To see the announcement for my poetry book, Sparrow, selected by poet Dorianne Laux for the Kenneth and Geraldine Gell Poetry Prize at Writers & Books, go to

You can find a review by Kathleen Kirk at EIL:

Friday, December 30, 2011

What was I thinking?

After three days at my mom's house -- a doctor appointment, a visit from the MIA nephew and his family, hanging out and watching Monk reruns, eating too much candy...I'm home again. Oh, good, I thought. Finally, I'll get some writing done.

How is it that my kids are 18, 18, and 12, and I'm still telling myself that I can get a lot of writing done over school breaks? Shouldn't I have learned better by now?

This is the picture I should have sent out with my Christmas cards. My mother is standing between me and Pearlie.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Ray Bradbury

(image from Lee Valley Tools)

I found these lines set as the epigraph to Louise DeSalvo's book, Writing as a Way of Healing:

So while our art cannot, as we wish it would, save us from wars, privation, envy, greed, old age, or death, it can revitalize us amidst it all....

Writing is survival....

Not to write, for many of us, is to die.

I have learned, on my journeys, that if I let a day go by without writing, I grow uneasy. Two days and I am in tremor. Three and I suspect lunacy. Four and I might as well be a hog, suffering the flux in a wallow. An hour's writing is tonic. I'm on my feet, running in circles, and yelling for a clean pair of spats.

Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing

Monday, December 26, 2011

The American Scholar

I have been meaning to add Priscilla Long's blog, "Science Frictions," from The American Scholar to my bloglist. It's a true delight:

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Losing One's Way

I was wandering around a bookstore and found this while lost in Tomas Transtromer's the great enigma: new collected poems; it's the opening sentence of his prose poem, "The Clearing." 

"Deep in the forest there's an unexpected clearing that can be reached only by someone who has lost his way."

Be lost. Keep your eyes open.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Writing Toward Home

This morning in my journal writing -- and in an email to a friend -- I have indulged in a pity-party. Why write? What's the use? Will any of this work, this writing, ever be to any point? Will my poetry book and my novels ever find publishers? Does anyone believe in me, besides me? Do I still believe? Everyone who has ever discouraged me loomed up in my imagination and stood there (a mob of them) frowning sternly: "You're wasting your time!"

Then, at the library, I came across this encouraging little book by Georgia Heard, Writing Toward Home: Tales and Lessons to Find Your Way (Heinemann, 1995). Here's the opening paragraph of an exercise:

"In order to write, you must face your inner critics, steal their power. Begin by trying to identify them. The more ambiguous they are, the more power they have. Write down: Who are they? What do they look like? Where do they work? At a university? At a magazine? How did they acquire so much power? When did they enter your life? In second grade, when your teacher threw your writing in the trash? In college, when your professor wrote huge X's all over the poems he didn't like? Last week, when you received four rejections in the mail? Describe them and what they're saying to you."

Ultimately, to be an artist in this world -- where money and technology and politics compete to rule our lives -- you have to find one person to believe in and 100% support your peculiar vision. And that person is you.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

September, Fallen

We sort through pictures all afternoon,
breathing the dust of chipped
and tattered corners. My young parents
sitting on the grass with their first two babies,
me and my brother,
gray light flooding around us.
Before dinner, I step out the back door
to gather a few scabby pears.
Under the skin, the fruit
will be unblemished and sweet.
Such a jolt--not a metaphor,
an electric tingle of awareness
like a bee's sting--
to brush our fingers over the faces
of so many loved dead. Near the backyard gate
a deer has left its hoofprint
mashed into one over-ripe pear.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Revising Oneself

Grades are in and I've begun work on two manuscript revisions -- the poetry (always and forever, it seems) and one more round on PEARL'S ALCHEMY (I'm reading through the whole thing while waiting on my agent for comments). Of course, sometimes it's good right away, and here's a poem that -- at least in memory -- came through pretty clearly the first time. "Then" has been published twice, once by CROSSCURRENTS, and once in the anthology from Yarroway Mountain Press, A CADENCE OF HOOVES.

"It is no sign of weakness or defeat that your manuscript ends up in need of major surgery. This is common in all writing and among the best of writers." E.B. White


When she was a girl and he was her horse,
she would lie on the grass at his feet (which she

would have been careful to call his hooves)
summer days, and he would take up the grass

in his teeth, his great yellow, beastly teeth,
even the grass mingled with her hair,

teasing her as if he would bite her hair,
though he never did. Standing at the barn door,

he would rub his long nose down her back.
Once, after a yawn (listening to her with her silly friends),

he closed his jaws around her arm
and shook it, mildly impatient as a husband.

And if you had asked her then, What is love?
she could so easily have told you.


And now that grades are in, I will also be 1) going to the gym, and 2) taking long naps.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A Writer's Space

"It is a bad trick of the mind to announce to yourself that you can only write in a certain place, in certain circumstances, in a certain kind of weather, at a certain time of the day, after having a certain kind of meal, with a certain sort of pen. It is fine to have preferences but important to commit to writing anywhere. That way you can grab ideas when you're away from home; you can take a little writing trip when you feel dull at your desk; you can choose among your excellent haunts and decide which feels most congenial at the moment. By all means maintain a primary writing place; then add altenates." -Eric Maisel, A Writer's Space

Monday, December 12, 2011

Cortland Review

Here's a video of poet C.K. Williams, courtesy of the folks at Cortland Review.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

I'm supposed to be grading papers...

...and I have been, but I also picked up this book via Interlibrary Loan, Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives, by Louise DeSalvo. She writes,

"What, though, if writing weren't such a luxury? What if writing were a simple, significant, yet necessary way to achieve spiritual, emotional, and psychic wholeness? To synthesize thought and feeling, to understand how feeling relates to events in our lives and vice versa? What if writing were as important and as basic a human function and as signifcant to maintaining and promoting our psychic and physical wellness as, say, exercise, healthful food, pure water, clean air, rest and repose, and some soul-satisfying practice?" (6)

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Trickster Strikes

I don't know that I'm supposed to tell the world that my spirit guide -- in recent travels, anyway -- has been Coyote. If you know my poetry book (The Coyotes and My Mom) then you'll understand with what alarm, and wariness, and maybe even horror, I encountered her. (It was definitely a female coyote -- I don't know how that alters its trickster qualities. Not much, I would guess, but I can feel a difference in the energy.)

Anyway, yesterday I suffered a major setback in my writing gameplan. I reeled. Two students immediately showed up at my office door (my soccer girls, which kind of fits with this whole trickster theme) and I was so incoherent they must have wondered what was going on with me. But after a couple hours, after an evening with my friend Margaret listening to poet David Whyte (something of a trickster himself), I felt better. It could be a good thing, this huge shift in my gameplan. Don't I tell my students that when they find themselves within the unexpected, relish it?

Then, after dropping Margaret off at 10:30 p.m., I decided to drive home via Olympic View Drive, and there, standing in the middle of a bend as if waiting for me, was an exceedingly scruffy looking coyote. She stood stock still (why not a female?) and waited until my lights swept over her, then she trotted amicably away into the brush along the road.

It all adds up.

A long time ago I made two resolutions: 1) To let everything that happens draw me closer to God (this has been harder than I expected, but I keep trying), and 2) To use everything that happens as an excuse to write. Why not?

Friday, December 2, 2011

The End of Fall Quarter

Yesterday I shared this quote from Julia Cameron with my Creative Nonfiction students:

There is a persistent notion that we must "wait for the muse to strike," as though creativity were so mysterious and capricious that we can, at best, hope to snare it as we would a rare butterfly.

