Friday, December 30, 2011

Resolutions--and Woody

Thanks for the yoga Cheryl. It was just right for this gray rainy next-to-the-end-of-the-year day.

And getting toward the end of the year puts me in mind of resolutions. A friend of a Facebook friend posted a list of resolutions from Woody Guthrie's journal. It's almost too much like looking over his shoulder, but not so "too much" that I don't want to share a few.

8. Write a song a day.
13. Read lots [of] good books.
19. Keep hoping machine running.
20. Dream good.

I'm definitely signing on for read lots of good books. I realized this week I haven't been reading enough. I've let other jobs, other pursuits, steal time from reading.

And the hoping machine. It's time to tune it up. And then there's the walking and the writing real letters to people I care about, and maybe leaving room in each week for surprise.

As we wait for more light, or more snow, or 2012 what's on your list?

New Year's Yoga for Writers

Good morning, and welcome. Let’s breathe deeply and begin to clear our minds. Focus on your breath and the energy it brings to your body and your writing.

As we try to clear our minds at this time of year, it is common to be assaulted by would’ve-could’ve-should’ve’s. The stories we would’ve started, if only…the times we could’ve written, then didn’t…the journals we should’ve kept, but... If any such ideas flit through your mind, don’t hold on to them, but don’t fight them either. Just collect them all and put them on a shelf in your mind.

Feel your breath move all the way into your belly. In and out. Find a place of stillness and acceptance inside yourself.

Now, into your mind, invite thoughts of last year’s writing accomplishments. The manuscripts revised…the characters sketched with clarity…the risks taken to share your work with others. The big and small. The public and private. Acknowledge each act as its own achievement in the larger process of writing.

Take a deep inhale and hold that breath.

As writers, we set our own goals. Then we often measure our accomplishments by how they match up to those goals—particularly goals of publication. Yet we pursue these goals within a world that is not completely within our control.

On your next exhale, let go of any connection between the intrinsic worth of your writing process and publication. Let go of any judgments based on your writing not measuring up.

Fill yourself with breath again and celebrate what did happen over the past year, rather than what did not. Accept the light and the dark within ourselves, the good habits and the bad. Accept the light and the dark in the external world. Know that light and dark will always exist, and neither can do so without the other.

Now visualize the writer you’d like to be in the coming year. You might bring some of those would’ve-could’ve-should’ve’s off the shelf and transform them into intentions. Or you might not. Focus on your process as a writer, which is within your control. Recognize the divine spark inside that connects us all, while making each writer’s voice unique. Feel strong and focused. Find that place within yourself that has both stillness and energy. Dwell in that place of doing and dreams.

The light in my writing salutes the light in your writing.


Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Writer's Marinade

Combine olive oil, fresh cilantro, sea salt, the juice of two limes and one orange (and anything else you're risky enough to try) to a fresh piece of Mahi-Mahi, grouper, conch, or giant prawns. A marinade will morph any blase' fresh catch into the unexpected. The secret? Time. Let all the flavors blend, soak through, until the entree' you'd imagined tenderizes, holds the heat, and eventually pops.

One of my favorite students had once told me that he'd "marinate" on the ideas we had discussed for his research paper on sex trafficking. Boy, did his use of that word strike me.

A writer must marinate, too.

Sure, we all believe in the ol' BIC method. But the time will come when you must marinate in the world around you. That's right. Marinate. Unpeel yourself from that zebra-print chair. Push away from the turquoise desk. Now lock away that manuscript. Let the snow crunch under your faux-fur trimmed boots. Breathe in the smell of burning firewood and toasted cashews from the nearby street vendors. Laugh. Take off to Paris (or to some other place, far, far away). Toast your BFF with a flute of champagne. Cause a scandal...or five. Laugh. Toast and laugh together all night. Listen to your knock-off Yve St. Laurent brushed-suede cerulean heels clack across the cobblestone streets. Belt out country music songs into your hairbrush. Laugh.

Repeat for many nights.

The best marinades take time. Laugh while you marinate. Trust me. Always remember to laugh.

This marinade will change you. And it will change your manuscript when you return to it (after you clear Customs and all). You'll see what you couldn't before--those changes you know should be made. Rushing hurts the WIP. And it will hurt you too. A writer requires time. We all need a marinade.

What's in your marinade?

Bonne nuit, mes amis!

Friday, December 23, 2011

What do You Read on Christmas Eve?

One of my favorite traditions is our Christmas Eve family read-a-thon. We snuggle under a blanket (this year we have a fireplace!), eat cookies (those not designated for Santa), and read a stack of classics.

The playlist includes: Brett Helquist’s illustrated version of A Christmas Carol, Martin Waddell’s Room for a Little One and a sampling from the many lovely illustrated versions of The Night Before Christmas, The Nutcracker and the Christmas story itself. Most of these books we’ve been reading since Thanksgiving. But we always save the “Mr. Edwards Meets Santa Claus,” chapter from Little House on the Prairie for Christmas Eve. That’s the one where the creek is so flooded that Santa can’t get his team (mules, not flying reindeer) across, but a good-hearted neighbor just happened to see Santa while picking up supplies in Independence, MO, and then fords the swollen creek to bring Christmas to the Ingalls’ lonely log cabin. Mary and Laura are beside-themselves with excitement over each receiving a tin cup and a candy cane in their stocking (teary sniff).

