Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Publication Interview: Sewing Stories

Author and MFAC alum Barbara Herkert* talks with us about her newest book, Sewing Stories. Learn about her writing process for this picture book biography on the life of Harriet Powers, an African American artist who grew up as a slave.

Tell us about your new book.

Sewing Stories is about an artist who was born into slavery, faced with crushing degradation and poverty, and still driven to create in the form of appliqué story quilts unequaled in composition and design. The book is illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton and was released in October, 2015 by Alfred A. Knopf.

Do you have a favorite part of the book or a favorite character?

I love the ending, where Harriet is soaring across the sky.

Did you workshop this story at Hamline or work with a faculty member on it?

I started working on this book at Hamline under Jackie Briggs Martin’s mentorship. I’d never written a picture book biography before. I was transfixed by the genre. Jackie showed me how to search for those golden nuggets, how to transport the reader with details.

When did you first begin work on it? When did you finish?

I began the manuscript during my third semester at Hamline. I was in the first class--the “big class.”

As the work progressed from inception to copy-edited version, what were the major changes? How did those changes come about?

My first editor at Knopf was Michelle Burke. We cut out entire stanzas and shortened others to make room for illustrations. I finished the project with another editor, Kelly Delaney, after Michelle decided to stay home with her new baby. Kelly made further edits, including taking the stanzas out of free-verse and including dialogue. I was extremely hesitant about the dialogue—the only documented words of Harriet’s own are the descriptions of her story quilts. But I found a source of testimonies by former slaves that I felt enveloped Harriet’s spirit.

What research did you do before and while writing the book?

I did tons of research. I read everything I could about Harriet, about slavery and life in Athens, Georgia following the Civil War, and about appliqué quilting. I went to the Smithsonian to see the first story quilt “in person.” The shapes and the rhythm that continues throughout the quilt mesmerized me.

Where did you do most of your writing for this book?

At home.

Any final thoughts on the book you'd like to share?

The idea for this book came to me when I was researching for another project. I was reading about anonymous women artists when I first came across Harriet’s photograph and pictures of her story quilts. I had to find out more about her. She enchanted me.

*Barbara Herkert received a biology degree from the University of California, Santa Barbara and a MFA from Hamline University. She studied art and art history at Oregon State University, and wrote and illustrated my first book in 2001, entitled Birds in Your Backyard. I’m currently the Co-Regional Advisor for SCBWI-Oregon. Mary Cassatt: Extraordinary Expressionist Painter (with illustrations by Gabi Swiatkowska) was also released in October, 2015, and A Boy, a Mouse, and a Spider: The Story of E.B. White (illustrated by Lauren Castillo) will be released in 2017 (both by Christy Ottaviano/Henry Holt.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Recite a Poem as You Dress

Today author and MFAC faculty member Ron Koertge* talks about a recent email he received from his colleague, Anne Ursu, on the topic of poetry and how it helps kids with autism.  Ron takes this idea a step further and talks about how we all could benefit from a little more poetry to help organize our busy lives and minds.

Recently Anne Ursu sent Chris Heppermann and me some information about a workshop she attended. It focused on kids with autism. Here is a paragraph from Anne’s e-mail: “They said poetry was really effective with these kids who had intense interests in things, who were able to respond really well to form, who could use and see language in profound ways, who have a natural ability for metaphor and deep empathy. They described formal poetry as organizing for the mind.”

I could immediately see how this would work. For me, fixed forms (sonnet, villanelle, sestina, etc.) quiet the mind and organize a hash of emotions into a tastier meal with maybe an arresting simile at the end for dessert. 

I’ve taught dozens and dozens of workshops and in most of those I insisted on fixed forms, since one of the dangers of traditional workshops is having them turn into therapy sessions where someone writes a sprawling free verse poem about her divorce and everyone starts clucking and telling their divorce stories. Some of the aggrieved hook up, there’s a quick wedding ceremony, couples counseling, and another divorce. And all this before the break! Okay, I made that last part up, but the point is the poem as a poem has been forgotten.
Woman, Female, Thoughtful, Alone, Mountain, Thinking
Let’s think about a poem that is basically a complaint – nobody understands me so I’m going to go up on Echo Mountain and cry. Everybody’s written this, especially in some hideously expensive journal with a leather cover and a silver clasp.

