Saturday, January 30, 2010

Hooks by Crooks

Does anybody want to go back a few days and play with first lines that are irresistible?

Am I the only one who remembers this doozie: "'Damn,' said the duchess as she walked down the stairs smoking a cigar." This is at least fifty years old. Or five hundred. But it was an example of a hook. As readers we're supposed to be mesmerized by the unlikeliness of it all -- the swearing aristocrat with a Roi Tan jones. What struck me then was the misplaced modifier. The stairs weren't smoking a cigar. Yet that's the only thing that would have made me read on.
If you want to play, just add first lines in the comment box. Either actual ones from real books/stories or ones you make up. After a few days we can vote on a winner. Or not.

Here's one from a Deb Olin Unferth's story in the July 2009 HARPER'S. And it isn't even a first line, but goddamn it (as Holden would say) it should be.

It's from a fictional student's ESL paper: "Thou laid really excellent basement."

Top that if you can.


Friday, January 29, 2010

Dear J.D. Salinger

Dear J.D.,

Just a few weeks ago I pulled out my worn paperback copy of The Catcher in the Rye with its solid maroon cover and re-read it, and now I wake to the news that you have died! But wait; didn’t everyone already think you were dead? Being the recluse that you are/have been I suppose it doesn’t matter, but I still have so much to say to you.

Yes, you are most known for that Holden Caufield book everyone, and I mean everyone, reads in high school. It may be the one assigned book kids actually do read. Did you not know you were writing YA? I suppose YA was not a legitimate field back then, I’ll give you that, but it is now, so I can’t help but wonder your thoughts on the matter. Do you know that you paved the way for an entire field of literature? Come on, all that whining, kvetching, in and out of depression, school problems, family problems, girl problems, and on and on…Holden is the perfect YA! I loved him when I was a teen, wanted to help him, save him, marry him even, but alas now I find him petty and childish. Oh, to discover that Holden has never grown up—I am not sure if this is reassuring or horrifying. He belongs to young adults everywhere and they are lucky to have him—even if I no longer do. He is Peter Pan for the older set. But, alas, does this mean that I am actually Wendy?

But I don’t understand how you got away with all that whining. I mean, really. Even the most teen-angst ridden YA protagonists don’t kvetch anywhere close to the amount Holden does. My teenage journals are full of woes and depressing rants, but my editor won’t let me publish those! How did you do it? And what about your plot? Did you forget? Don’t get me wrong, I love, love, love your book. I love you for just who are. I even love that you have been a recluse all these years and have NEVER given in to the pressure to write a goddamn sequel to that book! I love Franny and Zooey, too and Nine Stories, and all the other things that most people won’t remember you for.

So my dear, JD, I didn’t realize how much the news of your death would affect me. I liked knowing you were in the world—hiding somewhere and just living your life. I know that life for the creator of Holden Caufield cannot have been easy, and I respect you for everything. I know that you are not your character, but you do know that Holden will live forever, and you do realize that now that you have passed you will most likely fully become him? And that one of the best blurbs I, or any other YA writer can hope for is a comparison to Catcher in the Rye.

Thank you and, even though I am not a religious person, bless you.

Sincerely and most humbly yours,

PS. I meant to ask you about the initials, too. Did you want your readers to not know your gender, or what?

PPS. Don't worry, even though I have theoretically grown-up, I still love Holden (and you). Anyone who believes, “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do you start missing everybody,” goes straight to my pained heart.

The Neologisms Evolved and They Have a Plan

We're friends, now, right? We can talk about things? I mean, really talk?

Okay, good. The English language, she is beautiful, no? And it is our job, as writers, to protect her.

Language is a living thing, of course. It evolves over time to fit our e'er-changing society, and well it should. But there's a difference between evolution and scientific perversion--that's how our civilization ends up getting destroyed by robots.

I am involved in an organization that is continually advertising and discussing "webinars." And whenever I see this word, I get from my computer, go down the stairs, walk into the kitchen, open the utensil drawer, and stick a fork in my eye. The pain is exquisite, but better than a webinar.

