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.