Thursday, January 31, 2008

Turning the Page

It's the last day of January. I read eleven books this month. And yet, I feel as if I've hardly read anything at all. Compared to some of you reading maniacs, I guess I haven't. (Not that I'm competing with you or anything, TadMack...)

Tomorrow is the first of February. (See how that flows?) Which means that I will put in a new pair of contacts, pay the rent, give the dog her heartworm meds, and turn the page on the calendar that hangs on my fridge. I'm also donating an old mattress and boxsprings to the Salvation Army. This somehow makes me feel lighter and freer. Note to self: Always start the month by donating something. Doesn't have to be a kidney. A few dollars in the Community Breadbox at Panera Bread will do.

What do you do at the beginning of every month? Make plans? Look back? Look ahead? Ignore it all completely?

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

How can I help you?

I bookmarked this image because of those ultra-cool paperclips. But now that I look at it, that "HELP" message coming from the D- is bugging me. I don't think a student would find that amusing. What if someone wrote on a draft of one of my poems: Help me! I'm trite and confusing and annoyingly obtuse and over-wordy and under-imaged and the only thing I'm clearly, clearly saying is: D-. (Not even a satisfying F. A hanging-by-my-pity D-.)

Not that I ever had a poetry professor that handed out that kind of nasty feedback. I only took one English class in college* ---(GASP)---because I majored in physics and that sucked up a lot of time and I could test out of the required freshman English rigmarole. Then I had the great idea to switch majors when I switched schools, and cramming all the requirements for that major (government) into two years left little time for English classes with reputations for requiring 10,000 pages of reading a week.

But the point of this story is that although I had but one English class, it apparently holds sway over the women of this family, because I recently discovered that my daughter is taking the exact same class with the exact same professor that I did.

ME: How's your Poetry Writing teacher? Interesting?

DAUGHTER: Yes, he's nice. Kind of eccentric. Wears an eye-patch.

ME: Eye-patch? (memories come flooding back)

We go to the college faculty page and look him up. Yup. Same professor. Same class. It's not confirmed yet, but I'm betting you it's the same syllabus, too.

I still have poems that I wrote for that class, but only one has teacher comments written on it. The feedback is gentle---checkmarks with "nice touch" beside a few lines, and then, several penciled comments, asking me to clarify and expand on my first attempt: "Good impulse, but I can't quite apprehend the comparison." "The penultimate section seems to promise more. Any strong possibilities?"

I remember being scared in that class. Scared of failing to produce a poem each week. Scared of what the other students would say about what I did scrape together. Scared of appearing ignorant when one boy called me up to discuss his opus to John Coltrane, and he went on and on about jazz, and I had no idea, no idea what he was talking about. But the teacher didn't give me reason to fear. And I'm grateful for that.

Years later, I've had the pleasure of working with a few different editors, and my agent, who've all given me feedback on my work. To a person, they have all been exquisitely polite, insightful, and kind. It's obvious that they care passionately about the words I've given them on the page, but they serve the greater good of the work by offering to me, the creator of that work, their best thoughts and support as I struggle to answer their questions for myself.

You might be afraid of editors or agents---they are wicked smart after all, and they hold the keys to publishing's doors---but I've never met one that would diss you like that paperclip talk bubble does. Sure, their honesty may hurt, sometimes---and they most definitely will turn down manuscripts that aren't right for them---but they are in the business of truly HELPING writers, and who else can you honestly say has the patience for that?

* I'm not counting Linguistics, although I loved it. And I did take one French literature course, but as it was taught entirely in French, I had to analyze the most amazing French poems in my horribly stumbling and inadequate French vocabulary. All in all, it was tragique.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

At the prom

Looking for me? I'm not here. This Cinderella's been invited to the prom. And I plan to dance for a long, long time. (Midnight? Pish-posh! With the right shoes, anything is possible...)

Monday, January 28, 2008

Just the Good Stuff

"When I take the ornaments off the tree, I hang them on my wooden drying rack which is placed over a towel. Then, I use compressed air to clean the ornaments so they are ready for next year!"

----From the blog Unclutterer.

The only way I can see myself doing that is with a gun to my head, or with Johnny Depp holding the can of compressed air.

On the other hand, this blog did show me how to Stop Hoarding Magazines. (Check out the comments on that post! There are some serious magazine hoard-0-maniacs out there.)

In any case, I'm inspired to sort through some accumulated clutter, and give you just the good stuff today:

1) Anybody going to the SCBWI Conference in NY this year? Please leave a comment or email me so I know to look for you! There's even a KidLit get-together on Friday night, organized by Betsy Bird and Cheryl Klein.

2) I've been saving this tidbit, but it doesn't seem to be fitting in to any post I'm likely to write in the near future: In case you need to draw a human skull or a rhinoceros chameleon, Gurney Journey has the place for you. (And if you do draw a rhinoceros chameleon, you had darn better send me a copy of the sketch!)

3) Ever wonder what it's like to go toilet shopping with a four-year-old? It's better than Disney World, according to my friend, Donna---who throws in a few "red-neck parenting tips" for good measure.

4) Were you inspired to move your body after last week's blog-a-thon with me and Liz? Then get yourself over to, my favorite place to buy workout gear. And they're having a contest to win a week-long yoga retreat at a luxury lodge in Montana.

5) There's a fabulous series on writing over at Through the Tollbooth all this week. The first post is titled Ensorcellment and Sarah Sullivan is going to be talking about "the writer as enchanter." Sarah, you had me at ensorcellment. (I collect words. They don't need dusting.)