The reality is just the reverse. We are the ones who show up. We are the ones who disappear for long periods of time. Creative energy is a constant and we can always tap into it.

(from her book, Vein of Gold, page 141)

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Staying on the Path

"Art is not just ornamental, an enhancement of life, but a path in itself, a way out of the predictable and conventional, a map to self-discovery." Gabrielle Roth

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

What Saves Us

Today--right now--I am going to shut down my computer, push back my chair, walk out of this office, and mail my poetry manuscript. I can't fathom why sending out a manuscript should be so dang hard. I want to address it--as someone suggests in one of the books on my capacious shelves--"To the Editor Who Will Appreciate Me." Instead it has to go to an actual, physical location. It's a rich process. I don't think I'm finished with this manuscript yet. But sending it out (and ushering it to this threshold) seems a step in the right direction. Go little book.

“Your soul knows the geography of your destiny. Your soul alone has the map of your future, therefore you can trust this indirect, oblique side of yourself. If you do, it will take you where you need to go, but more important it will teach you a kindness of rhythm in your journey.” ― John O'Donohue, Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom

Monday, November 28, 2011

Progress on the Must-Do List

I've now reached the point where two items on my list MUST be resolved. The church newsletter deadline is tomorrow morning -- and two minutes ago I emailed the bio as an attachment. Check that off my list.

If I want to submit a poetry manuscript in time for the November 30 deadline, it has to go out in the next 48 hours. So, tomorrow or Wednesday? Why not?

The great thing is that once the poetry mss. is in the mail, the article will be my ONLY must-do item left on the list. Oh, wait, I have the letters (but now those are feeling more doable). And, yes, end of the quarter student papers will be arriving soon. Yes, I have a couple other must-do items that can be added. But I'm going to count it all as progress. There are always the must-do's. One still has to proceed with the real, important work. The strange thing is that, with daily attention, the article for historylink has begun to feel like real and important work. Hmm, that's worth noticing.

I am compelled to add that poetry always feels real and important to me (and I don't need rewards to get myself to work on it). But I've been hanging fire on getting a mss. submitted for some months now. That's the piece that feels like busywork, the piece that requires some prodding to achieve.

"I don't need more time. I need a deadline." -Duke Ellington

Friday, November 25, 2011

Thanksgiving (update day 9ish)

"Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, power to retell it, to rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts." -Salman Rushdie

Despite being at the farm visiting Mom over the last few days, I've managed to get in my 15 minutes of writing (about a half hour, in fact, each day) on the article. I'm reading and taking notes...blundering around still. But it occurred to me this morning that two weeks ago I was still fantasizing about "giving back" this assignment, and now I can see my way to the finish.

I'm thankful for a wonderful family. I'm thankful to find a little time to write.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

"Caught in the Crosswalk" (update, day 8)

Yes, I do get my gold star today. (It was a blue star, in truth.)

Here is the illustrious subject of my article, professor, poet, storyteller Colleen J. McElroy, reading for Cave Canem:

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Writing Today (update day 7)

I write every day. I write in longhand, in a journal, first thing every morning. But right now I'm also trying to write on my article every day, for at least fifteen minutes.

We have a reading series at the college and when our famous writers (and not-so-famous writers) visit, a question I always ask is, "When do you write?"

Sometimes they don't write every day. "Not at all?" I ask (aghast).

"I need big blocks of time," they tell me. "I'm really busy," they tell me. "I'm too busy to write." Sometimes these writers are successful writers, visiting my college because they have new books and lovely writing awards. "The writing will wait," a short story writer told me last year. She was young and had a two-year old. But there was a time in my life when I had two two-year olds, and I still wrote every day. I can easily imagine myself saying, "I know just what you mean. I can't possibly write every day. I have two eighteen-year olds and a twelve-year old. I have a teaching career and a one-hour commute, and..." I understood exactly what this young writer was saying. To use the overused cliche, my heart went out to her. But I wanted to add, "Honey, you should write every day."

We have no time except today. 

Here's a quote about daily writing from Priscilla Long's The Writer's Portable Mentor:

"Writing every day is the key to becoming a writer. Writing every day is the key to remaining a writer. It is the only secret, the only trick. Don't despise the fifteen-minute write. Don't despise writing in your journal. Don't despise writing down your complaints for fifteen minutes before going to work. Any writing counts." (13)

Long also advises that although some days will allow for longer writing sessions, what you do one day can't be applied to the next. If you write for two hours on Monday, you still have to get up on Tuesday and write ... for at least fifteen minutes.

And that is why, even though I worked on my article for an hour today during Writing Lab, I still don't get a gold star for yesterday.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Update (day 6)

Yes, I did manage to work yesterday, though I didn't make it on-line to post about it. Early in the morning I worked for an hour (again) on the poetry manuscript (which I think I had better let go of soon).

I meant to get to the article early in the day, but instead I did laundry, balanced my checkbook, and graded papers. About 7:00, after dinner (and kids out of the house), I sat down in my green chair, determined to work for at least fifteen minutes. Then the phone rang. At 8:00, even though the kids had come home by that time, I worked for 20 minutes. Believe it or not, I had a breakthrough and I think I have my first actual paragraph now.

I made a calendar and got out my foil stars and gave myself a star for every day I've worked at least 15 minutes.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Update (day 4)

It's 8:30, and my girls and I are settling down to watch Grimm, streaming this week's episode, which we couldn't watch last night, for various reasons.

I had a so-so day on my goals, which isn't bad considering that it's Saturday. I got up at 5:50 and, after doing the scribbling that I do every morning in my journal, I worked on the poetry manuscript for over an hour. The day commenced at 8:00 (a ringing phone)...and continued nonstop until 6 p.m., when Annie asked if I'd go to Barnes & Noble with her and do homework. Yes!

Once we had our lattes and hot chocolates, I took out my notes and started working.

Annie was stumbling around, not starting her research paper about serial killers, and she asked me why I had written the time down at the top of my notebook page. "It's what I do, especially when I'm procrastinating on a project. I make a deal with myself to work for 15 minutes. And even though I'm the queen of procrastination, I usually end up working for a little more than 15 minutes."

Annie's eyes widened. "I'm the queen of procrastination," she said.

"So work for 15 minutes."

"And then I can take a break?"

Twenty minutes later she was reading a People magazine (hottest male stars issue), and I was reading short stories by Daniel Woodrell. (So much for working at a bookstore coffee shop.) But I had a time-line for my article, and Annie had two paragraphs written for her paper.

Did I mention that Emma was with us? She found the newest Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and by 8:00 had read 113 pages. I had to buy her the book so we could go home.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Update (day 3)

I was so blessed to get to sneak out on my family last night and have dinner with a friend. We sat in her cozy living room and we ate Indian food, and we talked -- for about 3 hours. (Apparently I had a lot to say. And so did she.) Her cat Zimmie sat on my lap and purred loudly.

My friend said she'd visited my blog and it looked like things are really flowing for me right now. "You're getting so much done!"

No, I'm not. I'm grinding away here, gears screaming, hoping that the muse will show up at some point (because we know that just like eating encourages appetite, writing encourages inspiration, right?) and HELP ME!!!

