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:

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Writing Warrior

Here's Laraine Herring's book, which you can read more about at

This morning I used to time my shaking. Tomorrow I'll use it for the breathing, too.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Maybe you buy six hundred books on writing...

"The beginning always starts off easy. 'I want to write a book,' you say. So maybe you take a class or two. Maybe you buy a book on writing." -Laraine Herring

So I'm blogging about how to begin. What I tell my students is that you have to begin over and over again, sometimes more than once in each session, at a bare minimum once per day (even if only for fifteen minutes). Knowing how to begin is important. Nothing happens without beginning.

I don't think I can dictate for anyone else how to begin, though I can make suggestions. Laraine Herring suggests breathing, shaking (yes, shaking!), and writing -- each for five minutes. I like how five minutes of practice demystifies the process. Oh, five minutes, I think. I can do anything for five minutes. On day two of this practice, I found the breathing boring. (This fits with what my friend Glenda says about my not breathing.) The shaking? I almost hate to admit it, but it was fine. It was funI am all too aware that I'm not in touch with my body. I live in my head. The five minutes of writing? It turned into two journal pages, then an hour and a half on poetry, a million ideas, and now this blog entry.

The main thing wrong with saying "I want to write a book" is that it's too big. Recently a colleague told me that she and her father -- many years ago, before his unexpected death -- had planned to write a book together about their teaching. "You should write it," I said. "You can dedicate it to him." She shook her head sadly. "I'm not a writer," she said.

At the risk of sounding like the ghost-chef in Ratatouille, ANYONE CAN WRITE. Just don't set your goals so high. No, you can't write a book, not this morning.

Buying a new book about writing, by the way, is an excellent way to procrastinate on your writing.

This morning write a paragraph. Write a sentence. See if you can stay with it for five minutes.

And now, for me, breakfast.

Thursday, June 21, 2012


"The ideal expression of reading a poem is, in many respects, close to the experience of writing it: one goes through uncertainty, flashes of perception, small satisfactions, puzzlement, understanding, surprise." -Kenneth Koch, Making Your Own Days (14)

Various things (Emma and the Earache, primarily) have kept me from my writing time for a couple of days. Today, however, I was up at 6 a.m., and out in my cabin, writing my heart out. I have decided to -- finally -- take seriously Laraine Herring's book, The Writing Warrior, and the practice she suggests. You should do it, too. Today is day one.

My goal this summer is to be FEARLESS in my writing (thank you, Margaret, for helping me to articulate this).

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Happy Father's Day

I have often heard it said that when someone we love dies, they are always with us -- it's the sort of old saying that I sometimes agree with, and sometimes resent. Yeah, well where is he? as one of my young nephews once said to me.

Recently, someone turned the saying around for me: When someone you love dies, a part of you goes with them, no matter where. This feels true.

Yesterday, sleep starved, trying to grade papers, waiting for Emma to come out to the car with her friends after a movie, I suddenly saw my dad, not in that idealized way that I often picture him -- the dad I knew as a child -- but as I'd last seen him. He was wearing his plaid barn coat and he looked tired, too, his face a little sunken, his blue eyes watery. Two weeks ago he visited my mother in the ER in Centralia. "How did he look?" I asked her. "Oh, about the same," she said. "He was probably wondering what was taking me so long."

Happy Father's Day, Dad.

Friday, June 15, 2012


The spring before Emma was born, our unexpected baby coming six years behind her twin sisters, I bumped into an old friend. I was grading papers at a coffee shop in Edmonds. I still remember how manic and exhausted I felt. My friend walked up to me and laid her hand on my arm and told me that she had heard about the new baby. I remember looking up at her with a frantic expression, words failing me. "Whenever something brings this much chaos into my life," she said, looking directly into my eyes, "it always turns out to be good thing."
I remember coming home from night class a couple years later, and finding all the dining room chairs turned upside down or stacked on the table, and Bruce, looking weary, telling me, "She climbs, and then she jumps."

I remember the summer she turned ten when she set a goal to swim every day.

She is failing her Humanities class, and getting a D in math. Do I make her go to summer school? Or do I stand by, holding a towel, waiting to see what will happen next?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Dream Farm, Dream Sea

I have been thinking about this poem for more than a week. It was published in Santa Clara Review fall/winter 2001-2002, but I wrote it about a walk I took with my sister Kathy when my niece Terra was a baby. Terra is now 24 years old and has a baby of her own. 

