Monday, January 31, 2011


The January residency for the MFA in Writing for Children at Hamline has been over for a few weeks now, but I’m just starting my stint as a blogger, so I’d like to rewind the clock to the morning after graduation. That Monday morning, my daughter Amelia picked me up at the hotel where faculty and students stayed, and we drove my somewhat-rattletrap car up north about five hours to pick up my other daughter Ellen’s somewhat-more-rattletrap car and drive it back to Minneapolis.

Ellen won’t need the car for a few months. She and three other people will be skiing and dogsledding through the Northwest Territories as part of a wilderness classroom trip. Amelia and I had planned to drive up, get the car, and drive back all in the same day. I ended up staying the night, helping sew a last few items for the trip, clean up the house where they had been staying, and load Ellen’s car with recycling and a few things that will live at my house until she returns from the north.

As we were tidying up, I thought about how we send our graduates at Hamline off with good wishes for themselves and their writing, and I thought these brave and adventurous travelers needed a benediction, too. I scribbled on a scrap of paper: Travel well. Be kind to each other. Stay safe. Bring back stories. I gave Ellen that scrap of paper before they left—it doesn’t weigh enough to slow them down, and perhaps the words will warm her in the way-below-zero temperatures through which they’ll travel. At the very least, the paper may help to start a fire when they need one.

When writers sit down to write, we are also brave adventurers setting off into unknown territory. (After all, if you know the territory, why go there?) So I wish for each of us as we write another sort of benediction: Write well. Be kind to yourself. Don’t stay too safe. Bring back stories.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Creative Idleness

I may have mentioned in this space that my husband rolls his eyes when I insist that I'm working as I walk, swim laps, or take a long shower. Brenda Ueland labeled these activities "Creative Idleness...the dreamy idleness...when you walk alone for a long, long time, or take a long, dreamy time at dressing...or dig in a garden or drive a car for many hours alone, or play the piano, or sew or paint..." ( If You Want to Write, p.33). (Or knit: Phyllis? Or hang out at the track: Ron?)

On the last day of the residency, Marsha Q gave an inspired talk about the "Paralyzed Protagonist." I realized that her title describes the narrator of the YA novel I'm trying to finish. Marsha also said--wisely--that when a narrator changes, his/her close relationships will also be altered. After her talk, I knew I should write a scene showing the change taking place between my P.P (as I thought of Brandon now) and his best friend. This scene could even become the missing crisis point near the end of the novel.

After the residency, I read through my novel, drafted the scene. The day after another big storm, I typed it up, threw it out, shoveled the front steps, came back to my desk, started again, gnashed my teeth. It wasn't working. The sky cleared, and every snow crystal glittered in the sun. I gave up, loaded my skis into the car, and drove to our little park. I was in luck: the town hadn't ruined the skiing by plowing the track. Fresh snow, frothy as meringues, lay waiting. I pushed through knee-deep powder the first time around the track. The second time around was easier, and the third time was the charm. I heard Brandon and his friend Marty talking. I witnessed their fight. I understood what what each boy felt, what each learned about the other as they raged and came out on the other side. I took my skis off, came home and wrote. It's still an ugly first draft, and it may be melodramatic, but it's getting there, thanks to the skis and the soft powder.

Butt in Chair is important. But so are those moments when we're doing something unrelated to writing, when our minds are open and that stray moment of inspiration slides in, like a ski gliding along a fresh track.

The Dark Side of the Light Side

Ron wrote about petting zoo vs. lion's dens critiques on Wednesday. (By the way, nice figurative language, Ron--I think you have a future there.) Of course part of being a writer is learning to accept critique. (Though as someone who tends to whinge and wail in the face of editorial letters, I should add that we don't have to accept them well.) But I think part, too, is figuring out what kind of critique you need when. When I'm just starting out, my ideas are as fragile as my ego--I've lost a book idea by having someone spin it out in a direction I didn't want to go, and been stopped for too long by dismissive things said about my first pages. I seem to need to get the book to a place where it can take wing on its own before I can have it ripped apart too much, otherwise it pretty much plummets to the ground with a pathetic splat.