At our house, these books and their kin appear in December, just as we put away the books about fall leaves, pilgrims and pumpkins. We also have seasonal books for Halloween, Easter, spring, summer and July 4th. The non-holiday-themed, snowy stories come out in January as the holiday ones tuck in. Each book feels like a lost friend when it comes out of storage and averages about eight readings during its special time of year. My children are four years apart in age, so I’d estimate each book will stay on the playlist at least 6 years. That’s at least 48 readings per book. It’s a beautiful life being a beautiful picture book!

What do you read on Christmas Eve?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Bits & Pieces

I'm back and classically jet-lagged. So don't expect much, but I thought I'd check in. There will be a reward at the end, a gift from Chris Heppermann.

We were on the move a lot while we were away and I didn't write much; that's unusual for me. As you know, I'm a daily writer and most days write badly then shrug it off. My feeling is something will come along if I keep putting words down. Almost any words. Almost in any order. I like to, as they say, use the instrument.

I found that I missed being surrounded by the things in my studio, especially the poetry books lying all over the place. I tend to put them face down on the carpet and when the spines aren't broken from use they resemble the tents of an encampment dedicated to language.

I didn't have that on the train. I had schedules and guide books and a smattering of Italian to try to remember. I'm not complaining. This is just reportage. We were on the road with amiable friends who knew a lot more about Europe than we did. Easy-peezy.

Glad to be back, though. Bruce Chatwin I'm not.

Now here's a poem thanks to Chris who found it on Ted Kooser's excellent site. It's by Mark Jarman I think and if not Chris will set us all straight in a comment box.

After Disappointment

To lie in your child’s bed when she is gone

Is calming as anything I know. To fall

Asleep, her books arranged above your head,

Is to admit that you have never been

So tired, so enchanted by the spell

Of your grown body. To feel small instead

Of blocking out the light, to feel alone,

Not knowing what you should or shouldn’t feel,

Is to find out, no matter what you’ve said

About the cramped escapes and obstacles

You plan and face and have to call the world,

That there remain these places, occupied

By children, yours if lucky, like the girl

Who finds you here and lies down by your side.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Quilts and stories

This is a story to go with Claire's story about taking a chance, or seizing an opportunity.

In December of 2002 I saw the "Quilts of Gee's Bend" exhibit at the Whitney Museum in New York City. I was so moved by the quilts that I stood in line to see the exhibit on two consecutive days. These quilts were made by women who lived in a remote and poor section of Alabama. Gee's Bend was featured in a New York Times Magazine article in 1937 detailing tenant farming.

The women worked in the fields all day, but as they worked, they thought about the quilts they worked on at night, how they might arrange the pieces in the most satisfying way.

They made the quilts partly to keep their families warm in the drafty homes they inhabited. The women did not think they were making art, but they were. We know it now. The quilts have traveled the country and been shown in various museums. The quilters have been compared to other modern artists, such as Paul Klee or Henri Matisse.

The takeaway from the first part of the story is that art will out. Even when much of life is taken up by the hard physical labor of farming, the need to create, to make something beautiful, will not be denied.

The second part of the story: I thought about writing about these quilts in a picture book but thought maybe it was not my story to tell. So I let that thought slide. But the story has been told. In 2008 Patricia McKissack published a picture book about Gee's Bend-- Stitchin' and Pullin' .

In 2010 Irene Latham published Leaving Gee's Bend, a historical novel for middle grade readers. This year we have Belle, the Last Mule of Gee's Bend. by Calvin Alexander Ramsey. This book tells the story, not of the quilts, but of the two Gee's Bend mules that pulled Martin Luther King's casket in the funeral procession. And it manages to get in quite a bit of history, too.

I guess the takeaway from the second part of the story is a reminder to take the chance and write about what we love. I'm not sure if the story of the Gee's Bend quilts ever was my story to tell and I'm glad it has been told, even if not by me. But once in a while, I do feel a whiff of wistfulness ...

I still love the quilts and the story of the quilters--and am bearing down harder now on the stories that I want to tell.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

For Joy - What Writing Gift Are You Celebrating This Season?

The writing life includes many lonely days of uncertainty. Staring at the screen, unsure of the worth of our words. Therefore, we especially need to learn how to celebrate, to cherish the small and great successes in our writing lives.

Last month I posted about two writing contests and Mellissa asked, "When do you know if you are ready to submit your work?" Sometimes you just know you need to take the next step. The Spokane Youth Symphony sponsored a contest last summer, looking for unpublished children's stories to be performed along with their music. At the last minute, I did something I haven't done in years. I submitted a new project I am co-writing to the contest. We won. The brave and talented conductor loved our manuscript and wanted to bring it alive through music. Last month eight local girls performed sections of our story while the youth symphony played songs from around the world.

But earlier in the week the dress rehearsal had been a disaster. The conductor was not pleased. I went home, wondering, why did I ever think this was a good idea?

The girls practiced all week. That November Sunday afternoon they and the youth orchestra rocked the house, earning a standing ovation. The photo shows us on stage for the curtain call. Never has a literary event surprised and delighted me so. I had doubted, but the performers and musicians had brought our story to life, and improved it through the collaboration and rehearsal process.