On Sunday, June 3, I was able to walk with the surveyor and my sister Sharyl across the farm, or across the approximate boundaries of my nephew's ten acres. The property is located about an hour's drive from the Pacific coast.

dream farm, dream sea

Poised on the cusp between winter and spring
Weird neon of skunk cabbage holds candles

In cupped hands. We move through memory, water
Skippers across the old face of childhood,

A landscape where moss
Knows no direction, will not point

North or South. Children dance
Bright faces silvery fish

Shafts of light, dark pillars of trees.
Air electric with birdsong. The pond

Blinks a green eye. We pass the baby
Between us. Her arms row us into the light.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Paragraph (and Emily Dickinson's room)

"A paragraph is its own space to be decorated, maybe as small a space as that tiny guest bedroom in the back of your house but just as valuable. It deserves your full, wide-open imagination. It isn't just a marker, an empty shoe bin, another 120 words getting you from here to there. It is a world--or can be."

-Eric Maisel, A Writer's Space

Friday, June 8, 2012

Starting with the Sentence

"To be sure, your eventual goal is to be able to write forcefully about issues that matter to you, but if you begin with those issues uppermost in your mind, you will never get to the point where you can do verbal justice them. It may sound paradoxical, but verbal fluency is the product of hours spent writing about nothing, just as musical fluency is the product of hours spent repeating scales." Stanley Fish

My father with his two older brothers and his younger sister, around 1930.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Something to write about...

"The writer first has to reread to see what is on the draft's page, what is not, what should be....When we read our drafts we are like the archaeologist who finds a fragment of a bowl, the preserved ashes of a fire, a sharpened piece of stone, and then uses a trained imagination to create a civilization." -Donald Murray

Here we are at the end of another spring quarter, the end of another academic year. My students are revising their final papers and portfolios -- all 74 of my students -- and I'm getting ready to read their final papers and portfolios.

I'm thinking, however, about the farm and how these past two weekends sifting through 90 years of clutter and treasures has spun my head so that I can hardly think about anything else.

Which objects "make" a life? Does the archaeologist judge the importance of my life based on the stuff I've acquired and hoarded, the jar of stones picked up on who knows what beach, or the brittle bouncing ball that once went with a set of jacks, on the horseshoe saved, the copy of Katie Kittenheart with my name in a childish scrawl inside the front cover?

I like to think I know who I am, but would someone sifting through my things have her own estimation of my identity?

Friday, June 1, 2012

Mary and Martha

Memorial Day weekend my three daughters traveled with me to the farm to help get their grandmother packed up. All three helped a little, of course, but Annie was the champion. She kept busy, working alongside the grownups. She also instigated a rather festive time claiming her grandfather's plaid workshirts (not shorts!), and each of the girls took home one or more. (Pearl claimed the only one with pink in it.)

Pearl and Emma went to the creek and caught tadpoles, then waded through the pond and caught a frog. (All were released by the end of the day.) They coaxed the cat out of hiding. They took my camera for a walk and took blog pictures for me. They built a bonfire and roasted marshmallows. Their aunt gave them a whole box of games and they took them out one by one and played them. (When I asked them why they weren't helping, Pearl said, "We're testing the games.")

I really appreciated Annie. I really appreciated Emma and Pearl. All in all, the three of them had a great weekend and made the memories they most wanted to make. I thought of titling this post "Two Marys and a Martha," but then I decided that I didn't want to be that literal. No one was sitting at the feet of Jesus. No one worked without a break and got crabby about it.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

So...what falls down...

I had this idea to post every day -- for at least a while -- and share a picture each day. I also want to move to a new site, Word Press or Author's Guild. But I think I might postpone that decision a while longer.

This afternoon, I am at my college, sitting at my desk, grading essay quizzes and discussion boards, trying to get caught up with my classes. But my brain is racing. I'm reminded of something my mom said, Sunday night as we settled down for her first night at the retirement community. "I still read, but I start thinking instead and I don't remember anything I'm reading."

Even if it's chaos, I want to be fully present with all that's going on in my life right now. That means getting my daughters through the last few weeks of school (choir concerts and field trips, classes, Emma's grades), getting my students through these final two weeks, and my mom...and writing...and...  Well, there's always going to be the writing.

