, more inquisitive than the functional of or for. On a day of we do. On a day on we meditate, we consider, we discuss. And there's something contemplative about the project; as the site says:

By collecting a cross-section of everyday writing through a National Gallery of Writing, we will better understand what matters to writers today—and when writing really counts. Understanding who writes, when, how, to whom, and for what purposes will lead to production of improved resources for writers, better strategies to nurture and celebrate writers, and improved policy to support writing.

That's a project we can all support. Write on.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Norma Fox Mazer

I taught with Norma Fox Mazer in the Vermont program. I'd heard of her before I ventured to Montpelier. She was a bold and lovely writer, and generous in many ways. I'm not always easy to get along with, but Norma didn't pay any attention to those defensive quirks and we were soon friends.

She was instrumental in getting "The Brimstone Journals" to a friend of hers in the area who was a kind of editor-at-large for Candlewick.

She and Harry had a terrific house just up the road from the Vermont campus, and that's how I like to remember her -- standing on the deck with a glass of wine smiling in that incandescent way she had.


Sunday, October 18, 2009

Norma Fox Mazer

Norma Fox Mazer died Friday, October 16. YA novelist, teacher, friend to many in the world of children's literature. Though I never met her, her influence more than rippled into my small corner of the children's book writing world, not least because her books, along with Cynthia Voight's, were among the first I read when I was a newbie writer, discovering the world of YA fiction. Her work was like a green light to my own.

Friday, October 16, 2009

A Marketing Plan

No one tells you that writing a book could be the beginning of two careers until you're asked for a marketing plan. Follow the link to The New Yorker's take on it. I don't recall the last time I ever laughed so hard alone. Read it and laugh--or weep.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Workshop stories

So I did go north to, essentially, Pacific Grove, for that workshop. And I used every suggestion I could get from my friends and most of the ones I rely on. The students at Asilomar were a lovely group who'd been meeting off and on for more than 30 years. They knew a lot, but the ghazal seemed new. And the "talismanic word" exercise from a summer ago at Hamline really propelled some interesting dialogue.

We were together for a day and a half, including meals, so we got to talk a lot. One of the things that came up was the number of workshops all over the country. At least a few of these folks had been in others in different parts of the U.S.

That led us into writing poems about workshops (Billy Collins has a beauty) and overnight a few people kept working on theirs. The best one had a very cool image: in a AAA office, the woman had seen a map of America with a little light for every major tourist attraction. So the poet wanted another kind of map, one that had a light for every poetry writing workshop. She said that every time a group met, the light would go on. So that on some nights, the light from the map alone would be bright enough read by.



Lately I've been doing a lot of talking on the subject of writing (as the invited guest at some function, mind you, not just on a corner with a bullhorn). The well goes dry after too much of this, and with more such gigs coming up on my calendar, I've been turning to the How To Write section in my library, 808 on the Dewey Decimal dial. I've lugged a lot of books back and forth. One book that's gotten renewed, however, is an entertaining little collection of short essays that I recommend: Rules of Thumb; 73 authors reveal their fiction writing fixations (edited by Michael Martone and Susan Neville).

Many of the essayist claim to eschew all rules; indeed, a number have a fixation on "no rules." This is not a how-to book in the typical sense; but there is plenty to take away. I especially loved one nugget from a favorite writer of mine, Lydia Davis (profiled this week in The New Yorker, BTW): "A comma or lack of it can be so eloquent."

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A Dog Blog

Hello. I'm Marsha's new puppy, Scout. I'm the only puppy in the family, but she's not the only writer. The working title of my opus is Bite the Bunny. Edgy stuff. I'm writing in first-puppy for its immediacy, but feel so limited from this point of view. Why not try omniscient while I have the opportunity to create a world and shape its inhabitants?
Here's a synopsis:
Follow the saga of one girl's struggle to Bite the Bunny--only the pink, squeaking bunny--while sorely tempted to bite a kitchen table leg, chicken leg, and pant leg. Will she overcome the trappings of instinct and survival to satisfy her ultimate yearning for family acceptance? Will she bond with the bunny? Bite only the bunny and grow to new dimensions of self-acceptance through bunny bonding?
Character and plot are no problem for me. Voice and tone are more of a challenge because I hear so many nuances. And don't get me started on setting...I'll have to chew on it.