My friend Laura and I tend to read all of each other's stuff, and we work well together both because we have a similar aesthetic and because we seem to need the same thing at the same time in the process. I send her chapters, and she tells me how devastatingly awesome they are, and how she can barely see from the beams of brilliance coming from them, and then points out a couple teeny tiny things I might tweak but none of that should take away from the overall awesomeness and beaming brilliance that is my first draft. When I finish it, then she tells me what she really thinks. And I listen, and I revise, and then we do it all again the next book. It might be co-dependent, but, like so much co-dependency, it works for us.

Your job, after all, is to find what your book wants to be in whatever way works for you. For me, that's writing like crazy through a draft, charged with an utterly deluded sense of the draft's utter perfection. Then I give it to my perceptive, exacting lions, and take the tattered, bloody thing that emerges, whinge and wail for a while, and then try to make it into a book that's actually good. It might be different for you--what's important is that you know when in the process to give your words to the petting zoo, safari park, exotic animal auction, or shark feeding frenzy. And when it's time to leave the metaphors to Ron.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Light Side of the Dark Side

or the other way around. One of those. But first The Treadmill Desk. You've heard of these, right? Buy a treadmill, put a shelf across it the arms, lay your laptop there, and write as you walk. Nice metaphor for a writer, huh? Work for days and weeks and end up right where you started.

And then this advice from SCBWI: "If you know someone is openly dismissive of your writing then they're probably not the person to read the first draft of your picture book." Let's forget about the grammar problem (someone/they're) and let's agree there's not much point in showing something to an enemy.

There is, though, much to be gained from showing a first draft to someone who's hard to please. Some writing groups are the equivalent of petting zoos. Try the lion's den. Go to someone discriminating or censorious and -- rather than ask about the whole book or story -- ask about the first page, the father-character, the scene where the muskrat has a heart attack or even a single paragraph.

If the dark side of writing is criticism and the light side is praise, step out of the light sometimes. There are interesting things in the dark.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


This past weekend I was dreading being all alone in weird Jersey, where I have a year-long teaching gig (my apologies to anyone from south jersey, but it is a strange and depressing place to me, a small time New Englander—the deep south of Savannah felt more “normal” than this state).

My teaching schedule gives me extra long weekends, which I can use to visit my honey in Savannah, or hole up and write. This was a hole-up weekend. It went like this:

Day One: moped about, walked the dog in the frigid cold, swam in the school pool and tried to work out some plot points while holding my breath under water and splashing about.

Day Two: pretty much the same, except after the swim I started picking at my book like an annoying scab, opening the wound and letting it bleed. It really hurt, and I went to bed in tears.

Day Three: Things got messy. I started wiping the blood up (seriously, that was the day I vacuumed, did the dishes, and waded through the reams of crumpled paper).

Day Four: I wasn’t planning to write on day four—it was reserved for class prep. But the wound was still oozing so I had to attend to it first. I spent most of the day covering the scab with a brand new dressing. By the time I went to bed I was exhausted and worn out, but felt good, like I had actually fixed something. This morning, it’s starting to heal. Now I can go in and teach.

Perhaps being stuck in the armpit of America is not so bad after all.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Tiger Mother and bestsellers

Commercial nonfiction has always been a foreign animal to me. For one thing, I wonder why books about banal topics, like a woman's move from house to house, should be reviewed in all of the major newspapers and magazines (Aren't there other books? Could it be connections?). For another, I am slightly annoyed that such books sell more than mine.

My husband has a knack for detecting the next big thing in books, so I should have known when he e-mailed me The Wall St. Journal article about the Tiger Mother that I was not hearing the last of her. I'm not sure if he was musing as a family therapist or giving me pointers, but it was mid-residency, so I quickly read and dismissed the article, then watched as the dialogue and controversy (death threats?) blossomed. No doubt the book will become a "best seller."

Aside from thinking jealously about Ms. Chua's promotional abilities, I considered the role of timing in relation to cultural phenomena. Americans are obsessive, escapist, and mass thinkers. After days of national grief over the senseless murder of six people (and the ensuing dialogue about gun control and the treatment of psychosis), fixating on parenting formulas must have offered relief in the same way that "Leave it to Beaver" and Doris Day romps did after World War II (Never mind that Doris Day's husband cleaned out her bank accounts, and that her son was the actual target of the Mansons. In those movies, she rode off into the sunset with Rock Hudson). As a culture, we seemed to need then, not reality, but a sugary dreamscape upon which to cast our anxieties and fears.

