Sunday, September 28, 2008

A First Lady, Several Renowned Writers and One Beloved Knucklehead: National Book Festival 2008

I almost didn't go (sore ankle and a forecast of rain) but then I whacked myself on the head and said: of course, you're going! Everyone else in the blog world is in Portland. Who will take bad cell phone pictures and report Jon Scieszka's hijinks if you don't?

I arrived around noon, and stumbled directly upon the Festival's hostess, Laura Bush, as she posed with some of the Festival volunteers before her departure. Her back was to me, or I would've tried for a picture. Jenna was already in the black bulletproof vehicle, waving from the back seat.

I love this shot of the Festival flag with the Capitol in the background. Note the puddles. Much muddier than last year, but not nearly as hot. Pleasant, really.

I was too late to score the full poster by Jan Brett, but the bear on the flag is beautiful, don't you think?

The session with Neil Gaiman was underway when I found the Children and Teens Pavilion, but I could've told you who was speaking without even entering, because the audience overflowing the venue was....20-somethings in funky hats and cool clothes. They absolutely didn't mind that he wasn't promoting an adult read like American Gods, but The Graveyard Book, his novel with a 14-year-old protagonist. He read a funny excerpt in which the boy seeks the help of a long-dead but still highly verbose poet. Gaiman is a natural dramatic reader. He never veers into camp, he never shortchanges a word or a pause, and he has complete confidence in his material. He took questions, and his answers were perfectly encapsulated stories, one of them involving an ancient human elbow bone. My favorite line: when talking about why he doesn't outline, he says he loves to find out what happens, except that three-quarters of the way in, he sometimes feels like "he's jumped from a plane and must knit himself a parachute on the way down."

After Gaiman, I stayed to hear the Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out panel: Mary Brigid Barrett, Steven Kellogg, and Katherine Paterson.

First, surprise guest Lynda Johnson Robb (daughter of President Johnson and former board chair of Reading is Fundamental) read her contribution as one who had "looked out." Her wry essay about how her rather boring and antique-free bedroom at the White House did not meet her high expectations had everyone laughing. (Upon further investigation, she found out that her room was witness to Lincoln's autopsy and several other deaths, which didn't improve her affection for it.)

Then, second surprise guest and National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, Jon Scieszka, read a Prelutsky riddle poem that had readers guessing the identity of "who" at the White House "didn't need ID" and "did what he pleased." It turned out to be the Clintons' cat, Socks, but Jon, in his evil genius, casually mentioned Dick Cheney before he began...and the resulting parallel meaning was I was certain the Secret Service was going to haul him away. Perhaps the Ambassador medal he had received at the gala the night before protected him. He showed it to us---gleefully and to great applause---several times.

Katherine Paterson closed the panel by reading a blessing for the White House penned by John Adams in a letter to his wife, Abigail.

After that, it was time for lunch, so I headed to the National Gallery to eat at the cafe. While waiting in line, I was impressed by this eye-catching display of Iggy Peck, Architect.

One day, I'd like a book of mine to be in the National Gallery. Maybe if I name all my future characters after famous artists...

More art:

Kids doing crafts at the Scholastic table.
(I was tempted to ask them: do you know that I have a book coming out with Scholastic next fall? But you all know that I'm scared of glue.)

After lunch, I caught Mr. Scieszka again, who read from his autobiography, Knucklehead. (See Becky's great review here.) I'm telling you, this guy is fearless. Growing up with five brothers apparently does that. He was telling a story about PEE. All the while, he kept up a game with the sign language interpreter, repeating PEE in rapid fire succession to make her sign it. She played right back, switching to signing the letter "P" in retaliation instead. It was a hilarious bit of impromptu theater.

I wish I had more pictures. And a Festival poster. And a book in the National Gallery. And a voice like Neil Gaiman's. And devoted, beautiful fans of all ages like Katherine Paterson. I don't wish for five brothers. My own two are great. But I did get an afternoon on the National Mall in the company of people who love books. I'm glad I didn't stay home.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Champagne and Origami

My second round of revisions has arrived and I must step out of the room. I don't know if I'll be gone days or weeks. I may drop in and out unexpectedly.