Somewhere in this world walks free the person who decided to call the second Alvin and the Chipmunks movie "The Squeakquel." Now, we're not even going to discuss the fact that there is an Alvin and the Chipmunks movie, and that unless I start instilling a film snobbery in my little boy now it will be my lot to see such Squeakquels. And, frankly, I'm of two minds about the name. On the one hand, it clearly heralds the downfall of Western civilization. On the other hand, there's something obnoxiously clever about it, which is more than we had any right to hope from Alvin and the Chipmunks.

Maybe this reveals my bias, but I think it's the business world that's done the most harm; they've given us incentivize and synergize and deliverables and empower and impact-as-a-verb, not to mention bring to the table and out of the box and win-win. And of course, webinar. This is all jargon, the lexical equivalent of bringing a blow-up doll to life and electing it to the Senate. It's our job as writers to protect and celebrate the language, and keep unholy words like these from infecting us. That way, when the robots come, they'll take the incentivizers first.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Passing of Historian Howard Zinn

The world lost an iconic historian and activist yesterday with the death of Howard Zinn. I can't you how many times over the years I have pulled off the shelf his "A People's History of the United States" when researching a particular era in American history to get his take on an event from the outsiders' perspective. From the Civil Rights' movement onward, Howard spoke out for the marginalized in our country. What a legacy he left. For more on his life and links to many other articles on Howard, check out link below.

"Howard Zinn, an author, teacher and political activist whose leftist "A People's History of the United States" became a million-selling alternative to mainstream texts and a favorite of such celebrities as Bruce Springsteen and Ben Affleck, died Wednesday. He was 87."

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, Who Owns the Means of Production?

The headline speaks for itself:

In an incredibly freakish coincidence the children's book writer Bill Martin, Jr, shares the same name as another person, and this person wrote a book called Ethical Marxism: The Categorical Imperative of Liberation, and, well:

In their haste to sort out the state's social studies curriculum standards, the [Texas] State Board of Education recently tossed children's author Martin, who died in 2004, from a proposal for the third-grade section. Board member Pat Hardy, who made the motion, cited books he had written for adults that contain "very strong critiques of capitalism and the American system."

It's obvious that Martin is hiding some subversive tendencies. (Red bird, red bird!) Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? is, at heart, a meditation on the power relations immanent in the authorial "Gaze." As one animal controls the gaze, he controls the narrative and constructs and defines identity for the "Gazed-At." The story proceeds in a stunning chain in which each animal gets to be both the "Gazer" and the "Gazed-At," a dialectic dance that seems to subvert the dominant narrative but really reifies it. It seems at first that Martin intends to expose the inevitability of participation in this eternal narrative, since the Gaze-discourse leads eventually to The Teacher. But Martin doesn't stop here--at the end the children topple the teacher/power structure/hegemon, and, instead of being products of the narrative, are shown to actually produce it themselves.

Brown Bear was obviously written to incite revolution, and I'm surprised it took anyone so long to realize it. Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, will there be enough room, indeed.

I'm glad Texas is looking out for threats to capitalism, though this totally destroys my plan to write Llama Llama Bourgeois Mama.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Writing by Committee

There's a piece in the Oct. 19 "The New Yorker" that is worth reading. It's about Alloy Entertainment, the folks who gave the world "Gossip Girl," "The A-List," and "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants." One of their editors (and they're all young. Think 30's and sometimes under.) says, "Publishers get hung up on what's good for kids. At Alloy, they always think first about what kids want to read." (Perhaps for "kids" we should read "girls." They're Alloy's main readers. Boys tend to like books about cheerleaders on trampolines, and we will go no further with that!)

Here's how Alloy works: development meetings, a fleshing out of a good idea into a short summary, a spec writer comes up with a sample chapter, he/she meets with a couple of editors and they hash out an entire plot.

Sounds like workshop to me. Except what Alloy is interested in is blockbusters! And 18 of their 29 titles were on the Times childrens' best-seller list. They must be doing something right.

Even more interesting is Alloy's willingness to perhaps leave books out of the success-equation. Alloy doesn't care if "an idea ever appears in book form." Someone at Alloy can pitch an idea to TV and sell it inside of a month. Why bother with the book except to show that the concept is already popular with consumers. So it's a book as means-to-an-end rather than an end in itself.
No hardback volume to show Mom and Dad. Instead gather the family in front of the TV, point and say, "I thought of that!"