Yesterday I had a presentation at school that -- even though I knew that it was no big deal -- was in front of the Dean's Council and (idiot for authority figures that I am) I completely overprepared for. (Not that it helped, though I think we will be approved for our learning community -- Writing Monsters -- next winter quarter.) But when I went back to my desk, I hauled out the poetry manuscript, opened the file on the computer, and started typing in changes and cutting out poems that don't fit as well as they could. It's down to 71 pages now (including the title pages). Doable. Today I'll drop by Kinko's and print it out. Maybe I'll actually put it in the mail?

Today I will work on my article for (at least for fifteen minutes). Which reminds me, if you haven't visited Priscilla Long's blog at, you really should.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Update (day 2)

"One of the most profound traits that distinguishes us from other animals is our ability to imagine things that do not yet exist; our ability to envision future possibilities and to choose among them; in short, our ability to create." Laura Day

Yesterday I decided to follow my own 15-minute rule, but apply it strictly to the article. I didn't make visible progress, but I did sit in a stare-down with the muse for more than 15 minutes. In fact, for more like an hour I stuck with the article, downloaded more information, reread, thought, did some gear-grinding. It's all good.

Awake early this morning, I hauled out my poetry manuscript and went all the way through it.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Update (1)

Yesterday I checked "student papers" off my list. (Hurrah!) Yes, I do have another set waiting, but they are not long, creative projects, just book reviews, and I can do them quickly (and without writing letters back).

Yesterday I went to Writing Lab (this is a write-time lab for faculty and staff at my college; I direct it) and found only one person waiting for me. We talked for 20 minutes, then decided to go back to our student papers. A gift, of a sort, but it didn't help me make progress on my article, which I have been pecking away at each week for the hour of Writing Lab.

I had a meeting at 3:30, then, at 5:00, my daughter Annie called to see if I would meet her at the Mukilteo Library to do homework. During that hour, I typed a very bad draft of the article. This was big -- as, until now, it's been confined to scribblings in a notebook.

I just now pulled it off my flash drive and printed it. Now to work on it some more.

I'll let you know tomorrow how I did.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

If you bumped into me in the last few days and wondered why I looked so overwhelmed and harassed, here are a few of the writing jobs on  my MUST DO list:
  • Write letters and send a poem to the women from my fall Writing & Spirituality class.
  • Write the article for (I've been procrastinating on this for 2 years now!)
  • Write the bio on JH for my church Progress (a monthly newsletter; I was asked to do this in April!)
  • Finish my student papers (this means writing a letter to each student after reading and rereading and digesting what they've written in their longer Creative Nonfiction paper. I still have four to go that should have been handed back yesterday...when they turned in a new set of papers.)
  • Meet the November deadlines with my poetry manuscript WHAT SAVES US (because my poetry mss. can't win a contest and get published if it's not "out" somewhere).
When I get these things done I will be able to go back to work on a novel. (Either HEARTWOOD, or THE SORREL MARE, or maybe the waitress of these is going to be in the mail to my agent by the end of the year.)

I want to work on the novel right now. But I'm trying to trick myself into doing this other work first, and posting about them here is part of that process. (I'll report in every day with a progress report.)

Watch this space!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Quoting Jane Yolen

I've been reading Jane Yolen's Touch Magic: "The magical story is not a microscope but a mirror, not a drop of water but a well. It is not simply one thing or two, but a multitude. It is at once lucid and opaque, it accepts both dark and light, speaks to youth and old age." (32)

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Where I Write

I just had a lovely talk with a young writer named Olivia who wanted to know where I write. I told her about my green chair in the corner of the living room. I told her about carrying my notebook and pen with me everywhere I go with my kids. And then I felt a little guilty about that, so I told her about writing a poem about reading Graham Greene while at Wild Waves, about writing in my car between the time I drop my kids off and when I pick them up.

At one point in the conversation, as Olivia was trying to tell me about a book she is reading, she scooped up her purse, unzipped it, and produced the book. "This is why I have a big purse," she said. "Exactly!" I said.

It isn't so much a place, as it is an attitude.

If you have a passion, you can't have it part time or when it's convenient or when you're not busy with other things. If you have a passion, it's always your passion, even when you're doing other things. "What do you write about?" Olivia asked me, and I told her about the farm where I grew up, about my kids, about my students -- but now that I think about it, it's more complicated than that. This quote came to mind:

"Meaning is not in things but in between; in the iridescence, the interplay; in the interconnections; at the intersections, at the crossroads. Meaning is transitional as it is transitory; in the puns or bridges, the correspondence." -Norman O. Brown

I'm afraid I made it sound as though I get a lot of writing done, when it's really more like I do a lot of scribbling. Maybe I get slightly more writing done than other mothers-of-three, other college teachers. But I rather like the idea that I'm always writing about the "in between," and that maybe I'm writing even when I'm not writing -- about the paradoxes and intersections between being a mom and a wife and a teacher and a recovering farm-girl and a former waitress and voracious reader and a writer. Maybe the in between is all that any of us are ever writing about.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Why Write?

One reason to write is because it gives your life meaning. Another reason is to create meaning.


Here's a short video of philosopher A. C. Grayling, which I found on the NYTimes website.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011


You know those forwarded emails that you just hate to even open? Well, my friend Liz sent this, and -- what a delight!

Done like you've never seen before. This video from the small Yupiq Eskimo Village of Quinhagak, Alaska, was a school computer project intended for the other Yupiq villages in the area. Much to the villagers' shock, over a half million people have viewed it.

I hope you can find the time to view it.

Monday, October 31, 2011

What I'm Reading

The other day a malfunction in the elevators and some nasty smoke resulted in the evacuation of my building at Everett Community College. Under a barrage of blaring alarms, I walked out of my office without grabbing my bookbag. Fortunately, I picked up my coat.

A lot of us stood around and talked just outside Gray Wolf Hall, shivering, thinking we would be allowed to re-enter in only a few minutes. But, no such luck. Finally, I went to the mailroom. I walked through the Parks building, where food services is housed, and thought about asking for a latte on credit, then wandered down to the library. In the library, I don't need I.D. They know me. I picked up two books: one titled How To Haiku (no doubt you will hear more about that later); the other, Jay Parini's Why Poetry Matters."Why poetry matters? Preaching to the choir, Mr. Parini?" I discovered that it is full of gems. Here's the epigraph to the preface:

"Life is energy, and energy is creativity. And even when individuals pass on, the energy is retained in the work of art, locked in it and awaiting release if only someone will take the time and the care to unlock it." -Marianne Moore

Friday, October 28, 2011

(40 of 40) The Last Blogpost?

Well, the last blogpost in this series of 40. I promised 40 days of guarantee that they would arrive 40 days in a row, but I wanted to land close to that mark.

Here's some of what I've learned, both about writing, and because I was writing (i.e., paying more attention than usual):
  • If I'm paying attention, life offers me something every day that makes a good analogy or lesson or example for a blogpost on writing.
  • It isn't my stuff that gets in the way of my writing, it's my belief that my stuff gets in the way.
  • I can sit down at my computer and write a blogpost in about 15 minutes...give or take a few minutes while I check for errors and straighten out any tangles.
  • Writing a blogpost every day is writing every day.
  • If I skip a day or write something lame now and then, none of my followers gets bent out of shape (at least, they don't tell me if they get bent out of shape).
  • My classes can be a rich source of more ideas for my own writing -- if I approach them in that spirit.
  • If I'm writing for accolades -- for fame and fortune -- then I'll quit writing. On the other hand, if I really want to do something, then that desire can be motivation enough.
  • When I'm dreading writing something, dreading my classes, dreading an interaction with a colleague or a wound-up daughter, that's fear. Recognizing that dread = fear is the first step to disabling it, and maybe even turning it into love. I have to credit my friend Carolynne and ACIM for this insight, but blogging helped me notice it.
Thanks for following along! And here's a link to the announcement about my prize-winning poem (and the poem, if you scroll down) at CALYX: There's a very cool link to a web page of one of the finalist's, and I hope you'll take a look at it.


