Friday, July 30, 2010

Writing as Therapy

The most satisfying work I've ever done was using writing and theater in clinical practice. I was amazed by the way writing mined the unconscious, entered the heart's depth, and allowed my students to hold their deepest truths to the light, often for the first time. At this July's Hamline residency, I had the experience of lecture as therapy. There were tears (not even from rejection slips), laughter, and contemplation.

The connection of our speakers to their work was communicated in their heartfelt presentations. Elizabeth Partridge's stories of Woody Guthrie and his tragic life, the only seeming redemption his music, pierced our hearts. Deborah Wiles opened her metaphoric home to us: her struggles, the call of books that would not abate until she read and read and wrote. She then drew from her story a larger context for us all to examine our work and our lives. And we wept with both of them: over children burned to death, a musician's mind succumbing to disease, over a mother living in a car with two children, but determined to transcend.

And this is why we write: to push aside the numb banalities of existence and enter the core of compassion.

But all was not tears: Elizabeth Bird had us amazed and amused with literary tales: whether Hans Christian Anderson would ever leave Dickens' home, whether Pooh would be x-rayed to find his inner music box, and Tony Blair's pronouncement that England would not be seeking "the return of Winnie the Pooh Bear." Her intelligence and passion for the subject transported us, as she shared the comical and tragic stories of authors and the children for whom they wrote.

And this is why we write: to entertain, to give joy, to enlighten children and ourselves. These wonderful speakers reminded us.

So how does it apply to writing? Simply this. We must feel. It's kind of does like to put it off. But it must be done. To feel is to be human. To feel is to communicate. To feel is to be a writer.

Thursday, July 29, 2010


Well, I did it: I bought an e-reader. This may not seem like a big deal—but I’m a lifelong technophobe who has scorned most new gadgets. (I even pooh-poohed the first electronic typewriter until I saw how a correcting key would change my life.) And I don’t understand how this stuff works. I’ve always sympathized with James Thurber’s grandmother, who imagined that “electricity was dripping invisibly all over the house.”* So I’m surprised that I succumbed to this new toy.

The truth is, from the moment I saw someone reading an e-book on a plane, I wanted one, then felt guilty. Buying an e-reader seemed like a betrayal of my dear friends who run fabulous Indie bookstores—not to mention that writers are paid poorly for e-rights. Besides, I love actual books. I love the feel of the paper, the smell of a brand new book no one has opened, the way print looks on the page. Books are my friends. According to an article in the NY Times this spring, an e-reader is not green. And it would be sacrilege to read a picture book to a grandchild in that format.

And yet—imagine boarding a plane with a light carry-on. And how nice to read a friend’s 200 page manuscript without printing it out. My e-reader even lets me borrow books from my library at no cost. I open it up and Kurt Vonnegut grins at me. I can replace my tattered copy of Slaughterhouse Five without cluttering my groaning bookshelves. It’s the wave of the future—and I’m having fun so far. That is, until my husband grabs it for a game of Sudoku…

*James Thurber, The Thurber Carnival, p. 186.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


I'm emerging briefly from my Inkpot sabbatical to direct your attention to an interesting website, The Literary Platform--especially the article "Cathy's Book" that was posted in June. "Transmedia" isn't a term that trips lightly off the tongue, but it's one we'll hear more and more.


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Out With the Old-In With the New

Two things happened yesterday. First, I got a letter from my old publisher bearing news that one of my first (and favorite) books is going out of print. This is one of the worst moments for a writer. It is a heartbreaking loss of something loved. It’s happened to me before and it will happen again, but it’s still so hard to bare. No more books available ever!! How can that be? How many copies do I have in my basement and how do I decide how to distribute them? They are rare and precious commodity now—even though they obviously aren’t popular enough that anyone wants to buy one. But, what if I—gasp—run out completely and never see the book again?!! It will be like it never existed! Despair and devastation!