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Exercise of Writing: The Big Round 'em Up List

No sweating here today. Just some sweet relaxing and reading. It's the end of a satisfying week of co-blogging with Liz about The Exercise of Writing, and all we need now is to hear from YOU:

The Big Round-em Up List

Of poetry and ninjas (Kelly Fineman)

Why Writing is Like Golf (Caroline Hickey)

Hey There, Sports Fan (Little Willow)

How I like my dance is how I like my writing (Laura Purdie Salas)

Take the Plunge (HipWriterMama)

Baloney for Dollies (Bowling) (House on the Glade Hill)

Ode to a Gymnast (The Miss Rumphius Effect)

Writing and Running (Art, Words, Life)

"A good hike is like a good book..." (Liz in Ink)

"Maybe this is what I do for my writing students. I offer adjustments." (Liz on yoga and teaching)

Passion, Risk, and Mountain Climbing (Liz in Ink)

How Running Helps My Writing (Laurie Halse Anderson)

Comparing bodybuilding and becoming an author (Don Tate)

All these fabulous sports metaphors left in the comments section on Thursday
(Thank you, Nick, Tricia, Kelly, Amy, Laura, and Sam!)

If You Want to Write, the sections about walking (recommended by Julie Swanson, author of the sports-related book, Going For the Record)

From Justine Larbalester's Blog, a description of the panel she moderated at ConFusion, a SF convention:

SATURDAY 19 JANUARY: 1100 Den 1 Fantastic Sports
Organized sports are a vital part almost every culture on the globe. But sf and fantasy novels tend to overlook this key aspect of world-building. We examine what sports are and what they tell us about a culture, and dig up some good examples in sf and fantasy. Justine Larbalestier (M), Scott Westerfeld, Steve Ainsworth, Dave Klecha and Catherine Shaffer.

Ballet: From HipWriterMama's interview with Lorie Ann Grover:

HWM: What has been the biggest challenge of your writing career and how did you tackle it?

Lorie Ann: The biggest challenge was probably persevering through the six years of rejection. I think ballet training came to my aid. Every day you plie. Over and over. Every day you sit at the computer and write again.

From Brian Lies (author of Bats at the Beach) interviewed by Barbara O'Connor:

"I think getting published is a lot like golf (which I don't play)--if you perfect your swing, the ball should go more or less where you want it to. Likewise, if you learn to tell stories in an original and compelling way, either in words or pictures, and hone your skills so that they're truly professional. . . you're going to get published. It may take a while, but you'll get published."


At Through the Tollbooth, Stephanie Greene writes:

"Voice is a sound. You can hear it. But while you may hear it in your head, your writing shouldn’t come from there; it should come from a complete knowledge of your character. Many writers talk about it as coming from the heart. For me, it’s more like water up a plant: it comes from the ground, through the soles of your feet, runs up your legs, your thighs, your torso, envelopes your heart, your lungs, courses down your arms to the tips of your fingers, and, last but not least, reaches your brain."

Liz, THANK YOU SO MUCH for playing along with me this week!

And thank you everyone who left a comment and encouraged us from the sidelines. You rocked!

Friday, January 25, 2008

Poetry Friday: Wrestling with Poetry

I'm cheating (just a tiny bit) today. Liz and I have this whole "Exercise of Writing" week going on, and I need it and Poetry Friday to play nice together. So, I'm giving you some poetic excerpts from one of my favorite books about sports (and so much more):

(This is the paperback cover.
I own the hardback, which looks quite different.)

Wrestling Sturbridge was Rich Wallace's first book, and he's gone on to write many more. But when I met him at the Highlights Foundation Writer's Workshop at Chautauqua, he had just published this strong debut novel, with blurbs on the back from the likes of Robert Cormier, Jerry Spinelli, and Chris Crutcher. (It also received starred reviews from Booklist and Publisher's Weekly, and was noted by ALA as a Quick Pick and a Best Book for Young Adults.) He's still on the Writer's Workshop faculty today, so catch him there, if you can.

You would think that I (a girl) would not like a book (about a boy) that features a sport (wrestling) that I've never attempted, but you would be wrong (arm twisted behind your back wrong.) I love this story, and one reason is the short poetic lists that are interspersed throughout the book. Here's one:

Things I've done twice:

* pinned Al (seventh grade)

* told my father to go to hell

* read Conditioning for Wrestling: The Iowa Way

Things I haven't:

* left home for four days

* been suspended from school for
telling a teacher to kiss my ass

* had sex

And here's one more:

What happens before a match (in this order):

* diarrhea and mood swings

* a kind of prayer where you curse at
God and beat yourself up, then tell
God you're sorry and he says it's okay

* a concentrated sense of focus

What doesn't:

* you don't joke around with anybody

* you don't resign yourself to losing

* you never say it doesn't matter what

Maybe Rich Wallace didn't think of those brief interludes as poetry. But I choose to.

Poetry Friday is hosted today at Mentor Texts & More. Come play.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Exercise of Writing: Playing the Game

Yeah, so I heard that some of you aren't into this whole mind/body thing. And that you'd rather buy a Fab-Ab-Cruncher than my writing/exercise game theory. So I'm going to play hardball today. That's right, I'm hauling out the METAPHORS. (Be afraid. Very afraid.)

Ever think of....

Writing as Boxing:

Looking for a win? Fine, but don't rig the fight. You need a genuine opponent, not a weak premise that exists only so you can score a quick KO. You need something heavy and well-anchored that pushes back when you give it hard jab. Look at that picture...he's fighting, not "working out." Pick a worthy subject. Get into the ring. My money's on YOU.

Writing as golf:

Putts add up. So do details. If you play eighteen holes as an amateur, putting is half (or more) of your score. So forget the overblown drivers and the sweet hybrid irons. Read the greens (and the dictionary.) Know how your putt (and your characters) will break. And the right bit of dialogue will sink the ball into the cup every time. At least that's why I keep talking to my ball. (Go in! Go in!)