Please entertain yourself with either (or both) of the following. I'm told that these feats take several days to master.

Task #1: Open a champagne bottle with a sword.

Task #2: Take a square of paper, as below...

and make this:

More exquisite origami by Brian Chan here

Alternatively, you may simply sit in your chairs and stare out the window. That often leads to writing, which leads to revising, in which case, I'm happy thrilled excited for you

I'm's happening...I must go now...

Friday, September 19, 2008

Poetry Friday: Photo Meme and Comic Strips

Meme Rules:

Take a picture of yourself right now.
Don't change your clothes, don't fix your hair -- just take a picture.
Post that picture with NO editing.
Post these instructions with your picture.


Then I went all Top Model and tried to do "Tyra Eyes."

It's harder than it looks, I swear.

I gave up and went for Comic Book Me.

I like this one. A lot.
What's the big deal about being two-dimensional?

In case you've missed them, the Poetry Foundation is doing a series called "The Poem as Comic Strip." Here's the beginning of the poem they've chosen for #6:

by A.E. Stallings

Every night, we couldn’t sleep.
Our upstairs neighbors had to keep
Dropping something down the hall—
A barbell or a bowling ball,

And from the window by the bed,
Echoing inside my head,
Alley cats expended breath
In arias of love and death.

Read the rest (as a comic strip) here. Look for the link at the bottom of the introduction.

Graphics by Maui-born artist, R. Kikuo Johnson.
Or for the straight text by poet A.E. Stallings, here.

And if you have PhotoBooth on a Mac, I'd like to see a ComicBook version of YOU. Please.

Poetry Friday is hosted today by Author Amok.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

East o' the Sunroom, West o' the Moonlit Road

Writing a draft is like making a map. What you are mapping is up to you.

If you imagine yourself outside, you will test roads, find crossways and connections, name streets, and never be satisfied with what you've been told about a place. You will go down ill-used paths until you can look beyond the flat edge of the end of the world---here be dragons!

If you see yourself as map-making inside, you will knock on closet backs to check for hidden passages, tear down walls if you suspect doors behind them, and crawl into tight spaces. You will measure a room in the steps of your character. And lie down on your back to examine the ceiling.


Because then you will lay out your findings in an organized way so that others may explore the same paths, see things they didn't know were there, visit little known attractions, discover short (or long) cuts, realize one land lies beside another, and perhaps find a trapdoor to a populated underground or a ladder to a long undisturbed attic.

You're asking your readers to risk a mountain because you named it and marked one route. I've dared valleys because someone has gone in before me and assures me they will lead me out. Even a house that I've been inside a thousand times is worthy of rediscovery when someone hands me a floorplan and tells me the history of how the backstairs were added.

Fellow blogger Jennifer Thermes is reading Mapmaking with Children: Sense of Place Education for the Elementary Years and has Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer on her TBR pile. Jennifer creates maps for a living.

What's the last map you drew? Why?

P.S. I love a good map in a book. Do you? Here's a blog post from The Map Room devoted to Imaginary Places.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Writing Boots

We're thinking about colleges here at our house. Which leads to talk of college majors. Which leads to talk of careers.

And here's my guilty secret: I love career counseling books. Whenever I'm feeling unsure about my own work as a writer, I break out a career book and try to find another line of work.

I used to do this quite seriously and passionately, determined to find something I could immediately channel my frustration into, but now, I do it with amusement and the same guilty pleasure that I feel trying on shoes I know I'll never buy. Yeah, those olive green oooh shiny patent leather wow those make my legs look good heels make my heart quicken, and they would work for that one dress, but really...I go barefoot most of the day. And yeah, reading about being a film editor or legal mediator is exciting, but really...just thinking about those careers is enough. I don't have to actually buy them, take them out of the store, and wear them every day to get a jolt out of it.

Not so with the writing boots. The more I read about them, talk about them, see them lined up on the floor, the more I want to stick my feet in them and tromp around.

If you want to do a little guilty career shopping, Do What You Are, based on Myers-Briggs personality type, is one of my favorite books. Guess what it says is one of the secrets to my type's success? The right shoes.