Take that poem with all its legitimate angst (it’s truly dispiriting to be misunderstood) and invite it into a simple form like the sonnet. Immediately meter comes into play; that makes the incident or experience more melodious; even if that melody turns out to be strident and cacophonous and would generally make Phillip Glass happy, the sounds are still organized in a way lots of free verse isn’t. 

Next comes rhyme and right after that the search for synonyms. Lots of young poets say things like, “Well, rhyme won’t let me say what I mean.” Here’s what I tell them: “Good. I know what you mean. Say something that doesn’t bore the crap out of me. Don’t rhyme misunderstood with childhood. Everybody does that. Rhyme it with Hollywood and see where that takes you.”

Here’s another sentence or two from Anne’s e-mail: “He told a story of an autistic teenager who could only tie his shoes when he recited William Blake – he needed the meter to organize his mind enough to get the executive functioning to perform the motor task.”

I wish everybody – not just kids – would recite poems as they dressed. Imagine a neighborhood where poetry soared out of bedroom windows as folks laced and buttoned and zipped before the work day began. I’d live there for sure. Wouldn’t you?

 P.S. Don’t get me wrong – poetry can be used as therapy and a poem can be purging. Just don’t purge around me when I’m wearing my good pants.

*Ron Koertge is a faculty member at Hamline's MFAC program.  He writes poetry for everyone, fiction for young adults, and most recently co-authored a young reader series (Backyard Witch) with Hamline alum Chris Heppermann. Book # 1 of that series -Backyard Witch: Sadie’s Story - is out now (read the publication interview). His latest work also includes The Ogre’s WifeCoaltown Jesus, and the unforgettable Sex World - some of the fastest flash fiction in the world.

You can learn more about Ron's work by visiting his website or visit his faculty page to learn about him as a professor at Hamline University.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Avoiding the Demon Wasp

Today, alumni Jackie Hesse* writes about her battle with the Demon Wasp (a.k.a. panic).  Read on to see if the sage advice of a Buddhist monk could also help you deal with your own struggles with victomhood, fear, and saying "no." 

Years ago I suffered from severe panic disorder. I could barely muster the courage to leave my house for fear of a crippling panic attack. I saw several therapists and took medication but couldn't shake the overwhelming fear and sense of impending doom.

A friend counseled me through this rough period. Not knowing how to help, she enlisted the aid of a Buddhist monk whom she sat next to on a trans-Atlantic flight.

"Why does she have panic attacks and how does she get rid of them?" she asked the monk.

He smiled, benevolently I picture, and said, "She's getting something out of them or she wouldn't have them." 

I wanted to punch that monk in the face. Getting something out of panic? Was he mad? I was a victim of panic. I was not relishing in it nor choosing it. What an insensitive, idiot monk.

I thought about that monk recently. You see, recently I began to protect my writing time. Panic and writing. The two are related.

For years I blamed my failure to write on others, on the world. There is something seductive about being the victim, it evokes sympathy which ironically translates into power. Because I was powerless over panic, and over all the things that stood between me and my writing time, I got a pass.

I've gotten over, or possibly through, having panic attacks. I decided that while extremely uncomfortable, panic can't hurt me and anxiety is just a (sucky) part of life. It's okay to feel anxious and still do things. More important is that it's ok to say no.   

The University of California at San Francisco has done extensive research on this idea of saying no. The more difficult it is for a person to say no the more "stress, burnout, and depression" they suffer. Go figure. Probably the less writing they do as well.

My panic was really about me saying not saying no. Panic felt very real and very uncontrollable and I suffered terribly. I really did think I was going to die.
But panic and anxiety were, in a very unconscious sense, benefitting me.

The same is true with not having enough time to write. The truth is that I am afraid. What if I do make the time and what I create isn't good? What if it's rejected, criticized, or worst of all called harmful? But oh! Look at this! If I never finish, never thoroughly revise, I will never have to face the stings of that demon wasp. How nice that I have children, laundry, out of town guests or the upcoming dinner party to avoid the buzzing incubus.

The truth is, I was getting something out of panic. Humans don't do things for no reason. This is the basis of all detective work: Who had a reason to want Johnny dead? We all do things because, consciously or subconsciously, there is something in it for us.