Our story is now being considered by an editor and I have great hopes that it will be a book some day. But no matter what, I have that afternoon of joy to remember on those dark times in my writing life.

What writing experience do you have to celebrate this year? Have you finished a draft of a manuscript? A semester at Hamline? A great rejection letter? Pop open the champagne - now.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Poetry Challenge - Let's Hear You!

We moved to Connecticut this summer because my husband joined the faculty at a boarding school called Choate Rosemary Hall. Which means we now live in a house connected to a dorm with 15 high school junior boys. Which means that every now and then students ask me for help with their essays during study hours. Which is fun.

For the last two nights I went to the school’s Poetry Out Loud contest, which is part of a national program to encourage young people to memorize and recite poetry. We’re amidst the final days before winter break, and the events competed with basketball drills, orchestra rehearsal, play practice and the like. So although the recitations were open to the public, I was the only audience member who was neither participant nor judge. (That’s right, I’m the new literary geek on campus!) Happily, the finalists will recite at a full school assembly later this year.

It was wonderful to watch the students take the stage, breathe deeply, and deliver the spirit of a poem through their demeanor and tone. We heard works by Naomi Shihab Nye, Emily Dickenson, Al Young, Shakespeare, Maya Angelou, and others. Some students giggled sheepishly after their performance, others high-fived their friends, and I wonder if any truly knew what a brave and beautiful act they had done.

As writers, we know that poetry is meant to be read aloud, with its sounds and rhythms physically resonating. Committing to learn a poem’s words and meanings by heart and internalizing its cadence is an even more powerful way to cultivate our love of language and enrich our own voices.

On the way home, I wondered what poems I could recite from memory: The King’s Breakfast and some others by A.A. Milne, plus a solid playlist of poems about things like escalators and drinking fountains and toasters and leaves. It’s nice to have the right words at your fingertips when you’re waiting for the toast to pop. Still, I’ll make it a new goal to broaden my repertoire.

What poems can you recite by heart? Or come reasonably close?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Re-incarnating Musicals - Act II

This is a follow-up to intriguing Jackie’s post. I’m a fan of musicals, although I recognize they aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. A friend in college once said, “Doesn’t all that singing drive you nuts? I just want them to get on with the story.” In the best musicals, the songs are getting on with the story and I’m a sucker for all that intense character development, or the building plot scene with a chorus of thousands, combined with the emotional tug of music. There’s probably a correlation here with tearing up at country music songs when I’m alone in the car. (Or is that TMI?)

Thinking about that fixed pole of music that Jackie referred to led me to Wikipedia for:

Original songlist for On a Clear Day You Can See Forever
Overture, Hurry! It's Lovely Up Here!, Ring Out the Bells, Tosy and Cosh, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, On the S.S. Bernard Cohn, At the Hellrakers, Don't Tamper with My Sister, She Wasn't You, Melinda, When I'm Being Born Again, What Did I Have That I Don't Have, Wait Till We're Sixty-Five, Come Back to Me, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (Reprise)

2011 Reincarnation List
Overture, Hurry! It's Lovely Up Here!, She Isn't You, Open Your Eyes, Wait 'Til We're 65, You're All the World To Me, Who Is There Among Us Who Knows, On the S.S. Bernard Cohn, Love With All The Trimmings, Melinda, Entre Acte, Ev'ry Night at Seven, Too Late Now, When I'm Being Born Again, He Wasn't You, What Did I Have That I Don't Have, Come Back to Me, On A Clear Day You Can See Forever

Looks like some songs were used as is, others deleted, switched around in order, and a few were brought in from the musical film Royal Wedding. Interesting to contemplate how one song could provide intense character development for two different characters in different stories. It reinforces the duality of details in making characters simultaneously unique and universal.

I’d love to see the new show!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Revising and "re-incarnating"

I was stacking up some old New York Times recently, planning to send them to the recycle bin and one reached out and grabbed me. I noticed a story from November 27, "Switched at Rebirth."

It's an account of the re-imagining of the Sixties musical "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever." The director and playwright who are working on it call it more than a revival. And the article states that: "...the original script, characterizations, sets and choreography have been scrapped as reference points." So it seems like what is left is the music and lyrics...maybe... I'm not sure.

But what struck me was the notion of keeping a set of songs and inventing a whole new kind of story to go with them. And I wondered if that might be the beginning of a fun exercise for writers--take characters we're familiar with, our own or from history or folktales and give them a different setting, different motivation, but keep one part. Keep the magic goose that lays the golden eggs but make the giant a nice guy, beset by this kid who keeps dropping by.

I'm putting it on my list for some day when I have time just to mess around.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Serendipity in Nonfiction

Jackie asked a while back if there was a key idea that resonated from the NCTE Orbis Pictus panel on nonfiction writing…for me it was the importance of serendipity.

When writing fiction, we talk about a writer getting out of his or her own way to let a story or character take its own lead. Nonfiction isn’t exactly the same because at the end of the day, your story is beholden to the facts. Yet there’s a lot of wiggle room for serendipity to shine a spotlight on what might become a story priority.

Authors Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan knew they wanted to write a book about revered modern sculptor Isamo Noguchi, but they also knew they didn’t want to write a soup-to-nuts biography. They went to the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, NY, to see what ideas would spark. There they learned of Noguchi’s 40-year collaboration with Martha Graham, during which he designed 20 sets for her ballets. A short film and display in the museum spoke to them and they knew they had found the heart of their book, Appalachian Spring: A Ballet for Martha.

