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, 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.

(9 of 40) Your Steering Committee

A couple of years ago I was invited to a day-long retreat as a member of the steering committee for my college's Teaching and Learning Cooperative. My friend and colleague, Paul Marshall, IS our TLC and he arranged for us to meet in a lovely space in Edmonds, Washington, and provided plenty of coffee, pastry, and fresh pears. Later we had a box lunch.

During our retreat we worked in small groups to create lists of what the TLC was doing well, what it could do better, and what we thought its priorities should be for the next year. We wrote our lists on posters and (if I remember right) cut pictures out of magazines to illustrate them.

As I drove home -- a beautiful, blue sky day in February -- I wondered why individuals don't have steering committees. Wouldn't you like to have a group of interested friends helping you map out your priorities? (I don't know about your friends, but mine won't usually agree to sit around a table talking about me for several minutes, let alone several hours.)

I think we do have our own versions of the steering committee. And I wonder if we could assemble this group a little more consciously. Maybe we could call it our "cheering committee."

Hmm. Some of the people on my steering committee: my friend Paul, Carolynne, my writing friends Priscilla and Janet and Margaret and Carla, my friends Shawna and Therese (each with her own set of girl-twins), Glenda Lewis, Emily Dickinson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Grace Paley. (Gee, suddenly I can think of too many to name.)

My steering committee likes my blog. Now that my novel is finished (!) I need to reconvene them so they can tell me what to work on next. ;)

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

(8 of 40) Ten Tangible Things

Last night in class we did an exercise from Priscilla Long's THE WRITER'S PORTABLE MENTOR. It involves 1) generating a list of essays/stories/or other pieces you would like to write, then 2) choosing one of the items from your list and freewriting for five minutes, then 3) listing 10 tangible -- TANGIBLE, that is not abstract but concrete -- things that you could include in that theoretical piece. Here are 10 things on my list for a blogpost to be titled "The Steering Committee": a pear, coffee, Edmonds, my friend Paul, black markers, poster board, a list (isn't a list tangible?), stairs, blue sky, autumn leaves.

Monday, September 19, 2011

(7 of 40) Freewriting

2:56 p.m.

As I often tell my students, Freewriting isn't free. Well, except for the ink freely flowing from your pen, it isn't free. Begin by setting a timer (your stove timer, or the APP on your cellphone), or by jotting down your start time so you can calculate as you go along. I usually ask students to write for ten minutes, but different time spans -- longer ones -- can yield impressive results. In WRITING THE MIND ALIVE: THE PROPRIOCEPTIVE METHOD FOR FINDING YOUR AUTHENTIC VOICE, Linda Trichter Metcalf and Simon Tobin recommend writing for 22 minutes, which is also the length of a piece of music they recommend listening to as you write. You can write on any topic you choose. But you have to keep writing.

What if you can't think of anything more to write and the clock is still ticking? Metcalf and Tobin suggest that you spin off from what you just wrote.

I love the blue sky today. What do I mean by "blue"? It is mostly blue with gauzy clouds like voile curtains, and few other clouds like cotton balls. The blue is a robin's egg blue, no that can't be right. Sky blue? I need a box of crayons. What do I mean by "love"?
Heather Sellers, whose books are PAGE AFTER PAGE and CHAPTER AFTER CHAPTER (two of my faves), suggests drawing a little spiral, from the inside out. It must be Natalie Goldberg -- but maybe Peter Elbow -- who first defined freewriting and said to write "I don't know what to write. I don't know what else I can say. This is a dumb assignment!" until your brain switches back on and gives you something better.

That's my freewrite on freewriting.

3:09 p.m

image from

Sunday, September 18, 2011

(6:40) Overcoming the Blank Page

At the beginning of every quarter, I have my Creative Nonfiction students do a number of warm up writing exercies that can fuel their writing for the next ten weeks -- or for a lifetime. One of these is the 30 chapters exercise (number 1-30 down the left-hand margin of the page; write I AM BORN beside #1; then fill in the rest of the chapters; follow up by doing a 10-minute freewrite on any one -- eventually all -- of the chapters; another approach is to choose a chapter and see if you can brainstorm a list of 30 components for it).