Thursday, October 27, 2011

(39 of 40) The Writing Career

Tuesday evening my daughter Annie dragged me and her sisters down to Secret Garden Bookstore in Ballard ( to hear her favorite author, Tamora Pierce. (For her personal bio, click here:
My friend Valorie sent Annie and Pearl two Tamora Pierce novels (Alanna, the First Adventure was, I think, one of them) when they turned twelve. I read one out loud, and then Annie took them over. I didn't read fast enough. She has since collected -- and read multiple times -- every one of Pierce's novels. Mastiff was released only on Tuesday, and, yes, we bought that one, too.

I wish I had Pierce's author-talk on a tape recorder. She didn't read aloud as authors often do on such occasions. She talked -- extemporaneously and in response to questions -- for over an hour. The bookstore was packed (we were standing between shelves to the side), and no one wandered away. In fact, a few people stumbled into the store to buy books and, mesmerized, stayed to listen.

The woman is a writing machine, with 27 books to her credit. She reads widely -- true crime and FBI reports are favorites -- apropos to my recent posts, Does she revise? Yes. "Writers revise," she said, or scolded, adding, "and the writers who say they don't revise, are the ones who especially should."

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

(38 of 40) What We Hold Sacred

I started my 40 days of blogging as a gift to my students (and Margaret, too) in the Writing and Spirituality class. Right now I'm trying to write a wrap-up email to them, and really stalling on it. Too busy? Uninspired? Then I found this passage in my morning's reading:

"...excellence in writing isn't only about voice and style. It is also about finding the truest parts of ourselves and having the moral strength never to waver from what we hold sacred." (Jill Jepson)
  • It's hard to write the wrap-up email because I hate to wrap up this class. I want to keep it.
  • It's hard to write the wrap-up email because I worry that I haven't done enough yet. I want to do more.
  • It's hard to write the wrap-up email because I'm not good at transitions. It's all part of my larger "stuckness" that this class addressed and that I'm still addressing.
  • I'm pretty sure that I learned more from them than they learned from me
  • It's hard to write the wrap-up email because it makes me too sad.
On the other hand, I wonder if I could take my own advice and focus on the positive aspects of each item on this list:
  • I don't have to wrap-up the friendships I formed in this class. I can keep them.
  • I have done enough for now.
  • I move through transitions -- acknowleged and unacknowledged -- all the time. I've certainly practiced them long enough to be great at them.
  • It's such a cool thing that I learned so much!
  • Thinking about this class makes me really happy. I hope Margaret and I can teach it again.
This feels like a first draft, doesn't it?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

(37 of 40) What's Your Process?

"Beginning writers have too much respect for their written drafts. They have been taught to respect--or fear, or stand in awe of, or to admire without question--the printed text. The writing, especially if it is typed, appears finished." -Donald Murray, The Craft of Revision, 200

I don't know if I agree with Murray about students and written drafts. Sometimes students seem to revere their handwriting so much they can't bear to change a word. Getting a piece typed and double-spaced can, in that event, give them the necessary distance to revise.

I have some counter-intuitive advice for you. Figure out what your hang-ups are, and then go there. If you believe you can't write in longhand, in a notebook, you should give it a try. Do it in the same spirit as you might use if asked to brush your teeth with your off-hand -- just to see what it does to your synapses. Do it several days in a row and see what happens.

For many years I felt that I had to write everything out in a notebook, preferably in a cafeteria or a coffee shop, someplace with noise. I wrote in a notebook, and then I used a typewriter -- a typewriter! -- to work through several drafts. Only then did I move to a word processor.

Then I had to write a doctoral dissertation. I didn't have time to fuss around. I had 18-month-old twins; I had a teaching appointment at the University of Washington. I got up early in the morning, when the house was deathly quiet. I made coffee, I put a load of laundry in the washing machine, and then I sat down (behind the couch, in our living room) at my computer, turned it on, opened the file for my dissertation, and started typing. Well, rereading and typing. (The first pages, and the first chapter, then chapters, got lots of attention. Eventually, I had to let go of even this method and move deeper into the project. It was terrifying.) After a couple of hours, I printed out whatever I had gotten through that day, and when I marched off to the university to teach, I packed those pages along with me. When I had a chance (between classes, students papers, meetings, etc.) I tugged the pages out of my bag, reread them, and made more notes. Did I mention that I had 18-month-old twins when this process began? At 11:30, I met my husband and said twins at the park-and-ride. I took the stationwagon, and the girls, and he went to work.

It took about two years of inconsistent, spotty attention, groaning and moaning, and talking it through, and then it took six months of dedicated, daily attention (about four months off from teaching), and I had a 250 page book to turn in to my doctoral committee. I could tell you more stories.

I could tell you lots more stories. The point, however, is that I gave up my laborious habits of having the right notebook and pen. I just wrote. And it worked.

Monday, October 24, 2011

(36 of 40) Rewriting

"The first thing that has to be broken down is your relationship to authority. Your insecurity could possibly be the wedge that opens up your perspective on what you think it is possible for you to do." -Ross Bleckner

I love to revise. Writing a first draft (I mean, of a short story or the article I'm supposed to be writing for can feel hideous, horrendous, hateful -- like pulling one's own teeth with a pair of pliers -- like the sound a dentist drill makes. Okay, so it doesn't feel that bad all the time. But sometimes.

Revising, on the other hand, because it doesn't begin with the blank page, is more like a playground. While I revise, I often find myself writing new pages, too, or at least lines and short paragraphs that fit into the original with asterisks and arrows directing the flow. I start with My mother reads mystery novels, only mystery novels. But by the third or fourth go-round, the line reads, The bookshelf in my mother's bedroom overflows with mysteries by Agatha Christie, J.A. Jance, Lilian Jackson Braun, Mary Higgins Clarkand Mary Daheim, but when I ask her what she's reading, she smiles vaguely. It's a mystery, I think, and then I say it aloud. "Of course," she says.

I don't know why my students -- usually -- don't like to revise. Maybe they think revising is going through and fixing errors. Putting the commas in the right places. Adding stronger verbs. But revising, etymologically, means "re-seeing." And re-seeing is what makes it feel like play to me. I read my own work, pen in hand, and it's like finding possibilities.  Oh, I should describe the bedroom! Oh, I can describe mom! Oh, I'll add the story about her high school teacher and Nancy Drew. At the top of the page I write in big letters: READ A NANCY DREW MYSTERY!!!! WHY DID MOM, EVEN AS A KID, LOVE MYSTERIES? WHAT DID THEY DO FOR HER? WHAT EMPTY PLACE DID THEY FILL? Suddenly I'm not writing an essay, I'm living a story -- I'm off on an adventure of discovery.

One of my students this morning said he writes better when it's just before the deadline. Another student said, "It's hard to quit procrastinating when you get an A for a paper written the night before it was due." I've gotten those A's, too. Even so, I can't write my mom-and-mystery novel story without first writing a draft that makes me aware of all I don't know.

I continue to think that almost any piece of writing can be better. As I often say to my students, The most exciting thing -- and the most frustrating thing -- about writing is that it can always be better. 