I have finally learned that it's okay to say no, not because I have panic disorder, but because I just don't want to, or because I am writing. It's empowering, actually. I know that what I gain from protecting my writing time and doing the writing, even if it's no good, even if it lacks craft, even if someone, somewhere thinks it's harmful, is far greater than the feeling of safety and comfort (and stagnation) of being a victim. It is better to write and fail than to not write at all. And, if I ran into that monk today, I'd thank him.    

*Jackie Hesse is a January 2013 graduate of the MFAC program. She lives and writes in Saint Paul, Minnesota and teaches at Normandale Community College.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Write it Forward

This week MFAC alum Maggie Moris* shares a story about the power of taking the time to write something by hand and how stumbling across a long-forgotten letter can bring important memories surging back to life.

I miss her.

My maternal grandmother, Mary Jane Swan, took me in to live with her at a time when I needed out of a toxic relationship. On a late November night nearly twenty years ago, I called her in desperation. I barely spoke three words before she said, “You don’t have to explain. The front door’s unlocked. I’ll wait up.”

I miss her for that large love gesture. I miss her for the countless smaller acts that made her an enormous presence in my life. I miss her small kitchen and the tiny table by the window where love was offered up alongside warm slices of homemade bread shimmering with melted butter.

So when, earlier this November, I stumbled upon an old forgotten card from her – found in a completely unexpected place – it was as if she found a way to reach across the great divide between us and offer comfort and love all over again.

Packed over the three blank panels of the greeting card, her strong upward-tilted hand marched through seventeen sentences, each one a declaration of the dearest pieces of her world. Her unique choices for spelling and punctuation trumpeted her fierce personality.

“Dear Maggi! What a nice surprise! To hear from you.”

She wrote about baking bread, about her gardens and of preparations to overwinter plants.

“… putting them in the garage, temporarily to get used to coming indoors.”

She mentioned a cousin living in Toronto with a new husband and their limited finances. 

“Bob can only take a few classes this year.”

She touched upon the Brazilian foreign exchange student that she and grandpa hosted when they were in their late sixties. Then, she noted her plans to go to church later that day before having dinner with my parents. Finally, she ended the card with news that she had attended a wedding reception the nite (sic) before:

“…so many of our neighbors were there. Danced, too.”

Danced, too…

Seventeen sentences and the whole heart of her life was offered up, a condensed remembrance of hearth, home, family, faith, community, hospitality, and dancing …

Which brings me to now and to you.

In this season of mostly mass-produced holiday missives, can we choose to write one hand-written note? Pick a child - any child – or anyone near and dear, close or far, and send something of yourself via a paragraph or two with your scribbles and scratches. Start a conversation. Open up a dialogue for later. (Replace, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” with, “What world problem would you like to solve?”)

A written-by-hand note, with its stamp, postmark, fold and seal is a tangible time capsule. It fixes the here and now in place with heart-meant-ness. Something written by hand bears your unique script in a way that a typewritten font simply cannot. 

Can Not.

Even if Grandma Swan had written her seventeen sentences in an e-mail and even if I had printed that e-mail and saved it, the experience of reading her words would not be the same.

I believe that something elusive and ethereal attaches itself to our squiggles and loops, slashes and dashes. We impart an invisible energy through our physical touch, even if only through pen to paper. As writers we are uniquely – if not exclusively – positioned to send many such small emissaries out into someone’s future moment – moments we can’t see or anticipate, but important connections nonetheless.

Grandma Swan died on December 14, 2005. Ten years have passed since I last held her hand. Yet, those five or ten minutes she took to compose her thoughts on that day, on this card, ensured that the future me could one day feel her touch again.

A present day spirit created with the corporeal hand of the past … a lost letter full to the brim with tidings of comfort and joy.

Happy Holidays, dear friends.
I hope you write.
I hope you dance.

*Maggie Moris (a.k.a. M. A. Moris) writes middle-grade novels. She plans to write a personal card to all four of her nieces and nephews this Christmas. She is a 2009 Hamline graduate and has asked Santa for a few more Twitter followers @maggiemoris. Her website is

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Poetry is Energy, or Six Quick Tips to Put Some Poetry in Your Prose

This week Araceli Esparza* gives us her top six tips on incorporating poetry into prose.  Whether you're looking for some serious advice to push your writing forward or a light-hearted bit of fun, this post has exactly what you're looking for.  And if you like her take on it, be sure to check out Bill Kennedy's post from earlier this month.