One of the things I like about Alloy is how fast they work and how well they time their product. If vampires are hot, they'll get vampire books out quickly. When vampires retire to their cozy crypts and time-traveling girls in skinny jeans are popular, they turn out those books. (So if we could get a cute vampire in skinny jeans on a trampoline, then . . . Sorry. I promised not to go there.)

Take a look at this piece in TNY and see what you think.


Check Off

I was amused to see and read in this week's Times Book Review a review of a book called The Checklist Manifesto, byAtul Gawande. Amused because only the day before I put such a checklist up on the wall by my writing chair.

This to-do list of mine is less detailed than an outline and more specific than an ideas list, and focuses on the scenes I know I need to write. Gawande apparently asserts that simple checklists can help avoid errors in the workplace. That's too much for this writer to hope for, at least with a first draft; still, I use and value them for making small the otherwise huge and daunting task of novel-writing. Each time I sit down to write, a quick glance at what's next on my "Need to do" scene checklist consoles me; the end is attainable.

Since Saturday I've already rearranged the order of scenes on my list, deleted some scenes (and characters) from the story, and added two more. The paper is now a mess of arrows and margin scribbles and thick lines crossing out ideas I once thought were inspired. And yes, there are some nice bold check marks (Done!) across several of the items.

Of course, the scenes are the fun and easy part of story writing; it's the connective tissue that makes the job hard. Still, I believe that a well-done scene should be easy to get into and out of, so the scene by scene approach, especially as I know where I'm headed, seems right for now.


Monday, January 25, 2010

Writing and Figure Skating: A Metaphor

My exotic hometown of Spokane was the site of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships this past two weeks. Thanks to my generous brother, I had the opportunity to attend two of the events - the ladies short program and the champions' skate on Sunday. I have discovered that the world is made up of two kinds of people - those that love ice skating and those that hate it. My runner husband does not consider figure skating real athletics. Another male friend said that watching skating is like watching paint dry. I didn't feel up to asking what he thought of writers, even though he is acknowledged in my Alcatraz book. But I digress. Those of you who hate skating may stop reading now. Please. But Liza Ketchum emailed me that she noticed the Spokane logo while watching the championships on TV. So hopefully a few of you are interested.

As I watched the women skaters come off the ice and into the arms of their coaches, I wished for that, too. Wouldn't it be grand to get a hug after every writing session, applause from the audience when we write a delightful sentence and teddy bears thrown around our desk after three hours of BIC - Jane Yolen's "butt in chair?" Then again it would not be so grand to hear a moan every time readers aren't impressed with a description, a plot turn, an opening to a chapter, like the crowd did every time a skater bobbled or fell.

Female skaters wear loads of makeup and glittery costumes. We can write in our pj's before even brushing our teeth. But that's not accurate. We dress up for readings and presentations. And skaters likely don't look so glamourous at their early morning practices. It all comes down to the same thing - loving the process enough to stick with it through the down days, BIC/SOI (skates on ice) every day. hoping for the brilliant triple axel or metaphor, but generally thankful for just getting the job done. Thankful that we have the opportunity to bring stories to life on ice or on the page.

I loved the passion many of the skaters brought to the ice. But they are so young. All the American gold medalists were introduced at Sunday's event. 1956 women's Olympic champion Tenley Albright looked fabulous, but she didn't skate. I hope to be writing at her age and until I die. How about you?

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Color in Picutre Books

So Anne brought up the topic of color, i.e. race.
A slightly different but related topic is that of color in picture books. There has been a trend since the 90’s to depict a character of every color and type in a group scene. A classroom might then include, an Ivory person, a Raw Sienna person, a Sandstone person, a Sepia person, a Brown Earth person, a Red Earth person, a Yellow Ochre person, and the one that makes me cringe every time I use it, a Flesh Tint person. One almost never uses straight-from-the-tube White or Black for skin tone. It just wouldn’t work. (you also have to depict the token kid-in-wheelchair, but that’s not so linked to color)

Personally the browns and reds make the most beautiful skin tones. My all time favorite is Raw Sienna. And yes, all this becomes annoyingly politically correct when painting a classroom of kids—perhaps why bunnies are so much more appealing. Bunnies, dogs, mice, what have you, have a much wider array of color to choose from, including grays and pinks, and some can even have spots, which is really exciting! It really becomes quite dull visually to have a group all painted the same color, so in that sense it has nothing to do with political correctness and everything to do with visual variety and color. In my opinion, the less human the character the more you can do with race, in a more subtle, yet at the same time much more pleasing way.