Friday, October 21, 2011

(35 of 40) Places to Hide

Here's another essay idea.

Where have you hidden? Imagine writing a piece (a poem, prose poem, or creative nonfiction) in which you list every place you can remember hiding during your life.

The places could be physical, and they could be emotional. Some of the items could include mini-scenes or quick descriptions of those you hid from. You might want to include a time someone hid from you. (I remember my youngest daughter hiding in the clothes rack at Mervyn's, causing the entire store to lock down while we searched for her.)

Number the parts, or just separate each one with an asterisk. See what happens.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

(34 of 40) What Makes It Interesting?

Yesterday in my Creative Nonfiction class, several students admitted that they have not yet chosen a topic for what we call "the longer paper." This is a project I ask students to work on all quarter long, from day one! They do a 30-chapters exercise, we do character sketches in class, and we do some other brainstorming stuff (9 trips, 9 events). We look at the portkey essay (which I blogged about a couple weeks ago). And we look at the collage essay. I give them lots of examples to read on their own.

Apparently, this quarter, it's not working, at least for some of my students. "Nothing has ever happened to me," one of them complained. "Nothing interesting," another said.

They seemed pretty discouraged, and I picked up on it. Oh, life is so dull! I lost sleep over it.

But this morning, it all turned around for me. 1) It's mid-quarter, and we always have a little slump of enthusiasm at mid-quarter. 2) Of course their lives are exciting! Of course things have happened to them! 3) And it's not even a failure of imagination that they (and I) weren't seeing it yesterday, it's a failure of faith.

Here's my guarantee (and, no, I never was a cheerleader). If you will choose any topic -- your great aunt Mildred and her varicose veins, your best friend Joe who dropped out of school and works as a clerk at Build-a-Bear, the engine rebuild that you did with your dad -- and then pay attention to it, scratching your head, scratching your pen across the paper, tugging and pushing it just a little bit every day for a few days in a row, it will become interesting.

You still can't think of anything? Here's a little assignment: Make some notes about phone calls you've had that changed your life. Big change or little change, it doesn't matter. List them. Now circle three that jump out at you. Now set your timer (on your stove or on your phone) and write for five minutes about for the other two. Include attention to these details: What phone did you receive this news on? What was the ring like? Where were you when you answered the phone? Who was on the other end? What did they say? What did you say? What happened then? What changed? Put these together under one title and see what happens. You can weave -- or braid -- them together or you can subtitle them 1, 2, 3. I'd love to see the results. (Wouldn't you?)

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

(33 of 40) Piano Practice

When I was a girl, I took piano lessons. This was a financial hardship for my parents, but it was intended, I think, to prepare me to play hymns in church, and perhaps to make me good material to become a minister's wife. My teacher was my Uncle Billy, who was also a high school math teacher and, later, a principal. On Wednesday afternoons I rode the bus home with my cousins, a boy a few years older than I, and another, a few years younger. I spent an hour or two romping with them, or I helped my Aunt Evelyn in the kitchen, and badgered her with questions. She had a big kitchen garden, and a greenhouse. She was a very good cook and often kept me at her house until after dinner. Sometimes she cooked artichokes.

When Uncle Billy got home from work we sat down together in a corner of the living room. I sat on the piano bench; he pulled up a chair behind me. He sketched as he listened (I still have a picture he drew of "Mr. Bethany King"). When it was time to introduce the new lesson, he took a seat on the bench beside me, and I waited demurely, my hands folded on my lap, while he showed me what to do--how a real player could make those keys dance. Uncle Billy was a very good piano player. When I played, it never sounded like that. He told me stories, too, illustrative ones. I learned that when he was a boy he practiced the piano for an hour or two every day while his widowed mother sat sewing. I vowed to practice more.

But I never practiced more than I had to, and my mother finally saw that it wasn't going to take. "You just want to go because Evelyn spoils you," she said, and she made me quit taking lessons.

Daily writing is a little like piano practice. You don't have to write a new symphony--or a ragtime ditty--every day in order to become a better writer, in fact, you may be better served by letting your writing practice be a little closer to playing scales. Every Good Boy Does Fine. You'll be well served by doing some playful imitations. Play around with sentences. Write fragments and compound sentences and complex sentences and list sentences. Try describing settings and characters, quickly. Try throwing down a scene. Just write. Let it be dumb or "shitty" (as Anne Lamott says). Mind your teacher and write a little every day.

I never fell in love with the piano. And I never married a minister. I'm sorry about that (I mean the playing piano part), especially when I'm in a room with a piano and I get this itchy, uncomfortable feeling that someone is going to ask me to play. On the other hand, when I sit down to write I often recall that feeling of lifting my hands to the keys, the pause, and then the music flowing out. More to the credit of my uncle's gracious family than to my own prowess (or lack of it), it's a good memory.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

(32 of 40) Who Gets to Write?

A really cool thing happened to me Saturday morning. I dropped by the library to check my on-line class and email, and, as I entered, I saw a flyer for a watercolor class taught by artist Molly Hashimoto (and sponsored by the Mukilteo branch of the Friends of the Library). I stopped in the lobby to read the flyer, and noticed people trickling into the meeting room. On the tables in the meeting room, I saw pieces of paper and cups of water and Prang watercolor sets. I checked the flyer to see the start time. Five minutes. Hmm, I thought. There it is again, watercolors.

(See my 9/30/11 and 10/4/11 posts for more about watercolors.)

I went into the library, found a computer station and logged on. I opened my email. I opened my on-line class. Then I thought, Bethany! Go take that class!

I stood up and walked to the room. I asked if there were spaces available and if I needed any supplies. There were spaces, and the supplies were provided.

I returned to the computer, logged out, grabbed my stuff, and joined the class. And not only did I get to play with watercolors for an hour and a half (the class was called something like "Using Watercolor to Create a Seasonal Journal"), but I noticed a number of correspondences between Hashimoto's teaching and my own.

1. At its most basic, writing is play.
2. Anyone can write.
3. Although some people are going to write all the time and become skilled, anyone can write and, with a little attention, be pretty happy with the result.
4. Writing doesn't require a lot of fancy equipment.
5. You can write outdoors.
6. Details make your work more personal.
7. If you let it, writing can teach you a lot about how to see the world.

Monday, October 17, 2011

(31 of 40) The Next Fifteen Minutes

I'm a big fan of Author Magazine, and of its editor, William Kenower. This interview, focusing on Kim Kircher and her first book, a memoir titled  The Next Fifteen Minutes,  is 24 minutes long, but I want to recommend it in particular.  In a nutshell, Kircher has written a memoir about how her work on Ski Patrol at Crystal Mountain prepared her for what she would face during her husband's battle with cancer.

The entire interview is wonderful, and includes lots of good advice about writing a memoir. The title, however, is what grabbed my attention. Every fifteen minutes her husband -- in his hospital bed -- can push a button that will result in the delivery of more painkiller. When his pain is at its worse, the goal becomes to get through the next fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes is relevant in Kircher's work on a ski mountain, too, as fifteen minutes (her example in the interview) is how quickly they need to transport an injured skier to the base lodge.

So, reaching all the way back to the beginning of my 40 days of blogging, and yesterday's post, and maybe my ski post from two days ago...writing may not be life-and-death, like liver cancer is, but it can feel impossible. But what if all you had to do was get through 15 minutes of writing?