Two hours later UPS delivered a padded envelope from my new publisher. Inside were three brand new spanking-shiny ARCs (Advanced Reading Copies. aka, galleys) of my picture book that is coming out early 2011. This is one of the best moments for a writer. The book looks like a book! It smells like a book! The pages are smooth and soft. The colors are vibrant. This means the book is actually going to come out and the publisher isn’t playing some cruel joke on me after all. The book was finished so long ago, that I’d actually thought it had come out and then gone out of print already, but no I’d merely forgotten that I’d created it. Ah, I have a future after all! Joy and jubilation!

So the old book is out of print, the new book is about to emerge. In the end what excites me most is the book I get to work on today, the one still in progress. That is what matters. Everything comes and goes, but if you keep working there will always be something on the table to get you excited, even with the despair and jubilation that may come all at the same time.

Monday, July 26, 2010

I Can't Even Title This Post

I need to come up with a title for my book. Pretty much now.

As regular readers know, I've written a contemporary retelling of "The Snow Queen." It takes place in Minneapolis in the present day, and also the magical fairy tale woods place that exists within it. You know. Plus there's the lair of the Snow Queen. It's, of course, tropical.

I was calling it The Snow Queen. I know it's a bit of a stretch. But the book is actually really far away from the fairy tale now, and retellings don't tend to keep the name of the tale anyway. I need to change it.

I hate titles. I'm terrible at them. I had to retitle the third book in my trilogy. It went from The Promethean Flame to The Immortal Fire. This took me a year.

My goals are simple: I want something that doesn't immediately make someone go, "Huh?" I want something that could not possibly be used for a mass market adult mystery/romance set in Minnesota. I want something that doesn't sound like a fantasy taking place in some barren realm where it's always winter until some girl/boy comes and through the warmth of his/her heart causes the whole place to thaw and then spring bursts forth from the deadlands like that one planet after the Genesis thingy landed on it and then Spock died.

This cuts out a lot.

My bookshelves taunt me. A Wrinkle in Time. The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankeweiler. E.L. Konigsburg, now, that chick can title.

Anybody? I think The Wrath of Khan is taken.

Thursday, July 22, 2010


Hello--I'm new to the Hamline blog (though not to the program). I'm excited to be part of the conversation.

A week ago today, Phyllis Root and I slipped away to see the McKnight Prairie Preserve, a remnant of original prairie that runs along a low ridge south of the Cannon River. We parked next to a cornfield. I was still seeing generic grass and flowers when a meadowlark sang from a post, and Phyllis began to name the blossoms at our feet. Daisy fleabane. Milk vetch. Grey headed coneflower. Flowering spurge. Prickly pear cactus. (Yes, cactus native to the prairie. Who knew?) Prairie milkweed, nothing like Vermont milkweed, but also tasty to monarchs. Lead plant, far prettier than its name. I felt like my grandkids, who are pointing at everything and asking “Zat?” Luckily for me, Phyllis knew the answers.

I love learning new names, even though I may forget them. Specific names add spice to bland prose. They also bring up images and associations. When an illustrator for my picture book wanted me to remove the word “seagrape” from my story—because she’d never seen a seagrape bush—I sent her photos. For me, the word seagrape evokes the sound of flat, saucer-shaped leaves rattling in the wind. I smell the salt air, and hear my grandfather’s scratchy voice as he shows me the tracks of a bobcat, imprinted in wet sand beneath a seagrape bush.

As I clear my desk this morning, perhaps these names will find their way into a poem or story, like Ron Koertge’s talismanic words. Showy tick trefoil. Culver’s root. And here’s one for Buddy the Poetry Cat: Field’s Cat Foot.

What specific nouns and names show up in your writing now?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Bits & Pieces

Buddy the Poetry Cat was happy to see me and he showed this by looking up when I came in the door, and then going back to sleep. Probably he was examining his life. He's a big Henry James fan.

There's an interview with yours truly on a site called Long Story Short. Some of the same stuff as was revealed in the gig on Saturday, minus the poems of course. But it might be interesting -- I tend to lie to interviewers, and then forget what I say. In a recent Biographical Note in a literary magazine I wrote that I was an unpublished writer living in North Dakota and working on a saga. Nothing makes me wearier than those solipsistic entries listing every forthcoming poem and a Kerouac-like life as fisherman, rock climber, cook, and towering dwarf.