We also do a grid exercise. Draw a tic-tac-toe grid (there, no more blank page). Now fill in each of the 9 squares with a word or phrase that reminds you of a trip you've taken. The trips can be big or small.

1. Driving to Ashland.
2. Flying home from Taos in 2008.
3. Denny's with Emma.
4. Hawaii when I was 21.
5. Hawaii with my husband and kids.
6. Driving to Coos Bay for my niece's wedding.
7. Taking my horse to the fair.
8. My trip to NY.
9. Picking up Mom at the airport.

Choose ONE and write for 10 minutes without stopping. My only additional advice is to avoid abstractions--write through your five senses--what can you still see, taste, hear, feel, and smell about this one trip?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

(5:40) What Do You Do Best?

This is a list exercise that I do with my students. Step one: List 10 Things You Do Well

1. Write a syllabus for a college class
2. Write bad poems
3. Drive a mini-van
4. Play Spider-Solitaire
5. Shop for blue jeans for my daughters
6. Arrange chairs in a circle for class
7. Laundry
8. Make cabbage rolls
9. Read a novel
10. Iron a blouse

Step two: choose one item from the list and write about it for 10 minutes. I'll give you three minutes here (to keep it short).

My recipe for cabbage rolls came from my Aunt Violet, who married into a Polish family. Hamburger and rice rolled into cabbage leaves (leaves first softened in hot water), then layered into a pot with brown sugar. Lots of brown sugar. (I can't vouch for the authenticity of the recipe, as my own grandmother never cooked anything without putting sugar into it.) When I mix up the hamburger and rice, I salt and pepper it, and I add garlic and grated carrot or zucchini. Bake at 400 degrees, uncovered, for about 30 minutes; then bake at 350 degrees for an hour or so. I'm not great at describing smells, but it smells wonderful. And as a bonus, I never make this dish without thinking about my Aunt Violet, who -- many years older than my mother -- was one of the great matriarchs who presided over my childhood. In my memory, she's in her late thirties or early forties. Her hair is in a hairnet (later her daughters talked her into cutting and perming it), her round face is red from the steam of the kitchen. She's wearing an apron. On the windowsill of her kitchen is a little woodpecker that, when I tap his head, dips into a bin of toothpicks and pulls one out.

Okay, that was more than 3 minutes. The woodpecker surprised me. (I found the picture on EBay.)

Friday, September 16, 2011

(4:40) What's Your Ritual?

After Monday's class, Margaret sent us an email encouraging everyone to establish a daily spiritual practice in addition to a writing practice. I kind of think my writing practice is my spiritual practice, and Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down the Bones, Wild Mind and many other books), as well as Julia Cameron (The Artist's Way, plus) would agree with me.

But Margaret makes a good point. Currently what I do to ease into my writing time is to either make a cup of coffee (at home), really strong coffee, or to buy a double-tall, nonfat latte (when I'm writing in my car). The coffee is the signal, the anchor, that tells me, "Here's your writing time."

What if, instead, I tried putting my feet squarely on the floor, closing my eyes, and practicing breathing?

Don't look for me to give up drinking coffee. But I'll give this a whirl.

While I'm at it, I'll take down this book from my shelf: Writing Begins with the Breath, by Laraine Herring.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

(3:40) -- Writing Spaces

Last night I had that dream, the one in which I wander through my house and discover (or remember) unused rooms.

The rooms were furnished, big armchairs and tables. Kitchens. I walked around, stunned. All these rooms, I kept thinking. All the time I've had all these rooms! Many years ago, when I was trying to get pregnant, and then trying to adopt, I would find nurseries. These rooms were writing spaces.

Two years ago my daughter Annie, who had all her life up to that moment shared a bedroom with her twin sister, decided she had to have her own space. I was trying to work (grading papers at UBS in their coffee shop) and she kept texting and calling, crying, angry because I wouldn't fix this situation immediately.