Michael O. Tunnell just happened to hear retired Col. Gail Halvorsen speak at a church about how a small act of kindness grew into a fondly celebrated initiative to bring joy to Berlin children in the aftermath of WWII. In 1948, Halvorsen was a pilot airlifting humanitarian supplies into West Berlin. After noticing how much joy two sticks of gum gave to German children near the airport, Halvorsen convinced his fellow soldiers to pool their candy rations to add to the air drops. Soon the U.S. Air Force formalized the effort. Tunnell wasn’t necessarily looking for a book topic when Halvorsen began speaking. But before Halverson finished, the seed was planted for Candy Bomber: The Story of the Berlin Airlift’s “Chocolate Pilot”.

Fiction or nonfiction, you never know when or where a story will grab you and where it might lead.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Ending with a Quote from a Carol Shields' Story

I was helping out a friend who's doing work-for-hire. She had a desk piled high with first-draft manuscripts and just needed someone to read quickly and give her an idea of what needed to be done. She had a lot at 20-25 pages and a few novels.

It's always the same, isn't it? The openings are sluggish, the characters flat, the dialogue stiff, the pace either glacial or warp speed. The writing wasn't bad, it was just early in the game. I could see glimmers of jewels buried in the snow but only glimmers. No publisher would want to get his hand that cold feeling around in there.

My early drafts are that way, aren't yours? There's that first chapter that usually gets thrown out. Those ancillary characters rubbed out, their bodies hidden in the cellar. The thick, red line through sentences like this: "And then Ben, flinty eyes flashing crazily, ripped the parking ticket from the attractive meter maid's swollen hands as, pulsing with rage, he careened down the placid streets to confront his stern father who never really understood him."

Prizes and praise separate us. Envy enters stage left wearing a long green gown. Where we are bonded is in our bungling. That's when we feel "the million invisible filaments of connection, trivial or profound, that bind us to one another and to the small planet we call home."

Happy holidays.

P.S. I'm out of the country Dec. 8-20, but the new poem (December's) is up on the website now ( and early next week there'll be a link to a HUNGER MOUNTAIN piece I wrote. In case you miss me.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Unleashing the Power of Social Media

True confessions. I'm a dinosaur as far as social media goes. I can break out into a cold sweat just thinking about doing a Facebook update or signing up for Twitter. But I just did. I signed up for Twitter to at least reserve my name for the future. Because two weeks ago, I played to my strong suit, as in learning through a presentation, rather than on my own at home. I attended an excellent SCBWI workshop called "Unleashing the Power of Social Media" given by Greg Pincus, a former screen writer, now middle grade novelist, who specializes in guiding children's writers through the maze of new media choices.

For three hours, I made myself stay open-minded and listen to how to use social media options. And now I am not as stressed about it. I appreciated how Greg kept saying, "Did I mention these platforms do no good if you are not actually writing?" Yes.

Greg's key points:

1. Plan a goal for what you want to accomplish by using social media
2. Take advantage of tools that filter your information intake and help manage time (Google Reader and Alerts, TweetDeck)
3. Connect. Comment, update your own status, add to others' conversations.

I am not ready to deal with number two. I am still working on number one, but I know it is the key. Number three is the most doable, in the sense that I understand now that used efficiently, social media truly can be a wonderful to stay connected with other writers, learn about trends in publishing, even deepen one's knowledge of craft. It is not real writing. It is easier than deep revision. But I believe that understanding it better has helped inform my choices.

Next semester when I am not posting regularly on this blog, I will try to use that time to follow and comment on three other blogs. I have already been asked to post for Women's History month in March. This I can do.

I have figured out that one of my hesitancies on Facebook is that I am not supportive of others, as in clicking the like button or commenting on their good news. I hesitate to post my own good news because it feels self-serving when I don't support others.

What are you strengths in social media? How has it helped your writing career? Or not?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

NPR Backseat Bookclub

I was driving down the road , on my way to the rather mundane purchase of a new toilet, listening to NPR's "Backseat Bookclub" as Norton Juster answered questions and talked generally about The Phantom Tollbooth. Occasionally I glanced up at the geese "v"-ing across the sky.

Juster has an easy-going, down-to-earth way that I could have listened to for miles. But too soon he finished up the interview by saying that sometimes "writers feel like their job is to communicate a specific idea or a finite point of view." [But]"I think the idea rather is to open up a piece of the world to a more creative encounter." That statement was a good unexpected gift and I was satisfied.

But then they announced the next book for Backseat Bookclub-- Breadcrumbs! The NPR website says: "Anne Ursu's big-hearted story about friendship and snowy adventure is perfect for wintry reading."

I swear those Vs of geese re-shaped themselves into "Y-E-A-H A-N-N-E!"

Monday, November 28, 2011

First Pages/Writing Contests

At many writing conferences and writing programs like ours at Hamline, agents or editors will hold a first pages session. The first page of a story is read and first reactions given. As readers, we have our own first page reaction. How many times have you heard someone say, "It just didn't grab me." or "I couldn't get into it?"