You can do that.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

(30 of 40) What You Nurture Will Grow

Yesterday I took my girls and a friend's toddler to the pumpkin farm. Having the toddler with us was quite a treat, but I was also pleased to see how "little" my three big girls can still act. Everyone was delighted by the pumpkins, the farm animals (a very sweet black and white calf, chicks, rabbits, chickens, turkeys, not to mention the pigs).

It's late Sunday night after a busy weekend, and I'm perfectly happy to have spent almost every minute of the weekend with my kids. It isn't necessarily profound, and one needn't even be all that nurturing. But what we pay attention to does grow. Pay attention to anger, your resentment, your status as a beleagured victim of circumstances, or -- you can pay attention to what brings you joy, what makes you grateful -- and even if you are incredibly busy, a few minutes of thirsty attention to your writing over a few days will eventually show results.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

(29 of 40) One more lesson from skiing...

After writing the post yesterday, I remembered something else my skiing instructor (his name was Steve, and he was a middle-school English or History teacher. I had a major crush on him) once said to me.

He pointed down the slope at a clump of small evergreens and said, "I'm going to teach you something about teaching." (At this era in my life I was a waitress in Kelso, Washington.) "If you don't want your students to ski right into those trees, then don't say, 'Don't hit the trees,' or 'Watch out for the trees,' or even, 'Ski around the trees.' If you say 'trees,' they are doomed." Then he grinned in his devil-may-care way and said, "Okay, see you at the bottom."

I pushed off after him (clumsily, I was new at this), thinking, "Don't hit the trees. Don't hit the trees." You can guess how that turned out.

The same thing works in writing -- and in life. Don't say "I would write more if I weren't so lazy." "I could write early in the morning before work if only I didn't stay up so late at night drinking wine and watching TV."

Say (or write in your journal!) "I'm writing more." "I'm going to bed at 10:30 when my teenagers go to bed." Go to bed early. Get up early. Make time to write. Then you'll be telling the truth, and encouraging yourself to make a great run at your writing for the day...and, if you're like me, the next day and the next.

This is also why pointing out student errors in freshman composition doesn't make them better writers.

I'm sharing the only snow picture I could find, my mom's front yard a couple Christmases ago.

Friday, October 14, 2011

(28 of 40) The only way down is down...

I have a friend who says, when faced with a problem, "The only way through is through." I have been spending time with her lately, and maybe that's why I woke up the other morning with this vivid image of myself standing at the top of a ski slope. I was on skis, looking down a steep, mogully slope, the words of my old ski instructor (a hottie, from my early 20s) echoing in my ears: "The only way down is down."

A ski slope is a different kind of problem than...well, a "problem." For one thing, everytime I've ever gone skiing I was choosing to be there, excited to be there, hopped up as if on drugs to be there. I love skiing. Even so, not being world class at the sport, I frequently found myself at the top of a slope that was a bit too challenging for my taste.

I could stand there at the top for a long time, squinching my skis and poles around, maybe doing a long traverse and quick crowhop turn then another long traverse across the slope. Finally, far behind my skiing buddies, I'd have to go for it. "The only way down is down," I'd mutter, and point my skis down the hill.

That's how I've been feeling about tackling a new writing project. I want to be here. I'm glad I'm here. I choose to be here. But I still find myself filled with dread, making those silly big wedgie turns (what are those called?) and hesitating.

It's time. And the only way to write the next thing is to write it.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

(27 of 40) Writing a Scene, III: Deep Cuts

How do they get out of the Garbage Chute?

This is my final observation concerning our scene from Star Wars. Filmmakers have only a certain number of minutes they can hold onto an audience. Writers, too, need to be aware of how much patience their readers may (or may not) have. What's essential? As someone has said, "Art is life with the boring bits left out."

This is why filmmakers, despite the $$ they've invested in every scene they shoot, leave a lot of footage on the cutting room floor. Just because you put some time and ink into writing it, doesn't mean it belongs in your final, edited story.

Think deeply about what your story is really about. Make deep cuts between the important, most relevant parts. We don't need to know that the character turned the doorknob (with his left hand!), opened the door, stepped out, walked down the hallway (looking over his shoulder to see if we're still following!). If one scene shows him wide awake at midnight and thinking of home, then the next shows him drinking coffee talking on the phone to his mother, we'll make that leap with you. It's morning!

Why Luke's hair is so tidy in the next scene is a different sort of question.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

(26 of 40) Writing a Scene: II

In almost every writing class I teach I eventually bring in Star Wars IV: A New Hope, and show the Garbage Chute scene. I know, it's a bit nerdy of me.

It's really two or three scenes interwoven -- Luke, Leia, Chewbacca, and Han Solo fighting off the stormtroopers in the cell bay; C3PO and R2D2 in the control room; and Luke and company in the trash compactor.

All scenes, like stories, have a beginning, middle, and end, but this scene really has a beginning, middle, and end, and it dramatizes other features of much longer stories. The characters have both external and internal desires. They undergo an abbreviated hero's journey a la Joseph Campbell (remember Luke disappearing under the water). There's a love triangle. Characters become more developed in this scene, both individually and in relationship. And the stakes, for all the characters, are high -- life and death.

High stakes make storytelling easy, and maybe this is why my Creative Nonfiction students write about childbirth, car crashes, drunken escapades in the middle of the night, and the death of grandparents. But what about the story you want to write about picking strawberries when you were ten, or taking your horse to the fair, or riding your bicycle all the way to the grocery store after you turned twelve? In order to write a big scene, is it necessary to have the walls collapse?

What's required to make a quiet story feel "big" is to step back and rethink it creatively, a little like taking a director's look at your own life. Who were the main characters? Were you the protagonist? Who was the antagonist? What did you want? What stood in your way? Who were you at the beginning of this quiet story, and who were you at its end? What did you learn? If not life itself, if not the galaxy, what was at stake?

Trust me, something was at stake. If you are awake, if you pay attention, then there's something to learn. As they write their stories, my students begin to see that, looked at in the right way, they are always learning, and the stakes are always high.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

(25 of 40) Writing a Scene: I

The students in my Creative Nonfiction class have to write and workshop a scene this week. My best advice for writing a scene is "Start Small." A scene can have one person in it, but it seems a little easier to write with two. A scene has to have something happen. A little dialogue can add spice. Yes, a scene can go on for ten or twenty pages, but it can also be ten lines long. Here's one of my favorite scene prompts:

"Of course I love you," ______ said.

Your job is to decide who to put in that blank (he is okay, or a character's name), and then to have something else happen. This character could continue talking. He could do something. Or a second character could respond.

This is an entertaining exercise to share with a small group.

Monday, October 10, 2011

(24 of 40) Listing

I've been out of town, at my mother's house and at a teaching conference in Yakima, then back to Mom's to help celebrate her 79th birthday. Somehow the combination of locales and tasks (sorting through old photographs and greeting cards, talking about student writers) left me feeling melancholy. Too much in too short a time. I'm having trouble processing it.

So here's another exercise from Heather Sellers that works to fix a particular day's events in one's memory.

1. In ALL CAPITALS, list ten things that you did yesterday.
2. In ALL CAPITALS, freewrite for ten minutes on one item on the list.
3. If you're writing with someone else, you can now talk about how it felt to write in ALL CAPS. If you're writing alone, write a paragraph about how it felt.

Here's my list of ten things beginning Saturday afternoon.