Here's a picture. It must be from about 1965, as that's my brother Eric (the redhead) standing beside Mom. This barn -- the "new barn" when I was a kid -- fell down in 1985.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Honeycomb

Reading a line from an old book, I remember biting into a honeycomb.
I was very young. The honeycomb was crunchy and sweet.
The honey dripped down my chin and over my fingers.
All my life I have been searching to find it again,
that particular, peculiar combination, an essence
of beauty distilled in my mouth.
I hold the book at arm's length. I squint at it, pondering.
Try holding it at different angles.
It's small, and pale in color, though not the color of honey.
It smells of the bookshelf I stole it from,
from where I plucked it out from the rapacious past,
from a row of my father's books. I say that I stole it
because I am attempting to create an analogy
to someone stealing honey from a beehive,
a man in a bee veil, or a black bear.
But I am not in the woods, not in a field
among beeboxes. I'm standing at my father's bookshelves
where he will not stand again, and I take down a book.
Though I read hungrily, no stings assault me,
and if there is a taste in my mouth, it is salt and not sweet.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Moving Day

"Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without.” ― Siddhārtha Gautama

This weekend we're moving my mother off the farm -- out of the house she was born in almost 80 years ago -- and into a retirement community. I'm taking my notebook and pen with me. And a camera. I'll have more to tell you sometime next week.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Book Discussion

I've spent years of my life wrestling with Hawthorne, so I think I can do a pretty good job sharing my passion. You're invited.

Book Discussion: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

When: Wed, May 23, 7:00pm – 8:30pm

Where: Everett Public Library, Main Library Auditorium,  2702 Hoyt Avenue, Everett, WA 98201 (map)

Description: Everett Community College professor Bethany Reid will discuss Nathaniel Hawthorne's undisputed classic, The Scarlet Letter.

Sunday, May 20, 2012


I know it's not the usual sort of thing that I post, but I simply want to go on record as saying that this is an amazing, mind-blowing show. I can't believe it didn't find an audience.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

When Life Happens

I have one million things going on in my life, but from five until seven this morning, I sat in my cabin and drank coffee and wrote. I typed!

Today I'm sending my poetry manuscript with changes to Writers & Books. Tomorrow morning I'm driving to Oregon with my friend Carla (and 45 student papers) for the Compose Writers Conference at Clackamas Community College. (That's a lot of C's.) This is my second poetry event this week, by the way. The first was an interview with a colleague's 20th century American literature class (they asked great questions that made me want to hole up somewhere and write more poems).

This coming Wednesday evening, 7 p.m., I'm giving a lecture on The Scarlet Letter at the Everett Public Library.

Oh, and my mom is moving Memorial Day Weekend.

When I catch my breath, I'll let you know more. As I tell my students -- when life happens, writers get to say, "I will survive this, and I will write about it."

Saturday, May 12, 2012

"The universe is like a safe to which there is a combination. But the combination is locked up in the safe." Peter de Vries

Monday, May 7, 2012

My Writing Cabin

I keep forgetting to upload the new snapshots, but the cabin is 99% finished, and I moved in yesterday. This morning I was like a little kid at Christmas, awake at 5:30 and eager to get the day rolling. It felt a little like waking at a campground -- a beautiful blue day already, my cup of coffee, birdsong. True, I get up every morning and write, but getting up this morning and writing? It felt ... as if I'd been blessed, which is exactly what I have been. I can't believe my good fortune. Twenty-seven years of marriage and my husband still has a few surprises up his sleeve.

As I've said here before, in my writing career I have often felt like the Lone Ranger, without Tonto and the cool horses. Teaching, mom-ing, trying to be a good daughter -- I get so overwhelmed and I feel that no one cares if I write my poems and books, or not. What's the point of writing one more poem? One more scene? Who is really waiting with bated breath to read any of it?

That is not, of course, true. (In my better moments, I've always known it isn't true.) The cabin is like a big old symbol sitting in my backyard: my writing is appreciated; it is supported. (Thank you, Bruce!)