Most of us give a story more of a chance than the first 250 words, but in today's competitive publishing market, often the first page is all that is read from the slush pile of manuscripts on the floor of an editor or agent. First page advice: grab the reader, but don't confuse them. Setting needs to be clear, as does the challenge facing the protagonist. Will they be able to act on the problem by the last page, in a way that they couldn't on the first?

First pages are often the last finished section of a revised manuscript. So don't rush getting it perfect when the rest of the story is still evolving.

That said, do you have a first page and enticing title for a YA novel? If so, consider entering the contest below. It seems legitimate. At least it is proof positive that the old world of publishing doesn't work the same way any more.

Serendipity Literary Agency, in collaboration with Sourcebooks and Gotham Writers' Workshop, is hosting its third Young Adult Novel Discovery Competition for a chance to win a one-on-one consultation ("with one of New York's leading YA literary agents!") Part in parentheses is from the contest web site. Some of you know how I hate the use of "!'s"

Submit an enticing title along with the first 250 words from the opening of your original YA novel. If interested, don't wait. The deadline is November 30th.

For those of you writing middle grade novels or picture books, there is another contest, but this one is for full manuscripts. The National Association of School Principals has teamed with Charlesbridge Publishing Company to select two manuscripts for publication and promotion through their organization. The first page will matter on this one, too. First round judges likely won't read past it, if the writing isn't strong.

Part of me hesitates to broadcast news of contests. On the other hand, when your work is ready, you need to find agents and editors for feedback. Anyone out there had good luck with contests? Is it a good way to break in?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Great Day for Nonfiction

I had the honor last weekend of joining an impressive panel of authors and illustrators to speak about writing nonfiction for children. The event took place at the annual convention for the National Council for the Teachers of English; it featured the creators of books that NCTE recognized on its 2011 Orbis Pictus award list, which distinguishes one top winner and five honor books.

Co-authors Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan and illustrator Brian Floca
discussed the intersections of collaboration and inspiration that resulted in Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring, which won the top Orbis Pictus award.

Marc Aronson, If Stones Could Speak: Unlocking the Secrets of Stonehenge, spoke about how the challenge of nonfiction—being beholden to the facts—adds to the thrill of writing in this genre, and how there will always be questions that haven’t yet been asked.

I spoke about indulging curiosity and seeking the human connection to scientific topics in reference to Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age.

Larry Dane Brimner, author of Birmingham Sunday, spoke about finding the specific details of history that make a story come to life,

Rebecca L. Johnson shared how a decade of ocean diving led her to write Journey Into the Deep: Discovering New Ocean Sea Creatures.

Michael O’Tunnell spoke about how serendipity and follow-through lead writers to powerful stories such as Candy Bomber: The Story of the Berlin Airlift's "Chocolate Pilot."

Eight panelists spoke and we ended our hour-and-fifteen-minute session right on time. That’s worthy of an award in itself!

Plus I met many of the wonderful educators who have a passion for children’s literature and contribute their expertise and energy to serving on the Orbis Pictus Award Committee.

And as icing on the cake, when perusing the exhibit hall booths, I saw teachers admiring Hamline alumnus Molly Beth Griffin’s Loon Baby at the Houghton Mifflin booth. And they had already sold out of Claire’s Marching with Aunt Susan at the Peachtree booth.

It was a great day all round.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Just In Time For The Holidays

Here's a poem by Richard Newman that I love. It's easy to read, it's funny and it's true to the bone.

Bless Their Hearts

At Steak ‘n Shake I learned that if you add

“Bless their hearts” after their names, you can say

whatever you want about them and it’s OK.

My son, bless his heart, is an idiot,

she said. He rents storage space for his kids’

toys—they’re only one and three years old!

I said, my father, bless his heart, has turned

into a sentimental old fool. He gets

weepy when he hears my daughter’s greeting

on our voice mail. Before our Steakburgers came

someone else blessed her office mate’s heart,

then, as an afterthought, the jealous hearts

of the entire anthropology department.

We bestowed blessings on many a heart

that day. I even blessed my ex-wife’s heart.

Our waiter, bless his heart, would not be getting

much tip, for which, no doubt, he’d bless our hearts.

In a week it would be Thanksgiving,

and we would each sit with our respective

families, counting our blessings and blessing

the hearts of family members as only family

does best. Oh, bless us all, yes, bless us, please

bless us and bless our crummy little hearts.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Mentoring Young Writers--and Yourself

I led a workshop last weekend at the Thurber House, a literary center located at the once-family home of James Thurber, who grew up in my hometown of Columbus, OH. Fifteen or so kids, ranging from 3rd-7th grade showed up to go “Nutty about Nonfiction.”

Participants included:
- two girls who go to each other’s houses after school to write together,
- a girl who writes chapters of fan fiction inspired by the Warriors cat series,
- a boy who said in the first five minutes that he didn’t read or like nonfiction, but he likes to write and so wanted to try different genres. (Good for him!)
- a few kids who were wondering why their parents signed them up for this.

By the end of the afternoon, then all had proven themselves to be true writers. Together, we faced down writer’s block, and each young writer found the story and voice for his or her piece. Their writing was colorful and informative and wonderful. Then during the sharing time, we had the prerequisite apologies for their work. What a bunch of writers! Simultaneously proud to have something, anything at all on the page and disappointed that the words don’t yet live up to their ideal.