Just after the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother article, author Ayelet Waldman, gave a comical Jewish Mom's response. She said, for example, that she allows her kids to quit the violin or piano just before the recital so she won't have to listen to the "hackneyed pieces of the juvenile repertoire" of the other children. Ayelet Waldman is no stranger to the literary scene. She is the author of two books and half of a literary couple; Michael Chabon is the other half. It was a very witty piece: more riding a wave, then bumming a ride. And I have no doubt that by now Ms. Waldman is sifting through offers from publishers. No kidding.

What is your parenting slant? Get out your keyboards and start typing those book proposals before the topic cools like this year's winter.

Required Reading

Students enrolled in the Hamline MFAC (MFA in writing for children and young adults) program have a required reading list of 120 books to deal with in their first two semesters. This last residency we had a fun conversation about the list. It was great to hear complaints about a book trigger immediate cries of "But I loved it!"

Like or dislike isn't the point of the reading list. These books have been required because it's useful to be familiar with them, for one reason or another.

We spent part of the discussion compiling a list of titles that each MFAC students had found useful to his or her own development as a writer. Not many titles were on both the official list and the student list. The student list had many more recent titles, and it was heavily weighted toward novels.

I've already started reading from the student list and have just put Craig Thompson's Blankets on the top of my stack. Can't believe I missed this one. That's the best thing about teaching--there's no better way to learn.

The required list is available on the MFAC site; if anyone would like a copy of the student list, email me.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Bukowski-inspired Mini-rant

I was on my way back from the car wash when somebody on NPR touted the Bukowski exhibit at the Huntington Library/Gardens. Buk (as he liked to say then added that it rhymed with puke) is gone now but his recorded voice lives on and in the snippet NPR played, he said that his poetry looked good because "everybody else was so damn bad."

I had to read a handful of YAs recently (some old, some new), and they were pretty damn bad. Generic and weirdly corporate with predictable arcs and the kind of quirky characters that made me want to breathe into a paper bag.

My problem was not so much the assembly-line feel but I know that some of them took years to write. Years. Rhymes w/ tears. Which is the part I don't understand. Why can't run-of-the-mill fiction (which, I admit, meets a need just as Gap clothes fill a need) be written fast. Why can't it frankly be from-the-mill. At least one a year. Make twelve or fifteen thousand bucks and write another one. Stop pretending that the atelier isn't just a factory. Put on some coveralls and just go to work.

I think I'll lie down now.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

In praise of revision, as always

In a fit of optimism (insanity?) I promised our esteemed blog administrator that I would post at least once during the residency. Ha! I did, however, think of things to say as I walked the track or crouched in the single seat on the van. I even made some notes one sleepless night. Here are some thoughts from home. (Home. Isn't that the most beautiful word?)

One aspect of the residency that I enjoy most is the chance to learn from my workshop partners. Kelly Easton and I teach at Rhode Island College's ASTAL Institute each June, but we haven't run a workshop together, so I was delighted to be paired with her this time. Kelly gives each student in workshop "designer homework," an assignment geared to his or her individual stories. Even if the assignment was focused on story structure, each writer had to include these words: Umbrella. Ravishing. Hurtle. Onions. We gave out the assignments on Day Two of workshop, received them on Day Five and discussed them on Day Six.

During the final workshop, we all took turns reading the new pages out loud, so that the writer could hear the words in someone else's voice. The new scenes showed the power of revision as writers wrote dialogue without tags, opened up hot spots, used sensory detail to nail a setting, added action to reveal emotion, or changed a story's structure. We were already invested in their stories, but the revisions showed the power of seeing a story anew. We laughed at the creative use of totem words, and the new scenes made us hungry to know what would happen next.

Finally, Kelly threw out a wild card that last morning: she asked us to jot down, at random, three things we would add to our stories. I found this exercise illuminating. Now that I'm home, with my unfinished novel on my desk, I am poised to add: a champagne poodle, a failed batch of bread--and sex. Try this exercise, and do it fast, without thinking. What would you add to your story?

Thanks to Kelly, and our workshop group, for six lively and fascinating sessions. Write on!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Nuts & Bolts

I'm sure everybody who went to St. Paul for the Hamline MFAC residency is deeply battered and fried at this point, but for those who didn't and are tussling with a novel, here's some advice.

I was downtown in L.A. a few nights ago in a snazzy loft in a terrible part of town (nothing like cruising through the homeless to make one recite the Gratitude sutra). I was part of a panel. Three other writers and me. They were all women; they wrote for grown-ups. I was not a woman, and I didn't.