As I hadn't seen my brother since Dad's funeral, I'll have to write about what it was like to see him.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

(23 of 40) Writing about What Bugs You

During our class Monday night, I mentioned that when my twins were little I discovered that if I spent sometime writing about them -- not complaining about them, mind you -- I felt better. I still remember writing a list sentence (an imitation exercise) describing them. I'm at the library, so I don't have access to the original, but it went something like this: 

My five-year old daughters--noisy, unruly, uncombed as wild ponies and as exuberant--rush into the kitchen, grab at my legs, grab at each other, roll on the floor giggling, jab and punch and wrestle.

My girls have grown up. At 18, they present me with a completely different set of challenges (and, having survived their preschool years, there's really nothing they do now that I'm not equal to). What bugs me now is my day-job, teaching at the college. So, instead of whining in my journal this morning, I thought, What if I were to write about my students? And then I did, not complaining, but describing, making a story out of it. I have this tickling sensation that I have embarked on an entirely new project.

The picture, by the way, is of Emma, not of her big sisters. Her jar with the bugs in it just seemed too perfect, given my title. (I believe we set the bugs free after we snapped the picture.)

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

(22 of 40) "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly." G. K. Chesterton

I'm compelled to share my first very bad watercolor.

I'm trying to remember the original context of G. K. Chesterton's (1874-1936) advice, "anything worth doing is worth doing badly." I believe he was explaining that while we want experts to perform certain tasks -- baking souffles for State dinners perhaps, or leading us on mountain climbing expeditions -- we want to do other things for ourselves. A man should blow his own nose, for instance, even if he doesn't do it with particular skill. We, generally, want to rear our own children, even though Mary Poppins would certainly do it better -- and, in most cases, our children prefer that we stick with this task until we have muddled our way through it. So, I admit that watercolors are much better off in the hands of Monet. And if I could hire someone to write my poems and stories, I guess I'd want Yeats or Dickinson.

On the other hand, drawing and dabbling the watercolors on my silly little picture pleased me, and I'm glad I did it. I think I'll do it again. (I may even take a class, as I'm sure I could do it somewhat less badly with a little encouragement.)

Isn't there a story or a poem or an essay in your head that only you -- no matter how badly -- can tell?

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

(21 of 40) Writing Anyway

I just watched this video from Author Magazine:

and wish to recommend it to you. It features Lynn Sheene, whose first novel, The Last Time I Saw Paris (published by Berkley Books of New York), began with her fascination with an Art Deco brooch. In the interview with editor Bill Kenower, Sheene concludes: "Writing has taught me diligence because in order to do it you have to keep writing even when you don't feel like it, even when the story's not cooperating, even when the characters are not talking to you, even when you are sure that no one will ever want to read another word that you've written -- because not writing is actually worse."

That's a little how I'm feeling today. But now I'm going to take fifteen minutes and write anyway.

Monday, October 3, 2011

(20 out of 40) The Hello Kitty Band-Aid Poem

Carson McCullers
Photo by Carl Van Vechten, 1959

It's only fair that I try to do my assignment from yesterday. Bear with me. I feel like doing something prosy.

The Hello Kitty Band-Aid Poem

"Do you think you'll ever amount to anything?" my dad used to say to me. I'd be sitting on the hearth beside his chair at some family gathering. He'd hold his hand out and I'd drop mine onto it, palm to palm. "No," I would say. "I won't ever amount to anything."

I have a Hello Kitty Band-Aid on my thumb. I was peeling potatoes and quarreling with my husband and then, blood everywhere.

Now I've been banished from the kitchen. Two of my daughters, impressed with the amount of blood my thumb produced, made a fuss over me. One brought a fresh paper towel. The other brought a Band-Aid. "It's Hello Kitty," she said. "That should make you feel better."

My husband takes a break from grating potatoes. "It's good it was your left hand," he says. "Do you want to take a painkiller?"

I do feel better. I pick up Carson McCullers' A Member of the Wedding and find my place.

Outside, it's raining.

My youngest daughter's soccer team won today and she did a perfect somersault when she collided with another player. It wasn't raining then.

During the game I took a picture of a big stump beside the soccer field. A huckleberry bush grew from its top. I thought about Dad, who could have told me what kind of tree the stump was from, and how long ago it had been cut.

The rain falls harder and my girls run outside to see. Their dad stands at the top of the stairs and yells after them, "Don't get wet."

Frankie, in A Member of the Wedding, has gotten too big to sleep with her father. "Who is this long-legged blunderbuss trying to climb into my bed?" I remember when my mother told me to quit sitting on Dad's lap.

I hold the novel in my lap and I'm so sad I can't read anymore.

In a dream, two nights ago, Dad showed up, looking great. I hugged him so hard. I told him I loved him and he said, "I know." We were standing in the woods, under huge evergreens, and yellow light sifted over us.

"Do you think you'll ever amount to anything?" he used to say to me. I'd be sitting on the hearth beside his chair and he'd hold his hand out and I'd drop mine onto it, palm to palm. My Hello Kitty Band-Aid would have made him frown and shake his head, all in jest. How is it that I knew how pleased he was with me?

"No, " I'd say, exaggerating my tone for effect. "I'll never amount to anything."

Sunday, October 2, 2011

(19 of 40) More Getting off Balance

I thought I should try to explain the title of my last post. Many writing exercises have a goal of knocking us out of our conscious, tightly controlled (well, somewhat controlled) mind and into our unconscious. My friend Shawna, for this reason, calls writing "a trip down the rabbit hole," you know, a la Alice in Wonderland.

Imitating another writer is one way I get myself (would that be my ego?) to shut up. I get so busy concentrating on doing the assignment right (I've always been a whore for A's), that I forget all about content and usually end up surprising myself.

Or you can try this. List 10 concrete nouns. List 2 or 3 colors. Name a place. Write down a phrase you overheard someone say today. Write down a single image from a recent dream. Now put these on index cards (equal size bits of paper), one item per card, and shuffle. Now, use these -- whatever order they turned out in -- to write a poem.

Friday, September 30, 2011

(18 of 40) Getting off Balance

This week I've been trying to notice where I say "can't." I started out, Monday night, with my realization that when I try to imagine writing more (something I want very much to do), I USUALLY very quickly shut down. I CAN'T write more. My husband, kids, teaching job (you can fill in your own blank) DON'T let me. I CAN'T change this. What happened, to quickly reiterate, was I suddenly saw this as a belief and I began freewriting about how I MIGHT change things. And I came up with a whole list of ways to write more.

Another strange CAN'T emerged when I opened a present from my friend, the writer Priscilla Long. She wrote me a nice note ("Congratulations on finishing the novel rewrite! Hurrah!"), and sent me a blank-ish journal. But it wasn't a writing journal. It was an artist's sketchbook, with quotes (blank-ish, not blank) to inspire one to make pictures.

What is Priscilla thinking? Is she crazy? I can't start making pictures!

The next day, I finally made it over to the campus mailroom (first time this quarter), and discovered a package from -- stuff I'd ordered a month ago and forgotten about. In it was Natalie Goldberg's Living Color, a book that combines Natalie's paintings and drawings with a narrative about how her art evolved.

I should add that, among our Monday night students, half are visual artists. It seems the universe is trying to tell me something.

I don't know where this is going to lead me. But I can't say CAN'T, so I'm going to find out.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

(17 of 40) Synchronicity

"The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy's not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable." - Sun Tzu.

After writing the blogpost about my lack of a home office, and reading my friend Lori's comment (in essence, take another look around the house), I was bemoaning my STUFF to my friend Therese. People just can't understand how chaotic my life is. I won't have an office until these three kids grow up and leave home. Will they ever grow up and leave home?