We talked about not needing to apologize. They had done good, important work just by showing up and giving their best effort with paper and pencil in hand. That’s what makes today’s writing good. And if desired, a writer can always make good work even better by showing up and doing the same tomorrow.

Then came the parents and siblings and cookies and punch. A good time was had by all.

One interesting aspect of teaching is that we are more likely to be generous on behalf of others than we are on behalf of ourselves. And it's inspiring to see good advice used to good effect by young writers. It's a good reminder of core principles that relate to our own writing lives.

p.s. The boy didn’t like nonfiction said at the end that it was now “less boring.” I’ll take that as a compliment from a middle schooler.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Wordless descriptions

Recently a popular and relatively young man in the Theater Department died of a heart attack. No one saw it coming. The Theater Department majors at Cornell College were given the job of putting on a memorial service. It was interesting to me to see these actors pay tribute to their beloved teacher. As word person, I expected eulogies, comments, maybe even some quotes from some famous plays.

But much of what they did was without words: silently painted an owl on a large sheet by dipping their hands in buckets of paint, to stand for their teacher’s love of owls; turned off all the lights and danced to rock music holding six-inch light sticks, expressing I’m not sure what—perhaps joy in a life well lived (this man received a law degree in 1978, in 1981 he quit the law and went back to his first love—theater). In one little skit two women were dressed in elaborate costume by two other “dressers,” without a word.

The service was very moving. But for a writer everything comes back to writing (How narrow! Sorry.) and it made me wonder if we might find in all this another way into defining our characters. Could we simplify the task so we weren’t writing skits but just ask what one or two objects would stand for our characters—for George B. Schaller, the wildlife biologist in the chiru story, a notebook perhaps, stuck into a pair of hiking boots; for my new character who’s good with gizmos—a jack-in-the box taken apart and reconstructed, balanced on a couple of screwdrivers.

What’s the best collection for a character you’ve been carrying around for a while?

Friday, November 11, 2011

Listen up, Readers!

One of the fun things about having a new book come out is that you learn about new media. Recently I received this email invitation:

"Join our collection so that students and teachers can hear from you when reading your books. You don't need to have a difficult name to participate—just a fun message to help readers get a sense of who you are."

To hear how your favorite fellow authors give their messages their own personal touch, see the entire collection of over 1,300 name pronunciations here.

I did record my own name to be posted soon. But first I took a few minutes to listen to the recordings of some of the Hamline faculty. Did you know that one is named after a game show host and when another one leaves a phone message people sometimes think that two girls have called?

Now I invite any of you out there with books to record your name, too. Or when you truly deserve a break from writing, check these recordings out.

TeachingBooks is an online database of multimedia resources about books and authors and is used in over 26,000 schools, reaching 13+ million students - pretty cool and a wonderful resource.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Stranger Comes To Town

A friend of mine goes to a small church in Altadena where they pretty much use the Earnest Holmes books for all their study groups. They had a speaker a few nights ago and I went. His presentation was basically this: if you don't like the situation you find yourself in, look at the thought patterns that got you there and change them. One example was the bitter husband who raked over the smoldering coals of his divorce pretty much every day and suffered from colitis.

Makes sense, right? If what you thought got you somewhere you don't want to be, change the thought. He proposed a kinder, more peaceful life if we would all buy his book and practice what he preached.

At this point my mind is wandering. I don't want to fight with my wife, but I don't want to bliss out and nod off while she's talking to me, either. And I certainly don't want a peaceful life for my characters.

A stranger comes to town and meets a pretty widow with two charming children. They get along well and have friends in the community. Is that it? Isn't somebody going to come through the door with a gun in his hand? Something has to happen for me to keep reading.

If Ahab isn't freaking nuts when it comes to Moby Dick, he stays on land and practices forgiveness. If Jack doesn't fall down and break his crown, he and Jill just stand there with a bucket of water.

Here's a line from a poem. I forget who wrote it, but I like it a lot:

If we call the fire, it comes.

That's our job as writers, to call the fire. And then use it to burn something down.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


Ever watch a candle's flame just before it dies? It flits and flickers, stretching higher, as if pulled by a puppeteer's strings. The flame then lowers, the wick curling down, just above the wax.

But, Writer, that flame's a fighter.

The wick, while lit, casts its promise across your page. A promise to burn. A promise to light your path, no matter how dark...

But you must show up to light it.

Always remember this: That wick--the flame's lifeline--is also its own nemesis. The flame will snuff out. The smoke strings that linger around your eyes and fill your nose, will stay with you.

This smoke, Writer, is a reminder and a promise. A reminder of the flame you'd lit. And a promise that it will return again--if you light it. The wax will harden. And it's up to you to throw it away. Don't look back at it, Writer. Then look back. Look into the dark. Remember it. Then, don't. It'll stay with you, anyway.

Your wick burns for the children who read your work for fun. It burns for the children whose own flames have snuffed out. Writer, you made them a promise the first time you lit the wick. And you made yourself a promise, too.

Put up a fight. Always, always light that wick, Writer. And when you do, follow the light. The darkness is there, too. It will always stay with you. So, follow the light anyway.

Keep writing, y'all! :0)

Friday, November 4, 2011

I Promise This Is The Last P.S.