I have to say that I get as much out of the residency as any student. I can use the T.A. Barron list of deepest fears/highest hopes/etc. even though I'm not a fantasy writer and even though he bored the pants off me on graduation day. Flash Fiction is fun, and I'll always pick up Poetry when I spy it standing on the side of the road in the rain. But there's nothing like a long piece --two or three or four pages a day every day. All I need now is an idea and a Bic pen.

Congratulations again to the grads and welcome to the newbies.

Auntie Em, TA Barron, and the Family Von Trapp

We've all dispersed now and are facing reentry. It's always a shock after residency to realize that the rest of the world doesn't stop while you're at Hamline, not to mention being confronted with people who expect you to be able to converse with them, feed yourself with utensils, and wear your underwear inside your clothes.

It was an emotional last night on Sunday as the graduating class serenaded us with the final number from the Sound of Music--as emotional as anything can be that involves "Edelweiss" played by a chorus of kazoos. It's always so hard to go back into the real world, where no one gets the value of a good kazoo chorus.

The previous night our graduation speaker TA Barron gave a reading. He writes fantasy, so it was not a surprise to see the sky outside the window-lined room grow heavy with metaphor as the evening went on. It was a surprise when the tornado sirens went off and security ushered us all into the basement, Barron included. We like to give our guest speakers memorable experiences.

Barron was a generous and impassioned guest, an evangelist for the work of writing for kids. I got to sit in on his master class with the graduating students before their graduation--it was less meteorologically epic, but equally inspired. Barron has a fascinating way of mapping his characters before he begins: he starts by giving the ordinary details--appearance, speech, customs. But then he asks himself what their deepest fears are, and what are their highest hopes and truest longings. And finally, what is their secret. He does this for every single character, and then he goes back and does it for every place and every magical object. This is the sort of writing that hums with magic--when every person, place, and thing whispers secrets to you.

He said this process was about engaging both sides of the brain--the planning side letting the dreaming side do its work. But he was careful to say that this is his process, that our stories and our meanings are swirling around wanting us to find them, and our job is to "open the door to the magic dream" however we can. This was a theme of our theme residency--how we go from putting words on the paper to seeing these words for the dream they are making. What kept coming up, again and again, is "magic." This is storytelling, after all: words and sentences that, put together, make something vibrant, animate, and whole. We can search and search for the proper formula for this alchemy. Or we can just trust it. Barron urged the latter, that if you start down a path that gives you opportunity you will "open up the fullness of your creative capacity." Or, in the words of graduating student Dave Revere: "Magic--I'm content with that."

Monday, July 19, 2010

Home to Dream and Sleep

Safe to assume that the Hamline Summer Residency residents are now all home again (or on their way), tucked in their beds and hopefully catching up on all that loss of sleep, and all that mind stimulation. It’s always like this—an intense week covering the gamut and all the ranges of emotional highs and lows combined with this complex and beautiful writing life. I keep coming back to that Socrates quote, “an unexamined life is not worth living.” How fortunate we are to be writers and have this agonizing opportunity to examine life in all its grit and glory.

My dogs were thrilled to have me home for about three minutes and then just wanted their same old food and walk routine. I am happy to be back in my little familiar house for a day or two before the next step of intense emotional whirlwind begins—but that’s part of the life of the writer, which is really the life of every human being. So much for long and complicated transitions. Home is where we are now.

Hats off to all the Hamline graduates, their stunning readings and their scintillating personalities. Congrats to all the third semester enlightening lecturers. Congrats to the second semesters for coming back with enthusiasm and openness. Congrats to the first semesters for surviving the beginning of their journey thus far.

Now, after a bit of sleep, the real exciting work begins. Wahooo!
Don’t forget to write. Dark nights of the soul and all.