After all, a Frog and a Toad can be best friends and they are very different shades of green. Actually one looks more like Brown Earth and the other Olive Green. Doesn’t this give us hope?

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Internet Will Save Us All, Take II

A few months ago, I posted about a firestorm over Justine Larbaleister's Liar cover. The protagonist of that book is biracial, but the cover featured a white girl. Surprisingly enough, people noticed, and after the story got blogged and tweeted a few hundred times, the publisher agreed to change the cover.

You would think if you were that publisher, you might say to yourself, "Self, we really looked bad there. Maybe we should check to see if we've turned any other characters white on any upcoming books. Boy, wouldn't that be embarrassing?"

Well, funny story...

That character isn't white. And, surprisingly enough, somebody noticed. A book review site made an off-handed reference to the discrepancy in their review, somebody connected the dots, and pretty soon the internet exploded.

From Editorial Anonymous:

Bloomsbury, something is wrong in your house. Something that makes you think your Caucasian readers (and no argument, they're the majority) wouldn't be interested in reading about anyone of another color. And something that makes you feel it's ok to make your minority readers feel marginalized; to make them feel that whatever they look like, they ought to be white.

From Reading in Color:
I'm sure you can't imagine what it's like to wander through the teen section of a bookstore and only see one or two books with people of color on them. Do you know how much that hurts? Are we so worthless that the few books that do feature people of color don't have covers with people of color? It's upsetting, it makes me angry and it makes me sad. Can you imagine growing up as a little girl and wanting to be white because not only do you not see people who look like you on TV, you don't see them in your favorite books either.

From Justine Larbaleister's blog:

Sticking a white girl on the cover of a book about a brown girl is not merely inaccurate, it is part of a long history of marginalisaton and misrepresentation. Publishers don’t randomly pick white models. It happens within a context of racism.

"Boost the signal on this," one blogger urged. They asked their readers to make phone calls and write emails, the story landed on Facebook and Twitter. Some urged a boycott of Bloomsbury, others said the best thing to do was just make noise.

And they were right. Yesterday, Bloomsbury announced that they were changing the cover. It was less than one week from the post that seems to have started it all.

Now, some bloggers are turning their attention to the bestselling The Mysterious Benedict Society series. So, the question is, how long before the signal is boosted loud enough for Little, Brown to hear?

I can't imagine either of those covers ever would have been changed without the internet. It's nice to see it's good for something besides sucking away my soul.

(Parenthetical Addendum: for the record, one of the main characters in my trilogy is biracial, and in one cover sketch he was portrayed as white. I mentioned this, and they said, "Yeah, we're going to fix that.")

Thursday, January 21, 2010

By Hook and By Crook

Ron's post about hooks intrigues me. I've never been good at it; my mother, who has spent much of my writing career convinced I could get on Oprah if only I would write the right book, suggested I go to sleep at night thinking, Hook Hook Hook. All this has done is give me nightmares.

There's something about a beautiful premise, though--it can be a work of art in itself. And an opening line that contains the promise of that premise...well, now, I bet those writers have happy moms.

As Ron's pick-up-line analogy implies, it's a fine line between intriguing and slutty. Here's a couple openers I like (with apologies for the wonky formatting, but I've spent a half hour trying to make it look right and Blogger just won't let me, clearly as punishment for not listening to my mother):

I am in love with Mr. Lindstrom, my science teacher. I found out where he lives and every night I perch on a tree outside his bedroom window and watch him sleep. He sleeps in his underwear: Fruit of the Loom, size 34.

-Owl in Love, Patrice Kindl

First thing I did was, I stole a body. I could have made my own, but I wasn't in an artistic frame of mind.
-Repossessed, A.M. Jenkins

The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don't got nothing much to say. About anything.
"Need a poo, Todd."
"Shut up, Manchee."
"Poo. Poo. Todd."
-The Knife of Never Letting Go, Patrick Ness


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What fills up your artistic well?