Art shows us what we do not know in ways that we had not considered. Poetry tries to say more and more in a language that is ever becoming more precise. Poetry is about learning about success, triumphs, failures, secrets, and teachings. Poetry is meant to inspire our next generation. Poetry can’t just be an afterthought in your prose. It’s an essential strategy for you to communicate the POV of this generation- your audience.

Your audience is fully engaged in the arts. Through visual poetry or audio, youth know about poetry without ever really studying it.

Poetry in our prose is the hope, laughter, vision, and the mirror of our audience. Poetry challenges the world they cannot control, and when you are writing for them, you have to understand this. Poetry can help you get there.

Stuck with your chapter? Try the following poetry tips.

Tip 1: Pick a character and write their backstory in one sentence verses by hitting the enter key at the end of your margin or sentence. Make each sentence a brave statement of the character. Give voice for their hopes and dreams; get vulnerable with your character. You are not meant to explain it all in that moment. A good phrase will awaken your senses to places that you never gone, smell things that you have never tasted.

Take a risk, let go and write like you just don’t care.

Tip 2: Use a container. Draw a circle and write only in that circle. More practical choice is to contain the emotion in one hard and fast sentence. Don’t let meter intimidate you, it’s algebra for words. It’s a container used to make your words work.

Free verse isn’t free, it’s the air that we breathe, it’s the fullest potential of our wit and wisdom. I chose free verse because I have found that tagging one sentence is easier than to reveal it in a paragraph. So it does have a container, but it’s one that is invented on fly, it may or may not follow a pattern and can break from that pattern.

Tip 3: Use a prompt. Get off the keyboard and grab a couple of sheets of paper and a pen and write long hand. A personal fav’s: I remember when…. (keep the hand moving for 10-20 minutes)

Tip 4: Now write with your non-dominate hand for 5-7 minutes. HA! I told you this was fun! When you write poetry, you write on your own wave of writing. Which is why timed writing works. Write until you find your aha metaphor.

Viola you are a poet!

Tip 5: Drink a bottle of Merlot! And try to write! Guaranteed proven results!

Tip 6: Read a lot of poetry, and then write. Here is an exercise I did for my poetry and yoga class: First, I read the following poem out load.

Still I Rise - Poem by Maya Angelou

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history's shame
I rise

Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise

I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise

Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

Final Act: Then I followed up with the following prompt; How do I rise up?

Write down this: You may write me down in history as ______________.

Finish this sentence and allow yourself to be taken to the sky where you can look at your inner beauty from afar, admire it, describe it, indulge in it, dance with yourself and write yourself out so we can see you too. Write without apology, filters, or explanations for 15 minutes. Think about what normally might be seen as nuances can actually be a place of resilience and strength.

Much of what I wrote I gleamed or was inspired by this lovely poetry workshop video I found on YouTube.

*Araceli Esparza is 2014 alum, poet, teacher, and future picture book author. You can follow her at @WI_MUJER.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Flags, Enemies, and Fried Chicken

Greetings Inkpot readers!  This week MFAC alum *Polly McCann writes to us on the joys of writing - and the struggle to let a little misery in.  Read on to hear her take on the challenge of adding antagonists into your story.

The washing machine runs in the room above me. Everyone is finally tucked in for the night. I left the kitchen somewhat clean, and it smells like fried chicken I didn't have to cook. The dog is asleep on his trundle bed (long story) comatose from allergy medicine (another long story). I put my ten dollars of gas in my car tonight so I could get home from my new art studio downtown - enough until I get paid on Wednesday. It's almost midnight and I'm writing to you from my little blue den in the basement of a big house at the top top of Kansas City. My desk was put together by my 10 year old and me. On it, a mason jar full of cold filtered water on a coaster marked with the letter "P." Life is dreamy now at night, with cars driving past in a street filled with rain. Life is a like a "sweet little egg" as Jackie Briggs-Martin wrote in her Louisiana picture book, Chicken Joy. My kids keep it upstairs on their shelf. 

Sweetness only goes for so long, maybe a paragraph and then what happens? As a writer I struggle most with "antagonists." In Chicken Joy, the hero is about to become quiet rooster stew. His nemesis is the farmer who wants to eat him. Then there is his own self doubt that has cost him his voice. Without these enemies, we'd only have the first two pages of the book. Fabulous, but not as memorable. In fact that is why I title of each of my worksheets for every story, novel, chapter book, "Antagonist List." Claire Rudolf Murphy got me into this habit. I love it. She told a class once the antagonist represents what the main character desires and also prevents them from getting it. On my worksheet, I make a list of idioms, word plays, associations, folk tales, and questions. I place all sorts of educated and trendy little notes to help me write a good manuscript.