"The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little stardust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched." -Henry David Thoreau

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Becoming the Novelist

Becoming the Novelist

Agatha Christie wrote in the bath.
I could do that, you think to yourself.
Though what you really mean is, 
you could take a bath.
Imagining bath, you can't really imagine
paper and pen. You imagine submersion.
You imagine only your nose and mouth
peeping out. You imagine candles.
And maybe Agatha Christie's biographer
didn't mean writing with paper and pen.
Maybe he only meant that she thought
while bathing, building the plot
in her head as she soaked.
First Poirot with his fastidious moustaches,
or Miss Marple having tea.
Then the corpse. Then the clues stacked
one by one like wafers of soap,
or like towels, waiting for her to step out
and dry off, to reach only then
for her writing tablet. It's messy,
this business of becoming the novelist.
It's sopping. You have to climb
from the tub, holding your head steady
so the details don't drain away.
You have to dry off your body
which has become merely the vehicle
for getting your head soaked in plot,
in setting and character and perspective.
And then you have to walk from the tub
to the keyboard. You have to sit down.
You have to lower your hands to the keys
because, finally, it's not the bath
but the wriitng that makes the book.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

"We are here to add to the sum of human goodness"

My friend, ceramics maestro Thom Lee, posted this poem from Josephine Hart beside his pottery show at the Russell Day Gallery at EvCC. (To read the review in The Clipper, go here -- Thom is one of those people who is constantly adding to the sum of human goodness in the world.

We are here to add to the sum of human goodness
in the world:
to prove that the thing exists.
And no matter how futile each act
of courage, kindness, self-sacrifice or grace,
it still proves the thing exists.
Each act adds to the fund,
not only because evil flourishes
and is most indefensively defended,
but because goodness is no longer a respectable aim in life.
the hound of hell, envy, has driven it from the house.

-Josephine Hart

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

"Rebirth" by Carolynne Harris

I'm pleased to share this poem by my friend Carolynne Harris. In the copy she shared with me, her lines were more creatively spaced on the page, but blogspot doesn't cooperate when I try to do the same. I have, however, kept my formatting true to her original stanzas.


Across Clark Creek
women walk a winding trail.
A shroud of morning fog hovers
on Puyallup Sacred Ground.

Plump, ripe blackberries
satisfy Alaskan appetites.

A roaring open fire holds
large Green River rocks.

Women shed
They enter the igloo-like
sweatlodge backwards.

A circle hollowed
in the hard packed earthen floor
holds firey rocks.

The Sweatlodge door is closed.

Cedar, sage and water
on smoking rocks–
makes fragrant steam.

Outside a circle forms
around the fire.
A holy sharing circle.
Women meditate alone

The sun breaks
through the fog.
The great Mount Rainier
rises from the earth.
Song birds sing.
A hawk circles.
A kitten cuddles with a child.
A frog chants.
The fire crackles.

Prayerful songs within
fill ears without.

The sweatlodge door is opened.

Women emerge as from the womb.

                By Carolynne Harris

Friday, April 27, 2012

Ruth Stone (1915-2011)

I learned only this morning, in Copper Canyon's spring catalogue, that poet Ruth Stone died on November 19, 2011. I have been a huge fan of Stone's work from the time I first read -- and memorized -- one of her poems in a little anthology I found when my husband and I were unpacking boxes in our first house. I own all of her recent books, and often feel as though she is providing guidance for me about how to be a wife and mother, and how to love a flawed and miraculous world. Here's both CC's note, in memoriam, and a poem:

Ruth Stone was born on June 8, 1915 and died on November 19, 2011. She wrote and published in relative obscurity, with limited financial resources but a wealth of dertermination and independence. She was a universe unto herself, whose magnetism and charm were undeniable.


In August we carried the old horsehair mattress
To the back porch
And slept with our children in a row.
The wind came up the mountain into the orchard
Telling me something;
Saying something was urgent.
I was happy.
The green apples fell on the sloping roof
And rattled down.
The wind was shaking me all night long;
Shaking me in my sleep
Like a definition of love,
Saying, this is the moment,
Here, now.

-Ruth Stone

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

"All the Green Day"

Open the link and scroll down to April 12 to hear my friend Jennifer Beebe read her poem "All the Green Day," originally published in the now defunct Cranky Literary Journal.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

"No seed ever sees the flower." -Zen saying

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Friday, April 13, 2012

Olivia's Write Up...

In our college paper, The Clipper, Olivia Houseman did a lovely job writing about my poetry prize -- so I wanted to share it with you:

Varied Thrush


Our aged, half-feral cat has left a varied thrush
on the front steps,

a rare bird, head and breast
daubed with orange.