I am delighted to be a new Hamline blogger this semester, on the faculty since January 2008. So many aspects of a residency are stimulating - workshops, lectures that look deep into the craft or creative process, discussions over meals. The theme of this residency was setting.

What makes the setting so riveting for me? Hope and joy. Laughter permeated even the most serious of presentations by students, faculty and guests. I love to laugh. I don't do enough when I am writing - alone. Music. I can't listen to any music while I am writing, but other times of the day it lifts me up. I wish that Kelly Krebs could rev me up every afternoon with a medley of show tunes on his keyboard. A walk on the trails near our new home fills me up and gives me hope when horrifying footage of Haiti makes me wonder what is the point?

What fills you up for the next session of writing? Checking in from Spokane, Claire Rudolf Murphy


I'm surprised by all the new posts. I thought you guys would be lying down and drinking through a straw!

I don't have the residency to reflect on, so I'll write about what's on the writer's part of my mind. I like to read short things, so I picked up THE BEST AMERICAN TRAVEL WRITING. I like that Best American series, anyway, and wasn't disappointed.

Here are a few opening sentences from the essays: "'I can smell the sea from here,' said the prisoner." Or, "Chunking Mansion is the only place I have ever been where it is possible to buy a sexual aid, a bootleg Jay Chou CD, and a new, leather-bound Koran . . ." Or, "The throbbing music emanating from Le Carnivore Restaurant behind our hotel grows tinnier with each throbbing beat."

Hooks, right? Get your reader's attention right out of the gate. We've all done it. As teachers we've all told students to do it.

So I'm at the local library standing in front of the narrow YA shelf and hoping something will, cobra-like, dart out and stun me. Instead, I read first page after first page and my blood sugar drops. Instead of a voice I want to hear for two hundred pages, I hear the lieder of the craft book.

I think what bothers me is the calculating tone of the hook and - behind it - that calculating tone of the advice. It reminds me too much of those old books-on-dating that included pick-up lines.

God knows I'm easy, but I'm not that easy.


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Reaching Me

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead won the Newbery Award yesterday. I first read this book several months ago, upon recommendation of fellow Inkpotter Anne Ursu. I'm delighted Stead's book won the big award; there are times when you read or listen to or look at a work of art and can only murmur, Holy Cow.

Though I'm quite certain I've had those moments throughout my life (though perhaps not always responding as eloquently as "Holy Cow"), the first time I can pinpoint such a reaction was about thirteen years ago. I was in New York City for the very first time. I was in NYC for the Edgar Awards. My novel Thin Ice was a finalist, and it did not win. The day after Not Winning, my editor and I went to Ellis Island, an excursion that will, I assure you, put most disappointments into perspective.

The next day I was on my own and I went to the Guggenheim in hopes of seeing some of the museum's Kandinsky collection. There wasn't much of that hanging, but I did find two small galleries covered with paintings by Helen Frankenthaler. I lead a small, quiet life and until then I'd never heard of Frankenthaler. That afternoon I spent about two hours sitting on hard gallery benches staring at her paintings.

I'm a happily married woman but--just between you and me--I'm not sure that falling in love with the good man who is my husband and the father of my four children knocked me out the way Frankenthaler's paintings did that day.

Art is personal and art is powerful. With that sentimental thought in mind (and with a salute to Rebecca Stead), here's my list of artistic perfection:

Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown (Maud Hart Lovelace)
Mountains and Sea (Helen Frankenthaler)
My Fair Lady (Lerner and Lowe)
The Ninth Symphony (Beethoven)

And I'll know I'm in Heaven when I open my eyes and discover I'm in a front row seat in Carnegie Hall and Judy Garland is on stage.

Your list?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Being Awesome

One of our students, Dave Revere, gave his lecture on the willing hero. He called it "Being Awesome." That phrase seems to have defined the last couple of days of residency, where all we can do is bask in the awesomeness of our experience and our colleagues. We're way past exhaustion now, but what comes in this place is something oddly close to clarity.

I love it here. I love coming back every six months to this spiritual home. Our theme this residency was setting, and now I'm thinking about this great place, and how it is created by the people in it and the energy around it. Bad food and bad weather just add to the place-y-ness of it--for they just add the depth that make it whole. Besides, without some foibles, this place wouldn't be real, and then where would we be?

