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:

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.