In the mulched flowerbeds under the windows,
a scatter of feathers.

Like a detective, I can trace the moment of terror,
how it hit the window,

stunning itself, making an easy mark.
Later, the cat

meows at the back door to be let in,
patient as death

and less blind than I’ve believed her.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


If someone had told me in 1990 when The Coyotes and My Mom was published, that it would be 22 years before I had another book, would I have persevered?

At the end of the quarter, I sometimes ask my Creative Nonfiction students to write an Acknowledgments page for their book. They laugh, or roll their eyes. "What book?" Then they plunge in. We have a lot of fun reading them aloud.

Now that I'm for real getting to write an Acknowlegments page for a book, I'm finding the task a little daunting. Sitting in my friend Janet's living room Monday night, as she paged through the manuscript (yet again), I thought of all the people I could say thank you to. There are those current friends and colleagues, people at the college, people who meet with me at my friend Carolynne's dining room table. There are students. There are people like Therese and Carla and Karen and Priscilla and Paul and Glenda. And my husband and daughters! Oh, and the Writing Lab! (Huge!) And my friends Madelon and Darby who allowed me to crash their writing group for an entire spring quarter when I was on leave from teaching. And Anna! And Deborah! There are all those amazing journals and editors who have published my poems and believed in me.

Back in the living room, Janet turned the page. She woke me from my reverie and read a poem out loud. I don't know whose names I'll actually list, but hers will have to be foremost.

I think it was Reinhold Niebuhr who said that when you can't think of what to pray, "Thank you" is a good start. So, if you've been with me on this journey, if you've been one of those people who kept believing in me even when my faith wavered, thank you.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Review Review

The Review Review this month features Calyx, Winter 2012, and (thus) my poem, "The Apple Orchard":

The first poem in this issue is the winner of the 2011 Lois Cranston Memorial Poetry Prize: “The Apple Orchard” by Bethany Reid. The award-winning poem compares an orchard to a whorehouse, evoking such female-centric images as, “the trees/frowsy and bedraggled/in nightgowns and slippers,/hair tangled, lipstick askew,/straps slipping from their shoulders.” Reid’s poem makes quiet assertions about nature’s give and take within the larger context of women’s sexuality, providing the perfect opening for this high-tension issue.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Brian Kiteley's 3 a.m. Epiphany

I have been reading Brian Kiteley's book, The 3 a.m. Epiphany, and found this:

"The original meaning of exercise, from the Latin, was to drive out of an enclosure (you can see and smell the horses here; the Latin verbs we still use like this one and educate are often simple farming terms turning into abstract philosophical ideas). Drive your ideas out of enclosures, into the open." (006)

Kiteley's method is to teach by driving students through exercises, and then letting them learn from the exercises. He advises that we avoid writing stories while writing the exercises, and seems to mean that the exercises will tug us off balance, and when we are off-balance, our best stories will surprise us.

Several years ago, inspired by I forget what exactly, I decided that I needed to reclaim the power of the horse. I bought some horse prints and a set of horse bookends -- a second set, as I have a beautiful marble pair that my cousin Mary gave me when I graduated from high school. I wrote poems about the horses of my childhood, I started an autobiographical novel about being a horse-crazy girl. I bought a horse mug. I borrowed my friend's Tao of Equus books and never gave them back (though I haven't forgotten they are hers). I bought a new copy of the My Friend Flicka trilogy. I took my daughters for horseback riding lessons. I did everything but actually ride a horse.

Riding a horse is on this year's to-do list. Until I wrote this post, I didn't realize I was avoiding it. I think there's a story there.

Monday, April 2, 2012

What Flood Does


Flood overturns the order
of pond and stream, insists
on an ardor of rushing water,

of tree limbs and mud and
small, swirling eddies. Flood
doesn't respect a fence, turns out

the field's pockets, scours
the mint and nettle
from creekbanks.

Cause and recourse, flood pulls down
the sapling and great maple
together, no respecter

of persons. Flood loves
a bridge, loves to caress with its tongue
those high, amorous thighs.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Job Over, for this quarter

"The gift is to the giver, and comes back most to him--it cannot fail..." -Walt Whitman
I've spent the entire day reading student portfolios, and I am now turning in my grades...only six hours late. A few colleagues are still on campus and stopped by to tell me, "Your students will never come back for those papers, you don't have to read them." I'd feebly protest. They'd say, "You don't have to read them carefully. You don't have to comment."