I understand the link from my site to the VOYA review didn't take. Go to VOYA if you're interested or give me a day or two to see what's what.

In the meantime, they're running at Churchill Downs!


Since I can dish it out (blood runs from the face of the student in workshop as I cut six pages to two), I can take it, too. Check out the VOYA review of NOW PLAYING. It's on my website --

I take most reviews with a grain or two of Dead Sea salt. Especially the good ones. And I've never failed to learn something from the poor reviews. See what you think.

By the way, today and tomorrow are Breeders' Cup races. There's money to be made! And I'm sure not going to get rich with reviews like that last one.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Historical Fiction - The Time is Now

I don't know a writer alive who doesn't own a shelf full of books about writing craft and process. But somehow I can never resist adding one more to my library. Recently I read a review and then purchased a copy of The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction by James Alexander Thom. Thom has written historical fiction for decades, mainly about the Lewis and Clark era and other stories set in the early West.

His credo is: ""Once upon a time it was now. Today is now. But three hundred years ago, the 18th century was now. You as a historical novelist, can make any time now by taking your reader into that time. Once you grasp that, the rest is just hard work."

Ah, we know about hard work. But in his excellent book, Thom guides writers with concrete suggestions about how to bring history alive in story, and the ethics of thorny issues like changing real facts and portraying real historical people. I especially appreciated his comparisons to the differences in writing nonfiction history and historical fiction.

I encourage those of you writing history, nonfiction or fiction, to check it out. It is a tremendous resource that fills a gap.

Monday, October 31, 2011

The right place, the right time: following the breadcrumbs

Sometimes things work out just right. And last weekend was one of them--when I happened to be in Minneapolis and able to go to the lovely Birchbark Books and hear our wonderful Anne Ursu read from Breadcrumbs. All the chairs were full and we were enthralled to hear Anne read from her book.

We've heard parts of the story before and know of Hazel and her friend Jack , made of "baseball and castles and super-heroes and Jack-ness." And we may remember that Jack gets a shard from an evil mirror in his heart, gets entranced by the white witch, and forgets his friend Hazel. I bought a copy of Breadcrumbs at Anne's signing and am now to the place where Jack has just left with the white witch. There is so much I want to underline in this book, so much I want to share. I won't share all that I'd like but I have to pull this piece out--the description of the evil character who makes the mirror that explodes and sends one shard into Jack's heart:

"We'll call him Mal, though that is not his real name. His real name has forty-seven syllables, and we have things to do. Mal looks like nothing you know or can imagine, neither goblin nor troll nor imp nor demon. ...Mal is not any one of these things but all of them. Mal is a goblin. He has green-brown skin, a froglike mouth and sharp little teeth. Mal is a troll. He is seven feet tall and warty, has terrible breath, and a penchant for hanging out under bridges. Mal is an imp. He has a small bat wings, a high-pitched screech of a laugh, and pointy little ears. Mal is a demon. And that means he is up to no good."

I will not be able to think of personified evil again without thinking that its name must have forty-seven syllables.

This little section of the book made me wonder what I would write in describing "Mal," what ears or teeth or feet or voice. Perhaps evil uses e-mail, or Western Union, or a too-wide smile. Some morning, when faced with the blank page, I'm going to write a cousin for Anne's Mal.

In the meantime, it was wonderful to be at the reading with Phyllis Root, to hear Anne, to chat and laugh with Megan Atwood, and get a catch-up on the semester from Quinette Cook.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Keep it Simple - Fraud and Revision

Last Friday was a bad day. It had started out well - completed student packets and three good hours of writing under my belt. Until I received the phone call from my 93-year-old mother, concerning a relative in jail in Canada needing bail money. Already some of you are thinking - uh, oh. Red flag. But not Claire. And not my mother. "We need to help her." I fell for it. My busy brother's assistant did, too.

But in the end, I was responsible. I made the choice to lead with emotion and not common sense. I sent a wire with money. Yes, I did. And what does this have to do with writing? I didn't stay grounded. I got caught up in wanting to help, instead of listening to the true voice in my head saying, something is not right. I got taken in by fictitious police in Canada. Ah, I smell the beginnings of a novel. But I am in the middle of revision. First draft writing can lead with emotion, but not during revision. At that point, we must step back and keep it simple. Keep focused on the story and the characters at hand, with a detached eye. Cutting any and all parts that don't work, even if we feel strongly about them.

When my husband arrived home and heard about the Western Union wire I had sent, he was like - what???? He got on the phone with the fraud department and then I told John at Western Union about my bad day. He stopped the wire in time. My mother's money was saved. Like good editors, my husband and John didn't let the book go to press, even though I had decided it was good to go.

Listen to trusted editors and readers when they tell you something isn't working. Rather than react emotionally, step back and at least consider the information. Never wire money through Western Union to someone you don't know. Even Craig's List advises that. Too bad they don't publish books too.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Inspiration from Film

After a hard day of writing, why not curl up on the sofa with a good documentary? Here are some of my favorites for inspiration as a writer:

Between the Folds (Exploring Origami)

Artists and scientists discuss the possibilities of what we can learn about the world by folding a single sheet of paper. The artists are continually challenging themselves to perfect different techniques for different effects. Some artists implement hundreds of precise folds. Others strive to create a moving piece of art with a single fold. Reminds me of poetry. What can be created by understanding the rules of a form more deeply? What universal truths can we better understand by focusing on a specific question?