PS. Anyone feel free to comment on some of your personal highlights of the residency for those who were not there. It's too much for one sleep deprived faculty member to summarize.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Fear, Complexity, and the Dark Night of the Soul

Greetings from the waning days of residency, and the waning vestiges of my brain. Tomorrow is graduation and the final banquet. We've been through the typical stages of residency--first there's the elation of coming, followed quickly by the abrupt reminder that you are in fact a raging introvert and don't usually talk to this many people in a year, then settling in for the work ahead, then exhaustion, then raging paranoia and digestive issues. Now we're getting ready to close up this wonderful shop for the summer--my roommate Claire already has her bags packed, which I'm pretty sure has something to do with me.

None of the faculty know how to use words anymore, but fortunately the students do. We had a couple great student lectures this morning. Chris Campbell talked about using fear in young adult fiction--what is your character afraid of? Will he be confronted with this thing immediately or is there anticipation? How does he delay confronting the thing he fears? Will he overcome his fear? It's an intriguing way to think of character arcs. Then in "They Can Handle It," Jamie Kaillo talked about some of the "rules" of YA writing--that it has to be a teen protagonist, that there can't be too many plotlines, that it has to be under 300 pages, that it has to reflect the teen world. She urged us toward complexity in writing for teens, using The Book Thief and Octavian Nothing as examples. It's interesting because these rules don't really hold for fantasy. It's a genre that demands complexity and asks a good deal from its readers. But the popularity of dystopian fiction has made fantasy more mainstream, so will the freer nature of the genre begin to infiltrate contemporary fiction or will fantasy become more rule-bound? And is me wondering this sort of thing aloud what drove Claire to pack her bags?

That's the fear and complexity in the post's title. I don't really know what I mean by that last part. It sounds fancy. The sun streams in my window at 6am, so the metaphor doesn't even make sense to me. Maybe I meant something about Batman.

It's time to go to more lectures, and think about graduation and going home and anticipating when the cycle can start again. There's a lot of elation, really. There's a student who just started here who once approached me at a conference to ask me about Hamline. We were talking about this today and he said I told him, This program is the greatest thing I've ever been involved with in my life. This has nothing to do with anything, except sometimes our boss reads this blog.

Friday, July 16, 2010

More Theme, More Tears, More Writing

Does the watershed ever stop? This writing is serious and profound business. Debbie Wiles was the visiting guest today at the Hamline Summer Residency. She had the lecture hall blubbering with her moving speech, culminating with the empowering reminder that we are all connected, our stories are all equally important, and forgiveness is at the center of everything. She pointed out that stories fulfill these five basic needs:
1: To Love and Be Loved
2. To Be Safe
3. To Belong
4. To Matter
5. To Understand
These are not themes, but basic human needs, therefore all stories contain one or more (or all!) This is what we strive for in our art and in our lives. But, I want to remind us all of what Claire stated earlier this week, “You can’t figure out all this theme and meaning if you’re not writing!”
Writing is the way to discovery.

A big THANK YOU to Deborah Wiles for opening her heart to so many through her books and through her humanness.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Day Five - Residency Fever

Sorry we have been all so quiet. Residency fever has us all hot and bothered - about theme, about great children's books, about writing process, about being together in a community that I want to bottle up and take home with me.

But I know if I did I'd never sleep. In Jackie Briggs Martin and Liza Ketchum's workshop we mined childhood memories to write powerful sensory scenes that lay buried inside us. These residencies are like overwhelming sensory scenes that wash over us, full of laughter, tears, exhaustion and awe. I think all of us here - faculty and students - know how unique, how privileged we are to spend this time together twice a year. In a way it is like summer camp as Anne blogged about. One leans new skills, whispers into the night, sometimes even tears into one's pillow about not being good enough.

Last night I tried to write a post, but had no words to sum up the stimulating day. A presentation by writer Wendy Orr and illustrator Lauren Stringer about their individual processes that produced the delightful picture The Panther and the Princess, a discussion about girl heroines in Alice's critical thesis presentation, an evening of awe inspiring grad and grad assistant readings, followed by delightful conversation with first year students, laughter with faculty and a decompression conversation with my roommate Anne.

Five days into the residency and it feels like a fever dream that I don't want to end, but that if it doesn't, I may burn up from the stimulation of lectures, workshops, readings and fellowship with beloved faculty friends and old and new students.