Writing as yoga:

Corpse Pose. Also known as the nap. Performed correctly, this pose enables a writer to solve complex plot problems and find missing scenes. This pose may also be used to fake actual death should someone ask you to read their 75,000 word picture book manuscript. But you'll have a tough time explaining those short shorts. (Really, they're literary! The Guardian publishes them!)

What about you? How is writing like your favorite sport? Liz is playing this game today, too. Go see her!

P.S. I'm doing a roundup post here on Saturday, so if you have a blog entry that deals with "The Exercise of Writing" or you interviewed a writer who mentioned their physical routine or you read a book that developed this theme---or even if you want to scramble and write a reaction post double-quick---please send me the link.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Exercise of Writing: "Do something fabulous with what you've got."

It's Double Team Day! I'm quizzing Liz here, while she's got me covered at her place.


Hi, folks!...Here I am, jogging alongside powerhouse Liz Garton Scanlon ...(huff, puff)... while she answers my questions....let's see if I can (huff) keep up... (puff)

Liz is the author of A Sock is a Pocket for your Toes (and two other upcoming books,) an inspiring classroom volunteer, a coffeehouse-hosting poetry teacher, AND a compulsive runner and a well-balanced yogini. (Plus, I've got to add: this poet/athlete knows how to throw down a sonnet.)

Here she is in a moment of yogini calm, a photo taken several years ago, in which she describes herself as: "VERY pregnant with baby number 2, doing yoga with baby number 1." And that folks, is how seriously she takes her physical endeavors.

Here we go...

1) About those quotes in yesterday's post. Care to reflect on them? Do you have a part of your body that you feel your writing comes from?

Yep. For me, too, writing needs to be from the body in order to be ‘harmonious’. The thing about writing from just my brain is that it can sound too un-squeaky. All craft, no heart, if that makes sense. For me, there are different stages of writing. Gut, shoulder blades, rib cage. It doesn’t always feel good – I sometimes want to suppress the fluttery feeling or squeeze of it – but I am absolutely certain that there is something rich happening when I’m embodying it that way. When I simply come up with an idea and craft it, without anything that resembles a panic attack or lung constriction, it inevitably falls flat on the page.

2) What's your favorite physical activity and what have you learned from it about life and writing?

I have a dual activity lifestyle – running and yoga. These provide the perfect balance of outdoor and indoor activity, building and stretching, heart pumping and lung opening, extroversion and introversion. I have learned, from running, that a partner makes the effort easier and more fun and gives me something external to live up to. Ditto, having writing partners. And that there is no magic – you put one foot in front of the other, working to go a little further or a little faster week after week. Ditto, writing – one word after another after another. It’s the only way I know to get a draft down on the page. And also from running, that even if I don’t want to start, I never, ever regret it when I’m finished. Ditto, writing. The first five minutes are always the hardest. Yoga? I’ve learned that, in the end, it’s just me – my mind and body – that I’ve got to reckon with and count on. Ditto, writing. The partners and community and support make the long slog easier but it’s just me and my mat, errr – my page, in the end. And I’ve learned that some days are easier than others and sometimes there’s no rhyme or reason behind that. Progress isn’t always linear or logical. I have to meet myself where I’m at each day. Ditto, of course, writing. And I’ve learned that even if I don’t want to start…. Yep. Same lesson as running. And writing. That one needs learning over and over again.

3) Do you feel that exercise is essential to your mental health? (I do!)

Whoa, boy. Don’t even know where I’d be (except that it might have the word ‘institution’ in the title) if I didn’t get my fix.

4) Is there a sport/activity that you want to try, but haven't?

Over the years I’ve tried lots – everything from Nia to Masters’ swimming to climbing fourteeners to pilates. I’d still climb peaks if I lived in the mountains. I wish I like pilates but I’m kind of wimpy that way. I think the answer is, I’ll try almost anything once or thrice but I feel sure that I’ve already found the combination of things that really work for me, physically and mentally/emotionally.

5) Why do you think you're better at certain sports than other kinds? Certain forms of writing than other forms?

The only thing I can’t abide (and I know I’ll probably have rotten tomatoes thrown at me for this) are team sports. My hand/eye coordination is pathetic, which puts me at a disadvantage in terms of any ball sports and I hate feeling the pressure of a team. All my favorites are individual activities that don’t involve hoops or nets or goals. I like to depend upon – and compete against, I guess, myself. Writing – I am better at the lyrical than the narrative. I am more about sound and image and metaphor than I am about conflict. I love characters but I’m not very good at getting them to do anything. Which is kind of ironic considering this series on exercise, isn’t it?

6) Are you competitive? In sports or in writing?

I don’t know, but I wish I could say “no”. I think that feels more yogic. And more righteous. But alas. I always say that my only aim is to finish a race but then I watch the clock and try to shave off minutes in the end. And writing? I’ve gotten better about this. I used to really suffer from jealousy, but now I feel genuinely happy for other people’s successes. I think I am more driven than competitive. I try very much to make it me against me, rather than me against you. Wanna arm wrestle?

7) Is there an athlete or teacher that you admire?

I admire so many athletes who do powerful and beautiful and unfathomable things with their bodies. When I was a kid I was obsessed with the speed skaters Eric and Beth Heiden. I really love the yoga teacher David Swenson for the humor and humanity he incorporates into teaching. And there’s an amazing runner here in Austin called Gilber Tuhaboyne who survived civil war in his native Burundi and now he runs and teaches and inspires people in a big, big way. I love athletes for whom athletics are about big things like hope… peace… community.

8) What's your favorite yoga pose?

Downward dog. It tends to everything that needs tending – back, legs, shoulder girdle. And I get a nice little rosy head rush from it. I love me a little dog… (Me, too, Liz, me too!)

9) What keeps you going when you're tired? How do you motivate yourself?