Did Everyone Know About This But Me?

Some documentarians are making a film about children's literature called The Library of the Early Mind. They've posted clips from their interviews on a blog, including interviews with Roger Sutton, Leonard Marcus, Norton Juster, and Hamline's upcoming graduation speaker Jane Yolen. I see what I'll be doing all day today.

Monday, October 12, 2009

On Blogging

I think for the next residency we should have a short seminar/discussion on how to write a blog. I find myself straddling the line between the casual—wanting to tell you what I had for breakfast, how I find myself drifting off into the falling snow (yes, I know it's October 12th)—and the formal—an analysis of the poetic forms in Alice in Wonderland, or how to incorporate flashbacks into contemporary fiction. (Please don't ask me to write about either of those two things--I simply pulled them out of the muddle of my mind.) But you know what I mean.

The word "blog" isn't even in my dictionary, yet I'm supposed to know how to do it.

I like the tone Marsha Q. took in her last missive--the mixture of the tin foil with the neuroscience. Maybe that's it--to mix the two together. To show how the writing life is made up of snow falling and ideas forming on paper, of making a nice omelet and figuring out the scramble of a flashback.

I'm writing today. The snow is falling. I had an omelet for breakfast. I need to write a scene in which a detail in a present moment triggers a seamless flashback.

Wish me luck.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Brainy writing

I love my hair salon. The owner's husband is a visual artist and the place is really a gallery packed with his work. Plenty of art magazines on hand too. I was getting some work done the other day and reading one of the magazines while the color was cooking (image I'd insert if I had it: middle aged woman in old barber's chair with tin foil on her head). I found a fascinating article in Modern Painter on a neuroscientist, Semir Zeki, who researches the affect of visual stimulation on the brain. According to the article, "All great artists, Zeki believes, are instinctive neuroscientists; they have an innate understanding of how the brain 'sees' the world, and they are fated by this knowledge to constantly try to find a visual language for those concepts." I love that idea of the artist trying to articulate what he or she senses.

The article describes his work--which involves watching how the brain responds to visual stimuli and isolating which spots in the brain respond. I've read about similar studies involving music and the brain. So of course, I wondered, what about the literary arts? Will we someday see precisely where and how the brain responds to what is being read? And what does that mean for writers of children's literature? After all, our readers have developing gray matter. Do readers up to a certain age respond more positively to white space on the page? Does a shimmer of terror caused by a scary scene reverberate only so long and then need another jolt to the brain? Does sentiment cause a less pronounced brain buzz than fear, and does this change at a certain age? Could knowing all this help us make decisions about dialogue, pacing, subject matter?

I'm always split about the "write for an audience" argument. I believe in doing just that and I believe in not doing it. I doubt if I'll change what I do, but I was rather excited by the article and all it suggested. And yes, I response may have been influenced by the tin foil on my head.

Thursday, October 8, 2009


Thanks to the friends and colleagues who suggested things for my workshop at Asilomar. I'm mousing around on my own, of course, and found something that I can use and will pass on. It's a series of fill-in-the-blank statements and the cool thing about the series is that it talks about the antagonist. We all hear about the protagonist, but not so much about his shadow. So here's the prompt:

My protagonist's external goal is __________?
My protagonist's interior goal is ___________?
If my protagonist doesn't achieve this goal, then ___________?

My antagonist enters the story when_________?
My antagonist's deepest fear is _____________?
My antagonist's secret is __________________?

I'm the kind of writer who grinds things out daily and my characters' fears and goals bubble up that way. But I can see the value of answering questions like these. I'm sure they'd help anybody simplify a plot.

On another note, the Dodgers won their first play-off game, but it wasn't pretty.


Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Root, Root, Root for Narrative Beauty

I’m in the middle of doing packets and I have a mound of email to answer, a sick child at home, and out of town husband, and an overarching preschool crisis to deal with (you would not think such things were possible, but, alas, they are.) But, since this is a writing blog, I want to take a moment to talk about baseball.

The Minnesota Twins won a one-game playoff for the division championship last night. The game’s very existence was improbable—the Twins were seven games back a couple of weeks ago, and three games back with four left to play. No one in the history of baseball has done what they did.

Baseball is a narrative. Like good fiction, it lays out its story carefully, slowly, so that at the end of the game you can look back and see that that ending was inevitable all along. A good baseball game has structure and symmetry and poetry. Your job as a fan is to watch the game unfold and try to figure out where it’s taking you.