As I try to look back, what stands out for me is the deep sharing on process this week. So appropos because our focus is theme. Betsy Partridge in her talk on "Kickass Nonfiction" talked about kotodomo (spelling ?) the idea that every word has a spirit, a soul. But we can only find those soul words, the themes in our writing by sitting down every day to write them. Betsy shared how she takes her primary research and weaves the details into her story, word by word. She talked about how when dealing with controversial or complex information she lets actual quotes do the heavy lifting.

This morning we return to our workshops after a morning off yesterday to cool down and recharge for the second half of the residency. Each workshop with fellow faculty Kelly Easton has offered deep and respectful discussions with student writers about each piece, focused on craft and also evolving into the process behind it.

Anne just came out to ask about her outfit for the day. She gave me a new word. Ineffable. Much of what goes on here is unspeakable, like our writing. But we try to speak, to share, so we have the hot spirit to return home to our work.

I must stop. My temperature is up. More from the front later. More for me to savor all semester long. CRM

Saturday, July 10, 2010

News from the Front

A lot of the Inkpotters--well, all--are on campus now at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. It's time for the residency portion of our MFA program. Which means we're sort of at summer camp. Yesterday Anne Ursu gave a terrific lecture on THEME. Get a bunch of writers in a room and ask them about themes in their work and you'll hear a lot of disclaimers. But Anne made it all concrete. Sorry I don't have details ... maybe one of the students will comment.

In about an hour I'll be talking on "Reading as a Writer." When I was planning my talk I decided there was an inherent problem with talking about it, so I'll be forcing the students to read stuff and then come up with responses to some challenges I'll pose. In other words--they'll be doing the work. Which is why I'm blogging right before curtain time. Everything's cool.

Sunday July 11 (tomorrow as I write) the fabulous Elizabeth Partridge will be doing a reading. It's open to the public. 103 Law school building at 4:30 PM. Please join us.


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Dressing in Layers

We faculty all arrive at Hamline for residency tomorrow and my anticipation at seeing the beloved faces of my colleagues is quite high. I'm trying to pack, but it's hard to know what to bring. Hamline is its own portal universe (I am a fantasy writer and so I am qualified to diagnose these things) and things don't work like you'd expect. I believe the lecture hall we spend our lives in is about 700 degrees in the winter and -70 in the summer. You might call this inefficient--we just call it fatal. Also, the abrupt temperature changes we experience traveling from the inside and outside put our bodies in a heightened state of alertness that's quite useful. If you're going to spend ten days immersed in conversations about craft, it helps to be in constant fight-or-flight.

On Thursday, we have a faculty meeting, and there are sandwiches. One of the many benefits of teaching at Hamline is the sandwiches. We get to meet the new students too. (I should add for the record that this is even better than the sandwiches.) Friday everyone comes in, and I'm kicking things off with a lecture on theme. My computer ate my Powerpoint presentation yesterday, which was thematically unfortunate. I had just figured out how to do special effects and everything. I might have to rely on kazoos.

We'll keep you updated as the residency progresses, though once again things are bound to get weird very quickly. They probably already are. I'm just so happy to be going. Plus I get to room with Claire. This is good for many reasons, including that there will always be coffee.

Travel safely, all.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Four Pages a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

I came back from a little trip up the coast a few days ago, read the posts I'd missed, and added a comment on one -- a little afterthought about writing an entire novel in a very short time. Someone e-mailed me and asked for a little more information, so - as my last post before the residency - here it is.

Basically it's four pages a day for a month. Sick or well, hot or cold, good pages or bad. The point is to push ahead. Have many men come through many doors with revolvers. Introduce new characters all the time. Have cliff-hanger chapter endings. Solve problems with Magical Realism. Defy logic. Lots of non sequiturs in dialogue. Lots of dialogue. Use any and all points of view.

Break up the four pages any way you want. If one headlong sprint is too much, write a page at four different times of the day. Turn them face down when you're done and don't re-read except to pick up the story from the last page of the day before.

Forget most of what you think you know. The only rule is to fill up the pages. At the end of thirty days you have a complete manuscript to work with, edit and revise. I guarantee there will be wonderful things in it. Surprises. Gifts from the writing-gods who love it when you sit down every day and fool around with words.