Kombucha and a handful of almonds? Let me think. Sometimes I guess I don’t keep going. I’m a fan of the 15 minute nap. Motivation, though, when things are going well, just happens. Y’know how you will read until 3 in the morning when the book is just that good. I think work – writing – can be that way too. Even when my eyes are bleeding, I can’t stop. That can make the next morning’s run pretty grisly, though.

10) What would you say to those who hate their own bodies and/or hate their own writing?

Oh, man. I’d say, “I’ve been there.” But. But. I think I’d also say it’s just not worth it. I mean, I know this isn’t deeply and emotionally astute, but self-loathing, on a physical or creative level, is really unproductive. And the real way to talk yourself out of the loathing is to do something fabulous with what you’ve got. That may mean taking a brisk walk around the block or trying trapeze flying or climbing Kilimanjaro. It may mean writing morning pages or joining a critique group or finally submitting something to an editor. Doing something, I think, is always better than doing nothing. There is so much pleasure in discovering what it is we’re all capable of, don’t you think?

I do think so, and thanks, Liz! That was a lot of ground to cover....I'm going to go rest now...

(Don't forget to go to Liz's blog today. I believe I'm booked over there as the half-time entertainment!)

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Exercise of Writing: Writing with your whole body

"I think the healthy thing for man---for reflective nature---is to think with the whole body; then you get a full harmonious thought, like violin strings, vibrating in unison with the hollow box. But I think that when thoughts come from the brain alone...they are like tunes played on the squeaky part of the first string..." Stephane Mallarme, writing to Eugene Lefebre, May 17, 1867
I stumbled upon that magnificent quote many years ago in the book Finding Your Writer's Voice by Thaisa Frank and Dorothy Wall. The authors go on to say:
"Like Mallarme, you can make your voice resonate from different parts of your body...Imagine that your entire body is a vehicle for speech and sound---a luminous and versatile transmitter. Let your stomach write a paragraph. Then your heart. Now let your forehead speak. Does your writing change as your body focus shifts? Are the rhythms different? The emotions? The sounds?"
I've been an exercise addict for years now. I'm a much more disciplined and intuitive athlete than I am a writer. All right, I didn't start out so disciplined...

...but hey, my instincts were to make that couch work for me and not the other way round, you know?

It continued with my love of gym class. P.E. was fun for me---we did jump rope, and square dancing, and learned how to play volleyball and had races. I treasured the ribbons I won at field day, and competed vigorously to earn the coveted Presidential Physical Fitness Award.

Field Day Loot

In college, I took classes in modern dance, fencing, and racquetball. I rode my bike to class. My husband and I went on hikes as dates. After college, I joined the aerobic dance craze and did Jazzercize. When I got pregnant, I walked for miles and miles and asked my mother-in-law to insert a stretch panel into the belly of my favorite leotard. There's a picture of me, somewhere, after my daughter was born, with her on my stomach while I'm doing sit-ups. In the years since, I've tried skiing, boxing, yoga, weight-lifting, spinning, boot camp, running, golf, ballroom dancing, and Pilates.

Oh, how I wish I had been writing all those years with the same intensity that I was exercising! What masterworks I could have produced! But somehow, it took me years and years before I transferred the wisdom of my body to my writing life.

What my body told me:

1) Have fun.
2) Be brave.
3) Go beyond what you think you can do.
4) Don't worry if you mess up. You'll get it, eventually.
5) Nourish yourself. It's not optional; you must do it to stay strong.
6) Cut out the negative self-talk. Turn your critic into a coach.
7) You must be willing to look silly to learn something new.
8) Focus. Pay attention to the sun on your face, to the sting as your hand hits the bag, to the changes in your breathing. What you're doing right now is beautiful; everything else can wait.

I think the most important thing I learned was that my body was not my enemy. It was my teacher and my best ally. It knew more about what I could do than my head did.

Me, learning from my friend, Popeye

Likewise, good writing comes from what we know in our bones to be true. No matter how blocked or frustrated our minds are, our bodies know what we want to say. They're charged with it; they store every hurt and hope; and they literally are the instruments that produce our voices. (Why do you think they call it "body language"?)

You don't have to be a fitness addict like me to learn something from your body. Try this: open and close your hands several times, so you make fists, and then release them.

I can't tell you what will happen next. But your body just said something to you. Listen. Write it down. Everything else can wait.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Exercise of Writing: Liz takes off


There goes Liz... blogging about skiing and writing, and running and writing, and just what she and I could possibly mean by the "physicality of writing." My favorite SWOOSH? This one:

"My own big fat prize.

Not the Olympics.

Not a college scholarship.

Just the totally exhilarating sense of working hard at something and makin’ it happen."

Go on and take your writer self for a run down Liz's mountain. She's an excellent guide.

The full schedule for our week of co-blogging is here. I'll be back tomorrow...gotta go catch up with Liz now. Dang, that girl's a blur!

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Co-bloggin' it: Liz and Sara Double Team You This Week

Liz Scanlon (Liz in Ink) and I are co-blogging all this week! I'm so pumped about it, I can hardly sit still, but that's a good thing, because we're going to be talking up....

The Exercise of Writing

Yup. We're just that crazy. Here's the short version of the schedule. But RUN on over to Liz's and read the full version right here.

Monday: Hit the starting blocks at Liz in Ink

Tuesday: Out of the gate at Read Write Believe

Wednesday: Half-time entertainment

Sara Strong-Arms It – here at Liz in Ink

Liz Lifts and Lunges – at Read Write Believe

Thursday: The Olympics – A round-up of sports posts and analogies (at both blogs)

Friday: The Fifth Quarter Poetry Friday (at both blogs)

Ready, set....GO to Liz's place and get the full game plan right now!

Friday, January 18, 2008

Poetry Friday: Crossing Unmarked Snow

After reading about my messy novel notebooks, Mary Lee kindly sent me yesterday's featured poem at The Writer's Almanac. It's by William Stafford, from the book pictured above.