A Man Named Pearl
This is the story of Pearl Fryar, the son of a sharecropper who has become a nationally known artist, working in the unusual medium of topiary. The film shows how Pearl’s garden and life as an artist developed. It also shows how Pearl inspires others and sends ripples through his entire community by pursuing his artistic passion with generosity and integrity. This movie always makes me want to get to work, dig a little deeper, and think about how to be more generous as a writer.

The Natural History of the Chicken
This one would be easy to overlook from the title, but once you start watching, it’s hard to stop. You’ll meet Cotton, whose pampered lifestyle includes having his feathers blow-dried and dining at McDonald’s. You’ll see Janet Bonney reenact how she saved a beloved chicken’s life with CPR. You’ll hear retired farmers Bud, Doc and Babe express their admiration for a rooster named Mike, whose claim to fame you'll have to watch the film to discover. A great reminder that the world around us is full of colorful characters, stories and meaningful details.

These films are all available instantly on Netflix, so watch one and let us know how it speaks to you as a writer. Heck, each film is only about an hour, so you could watch all three!

And what are your favorite films for inspiration as a writer?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

In Praise of Boredom

I think boredom (or Boredom, if we think of it as an allegorical figure and if we do then it isn't wearing a robe like Honor but, appropriately enough, pajamas) is under-valued. I'm not a fan of social media, anyway, and I prefer to keep my big, empty head as empty as possible. Counting my friends every day doesn't deepen the mystery of existence for me. But, oddly enough, boredom does. To me, boredom doesn't mean apathetic or numb. It's a weirdly active state that usually arrives in slippers carrying a day-old newspaper. Boredom is curiously inviting. "Relax, pal," Boredom says. "Don't turn on the TV or pick up another book. Stare out the window. Drool if you want to." Boredom is a ouija board without the planchette, a clock with no cord or batteries. Boredom is all potential. And an unlikely balm to the tender and impaired parts of ourselves that need it the most.

P.S. On or around the first of the month I post a new poem on my website. Check it out in a few days.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Questions from the mailbag

Hi Inkpot Bloggers and readers,
Here are some questions sent to the Inkpot mailbag. If you have answers, please post!

Best regards,
The Inkpot Administrator

First question:
Pen names/pseudonyms. When to use, when to avoid? I publish both for teens/adults (PG 13 and up), and younger kiddos. A previous advisor suggested I use a pseudonym for one of these groups. Because, for example, if Dave Pilkey started writing bodice-ripping romance novels, young Pilkey fans might get ahold of them by mistake, and librarians might become skeptical of Pilkey's appropriateness even in his fiction for kids (Captain No-Underpants?). What do you think? Sincerely, Dave Pilkey (no, not really)

Next question:
Hi Inkpotters: In my notes from this past summer [Hamline] residency is a quote from either a lecture or a workshop session (it's listed on a page of quotes that I keep, so there's no context)--it's a great quote but I failed to include who said it and I"m hoping some Inkpotter out there will know. The quote is: "Fiction is emotion made visible." Any idea who belongs to this quote? Thanks in advance for any info you might have. Gail Israel

Third and final question:
Hello. I'm a middle school teacher looking for leveled texts on dystopia/utopia. Our base book is The Giver and many of my students are around a 3rd or 4th grade reading level....I've been looking for picture books or at least lower leveled books, but to no avail. Just wondering if you have any suggestions?
Thanks! Michelle

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Writers are Great at Calculus!

So I was telling my husband about the latest ideas in the story that I’m plotting out and he says, “It’s getting better and better all the time. You would be so good at calculus.” You can see why I love this man:

a) he likes my stories!

b) he thinks I would be good at calculus!

I never took calculus. Not in high school. Not in college. But my husband did. You have to, long before they give you a PhD in math, which he got, writing a thesis about Group Theory in Finite Geometries. And now he teaches Calculus to high schoolers. And he says, and I trust him, that the heart of calculus is to take a problem that you don’t know how to solve and find a way to make an estimate. Then keep making that estimate a little bit better, and then a little bit better, and then a little bit better. Keeping working at it and the difference between your solution and the final solution doesn’t matter because:

a) you know how to make your estimate a little bit better

b) eventually, your revised, revised, revised estimate will point you to a final solution.

Dr. Math said that I contributed to his understanding of calculus in this way because he saw how writers write and revise and revise and revise. There’s a lot to love about that man.

Keep rocking the calculus my friends!

Friday, October 21, 2011

In Trouble: About Publishing Controversial Books

In 2009 Ellen Levine came to our winter residency and gave a wonderful lecture on writing non-fiction. We all really enjoyed having her with us for those few wintry days.

During that stay, she mentioned that she had written a novel set in the sixties that involved an unwanted pregnancy and an abortion and she was having trouble placing it. During her time in Minneapolis she made contact with Andrew Karre at Carolrhoda. Andrew admired the novel and was happy to offer Ellen a contract. It’s now published, In Trouble. Last Saturday Ellen gave another insightful talk, at the Boston Book Festival. The subject of her talk this time: her experiences in writing a novel that involves a controversial topic.

Reading this talk is almost like having her back with us--except it's not snowing. Welcome Ellen Levine!