Ha! No, it actually says: "Developing realistic expectations." But that's the same thing, right?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The other pen

Rilke had two pens: one for writing letters and paying bills, and one for his "real work" of poetry and novels. Guess which one got used the most? (Hint: Rilke penned an estimated 11,000 letters, about 7,000 of which are in print, mostly in German and French.)*

Before he died, he did realize that his letters had become an essential part of his life's work and gave permission for them to be published. But it got me wondering.

Which of our words written with "the other pen" are more powerful than we ever guess?

I'm thinking of an appreciation letter I wrote to my son's first grade teacher, which she later told me stayed on her refrigerator all year.

I'm thinking of the notes my mother wrote in the margins of a paperback copy of A Circle of Quiet.

I'm thinking of the message someone handed my daughter at school on 9/11/2001, letting her know that her dad had survived the attack on the Pentagon.

Rilke filled his pens with ink. We charge our laptops.
He wrote letters. We write email and blog posts.
He wrote novels and poetry. Some of us do that, too.
Everyday we ink and tap and send out words.
After that, who knows?

For as Rilke wrote in one of his "other pen" letters, "...our life is vast, and can accommodate as much future as we are able to carry."

*From the introduction to "The Poet's Guide to Life: The Wisdom of Rilke" edited and translated by Ulrich Baer.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Poetry Friday: Bond and Free

I love this poem because it praises Thought with its "dauntless wings" (I love that!) but it also says what I have to constantly re-discover: Love by being thrall /And simply staying possesses all

Bond and Free

by Robert Frost

Love has earth to which she clings
With hills and circling arms about—
Wall within wall to shut fear out.
But Thought has need of no such things,
For Thought has a pair of dauntless wings.

On snow and sand and turf, I see
Where Love has left a printed trace
With straining in the world’s embrace.
And such is Love and glad to be.
But Thought has shaken his ankles free.

Thought cleaves the interstellar gloom
And sits in Sirius’ disc all night,
Till day makes him retrace his flight,
With smell of burning on every plume,
Back past the sun to an earthly room.

His gains in heaven are what they are.
Yet some say Love by being thrall
And simply staying possesses all
In several beauty that Thought fares far
To find fused in another star.

Poetry Friday is hosted today by Jennie at BiblioFile

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

To Remind Myself

Tomorrow, on Sept. 11, you may observe a moment of silence. But I'm starting today because...well, I need it.

After several particularly loud weeks in our nation's continued struggle to define itself politically, I'm craving respectful silence so badly that I'm (silently) screaming.

If you need a dose of silence--and I don't mean apathy or indifference or deception or unvoiced anger or ignorance--- here are a few places to start:

A Beautiful Day for Silence (ShelfTalker at Publishers Weekly)

Simon and Garfunkle's Sound of Silence

Who would've thought Wikipedia had so much to say about silence?

And finally, Wendell Berry's poem How to Be a Poet, which is subtitled "to remind myself"

It begins:

Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill—more of each
than you have—inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.
The rest is here.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

In 1964, I woulda been HOT

Yearbook Yourself

P.S. I apologize to all those who planned to get work done and now will not, due to playing with this. Could we call it "research into character development" and leave it at that?

Or...on second there a decade that you feel more at home in than this one? Discuss.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Digital Bookmobile

I had no idea such a thing existed.

The press release:


A digital bookmobile will be in the parking lot of the Centreville
Library from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 13 (rain or shine).
The bookmobile provides a great opportunity for people to learn more
about downloading audiobooks, eBooks and more. There will be
instructional videos and interactive computer stations so readers of all
ages can experience new ways to enjoy digital books and more from the
library. For more information visit the library's Web site at Centreville Regional Library is located
at 14200 St. Germain Dr., Centreville, VA 20121.

P.S. I've only lived one place that was served by a bookmobile, and that was the military family housing area on Fort Adams, in Rhode Island. I loooooved that thing. There was something about all those books squeezed into one tiny, but orderly, space that made them feel even more like the treasures they were.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Poetry Friday: Jane Kenyon's Happiness

After posting yesterday about This is Just to Say: Poems of Apology and Forgiveness, I wanted a poem today to compliment the themes of that book.