I know that. I have been guilty of telling people the same thing. But these are the portfolios of my Creative Nonfiction students, and they are really, really great stories. Not always fully realized, not always structured beautifully. Not always finished. But as works in progress, they are as gorgeous as my students themselves are.

"I would like you to know, Bethany" (one student wrote to me), "that if someday, by some crazy accident, a mad person at a publishing company decides to buy one of my books...your name will be on the dedication page."

How could I not read that student's story?

Thursday, March 22, 2012

"a continuous squandering"

"Not any self-control or self-limitation for the sake of specific ends, but rather a carefree letting go of oneself; not caution, but rather a wise blindness; not working to acquire silent, slowly increasing possessions, but rather a continuous squandering of all perishable values." -Rainer Maria Rilke

I am grading end-of-term papers, and this quotation leapt out at me.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Power of One

EvCC Teaching Retreat Video

I hope this link will work for you. Words of wisdom from several of my colleagues (and moi) about not so much living.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Guest Poet

This being human is a guesthouse,
every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture.
Still, treat each guest honrably,
he may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thoughts, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invited them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

-Merlana Jelal-uddin Rumi

Friday, March 16, 2012


"You will never find time for anything. If you want time you must make it." Charles Buxton

Thursday, March 15, 2012

A Time To Be Silent

I am attempting to clean my office, and I came across this poem, by David Rankin, in a Courage to Teach packet.


There must be a time when we cease speaking
to be fully present with ourselves.

There must be a time when we exclude clamor
by listening to nothing whatsoever.

There must be a time when we forgo our plans
as if we had no plans at all.

There must be a time when we abandon conceits
and tap into a deeper wisdom.

There must be a time when we stop striving
and find the peace within.

-David Rankin

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Piece of Cake

I often report here about what's going on in my Creative Nonfiction class. Today my 18 year old twin daughters turned up, with cake and a balloon, and everyone sang Happy Birthday to me. I could not have been more surprised.

Rather than turn that into a clever lead for the need for surprise in one's writing, I'll simply end with a quote from one my students: "Never apologize to your students for anything that results in cake." J.J.

(the picture is an old one of A & P on their 16th birthday in Libre Union, Mexico)

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Art of Living

"A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself he always seems to be doing both." L.P. Jacks (qtd. in Burnham's For Writers Only)

Friday, March 9, 2012

Surface Stories

I loved this blog post by William Kenower, "Surface Stories," and am compelled to share it.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

My Writing Cabin

I have been meaning to share this for awhile, hesitating I think because I can't believe my good luck. Or I'm afraid I'll jinx it.

My husband is building me a "shack" (as Emma calls it) in the backyard. It will be insulated and heated. It has a skylight (because I like natural light, he told me, but I believe it's there because Bruce liked the challenge of building it). Here are a couple pictures of the process. As of yesterday, it has a shingled roof.

Is that not completely amazing?!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Theodore Roethke

After dinner yesterday my daughters wanted to go to Barnes & Noble to do homework. I had homework, too, but the books seduced me away from the table. I stumbled upon this quotation, in Sophy Burnham's For Writers Only, which is surely the very next gift for the writer in your life:

"I was in the particular hell of the poet: a longish dry period. It was 1952, I was forty-four, and I thought I was done. I had been teaching the five-beat line for weeks--I knew quite a bit about it, but write it myself--no: So I felt myself a fraud.

"Suddenly, in the early evening, the poem 'The Dance' started, and finished itself in a very short time--say thirty minutes it was all done. I felt, I knew, I had hit it. I walked around and I wept; and I knelt down--I always do after I've written what I know is a good piece. But at the same time I had, as God is my witness, the actual sense of a Presence--as if Yeats himself were in that room. The house was charged with a psychic presence: the very walls seemed to shimmer. I wept for joy." -Theodore Roethke

Here's a link to Burnham's website:

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Franz Wright, "Night Walk"

My friend Carolynne sent me this poem. It made her remember how important friendship is, and I can feel that, too, but where it really sent me was to my days as a waitress, before I found love, before I married and had children. Funny how a poem can feel like a transport to another place and time I have almost forgotten -- waiting on a family dashing in for hamburgers between games in their son's Little League playoffs on a Saturday afternoon -- driving home one evening through a quiet neighborhood and seeing the lights in other people's kitchens and dining rooms.