The problem is this: when my kids grow up and leave home if I haven't dealt with my real, internal, Bethany-baggage, I still won't have the psychological room I want to write all I want to write. If I don't deal with that stuff, I'll without a doubt spend several years whining about how needy my adult children are, how they keep moving back home, and (of course) how much I miss them!

Therese came home with me. She had dinner and watched a movie with us (Star Trek, no doubt a forthcoming blogpost topic). The next morning, she got up and said, "Okay, let's tackle your office."

I said, "No! Let's wait until my Christmas break at least!" I said, "What about church this morning? What about Emma's soccer game? I just can't do it right now."

Therese said, "You're a writer. You have to have a home office. Let's do it now."

Two hours later we had thrown away a bunch of Bethany-baggage. We moved shelves and stuffed all my photographs and silly scrapbook supplies into boxes. We moved the big cabinet desk out to make more room (so the space won't be disrupted every time I set a piece of paper on the chair).

After Emma's soccer game I went to the office store and bought a new computer cord and a cool little strip to cover up where it crosses the carpet.

I have an office! Now what's stopping me?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

(16 of 40) Curriculum Night

Yesterday I went to Curriculum Night at my youngest daughter's middle school. Her first period class is Spanish, and so for 12 minutes I sat at Emma's desk and listened to her very vivacious (and very young) Spanish teacher. On the white board directly in front of me was a poster explaining the two types of "to be" in Spanish: Estar, meaning how or where one is; and Ser, meaning who or what one is. Below the explanation, a cartoon-figure man was saying, "Coma estas?" and a cartoon-figure woman was saying, "Yo soy bellisimo." (How are you, and I'm beautiful.)

Aside from the verisimilitude of the couple's inability to communicate, the estar and ser really grabbed my attention. In my Creative Nonfiction class on Monday, we did a setting exercise and, afterward, I attempted to point out how setting reveals character. It matters whether your grandmother has a $25 garlic press, or a full wine rack, or an old-fashioned, stove-top coffee percolator. If you peek out your stepfather's kitchen window and see special solar light garden gnomes, well, that's one kind of stepfather. The one with a 1962 Ford pickup up on blocks -- that's a different kind.

But another thing I tried to convey to my youngish students is that the choices we make about our surroundings also reveal our characters. Maybe these choices aren't made at a conscious level, but you're still getting full credit from the universe for them.

Try freewriting around this topic. When you sit down in your bedroom, or kitchen, or _____, what do you see? If you're the main character in your own life, what are your "readers" picking up about you?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

(15 of 40) My Big Insight

During last night's class I think I experienced one of those major breakthroughs that we all work toward and hope for. Well, that creative people work toward and hope for.

I listed the things that stand in the way of my passion -- my writing -- and the list was the same as it always is. My husband and kids, my teaching job (whine, whine, whine, if they would only give me more space and time to write, if the universe would only let me be a full time writer). And then I got it.

It isn't my husband, kids, and students that get in my way, it's my BELIEF that they get in my way that gets in my way.

Am I making sense?

I felt as though someone or something had just rapped its knuckles on the kitchen window of my soul and said, "Hey!" They aren't obstacles. They're GIFTS.

And if I hadn't been sitting with a group of supportive writers, writing, I would never have gotten there.

Monday, September 26, 2011

(14 of 40) The Portkey Assignment

If you are one of the stalwart few who have not read any of the Harry Potter books, or caught any of the movies, a Portkey is an object that is magically endowed so as to become a conduit for travel. All one has to do is touch this object (an old boot, a trophy) and he or she teleports -- I think that's the right word -- across space to wherever it leads.

In other words, a portkey is a symbol. I touch the marble bookend on my shelf -- the one shaped like a horse's head -- and I'm suddenly 18 years old, just graduating high school and opening a package from my cousin Mary...and then I'm fifteen and Mary and I are riding my bay horse as he splashes into Deer Creek on my dad's farm.

I pick up the green glass frog sitting beside my coffee cup and suddenly I'm sitting in a room with several other writers doing an exercise...and then it's May, 2009, and I'm sitting on the back deck at my parents' farmhouse and I can hear the cricking of a frog...and then I'm a newlywed and very small treefrogs start appearing in our house (the front door didn't have a strip at the bottom to keep them out, yet).

Okay, so that's my fifteen minutes. I could say more.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

(13 of 40) I'm Gonna Write Myself a Letter

Writing every day can be a little like hiring a life coach.

So here's your assignment for today: imagine your life in one year. Imagine it the way you would really like it to be. Idealize! Dream! Imagine it fully. What's great that your present tense self can look forward to? What changes does your present-tense self need to undergo to get ready for you? Is there anything you need to warn yourself about?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

(12 of 40) Giving Thanks

Imagine this: your book is finished. (Even if you don't have a book, imagine this.)

Now you have to write the ACKNOWLEDGMENTS page. Who will you thank?

Start writing now.

(image from

Friday, September 23, 2011

(11 of 40) Learning from learning....

In the last ten minutes -- yes, just now! -- I finished my novel rewrite and sent an e-copy to my agent.


I'm on my way to Fedex-Kinko's to print out a copy to put in the mail.

I feel like a wrung-out sponge. In the last three months (four months?) I have learned so much about my own writing and writing process that I can hardly contain it all. I've learned about structure, about subplot and about useful objects (see Robert J. Ray's The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel: a Step-by-Step Guide to Perfecting Your Work), and I've learned smaller but absolutely pervasive style tricks (Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print [2nd edition], by Renni Browne and Dave King was one of the books I used), tricks I can't believe I didn't already know.

I've encountered this wisdom in other places -- lots of other places -- but now I can bear witness to you that it's true, true, true: if you trust your writing, if you keep going to it in faith, and faithfully, it will teach you what you need to know.

I'll have something meatier for you tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

(10 of 40) Imitation

May I add William Faulkner to my steering committee? I'm sure the two of us would have a great conversation about steers -- and bulls -- and whether or not "a steering committee" is truly a good idea.

But to the subject of this post. I am a great believer in imitation. If you study the old, dead writers you discover that as part of their education they had to copy out works by the masters. Often they were copying Latin dialogues or treatises into English, but they were writing them out, putting Virgil or Homer or Socrates into their own hand. Artists still do this, spending a considerable portion of their apprenticeship on copying. I don't know why the practice has fallen out of fashion for writers.

So here's a passage from William Faulkner's "Dry September":


Through the bloody September twilight, aftermath of sixty-two rainless days, it had gone like a fire in dry grass--the rumor, the story, whatever it was. Something about Miss Minnie Cooper and a Negro. Attached, insulted, frightened: none of them, gathered in the barber shop on that Saturday evening where the ceiling fan stirred, without freshening it, the vitiated air, sending back upon them, in recurrent surges of stale pomade and lotion, their own stale breath and odors, knew exactly what had happened.

"Except it wasn't Will Mayes," a barber said.


And here's my imitation...I think it was worth doing, even though I went off the rails:

All through a wet June, days of sopping, gray, indoor weather, we dreamed of it--our summer of no plans spread across sun-struck days. No school. Too young for jobs, lazy, restless: each mother's child of us watched TV or played endless games of Go Fish and Crazy Eights while it rained and rained and rained, and we still imagined wringing from our summer vacation every drop of sugar, every whiff of strawberries and fresh green beans, every drop of indolent pleasure to be had if only the sun would shine.

"What we need is a canoe," Jacy said.