What was a little remarkable was this: every one of us mentioned the first chapter. How many drafts we did. How useless it was to craft a first chapter with precision. How the first chapter is usually the writer telling himself or herself the story. Getting started. Lifting off. It's almost never the first chapter that opens the real book.

So go ahead and start telling yourself a story. Introduce some characters. Plant a revolver or two. Write some snappy dialogue. Then even as you're cuddling up to chapter one and saying sweet things, kiss it good-bye.

ALA Awards and Ron's Best Book

Last week while Hamline students were at the on-campus residency in St. Paul, the ALA Awards were announced at the annual Mid-Winter conference. The exciting news (for fresh young writers, that is) is that both the Newbery and the Caldecott awards went to a first-time published author and illustrator. This is unusual, and should be hopeful to all you starting out! In case you have not yet seen the complete list go here.

AND to top it all off Hamline’s own Ron Koertge made the ALA Fiction Best Book list for his outstanding novel, Shakespeare Makes the Playoffs. Yippeeee, Ron!

Friday, January 14, 2011


A quick shout out to an alum of the Hamline program, Cheryl Bardoe. Her book Mammoths and Mastodons is an NCTE Orbis Pictus Honor book!

Cheryl was an educator at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and wrote the book in conjunction with the museum's M & M exhibit.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

From the front

Another update from the residency.

12 days of lectures, workshops, and conversations about writing for children and teens. This is intense AND wonderful. Swathi Avasthi was a guest speaker yesterday and she spoke on Voice and YA fiction. A wonderful snippet: "Voice is the circulatory system of the novel."

You should have heard the buzz in the room when she shared that.

Today Kelly Easton and Claire Rudolph Murphy led workshops. Kelly's was on dialogue as a tool of character-building, while Claire led an exploration of the role of the antagonist. I slipped in and out of both and will be using snippets from both in my lecture on "The Paralyzed Protagonist" come Saturday.

We finished up the lecture/workshop part of the day with Marsha Chall's lecture on anthropomorphism (try spelling that at 1:30 a.m.!) in picture books. Piaget, Freud, Frog and Toad, and Marsha's own Labradoodle, Scout, were all part of the mix. I bet more than a few of the novelists in the crowd were inspired to go home and start a picture book about, well, bunnies or some such.

I'm learning lots and having fun and I need to go to bed.

Marsha Q.

Monday, January 10, 2011

It Matters What You Call Yourself

I just got a ms. back from Candlewick. I was sure it wasn't what hey were looking for when it was wrapped in barbed wire and had a skull-and-crossbones on the envelope.
I went through the usual Kubler-Ross stages: Denial -- They must have confused my novel about a kangaroo who finds a portal in the outback and ends up as Shakespeare's pet with another like it. But not nearly as riveting. Anger -- My editor looks charming with a flaming sword buried in her sternum. Etcetera.
Basically what I really do when I get a ms. back or an editorial letter I'd rather not have is remind myself that all I want to do is tell a story. Something a reader would be glad to stick with for a couple of hours.
Thinking of the NOVEL never helps. Thinking of the story helps a lot. Terms like Novel and Novelist cast a very long shadow. Story teller not so much. We all tell stories all the time.
All I need to do is tell a long one.
Simple, no?

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Gene Luen Yang

Our low residency session here at Hamline is in full swing, and today we had a marvelous presentation by Gene L. Yang, author of American Born Chinese and other graphic novels and comic books. He talked quite a bit about his writing process and the things he focused on while crafting his stories. Character, page turns, arc--all of it just as important to a comic book and graphic novel as it is to a picture book or traditional middle grade novel. The lecture hall was buzzing with excitement.

Marsha Wilson Chall, one of our faculty members, reminisced about buying comic books as a child, and whether that had any influence on her becoming a picture book author. I too remember trips to the drugstore to buy comics. Maybe a fascination with Archie and Veronica is the real reason I turned to writing YA fiction.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Humble Pie

When I'm between books, I almost always write poetry. I write it during books, too, but it isn't the same thing. Poetry doesn't always like playing second fiddle. Poetry can be, as Billy Collins said in another context, "a cruel and savagely attired mistress."

So I was being faithful (in my fashion) recently and writing verse-in-forms. First the villanelle. Holy $*@!. Two lousy rhymes -- one of them 13 times and the other one 6. And two entire lines are repeated four times. Whose freaking idea was this? I ask you, whose?