I found one in Jane Kenyon's Happiness, which begins:

There’s just no accounting for happiness,
or the way it turns up like a prodigal
who comes back to the dust at your feet
having squandered a fortune far away.

and continues with this wry image:

No, happiness is the uncle you never
knew about, who flies a single-engine plane
onto the grassy landing strip, hitchhikes
into town, and inquires at every door
until he finds you asleep midafternoon
as you so often are during the unmerciful
hours of your despair.

Go read the whole poem.
I think she's beautifully accurate in saying that we do forgive happiness for its absence, the very minute it shows up again.

Elaine at Wild Rose Reader is hosting the Poetry Friday roundup today.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Sneak Preview of Book Club

This is Just to Say: Poems of Apology and Forgiveness
by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski

I'm leading the DC Kidlit Book Club discussion this month, and our selection is the Cybils award winning title This is Just to Say. (I was on the Poetry judging panel.) You can participate virtually in the comments anytime, or if you live near DC, we'd love to have you join us this Sunday. Email Susan at wizardwireless [at] gmail [dot] com for more information.

Sneak preview of our discussion questions:

1) How did you read this book? I was surprised when my husband read it in a completely different way than I did, but I think that's one of the charms of this title---that it can be read/used in multiple ways.

2) The original "This is Just to Say" by William Carlos Williams is NOT a contrite poem. Did this book make you think about the nature of apology itself, and how hard it is to do, and how it isn't always met with acceptance? How does adding the forgiveness element expand the book's theme? Did this book make you reflect upon current or past stories of forgiveness or apology in your own life?

3) How do Zagarenski's illustrations add to the feel of the book? Did you think the use of text within the illustrations was an effective technique? How did individual illustrations pair with individual poems to bring new insight into each fictional poet's apology or offer of forgiveness?

4) Did you begin reading and then flip to the front to see who really wrote the book? How hard is it to pull off authentic sixth-grade poetic voices? Do you think Sidman succeeded?

5) Not all the poems in the book are free verse, as the original poem obviously is. Does the addition of form poetry strengthen the book?

6) What did you think of the multi-cultural elements of the book? Were they successful?

7) Did reading this book make you want to try your own "This is Just to Say" poem?

UPDATE: Elaine Magliaro, poetry queen and blogger at Wild Rose Reader, has just posted a wonderful resource list for us, including links to her interview with Joyce, and to Joyce Sidman's own Readers' Guide. Thank you so much, Elaine!

Wednesday, September 3, 2008


"A work of art is good
if it has grown out of necessity."

---Rainer Maria Rilke

I've been thinking about that statement since I read it yesterday morning. Does my writing grow out of necessity? Or I could also ask: is my writing necessary?

From Merriam-Webster's online dictionary:

Main Entry:
Middle English necessarie, from Latin necessarius, from necesse necessary, probably from ne- not + cedere to withdraw

Date: 14th century
1 a: of an inevitable nature : inescapable b (1): logically unavoidable (2): that cannot be denied without contradiction c: determined or produced by the previous condition of things d: compulsory2: absolutely needed : required

I think the part of the definition I identify with the most is: "that cannot be denied without contradiction." My writing isn't required or inevitable; but if I avoid or deny it, I find that my life starts to become one big contradiction of everything I value.

"Not + withdraw" is pretty powerful, too. Writing is engagement with the world, even as it is done in solitude.

And you?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Gifts for Readers and Writers-Part IV

Part IV in my (sometimes silly) series of gift ideas for readers and writers.

Limited edition Rat Fink pen (Aren't all writers ratting out something or someone---if only ourselves---when we put pen to page?)

8 days a week planners (Now that's handy. Why didn't I think of just adding an extra "someday" to my work week?)

Melting Snowmen cannister set. (Show, don't tell? Okay, I'm pushing it with this idea, but I wanted to show you these!)

Hyperbole is the BEST thing ever! T-shirt (Isn't it, though?)

Thanks to Velocity for the first three items, the Mental Floss store for the last one.