Problem is, I can never get to the antagonist. I paddle around in little boats with no where to go. I sit in the sun and nothing happens, not even a ripple. Writing without an enemy doesn't work I guess. One wise advisor told me this week, you can't be a writer unless you believe in enemies. Well I said something rather teary back. The trouble is, I hate to say anything bad about anyone, real or imagined. I hate to tell my story, what I have overcome, if it means I have to drag someone else through the mud. What if my enemy were to change? What if my enemy didn't mean to do those terrible things? What if my enemy was someone I hoped to love? What if they did something incomprehensibly horrible enough that I don't know where that kind of evil comes from? That's not your problem, she answered. They are part of your story.
The Welsh flag reminded me of this quandary again last night. As I tucked my little guy into bed, the flag is pinned to the wall above his sea turtle bedspread. A white ground, green grass and a very red dragon make up the flag from Wales. Why? It's a flag about the enemy they overcame. Flags aren't covered normally with daisies or paddle boats or even fried chicken, though I think I'd like one like that. No flags are fierce. They prove what we've conquered. They show us how far we've come. I think from now on I'll add a new section to my antagonist worksheet: A place to draw my character's flag of choice. Yes, that may be one more section to keep me from choosing an antagonist, but maybe, just maybe, I will finally put on those big author pants then tell the story I needed to tell the whole time.

*Polly McCann, artist, writer and mother, earned her MFA in writing from Hamline University. Tea with Alice is the working title for her first collection of autobiographical poems; three generations of stories retold in free verse. She has been published in Naugatuck River Review and Arc 24. She is the owner of NewThing Art Studio in Kansas City. She loves to grow basil and explore unexpected surprises in her free time.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Smashing Watermelons

Greetings Inkpot readers, today we have a blog post from MFAC alum(January 2015) Leah Hilsabeck-Lowrey.  In this true story, Leah shares the dangers of "holding your tongue" and how keeping things bottled up can affect your productivity and well being.

I see a cranial sacral specialist for my shoulders. That’s what I tell people, anyway. In truth, I see Wendy because I leave feeling lighter and more at peace than I do leaving a $200 therapy session. The pain relief is just a side benefit.

“Your jaw is tight.” Wendy’s English accent somehow always makes her words seem that much wiser. “You’ve been holding your tongue.” I didn’t pay her much mind. My jaw hadn’t been bothering me, and besides, I was there for my shoulders.

A month later found me at my dentist with complaints of shooting pains through my teeth every time I took a drink or bit in to something juicy. “Your jaw is tight. You’ve been grinding your teeth.”

I should have known better than to doubt Wendy.

“It’s what happens to us good girls. There are certain things good girls just aren’t supposed to say. We keep our mouths shut.”

This was not a problem I was familiar with. Maybe back in middle school, before my debate coach taught me to verbally obliterate any schmuck who stood in my way. Maybe before that. But holding my tongue? Now? It seemed unlikely.

night I sat in front of my computer, new mouth guard in place, staring at the manuscript I had been too paralyzed to touch for four months. I had not been holding my tongue.

I bought the biggest, roundest, greenest watermelon ten dollars could buy, and at six o’clock in the morning, my husband met me outside with his sledgehammer.

With the first swing, I smashed the boy who compared me to Stephanie Meyer. With the second, every person who ever told me my master’s was “nice”. With the third, the voice that still reminded me I could have gone to law school. And finally, over and over again, the demon that wouldn’t let me write a word. That told me, over and over again, none of them were good enough.

I handed my husband the sledgehammer and left the pulp for the birds. We had a five hour drive to make. The whole way there, I wrote.

I no longer wear my mouth guard.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Prose into Poetry

This week's post if from Hamline alum *Bill Kennedy, who is ready to teach us about turning prose into poetry.  Straight from his own classroom, get ready for some great insights on how to boil 60,000 words down to a few essential, emotional points of connection.