Here's the beginning:

What's In My Journal

Odd things, like a button drawer. Mean
Things, fishhooks, barbs in your hand.
But marbles too. A genius for being agreeable.

(Read the rest here. Scroll down to Thursday's entry)

I also found this in my journal:

"I always thought writing was arraying words in beautiful patterns, but now I think it's more like walking blindfolded, listening with your whole heart, and then looking backward to see if you made any tracks worth keeping."

What about you? Did you make any tracks worth keeping this week?

Poetry Friday is hosted today at Farm School.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Of Centos, Footnotes, and Reading Lists

Have you posted your 2008 "Want to Read" list? If not, you'd better get cracking, because folks in the Kidlitosphere have planned a seriously ambitious year o' books. (Look at these lists, compiled here at Chasing Ray.)

According to, I have 54 books on my To-Read Shelf. And that's before I add any upcoming titles for 2008, like Tanita Davis's book, A la Carte. What'll I do? What'll I do?

Perhaps a cento would help organize my plan of attack. (Thanks, Tricia for the challenge!) Here are some interesting couplets that occurred naturally in my alphabetized list. Liberties taken, and then some:

An Alphabetized, Prognosticating Cento of Fortuitous Couplets1

You say aarrgh! I say ahhhh!
A Is for AARRGH!
(A Swift Pure Cry)

Crime and consequences
All Seated on the Ground
An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England

But I missed them
Billie Standish Was Here
Bread and Roses, Too

A Cheater's Diary
Could You? Would You? Do the Math:
Secrets, Lies, and Algebra

Can I see some I.D.?
I Am Not Joey Pigza
I Am a Pencil

I told you not to stick your nose in there
Juniper, Gentian, And Rosemary
Kissing the Bee

Fans Gone Wild
Punk Farm on Tour
Red Spikes

At the college bookstore
Sold (out):
Special Topics in Calamity Physics

I think I'm coming down with
Transforming Vision
Oh! You've got the Word Virus

  1. Pompous Title inspired by Mo Willems interview at MotherReader. Footnote techno-wizardry courtesy of FatherReader. S

How do you know?

Jennifer Thermes, an artist who blogs at Art, Words, Life, posed this question:
"How do you know when you're done with a piece of art? Or writing? Or are they really ever "finished" at all?"
Here's my answer:

Writers struggle with this, too. I find that I want both clarity and mystery in my poems, and if I overwork them, I get neither. For novels, it's tougher, because there are so many places you could polish and polish, but I think I'm still looking for the same two things: the story line runs clearly through the book, but it has a layer of mysterious otherness---beauty, if you want to call it that.

I also think of it like music---a clear theme with enough overtones to make it full and rich.

And yes, a deadline helps. So does an editor/agent combing over it until you're both sick to death of it.

And one more thing---a feeling of detachment, as if I didn't really write the work at all. My words look slightly alien, independent, as if I've let them go and they've become something true and alive.

Go leave a comment over at her blog, if you want to. She's going to round up all the answers on Friday.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Books I want to write this year

I'd like it very much if you wrote my post today instead of me.

I started this list and can't finish it.

Books I want to write this year

A cross between...

Tuck Everlasting and ?

The Phantom Tollbooth and ?

A Little Princess and ?

A Wrinkle in Time and ?

OK, I really don't think that way about my writing projects, but sometimes, I try to pinpoint what it is about the books I love that I would like to emulate. Obviously, looking at that list tells me that I adore high concept with a touch of fantasy.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Taking out the Trash

I bought a new notebook this past weekend. A plain, spiral bound notebook with a few pockets for stashing things in. Its cover is black. There's a title idea scribbled on the first page. And a question. In about a year, I hope that it will contain the rantings and ravings of my writer self as I bushwhack my way through another novel.

New notebook

The notebook won't be the novel---nope, it's for holding all the debris that surrounds the making of any complicated object. Think of it like the dumpster parked outside a house under construction. Everything in that dumpster was once necessary to the building of that house, right down to the wrappings from the fast food that nourished the workers each day.

There will be a date on every entry. Some entries will be two words. Some will be four or five pages. In all of them, the handwriting will be unbelievably messy.

There will be lists. Many, many lists, many of them mostly questions. There will be questionings of those question lists. There will be lists of 20-30 concrete nouns---objects or people or places that occur over and over. My puzzle pieces. I will bump them all against each other, to see what fits.

Old notebook
(If you really want to see my ramblings,
click on the picture to enlarge it.)

I will draw arrows. I will doodle weird symbols in the margins. There will be word counts, jotted at random like graffiti. I will surprise myself with at least one real drawing, which will be labeled with helpful clues.

I will mention other books I'm reading, or TV shows/movies I'm watching, and what they help me see about my own narrative struggles. I will take notes when I need to research something, like "Jet-powered outhouse: Standard port-o-john w/ 1000 hp jet engine. Speeds of 70 mph. Flames spew from jet exhaust and potty vent." (No I'm not 'splaining this. Not yet.)

I will summarize the work I've done elsewhere, on the computer, to prove to myself that I am making progress. "Worked on opening scene." "Wrote 500 words." "Figured out where main character lives."

I will generally try to use only an encouraging tone of voice towards myself. I will write things like: "Focus on the pages you need to write today. Write them. Quit. Repeat." But some days I will come out with: "Trying to write, but my brain is not here."

I will, at some point, write the words: "This book is about... " I will probably write that phrase ten or fifteen times. I will get the answer wrong, oh so wrong, many, many times.

Honestly, when I look back over my last two novel notebooks, I'm not sure how I managed to write two books from such junk.

But then, if I looked in a construction dumpster, I might wonder about the grease-stained napkins and the little rubber doodads and the metal staples and--- oh, my! is that something growing in there???