It turns out that some of our faculty have talents beyond writing, and while I think this is desperately unfair, it sure makes for a good closing night banquet. They gave us a rousing musical review and our amazing graduation speaker, Jane Yolen, joined in. I'm not sure I'll ever forget the sight of her sprawled on the grand piano, torch-singer style, serenading our graduates.

I leave for home--where apparently I have a husband and child-- feeling energized and inspired by my awesome colleagues--faculty, students, and staff alike. It's such a great privilege to call these people my friends.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


Greetings. I am one of the 'new' bloggers on TheStoryTellersInkspot, though I've been on the Hamline faculty since July '08.

Today has been yet another jampacked residency day of scintillating lectures and panels from faculty and students alike. My mind is brimming over with it all. We have one more day to go, and home is on all of our minds.

For this reason, Daniel's lecture, "The Search for Home In Children's Literature," has struck a chord. One tends to think of home as a physical dwelling, and of course we are all longing to return to our own familiar dwellings, full of comfortable personal possessions and hugs from those who have missed us. But, as Daniel pointed out, home is also (and frequently for children) made of friends, community, support, and acceptance, and that the ideal protagonist will leave home and then return changed. Isn't that what we have created here in this snowy, chilly landscape, on the Hamline campus, and even in the Radisson hotel in its barren industrial setting? As I begin to get the glimmer of seeing my dogs again, of being with my loved one, as I experience the thrill of shoving my dirty laundry into my suitcase and figuring out which shuttle to take to the airport Monday morning, I realize I may be going home, but I am also leaving home. The folks here are friends and colleagues with whom I belong. We all belong here--our common interests, struggles and epiphanies bond us and make a home.

And don't worry we still have one more reading, two lectures, a faculty meeting, a master's class (for those graduating), a graduation ceremony, and a final dinner to go, before we leave this home and return, forever changed, to the home from where we came.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


I've spent the last week immersed in conversation about writing and books. The result: I can't read. I return to my hotel room at night, look at the stack of books I brought along and don't even bother.

This has happened in other years when I've come to residency, and I anticipated it would again so this time I only brought short stories--a mix of old favorites and some I hadn't read (Alice Munro, Ward Just, Elizabeth McCracken).

I could use a stack of People magazines. Entertainment Weekly and Cosmo sound good too. I suspect, however, that Vanity Fair would be too taxing.

There's still a lot of wonderful stuff on the residency schedule for these last few days (including a reading by Jane Yolen on Saturday night--come one, come all*) but I confess I'm already looking beyond the graduation on Sunday to when I head home. The new Anne Tyler is waiting for me there (Please--no reviews in the comment section, okay?) and Catching Fire, the sequel to The Hunger Games, is waiting for me at the Eau Claire library. (Ditto.)

I live about ninety minutes east of St. Paul. I have no idea if the drive home will provide enough time to retool and regain my reading skills. Here's hoping.


Jane Yolen reads Saturday, January 16
7:00-8:00 p.m. Hamline U
Giddens Learning Center, Room 100E, 1556 Hewitt Avenue, Saint Paul

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Still Here

We're about half-way through this residency. We had a visiting author today--(Sibert Award winner) Catherine Thimmesh. Her terrific talk and reading focused on her two most recent books, Team Moon and Lucy Long Ago, both of which are wonderful nonfiction/information books. While the subject matter of the books are worlds apart (Apollo space project and paleontology/evolutionary biology/anthropology), I was struck how each was really a story about the creative process.

I get to give a lecture tomorrow. Time to check my notes. Goodnight.


Sunday, January 10, 2010


A couple of our inaugural Inkpotters have ended their terms, and we have two fabulous new bloggers starting soon, but it seems to be down to Marsha Q and me in terms of holding down the fort right now. This may be when things start getting weird. We've finished Day 3 of residency--or else it's Day 37--and there's some possibility that we've never left at all. Marsha's going to be doing a lecture on time in a couple of days and I hope she can make some sense of all of this.