It has been almost fifteen years ago to the day that I took my first writing class. The teacher was Natalie Goldberg, the author of "Writing Down the Bones,' arguably, one of the best books on the craft of writing ever. I learned very quickly that writing and teaching depends on connection. She connected to the twelve or so students in the class by having us walk slowly around a spacious room overlooking a park in downtown St. Paul, MN. "Feel your heels, then your toes. Listen to the sound of your shoes. See the cracks on the walls, the corners of the room, the window sash, don't look outside, stay inside." After we sat down, sensitive to every little tingle or brush of air, she told us to "Knock that monkey off your shoulder that tells you everything you write sucks. Pick up your fast pen or pencil and write what you are feeling. Don't think, don't worry about spelling or syntax, just write, don't go back, don't cross out, just write." She called it "fast writing." I felt free and started to pull scenes out of my heart that had been there for a very long time.

This lesson and others, including an MFA at Hamline, led me to teaching a class called Prose into Poetry in 2009 that I have repeated whenever I have had the opportunity, in between day jobs.
I   5 minutes on prose:
My opening prose line went something like, “Prose is describing the interior of a birthing room, repeating the spoken words of the doctor.”

I read the line “Lucidity is the wound closest to the sun,” from poet Rene Char, then   asked the students, 8 year olds to 98 year olds, to “Replace the word ‘Lucidity’ with their own word and write from their heart about that incident” following the Goldberg rules.

II 10-15 minutes on poetry:
My opening poetic line went something like, “Poetry is standing at my wife’s shoulder, watching my son born.”

Now, “Circle the words that rise from your paper, the words that hit you in the chest. Create a poem out of those words.”

III 30-35 minutes of sharing:
“Read your prose. Then read your poem.” Nobody is forced to share.

Invariably, whether from eight year olds, eighteen year olds or eighty-eight year olds, responses were almost immediate from both the reader and the listeners.  If in a classroom, the first reaction sometimes came from the teacher sitting in the back of the room. More often, the first emotion came from the reader describing a pet, a family member, themselves. Shaking, tears, “Oh my God, what did you do then? Are you ok? Hurrah, way to go,” came from the audience  followed by applause.


My prose example is my MFA Creative thesis, a 39,000 word intermediate novel with a lot of death and magical realism. I did not include the whole novel in this Inkpot offering, just a brief recap of character and plot.

The Boy, The Giant and the Crow 

Nine year-old Lucas Logan can control the movement of inanimate objects.  His new found sense of confidence leads him to his next challenge, flying.  His test run leads to his mother’s death.

Twelve year-old Ivan Still is eight feet tall and the strongest person in the county. His father blames Ivan for the loss of his wife and Ivan’s twin brother who died at birth while Ivan survived.

The leader of the local murder, Corvus Denouement, speaks four human languages that he learned by listening to people talk to the dead in the cemetery.   He spends his quiet hours there to escape the gnawing suspicion that he could have saved his parents from a farmer’s shotgun.


The Boy, The Giant and The Crow

Lucas Logan

The porch has wings
In my dream
Lean left
Circle the trees
Lean right
Rise over sunflowers

“Lean right”

You were gone as I flew
You said I could
The earth opened
You were gone
Into the vacant hole

“Where are you?”

Grave marker shifts at my feet
Smoke climbs,
Circles the stone
Your hand rises
Touches mine

“Come back”

The magic is mine
My eyes move
The hole to the side
As I fall, you catch me
And hold on

“Don’t go”

Ivan Still

Shards of glass lie
In the sink
Fallen from the kitchen window
I watch my brother’s
Hand pull back, uncut

He says nothing
Retreats into the trees
Pulled by a cord
I want him to say
“It’s not your fault”

I reach for him
Glass in my fingers
Red drops in the sink
Glass falls away, rub my eyes
Afraid to look again

I grew faster than he
Took food meant for two
Left him none
She couldn’t know I was
The only survivor

He is gone, twelve years gone
Alive in my dreams that he
Invades, enticing me to ask him
Again and again
“Was it my fault? My fault?”

Corvus Denouement

I know the story
Unable to stop a cold gun’s fire
Falling feathers
Cover sunflower’s aisle

No words
Of theirs
Reach my ears
Just human’s talking to the dead

Who am I
To hear their souls
Reach out and touch
What is gone?