Last night’s game seemed like it might be a simple story. An opposing player who had just suffered from embarrassing personal revelations hit a big home run early in the game. Suddenly, that guy was going to be the hero, the Twins were never going to be in the game at all, they were going to lose, the dramatic comeback would be for naught. Maybe next year. Then—boom—a midseason pickup for the Twins hit a homerun to give us the lead, and suddenly the comeback was complete, the overarching story of the season writ small, the new teammate earning his stripes along the way.

But this was a story with twists and turns. Every inning a new seemingly-inevitable narrative presented itself. The Twins shut down the Tigers in exhilarating fashion at the top of the ninth—obviously that would carry them to the win the next inning. And then they blew that chance thanks in part to a great defensive play by the Tigers’ shortstop—who then got up in the next inning and hit in the go-ahead run. Ah, yes, this story—the guy who makes the great defensive play in the last inning gets the key hit to win the game.

But it still wasn’t over. We tied the game and would have won—but a bench player who’s never quite lived up to his potential made an elementary baserunning mistake, one woefully in character for him. In the end, it seemed we would lose because the bullpen would fail us—the Twins Achilles’ heel bringing us to our fateful end. But that wasn’t it either. It was that woeful bench player who strode up with two on in the bottom of the twelfth inning, and then this happened:

This story was sprawling and messy, but also absolutely perfect. The ending was earned by all the details scattered over the previous twelve innings. Narrative done well is beautiful. Especially when your team wins.

Writing with Ron

For Ron and anyone interested in writing prompts and/or the workshop experience, I highly recommend Writing Alone and with Others by Pat Schneider. After reading the comments on Ron's query for prose exercises, I recalled what Schneider said about "hot" and "cool" exercises, the former suggesting tone or content and the other, not so much because there are so many options. Bill Kennedy's exercise (see "Comments" under Ron's "Help!" post) falls on the hot side, for example, but the classic prompt to write about an object chosen from a group toward the cool because the variety of objects provides a range of topics and tonalities. One writer might select a hair brush and write about a first hair cut. Another might select the same and explore the indignities of chemotherapy.

Good to consider this writing "temperature" in directed-writing sessions and good to write with Ron. Don't forget the lute.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Still thinking

This past weekend I was on the faculty at the annual Wisconsin SCBWI fall retreat, and I'm still thinking about a lot of things that were batted around in the various sessions. During a faculty panel the last morning we were each asked to give one recommendation based on the manuscripts we saw. There were some general responses ("Write the story that needs to be written") but the three craft-focused ones were interesting: simplify your plots; play more with language; learn to heighten the immediacy of the POV and voice. Those last two are certainly connected; facility with language will always make it easier to increase or decrease immediacy. The comment about tangled plots is my take-away, I think. I wish I'd thought to make the recommendation. So many stories are so, well, big. It was an editor from a large publishing house, BTW, who made the comment and the other editors there nodded their heads. So, there you go: simplify.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Beginning of the Week

Funny how, even though I have no regular job to keep track of the days of the week, when Monday comes around, I feel like I have to gear up.  So what does it mean to gear up?  Find the top of my desk again, go over my calendar, try to clear off my emails (even the ones that have been sitting there for weeks), and, of course, make my list.

Yes, fellow storytellers, I'm a very serious list-maker.  I am even one of those who puts things on the list after I've done them just to be able to check them off.  But one thing I have learned about making a good and satisfying list is to break activities down so I get full credit for every step.  

When it comes to writing a book, that means putting down research I have to do, trips to the library, reading other books, all of these things count.  Then I list the chapters as I'm about to write them.  So for one week I might list two or three chapters, depending on how quickly I'm cruising along.  On a daily list (I know, it's a bit obsessive with the monthly, weekly, daily routine) I will write how many pages. 

This is all about patting myself on the back and giving myself credit for every single task I perform in order to write.  Even running (that's where I think up my ideas). 

I try not to brutalize myself with these lists.  They were signposts, not beat-myself-over-the- head-if-I-don't-do-them duties.  I think my lists are often my companions, supportive.  When you work alone you have to find some ways to praise yourself and shout encouragement.  That red pen slashing through another job done feels mighty good.