We trudge around the snowy campus, wrapped up like puffy literary beetles. There's something convivial about it all, though, and something ritualistic as we take on and shed layers through the day. Our visiting editor, Wendy Lamb, said that she thinks magic is closer to the surface in the cold. There's certainly something in the air--I always spend residency marveling at my colleagues, but the lectures this time seem particularly marvel-worthy. The topic of setting has inspired some very personal reflections, from Liza Ketchum's discussion of memory and place to Jackie Briggs-Martin's exultation of the imagination to the inspiration Lisa Jahn-Clough found in the stray dogs of Puerto Rico. Claire Rudolph Murphy spoke eloquently of finding personal narrative in conjunction with our story's narrative and inspiration in our struggles. "Every challenge in my life," she said, "is about world-building."

We had our first two grad readings tonight--Andrew Cochran and Christine Hepperman. They were both outstanding, and I was so proud of the program tonight. Though I guess the students should get some credit, too.

Saturday, January 9, 2010


Need to head to bed, so I'll just share a favorite quote from Wendell Berry:

"There are, it seems, two muses: the Muse of Inspiration, who gives us inarticulate visions and desires, and the Muse of Realization, who returns again and again to say "It is yet more difficult than you thought." This is the muse of form. It may be then that form serves us best when it works as an obstruction, to baffle us and deflect our intended course. It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings."


Friday, January 8, 2010


Just finished the first full day of the residency. Great lectures by Mary Logue and Jackie Briggs Martin. One sits and listens to all the good points made and what comes to mind are the flaws in one's own work. Well, this one goes through that, alas.

Tonight I took turns at the podium with Kelly Easton Rubin and Claire Rudolf Murphy for the first night of faculty readings. After I read from a rather dark manuscript that's headed to a drawer for a little R & R, Kelly got us laughing and then Claire got us singing. As the kidz say, or used to say, Sweet.

Tomorrow we start workshopping. Daily workshops are like the home room for the residency--a great place to get to know people and their writing.

As Anne said, except for Ron, who is staying warm in California, the Inkpot bloggers might be a little slow, a little dazed, a little confused over the next few days.

One last thought: The hotel we return to at the end of the long day is very nice, the kind of place the George Clooney character in Up in the Air would have liked. I 'm going to crash soon, but first I need check out the mattress and find out what my my sleep number is.


Thursday, January 7, 2010

Once More Unto the Breach, Dear Friends, Once More

We're about to enter our residency, some of us more well-coiffed than others. Twice a year, the Hamline students and faculty gather on campus for ten days of workshops, lectures, and lots of great companionship. My husband tells me there's a famously untranslatable German word--gem├╝tlichkeit--the feeling of warm-heartedness and companionship that one feels for one's fellows, friends and strangers alike, while drinking gigantic steins of beer in the beer hall. Change "gigantic steins of beer" for "epically bad food" and there you have Hamline. It's a magnificent thing to be amongst other writers.

Residency is something like the first few days after you've been turned into a vampire--it's hard to focus on anything else. So the Inkpot might get quiet for the next week, or very weird, or filled with postings from Ron about how nice the weather is in California. I will try to file some reports, and I'll just apologize in advance for everything I say. Meanwhile, I'm getting my stuff together to go work in the Hamline library--I've got a lecture to write--and I raise a cafeteria-style, institutional-Diet Coke-filled glass to my fellows. See you soon.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Happy Anniversary

20 years ago this month I sold my first book. Back then hardly anyone in my life was aware I was writing. And for some time after that sale I kind of kept my head down, preferring to work in isolation. I recall once saying to someone, "I don't hang out with other writers."

Well, that changed. I'll be spending a good chunk of this anniversary month submerged in the company of other writers, beginning tomorrow when students and faculty in the Hamline MFAC program begin gathering on the ice-bound campus in St. Paul, Minnesota. We'll argue, laugh, learn. I'll pontificate and I'll admit ignorance. We'll whine about bad food and savor good writing. No one will get enough sleep. With luck, no one will take a header on the ice.

My wardrobe is hardly presentable for the occasion, but I had my hair cut yesterday, so I guess I'm ready. Time to hang out with some writers.