A change in the dream
Is all I have
To take us where
We’ve never been

* Bill Kennedy started writing stories as a child. He graduated from Spalding Institute in Peoria, Illinois, received his BA in Political Theory from the College of St. Thomas and his MFA in Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University in St. Paul, MN. He spent many years researching fashion trends around the world for department stores and apparel manufacturers. He and his wife have taught creative writing to students ranging from 3rd grade to 93 years old. The lesson plan doesn't change much. He now focuses his writing on intermediate grade novels that feature Tramp, the world's best dog detective. He lives in Jamestown, North Dakota and raises funds for the James River Valley Library System, the best small rural library since Ptolemy founded the Alexandria Library in the 3rd century BC. 

Thursday, October 29, 2015

A Bigger Boat

Today's blogpost is from the fantastic *Maggie Moris (a.k.a M. A. Moris), a 2009 alum of Hamline's Writing for Children and Young Adults program. In this post, she talks about one of a new (or well-established) author's greatest fears.  When you're done reading it, ask yourself if you know any "Shirley Sharks" and how you deal with them?

Most of my family and friends have stopped asking me the “P” question.  They know and trust that if I have news to share about the status of my books, they’ll be the first to know.

Not so, Shirley Shark.

Shirley Shark – as I like to think of her – enters my social sea about twice a year. Every time she locates me during a party, my heart hitches, my belly tenses and my breath turns to sludge in my chest.  Short of full-blown eye-twitches and seizures, I’m a physical and mental wreck. My dread of her approach pools around me as clearly as blood in the water. Shirley Shark likes to circle in with a wide schadenfreude smile. My middle name turns to “Chum.”

A few weeks ago our exchange went something like this:

M.M.: Murmur, murmur, weather, weather, nicety, nicety, and …

S.S.:  “So, any publishing news? Sold anything yet?” Twenty-two rows of teeth gleamed.

M.M.: “Oh, you know …” 

I’m not proud about what happened next. I swear to God, I meant to tell her what I’ve told her 31 times before, but to my mortification, I stuttered the one word I shouldn’t have: “P-P-Published.” 

The “P” word left my mouth like a verbal fart. I couldn’t call it back. A dear friend standing at my side looked as surprised and horrified as I felt.  She knew this was a lie and she understood how much I dreaded talking to Shirley Shark about my writing.

Shirley Shark’s smile dipped. Her shoulders dropped. The predatory gleam in her eye dimmed.  “Really? You did get published? When? How?”

Whatever nano-second of self-satisfaction I enjoyed was snuffed out as I back-stroked and retracted the statement – badly, awkwardly, but as quickly as possible. Shirley Shark then brightened and spoke a few condescending words of encouragement before she swam off while I tried to figure out what in the world had possessed me.

The mystery of this whole scenario is that I’ve fielded this same question from countless people over the years and I can answer with truth, grace and goodwill.

For me though, Shirley Shark is “The One.” She’s the one person in my wider social circle who consistently unseats my self-confidence and reduces me to worm status. 

So. What’s the point of this story? 

Writing + Time = Insight

I had a sudden epiphany after I finished my second novel. Both books had the same underlying theme, even though I thought they were wildly different stories. Both narratives had something to teach me about forgiveness. Not just forgiveness in a general sense, but specifically in regards to a child forgiving an adult. Writing those books and getting to know those characters opened up a path to compassion and revealed a place inside me that needed to be healed.

In the movie “Jaws,” Roy Scheider’s character, upon seeing the size of the man-eating shark for the first time, says, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”  As writers, we get to build that “bigger boat” for ourselves. Be it sharks, monsters, bullies, neuroses, self-doubt – we can craft the vessel or fort or castle or hot-air balloon we need to find a safe vantage point to explore what haunts or hunts us. 

I don’t have a profound insight on my ongoing issue with Shirley Shark quite yet.  My hunch is that something inside her touches upon an unresolved or unenlightened piece of my own psyche. I could try to psychoanalyze the issue, but I’d rather keep writing. I may not understand Shirley Shark, but I bet there’s a future character inside me who does.

Whether we will it or not, know it or not, intend it or not, our characters often appear to show us what lurks in our personal shadows. Sometimes, our characters come to light for our own benefit. Sometimes, they show up carrying tender blueprints.

Real sharks have a bad rep. No real sharks were harmed in the writing of this essay. 

*When she’s not torturing and mixing metaphors, Maggie Moris (a.k.a. M. A. Moris) writes middle-grade novels.  She received her masters in 2009 from Hamline University and will answer any question you have about a different “P” word: Perseverance. Visit her website to learn more.