See you soon.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Distopian YA Novels

My final post before the residency. Check out this link for a great, very thorough New Yorker article about past and present distopian YA novels.

It opens with this thought about one of our common books this residency.

"Rebecca Stead chose to set her children’s novel “When You Reach Me”—winner of the 2010 Newbery Medal—in nineteen-seventies New York partly because that’s where she grew up, but also, as she told one interviewer, because she wanted “to show a world of kids with a great deal of autonomy."

The article goes on to discuss that kids today don't have the same kind of adventures because of their limited freedom due to safety concerns, thus their interest in experiencing life through the reading of distopian novels.

Words, words, words

A wordy novelist to the bone, I've been trying to writer shorter. This has been a challenge. Nothing helps writing like reading, though, so I've been reading and looking at lots of flash fiction (Thanks for the reminder, Ron), picture books, and graphic novels. My sister-in-law Sara Qualey is a painter, and she pointed me toward the amazing woodcut wordless novels of Lynd Ward. Ward, of course, was the well-known illustrator of many children’s books and the author-illustrator of more, including The Biggest Bear, which won the 1953 Caldecott. His wordless novels are stunners.

Wordless Books: The Original Graphic Novels,
by David Berona, provides a wonderful overview of Ward’s books and those of many other artists, including Frans Masareel (1889-1972), considered the granddaddy of wordless woodcut storytellers.

Interesting stuff, and very good medicine for someone who usually needs about 50,000 words to get her point across in a story.


Saturday, July 3, 2010

Just a Little Chat

I thought I'd go to the races (big surprise, huh?) and I wonder what everybody is up to for the 4th. In South Pasadena, there's a dinky parade, hula hoop contests at the park with wall-to-wall geniality and a huge fireworks show at the high school. The kind of thing that makes me want to shoot myself. Give me a passel of low-lifes and degenerate gamblers any old day.

The husband of a close friend of mine always talked about going to some small town for its celebration. His wife insisted that where he lives is that small town. No, no. It'd be more authentic somewhere else. So a few years ago they went. The drive was onerous, the motel expensive, the food over-cooked. The parade consisted of leering politicians and sun-dazed Brownies with merit badges for Respiration. Just like in South Pasadena.

There's a terrific essay by Walker Percy about the Authentic. And it's a hard commodity to come by these days. A better faux is often the best one can do.

P.S. By the way, if you want to read a poem of mine about beginning-as-a-writer, it's at a site called Creative Instigation. Google it and scroll down a bit.

Be safe this weekend, my friends.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Talk, talk, talk...

I’ve been trying to think of a clever, helpful writerly post that will get us all thinking and writing, but truth be told I’ve been writing, traveling, and swimming so much lately that clever, writerly posts are the furthest from my mind. I find the more I write the less I can or want to talk about writing. The process is elusive and enigmatic to begin with, and in many ways irrelevant since every single writer has her way of working. And things like craft—well, when writing I don’t think about that. Words come out, spill on to paper or computer. Maybe they make sense and maybe they don’t (an editor may tell me, and if not, I’m sure a reviewer will).

I met with my editor recently at a conference. She kept asking about my novel-in-progress. She’s read an early draft and “likes” it (whatever that means—come on, come on, just put the money on the table, that’s the only way we really know if they like it.) She asked what was going to happen, what changes had I already made, and the hardest of all, how do I write? I think I bs’d my way through it okay while maintaining the balance of professionalism and humility. Don’t get me wrong this editor is extraordinarily brilliant and very, very classy, so the fact that she even took time away from all of her famous authors to meet with me is amazing in itself.

But please, do I have to talk?

Perhaps it’s the upcoming residency and all the talking that I know will be done—good talk, useful talk, brilliant talk, clever, witty, helpful and inspiring talk (at least from my colleagues and students)—that makes me want to write as much as I can beforehand, and in silence.

Believe me, I am truly looking forward to talking with those of you who will be at the Hamline residency next week. I just need to get this next draft done and OUT by then. Silence and isolation can be a thing of beauty, but then so can conversation.