Monday, January 14, 2008



I'm sorry---I just had to scream that! The White Darkness just won the Printz Award! I was jumping up and down and yelling in front of my computer. My dog came running in to see what was wrong.

If you want to know why I'm so excited, well---I nominated this book for the Cybils, I told Little Willow that it was my favorite read of 2007, and after I read it as a library book, I ran out and bought it.

When I first blogged about it, I said:

"I'll sign off here shortly, but the wireless network inside the library will continue to broadcast. I think that's a mini-miracle, a great and wonderful invention, but it's nothing compared to the intimate, quiet pulse of a library book that finds me, alone and in need of sustenance, and steadily breathes life back into my pale form: THE WHITE DARKNESS"

In the body of Little Willow's post, and over at, I said:

"I loved every word of this amazing book. The writing is breath-taking, and the plot just pulls you along. And most of all, you completely believe in the inner world of the main character, which is incredible because this is a girl with a long-dead explorer for an imaginary friend."

Later, in the comments to Little Willow's post, I said:

"I have to give credit to Colleen Mondor of Chasing Ray for recommending The White Darkness on her blog, and in Bookslut:

Oh, and here's the opening line: 'I have been in love with Titus Oates for quite a while now––which is ridiculous, since he's been dead for ninety years.'

See? With that one line, I bought into her idea of this imaginary companion. Because the narrator's skeptical too, and because he once WAS a real person, and because she truly NEEDS him to be with her, and because she knows so incredibly much about him, and they have wonderful, literary, romantic conversations. It's not in any way twee or flimsy."

Thank you, Printz committee, for honoring this superb book.

And yes, I'm very excited about the many other awards, too. Some great, great choices. And w00t, Orson Scott Card for the Margaret A. Edwards award! I just don't have time to scream about them all at once.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Poetry Friday: Flower in Tibet

Thanks to Tricia for her Monday Poetry Stretch (Write a poem inspired by this image)

The mountain bears it.
The rocks guard it.
The earth holds it.
The flower knows nothing of it.

Its task is to raise
its head one inch,
one inch higher
than the dirt.

I saw a flower
in Tibet.
It saw me.
I'm sure of it.

Poetry Friday
is hosted by The Book Mine Set.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Out with the Cappuccino, In with the Mountain Dew

(Imagine a picture of an awesome climbing wall here. Sorry, I misplaced the proper photo credit for this picture, and until I find it, I'm taking it down.)

If you didn't make it all the way through the comments for my Monday post, you may wonder why there's a picture of a climbing wall posted above. It's because we going to be talking bookstore design for boys. To quote Mac, "if shopping for boy books feels like hanging out in the women's fashion floor of the department store, we'll mow the grass in freezing weather in socks and shorts first." So what would a boy-centric bookstore look like? Would it have a climbing wall?

Assuming a bookstore was well stocked with great titles---and I mean piles and piles of well-chosen reads, everything from the expected to the off-beat---what else would make boys, teen boys in particular, want to hang out there?

Here are some of the answers I received from the men in my life, and as a woman, I'm honestly not sure which of these are real suggestions and which were designed to yank my chain or make me laugh. Feel free to add your own ideas!

  • Hooters-type sales clerks (They had better be kidding about this one. But I see the point. The store can't be so boy-centric that no hot girls will hang out there. Especially hot, smart girls who like to read the same books they do.)
  • No elevator music (only LOUD, current tracks or classic rock that's fresh again. As long as it's not soothing in any way.)
  • Climbing wall (because there can never be enough opportunities to fall)
  • More computers (I want this, too. Why can't I look up that book title I can't remember or find on-line reviews or read book blogs in the store? In fact, why not give each customer a gadget that when swiped along the spine of any book, gives info about it, including feedback from other readers? Yeah, and make it have a cool map, too, where the book you're looking for flashes when you get near it. Shades of M.T. Anderson's novel, feed, in a good way.)
  • Quiznos (This was a biggie. Get rid of the coffee and the nibbles. Serve giant sandwiches and Mountain Dew.)

Then my son sagely said: you can't make a bookstore that only appeals to teenage boys. So right. But I love imagining it. The aisle devoted to Calvin and Hobbes would definitely have a few grocery carts lying around...*

*Calvin and Hobbes, Oct 18, 1991.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

I want a rocket-powered refrigerator!

This is the kind of article that makes my brain buzz. It's called The Futile Pursuit of Happiness, and it's about how bad we are at predicting how happy (or miserable) we'll be in the future. (It's from a 2003 NYT piece, but it was recently called to my attention after I read this article in the Washington Post, which is more current.)

Some of my favorite parts? The fact that the researcher, Daniel Gilbert, once wrote SF for Amazing Stories magazine:

"Thus, in addition to being 'one of the most gifted social psychologists of our age,' as the psychology writer and professor David G. Myers describes him to me, Gilbert is the author of 'The Essence of Grunk,' a story about an encounter with a creature made of egg salad that jets around the galaxy in a rocket-powered refrigerator."

And this quote from Gilbert's fellow researcher, Tim Wilson, about why we think future events will make us happier than they actually do:
''We don't realize how quickly we will adapt to a pleasurable event and make it the backdrop of our lives. When any event occurs to us, we make it ordinary. And through becoming ordinary, we lose our pleasure.''
(Not if you read or write a poem about it, I say. Poetry helps keep the world from becoming too ordinary. So would a rocket-powered refrigerator.)

And then there's this about the predicted effect of bad things in our lives:
"Our emotional defenses snap into action when it comes to a divorce or a disease but not for lesser problems. We fix the leaky roof on our house, but over the long haul, the broken screen door we never mend adds up to more frustration."

What I'm wondering is (besides what would I do if my beloved rocket-powered refrigerator broke): how does literature, even literature about egg salad creatures, fit into all this?