Night Walk
The all-night convenience store's empty
and no one is behind the counter.
You open and shut the glass door a few times
causing a bell to go off,
but no one appears. You only came
to buy a pack of cigarettes, maybe
a copy of yesterday's newspaper --
finally you take one and leave
thirty-five cents in its place.
It is freezing, but it is a good thing
to step outside again:
you can feel less alone in the night,
with lights on here and there
between the dark buildings and trees.
Your own among them, somewhere.
There must be thousands of people
in this city who are dying
to welcome you into their small bolted rooms,
to sit you down and tell you
what has happened to their lives.
And the night smells like snow.
Walking home for a moment
you almost believe you could start again.
And an intense love rushes to your heart,
and hope. It's unendurable, unendurable.

— Franz Wright                               

Friday, March 2, 2012

Writing Advice from Richard Hugo

"You'll never be a poet until you realize that everything I say today and this quarter is wrong. It may be right for me, but it is wrong for you. Every moment, I am, without wanting or trying to, telling you to write like me. But I hope you learn to write like you. In a sense, I hope I don't teach you how to write but how to teach yourself to write. At all times keep your crap detector on. If I say one thing that helps, good. If what I say is of no help, let it go." -Richard Hugo

I think this is from Triggering Town. I found it in Donald M. Murray's The Craft of Revision.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

My Grading Blues...

Since Monday I've been lugging around three sets of student papers. Finally, the oldest set has been returned to their proper owners, and a second set (due waaaayyy last Tuesday) is now more than halfway complete.

I've always enjoyed teaching. It's so much better than waiting tables or banking or being an office clerk. But, grading papers? Nah, don't like it, never have, probably never will. Even so, winning a poetry prize has done a lovely job of shifting my mood. Papers? No big deal.

So here's a treat for Elizabeth George fans, an interview from Author Magazine, in which she reflects as much on her earlier work as an English teacher, as she does on her amazing novels. When all three of my sets of papers are returned, and I'm caught up on emails (such as sending a bio to Writers & Books!), I intend to treat myself to a copy of George's new book, Believing the Lie.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Indian Plum

As we drove home from church yesterday, I stopped the car so that Emma (my 12-year-old daughter) could see the Indian Plum blooming in the woodlands. My family calls this "sarvis," and I had to grow up, go to college, and meet a botanist (in poetry class!) to figure out what it really is (also called Osoberry, Latin name, oemlaria cerasiformis). I'm told it has small, bitter fruit that one can make into jelly, but the plant always seems to disappear into more interesting foliage once spring arrives.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Rising to the Surface

I am writing letters to my students about their long papers -- their personal stories. In every letter, I write some version of this advice: Here is what seems to be the underlying meaning of your story; your job is to bring this meaning to the surface so that your readers can see it.

What I've learned from paying close attention to my students' stories is that abstract and generalized language and obscure sentence structures keep their meaning hidden. Not that it has no meaning, but it's as though I have to intuit it, to guess at it, when I should be able to understand it clearly, simply. What brings meaning to the surface of the story? Details and dialogue and sentencing that aim the reader's attention like a telescope at what matters most.

Life conspires to focus my own attention on this lesson. This morning, writing and reading in my green chair while the rest of my family slept, I came across this quote, highlighted from a previous reading of Jon Kabat-Zinn's Wherever You Go, There You Are: 

"Nisargadatta: By being with yourself . . . by watching yourself in your daily life with alert interest, with the intention to understand rather than to judge, in full acceptance of whatever may emerge, because it is there, you encourage the deep to come to the surface and enrich your life and consciousness with its captive energies." (10)

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Inimitable Naomi Shihab Nye

"Sometimes I pretend I'm not me, I just work for me."

I believe this line is also in a poem, but Naomi said it (with a mischievous twinkle of the eye) at a reading I attended last year. This is what I need to do right now, with a hundred items on my to-do list, send myself out as an emissary, an employee. On Sunday afternoon I'll catch my breath, and call a quick meeting with myself to see how I've done.