Mine, obviously. And, God help me, it's fun to sit down and work with such a -in this case - nagging, repetitive and also meditative form. I also found a good subject, one that would clash with the form: a strip club. Also called euphemistically a Gentlemen's Club because really we're all a bunch of barons and viscounts in there.

And I worked it out -- the rhymes, the repetition, everything. It was correct but not very good. Predictable and stiff. So I chatted with a friend of mine, took her advice and tried again. Different POV (in the soul-sense of those daunting initials), different rhymes, different key lines. Really much better. Who knew!

Then I boldly turned to couplets. I used Thom Gunn's "The J Car" as my model. What a beautiful poem it is. Effortless and very, very touching. Mine was neither effortless nor touching. It was stiff and clunky and risible. Frankenstein doing the polka. And yet it had one very nice couplet out of probably twenty.

I'm afraid writing poetry is like mining. Lots of times nothing buy gravel and sand. But every now and then, flakes of gold.

P.S. I'm not at the residency so I'll write a little more often. My friends there have enough to do. (Though as I remember there was plenty of on-site blogging last year.)

Thursday, January 6, 2011


Some inkpot readers are heading over to St. Paul for the Hamline winter residency. I am not. I am taking this break to work on my novel. So while you are immersed in the field, getting inspired, and sharing brilliance (and suffering) I am holed up in my room thinking of words. I am in that space where everything I see, do, hear, and read is relevant in some way to my book, and I am busily collecting words. The previous posts contained the words “silence” and “bliss.” They went on my list. I read a chapter of a novel last night and wrote down: “fire-engine red,” “ricochet,” “knocking loose.” I read an article in the New Yorker and found: “mysterious taste on my tongue,” and “inside my hollow head.” I watched a movie and picked up, “rattled around the brain,” “lives in the attic,” “tremendous feeling.”

I keep these words on post-its around the house. The trick now is to string them together in a way that gives them meaning, but my intuition already tells me they are completely relevant to my work in some way.

I’m envious of folks at the residency—you are going to receive a plethora of words, some already containing incredible meaning, others from which you will get to extract your own meaning or change in ways that are unique and suitable to you. Write these words down. Any word or phrase that speaks to you, write it down. Writers are word collectors so be one.

Sometimes we need to hole up and write, as I am now, other times we need to be out in the world interacting and observing, and sometimes we need to be with our people. This week Hamline-ites you are with your people. Enjoy.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Follow Your Bliss...

This afternoon I tried to take a little nap during my boy's "quiet time." Quiet Time is sort of a Rovian term for the two-hour period of the day during which I constantly yell at him to go back to his room. Today I heard him go into the bathroom at some point. Somewhere in my dream state I realized he had spent a long time in there and thus this might be the kind of bathroom visit where a newly-four-year-old boy needs some clean-up help, but I was also really enjoying my nap. So it shouldn't have been too much of a surprise to wake up to find the bathroom smeared with fecal matter. At some point he also dumped out buckets of toys, and while we were having a friendly discussion about whether or not he was going to be picking these up, he launched himself face first off the couch into the edge of the coffee table, smacking his mouth into the corner. After a time, I was able to stop the nosebleed.

It was then that I reflected how much I am looking forward to residency starting this week. Hamline's program is low residency, meaning most of it is done through correspondence, but twice a year we meet on campus for ten days of workshops, lectures, readings, and discussions. It's epic, exhilarating, exhausting--and sort of like childbirth in that you forget the parts where the anesthesia doesn't work and the faculty lounge runs out of wine so eventually you're all excited to do it again.

The faculty reports on Thursday and we get to meet the new class, and everyone arrives on Friday. I'm kicking things off then with a lecture on The Hero's Journey, though it's been difficult to think too critically about mythical structure when I'm cleaning up blood, fecal matter, and stray Matchbox cars. I'm sure there's some hilarious monomyth joke to be made here, and I'll get back to you on that as soon as my assistant finishes his research.

We'll be blogging from the residency, and while the posts may not be informative, it should at least be entertaining to watch us grow more incoherent as the time wears on. But right now I need to read workshop pieces, work on my lecture, think about packing, and email Claire Rudolf Murphy to ask about the coffee situation in the hotel that we'll be billeted in. See you soon, friends.