If we're so bad (according to Gilbert) at predicting how we'll react to an event---completing overestimating how eternally happy or permanently sad something will make us---how come we are so good at predicting the future happiness/sorrow of a fictional character? Come on, we all know that Scarlett O'Hara is not going to be happy with Ashley. And although we might want to choke her, we also know that having Rhett leave her is not going to keep her down for long. In fact, much of story tension comes from us watching a character completely mess up their self-assessment, while we anxiously await them coming to their senses. I don't know what that egg-salad creature wants, but I'm sure that I know more about what's good for him than he/she/it does.

And to go further, this research is telling us that the stories we tell ourselves about our own lives are often wrong. We trick ourselves into not taking a risk by telling our impressionable brains a creepy horror story. And we bamboozle ourselves daily with tales of future delight---if only I could own a rocket-powered refrigerator, I'd be on top of the world!---which quickly lose their appeal, like stale cookies.

But wait! At one point in the article, it's mentioned that people do better at predicting their correct lasting emotional reaction to an event when told of the response of another group facing the same event. So the research is also saying that hearing other people's stories can be immensely helpful.

So I predict---and I don't think I'm wrong here---that further research will show that---DRUM ROLL---

Reading books = making better choices = future happiness.

Go ahead, read a bunch of books this year, and try to prove me wrong. Or write an email to your future self, make some predictions, and see what happens. Or send me a rocket-powered refrigerator and comfort me when it doesn't make me as happy as I think it will.

Oh, speaking of predictions, I want to bless Alison over at ShelfTalker for this prediction:
"That middle grade novel I originally ordered just two copies of, haven't heard a peep about, haven't had a chance to read, and haven't seen any marketing for? You know that the Newbery committee is going to give it an Honor five minutes after UPS carts it away in a returns box."
All you other '07 authors know exactly why that would be a very good thing for one of us.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Now I do, a little

He talks about blogging. He quotes from Plato and The Princess Bride and Babylon 5. He died on Jan. 3rd. Read this soldier's last blog post. No, I didn't know him, but now I do, a little.

(And please, respect his wish not to have his name used as a political football by either side.)

Contest: The Art of Being a Military Child

I received this contest notice before the holidays, but I waited to post it because I thought it might get overlooked by teachers, parents and librarians who were already overwhelmed. But now it's a new year, with new projects, and if you know any child who is connected to the military in any way (active duty, reserve, guard, etc.) please make sure they see this. And if you think you don't know any military kids, put it out there anyway. The military connection may not be obvious, but it's a big part of some children's lives.

The Art of Being a Military Child
Artwork • Film • Writing

This unique contest is open to all military-connected children, kindergarten through high school. If you're a teacher or librarian, you might consider downloading and printing out the contest flyer so it can be posted at your school or library.

Suggested topics are:

• Parents
• The cultures you’ve experienced
• Family
• Helping your community
• Military lifestyle
• Transitions/changes
• The life lessons you’ve learned
• Your wishes, hopes, and dreams
• All the people you’ve met

  • Selected submissions in the visual arts will be featured in art exhibits at the Military Child Education Coalition's 10th Annual Conference. Art may also appear in the conference program, annual calendar, the MCEC’s On the Move magazine, or other MCEC publications.
  • Selected film entries will be considered for the “Reel Military” Youth Film and Video Festival at the Military Child Education Coalition’s 10th Annual Conference.
  • Selected poetry will be published in the Military Child Education Coalition’s 10th Annual Conference program, the MCEC’s On The Move magazine, annual calendar or other MCEC publications.

Go here to download a PDF of the rules. Contest deadline is March 3, 2008. You can call the Military Child Education Coalition (a non-profit that I support) with any questions: (254) 953-1923.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Why is it so crowded in here?

All of you went to the book store with me yesterday. I went into Borders under the pretense of getting my son a copy of Huckleberry Finn, which he needs for AP U.S. History. But that task took all of two minutes, and I'm genetically incapable of leaving a book store until at least an hour has elapsed from my entrance. Sooo, browsing ensued. That's where all of you came in, as both guides and experts.

Here's an example: My husband saw about 500 copies of Diary of a Wimpy Kid and picked one up. (Ha! That cover works, even on a grownup boy.) "Why do they have so many copies of this book?" he asked. Thanks to this post at A Year of Reading, I could tell him that it was a huge classroom hit, and had started as a web comic, and there was a sequel coming out soon. We didn't buy a copy, although I offered to front for him, if he needed an excuse to read it.

Then we got into a discussion about boy books, which was prompted by my paraphrased quoting from this post by Colleen. He concurred with her, and went on to rave about the Heinlein books he'd read growing up. So I went to the shelves and pulled out Have Space Suit, Will Travel. I read the first two pages. I was hooked. I bought it. Technically, I bought it for my son, to introduce him to a classic SF books beyond the Ender saga by Orson Scott Card. But really, so that I can read it.

Oh, and Colleen, I had paraphrased your post earlier to my son, too, and asked him why he doesn't read much anymore, and he said: "I would, if someone would find the books for me." He hates searching for reading material. He hates bringing home a book, even a library book, that turns out to be terrible. Could this be the root of the guy/book dilemma? They don't like to shop or look? What if we delivered great books to them, like groceries?

Also, and I hate to say this, but my son also said that "video games are like books." Ouch. But he went on to explain that some of them have great storylines, like Call of Duty 4, and are adventures where you're never sure if you're going to survive. We even talked about the fact that Orson Scott Card wrote dialogue for the computer game, The Dig, as well as the insults for The Secret of Monkey Island.

Anyway, back to the book store, where I'm browsing with all of you at my side. Because of MotherReader, I'm fingering a copy of Middle School is Worse Than Meatloaf. I'm desperately looking for Billie Standish Was Here because of Jules. I'm running out of time, but I really want to search for I am a Pencil, because of Liz and Tricia.