Monday, January 4, 2010

Try, Try Again

It was a hectic holiday period and now suddenly things are crazy quiet in the house. I'm probably unwinding, or maybe winding up in anticipation of the Hamline residency that begins on Thursday. Whatever the reason, last night I had a terrible time falling asleep. None of the books in my current reading stack caught my interest so I browsed the book shelves, finally pulling out Sarah Waters' The Night Watch. I bought this a couple of years ago, intrigued by the reviews and all the stuff splashed on the cover. I could never get into it, however. I tried twice, with several months separating the attempts, then shelved it.

While some books just get sent back to the library or dumped into the library sale bin, I've developed a rule for other ones that I feel I should like because people I trust tell me I should or because I've liked something else the author wrote or because the critical acclaim is just too loud to ignore. The rule is: Three strikes and ... wait a decade. This rule was developed for Annie Proulx's The Shipping News. I tried three times at decent intervals, then set it aside. After a decade I spotted it still sitting on the shelf and gave it another whirl. Still no go, but I figured that was a fair shot and I need never bother again. Off it went to the library sale bin. A couple of books are now waiting for their decade to pass: Orhan Palmuk's Snow and Marilynne Robinson's Gilead. And yes, I actually have the date penciled inside the cover of each one.

So last night was the third try for The Night Watch. And whadyya know, I sat up until three reading happily. No wait-a-decade sentence for this one.

I think the same sort of rule is now in effect for a couple of manuscripts I've been working on, at least the three strikes part. I'm about to put to rest for an unspecified time a manuscript that has twice been the focus of my attention, time, heart and soul, but nevertheless didn't quite get to where it needs to go. And I'm eyeing hungrily another one that's been waiting for my return. Maybe I've just developed writer's ADD. Maybe I've succumbed to the Grass is Greener trap that catches many a discouraged writer. And maybe right now I'd just rather write about winter in northern Wisconsin than summer in Minneapolis. Which is just plain nuts, but there you go.


Sunday, January 3, 2010

Your Top Ten Middle Grade Books?

Betsy Bird at Fuse #8 is doing a Top 100 Middle Grade books poll to go with last year's Top 100 Picture Books. She's asking people to send in a ranked list of their Top 10 middle grade novels. So, how about it, Inkpotters?

This is the sort of thing I could spend a week on, so I decided to just do it, off the top of my head, no second guessing, no staring at bookshelves. I couldn't decide whether to focus on books I loved as a kid or the ones I've discovered as an adult. Many of the books I adored as a child didn't hold up reading them later--but some of those I loved so much that I decided it didn't matter. So here is my ill-considered, irrational list, privileging largely the books that I adored as a child, with some new ones that made me feel that way again.

1) Anne of Green Gables
2) Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
3) Betsy Tacy
4) The Phantom Tollbooth
5) From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler
6) Ballet Shoes
7) The Secret Garden
8) The Tale of Despereaux
9) Holes
10) When You Reach Me

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Something Old, Something New

The new thing is from THE MASTER, a novel about Henry James, and it's just a throw-away clause ". . . the culture of easy duplicity." I'm not exactly sure what it is about that phrase that beckons to me (maybe just that I like duplicity in its milder forms), but there's something in it for writers, too. Sometimes my characters seem too easy to suss out. It's clear from the first pages who they are and any added facets are fed into the story at predictable intervals with predictable results. (A sausage-making metaphor suggests itself at this point, doesn't it.) Duplicity usually isn't a good thing, and the usual synonyms (dishonesty or guile, for instance) aren't compliments. But other synonyms like artifice and dissemble are more beguiling. I wonder what it would do to a character to write out an alternate life for him. And not one that intrudes into the novel but, like an underground river, runs beneath the narrative surface and cools (or heats) the episodes. Hmmm.

The old thing is from, I believe, one of the Marshas, and has has to do with writing something that the author would like to read. Everybody knows you can't predict the market: if sci-fi is hot, by the time I get my tentacled Nanking Molestas underground on Planet Baloney, that surge is over and Talking Critters are all the rage. Sure, it's natural to imitate successful things but the point is this: are you having a good time, or do you get up from your desk feeling exhausted and discouraged? I've asked students point blank (Really? You, Ron, Mr. Diplomacy?) why they don't write what they'd love to read and they tell me they'd be embarrassed or someone in their family would get her feelings hurt.

Try embracing Shame and Fear in 2010, inviting them in and see what they have to tell you. I've had their hot breath in my shell-like ear, and -- believe me -- it's a rush!