And here's Naomi Shihab Nye so you can see for yourself what a treasure she is:

Thursday, February 23, 2012

"Art is made through a series of moments--choices--leading each to the next. Life is made the same way. When we desire to live artfully, we must live not only consciously but concretely. We must shape our life." -Julia Cameron

I believe I've shared this quotation before, but it's one I keep returning to. My husband and one of my daughters have been ill, the poetry prize has spun my head, I have two sets of papers to grade, and a fundraiser at church this weekend. But it's five a.m. Right now, I can sit here and write.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Procrastination Blues

I spent the afternoon working on a couple of submissions, only to realize that, with the main one -- of my novel to PNWA -- the contest doesn't have a postmark deadline; it has a "received by" deadline. Tomorrow. And it's already 4:30. Dang.

My students often tell me that they work better under pressure. This quarter a student said that the only A grades she's ever received for a paper came when she left it until the last moment. Fair enough, I've grabbed that brass ring a few times, too. But I find more often that my procrastination habits do not result in better work. In my life, procrastination results in missed deadlines. It results in days drinking too much coffee, in headaches, in an intolerable level of anxiety. In a flood of disappointment.

In Writing Tools, Roy Peter Clark recommends turning procrastination into rehearsal. I translate this for my students by 1) looking at the assignment very closely, closely enough to digest it, as soon as it's handed out (this would have been enough for me to have completed my submission on time); 2) breaking the task into very small steps, some of which (one sees immediately) are best taken care of right away (buying envelopes? typing the damn synopsis?); and, 3) for especially big or important projects, setting a goal to do something -- no matter how small -- every day (just opening up the project and looking at it can be enough to keep it from turning into a messy pile of compost).

Another step is to plan a reward (a shiny foil star? a latte? a walk?) for successful completion.

For missing my deadline, a slap upside the head.

On the other hand, compost can be a good thing. I'll get it right next time.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Not the Heart, But Maybe

Not the heart, but maybe
the liver. Why not love you
with my whole pancreas?

My thalamus adores you.

My cochlea lies awake all night
filled with you as if by an inner sea.

My kneecaps ache, in dreams
pursuing you with the runner's pure desire.

My heart?

She has gone to dwell
within herself, abbey, abbess
dedicated to her four chambers.

She kneels to pray for purer thoughts
than love of you.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

CALYX Journal: Winter 2012, Vol. 27:1

The new issue of CALYX: A JOURNAL OF ART AND LITERATURE BY WOMEN is now out, featuring my poem, "The Apple Orchard."

It's a terrific issue, and all the more notable for marking 35 years of continuous publication.

Here are a couple of recent pictures of the orchard -- damaged by the recent snowstorm.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Tales from Class

In class today, I showed clips from another movie (Twelve Monkeys, directed by the brilliant Terry Gilliam). I had this impression that students were rolling their eyes. Okay, they seemed to be thinking. But that's fiction. We're supposed to be writing true stories.

So what is it that makes us feel that true stories offer us less choice, less opportunity for creativity than do fictional stories? Maybe, in some strange way, true stories offer us more choices, more opportunities.

Last Monday, for instance, I told my students how, when I was younger, I wrote stories that I resolved by having the protagonist (a thinly disguised me) dissolve into tears. Back then, I had so much to learn about story-telling.

"Tears," I informed my students, "are not a resolution to a story. Tears resolve nothing."

But the very next day, over coffee, a friend told a story about almost missing a train. She was young and our setting is Chicago, probably in the late 1950s. She had a big suitcase and she needed to catch a bus so she could get to the train station. But every bus that passed her was already full. None of them stopped. Finally, realizing she could never get to the train on time, she began to sob.

A policeman on horseback stopped and asked her what the matter was. He stopped a cab -- an occupied cab -- and directed the driver to take my friend to the train station. She continued to sob in the cab. She offered to pay for her fare, but the other passenger wouldn't hear of it.

She arrived at the train station, still crying, and began running after the train, which was already pulling out of the station. A conductor saw her -- I would guess because she was such a bedraggled tear-streaked mess by this time -- and stopped the train for her.

All because she cried.

And maybe because she was a beautiful, red-headed teenage girl.

I will be mulling this story over for a while (that story and a child-rearing book I once read, Tears and Tantrums by Aletha Solter, who makes a compelling argument for the resolving power of tears). I hope that my friend will suddenly get the itch to put her story down in all its detail (I've tried to keep it stripped down, as it is her story and not mine). She was catching the train to go to her sister's, but in the novelization I have a feeling a handsome stranger will materialize. (Either way, I'd love to hear more!)