Then, a woman sitting on the couch across from me moved over and asked me what was going on. My first thought, was "how rude." But we chatted and -- I don't know if this will hit you the way it hit me, as one of the universe's amazing coincidences -- I discovered that she is an adoption counselor who specializes in teens. And you know we're an adoptive family, right?

I explained that Annie had decided she should have my office, which also serves as our guest room -- a fourth bedroom downstairs in our house. We'd been wrangling peaceably about this for a while, with me holding my ground. But now some conflict between the girls had accelerated it. Annie was really, really upset. I explained the whole dynamic. She listened attentively, then said, "Give her the room."

I put my student papers back in my bookbag and I went home and moved out of my office. You should know, too, that I am not good at this sort of thing, but the girls' best friend Shana stopped by (she's really good at that stuff) and pitched in to help. Within two hours, my office was stored in a corner of the playroom and Annie had her own bedroom. Did I feel good about losing my home office? No. Did I love the bliss Annie was communicating with her every expression and gesture? Yes.

For a while I coped with my corner of the playroom. Then I gave up. I don't have a home office anymore. I have a green chair in the corner of the living room (which works when no one is awake in the house except me), and I have my car, where I write a surprising amount.

Where do you write?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

(2:40) Writing in Meetings

Today I sat in a meeting for 2 1/2 hours. It was a good meeting with lots of friendly faces, but it was still a meeting. And what I really wanted to do was write.

Imagination always has a door open. Don't worry, your boss will think you're taking notes.

When you called the meeting to order, I slipped out the window, a wisp of cloud wrapped around the last maple leaves, drifting upward like a plume of smoke. When you projected the budget onto the white screen at the front of the room, I hunkered behind my coffee cup, small as a toy soldier dodging a hail of words. When you pulled the meeting back to the agenda, I was a pirate with a patch over one eye and a green parrot on my shoulder. When you asked if there were any questions, I stuck my gray plume of self like a feather into my tri-cornered hat. When you called for a motion, I picked up a pen. When you called for a show of hands, I began to write.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

(1:40) Forty Days

What if you decided to write -- for at least fifteen minutes -- every day for the next forty days? It doesn't have to be good. It could be scribbling. You could write about the weather. You could write about a dream you had last night. About your teenaged daughter. About the trees in your backyard. About your dad's shop when you were a little kid.

Write in longhand in a notebook. Some people like to title their entries; I just put the date at the top of mine. Although I know it's good practice to type up an entry once a week or so, I usually don't. I just write.

When I don't know what to write, I write lists. Priscilla Long's book, The Writer's Portable Mentor, is what first pushed me to write extreme lists: one hundred things I'm grateful for; one hundred things I want; one hundred questions. (One list will do.) And you can go back and circle or highlight a smaller number of the items -- maybe you want the war to end, your 18 year old to get a better job, to quit eating chips, and to repot the plant your friend Therese gave you for your birthday, oh, yeah, and to buy a blue pot for the plant. Could you, today, DO ONE THING ON YOUR LIST? I could buy a blue pot.

Give it a try! I dare you!

Friday, September 9, 2011

Writing & Spirituality: Steps in the Journey

We still have a couple spots open in our class. It begins Monday, Sept. 12 (6:15-8:30) and runs for six Mondays (until October 17). We'll be meeting at a wonderful private residence in Edmonds and tuition is $185.

Contact me if you are interested and I'll send you the flyer.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Ezra Pound

I wrote this poem into my current poetry notebook, and have been rereading it almost every day. You have to say it aloud to really feel it.

The Tree

I stood still and was a tree amid the wood,
Knowing the truth of things unseen before;
Of Daphne and the laurel bough
And that god-feasting couple old
That grew elm-oak amid the wold.
'Twas not until the gods had been
Kindly entreated, and been brought within
Unto the hearth of their heart's home
That they might do this wonder thing;
Nathless I have been a tree amid the wood
And many a new thing understood
That was rank folly to my head before.

-Ezra Pound