I wind up deciding my huge TBR pile at home is enough for me for now, except that I really have to have I am the Messenger by Markus Zusak. I use, as an excuse to justify the purchase, the fact that my husband and son will want to read it too.

Hey, I realized something! I LOVE "boy books,"* and I love to browse/shop. Anybody want to hire me to buy and deliver books to the men in their lives?

*Sorry, Little Willow, I know you hate gender bias. And I agree with you that labels should not be used to prevent or hinder readers from reading what they want to. Edited to be clearer: But what do you think of my theory that at the root of the boy reading problem is that boys hate to shop? Or, to be more specific: some readers hate to browse or otherwise search for reading material, and many of those readers are boys, who thus, don't read as much.

P.S. This theory doesn't apply to my husband, who buys many, many books all on his own. Possibly more than me. Maybe he would consider guest blogging about some of them. He finished Boy Proof before I did. He recently read (and has been raving about) the adult book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. And he likes to stay in a book store as long as I do.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Poetry Friday: Mary Oliver

Is Mary Oliver too much of a Mary Sunshine? Some say she is.

I have to agree that her poems, when read one right after the other like "ice cream sodas," can be too rich, but then, I don't like any work read that way. I prefer to unwrap my poetry slowly, and savor it over a period of days, like a jawbreaker. So even though my first book purchase of 2008 was Why I Wake Early, I'm not going to read the whole thing all at once. I might make it last for three months, like Violet Beauregarde's gum.

On the other hand, I'm preparing to read seven books of poetry in one month, as a judge for the Cybils. Look at this fabulous short list! How am I going to handle such a poetry splurge? Many thanks to Kelly Fineman and her nominating team for giving me and my fellow judges such richness in which to indulge.

What about you? How do you like to consume your poetry?

While you're thinking on that, here's a Mary Oliver poem that perfectly sums up why I don't like to rush anything, and especially not poetry.


This morning
two mockingbirds
in the green field
were spinning and tossing

the white ribbons
of their songs
into the air.
I had nothing

better to do
than listen.
I mean this

The rest is here.

(Mary Oliver, from The Atlantic Monthly)

Poetry Friday is hosted this week by A Year of Reading

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Where Ideas Come From

This is a cautionary tale. Turn away now if you're squeamish.

Do you have one of those travel coffee mugs with a screw-on lid? I do, and I fill it as soon as I get up, with coffee and chocolate milk, and I drink my daily dose on and off for an hour or two. But with that dairy product in there, I don't like to leave the dregs sitting around too long. I wash the mug and the lid out with hot soapy water. I rinse and rinse until it's clean. Or so I thought.

I wiped the inner lip with a paper towel yesterday, because it looked as if some dried chocolate milk had gathered there. A bit of the towel slid under the inner ledge. It came back smudged. I crooked my finger, still covered with the paper towel, under the lip and circled it round. There was actually a deep crevice under there and---turn away now!----my finger came back covered with a half inch of sludge. Yeeech!

How could that have happened? How could I have been drinking toxic waste for some time now and not known? What kind of evil designer puts a hidden ledge into a coffee mug and then sleeps soundly at night?

I'm sitting here, trying to think how coffee sludge can be inspirational. How it could be a metaphor for all the gunk in our heads/hearts that we don't even know is slowing up our writing processes. But---and maybe this is the toxifying effect of drinking sludge for untold weeks now---I can't think of a thing that would make this a worthwhile lesson.

Sometimes, sludge is just sludge. Except that perhaps...and here's where I love being a writer...I'm already thinking that if I need a character to have an interesting occupation in one of my books, travel coffee mug designer wouldn't be too bad. Think of all the work generated by trying to make an attractive mug that will fit comfortably in multiple sizes of cupholders, that won't tip over, that will keep coffee hot all morning, that will appeal to those who walk and those who drive and those who take trains. Think of the conversations this designer mom/dad could have with main character as she/he brings home various test models. It's just the perfect bit of stage business that allows a writer to reveal character while moving the storyline along.

I love my own brain. I really do. It takes sludge and makes an idea out of it. Once upon a time, there was a girl who believed...

Wednesday, January 2, 2008


Last week, a Target cashier asked me how many days were in December.

"31, I think," I replied.

"Oh, good," she said. "I have four more days to eat chocolate. And drink soda. And eat fast food."

I smiled at her and wished her luck. I tried, sincerely, not to be cynical. I imagined her sleek and svelte and completely fast-food, chocolate, and soda free for all of 2008.

And then, less than a week later, here I am, doubting her. Blogging about her. Holding her up as Every Woman Who Will Fail. Mean, right? (And totally against my blog rules.)

And yet, this is exactly what we do to ourselves. We say that we believe in ourselves. We say we are listening to our dreams. We say that we will never give up. But sooner or later, we're going to be dissing ourselves and our good intentions. We're going to blame our disintegration on "not enough willpower" or "being unrealistic" or "life had other ideas."

So, for every resolution you make, consider this: do you have a plan for failure? What will you do on the day you fail to get up and write 500 words at 4:30 in the morning? What will you do on the afternoon that you eat a whole bag of Oreo cookies? What will you do when two weeks go by and you haven't been to the gym, not even to drive by it?

May I suggest that you make the answer something fun? Failure doesn't have to be miserable. On the day you realize that you haven't walked a mile for several days, give yourself a foot massage. On the morning you sleep in and don't write your word goal for the day, read a poem to yourself. On the day you eat the Oreo cookies, allow yourself to daydream for fifteen minutes. (At least make use of that sugar rush!)

You can even have a Failure Jar. Put in it several slips of paper with failure plans on them. Draw one out as needed. Celebrate. Rejoice. Because failure means that you're pushing hard enough for something else to push back. You've provoked a reaction. You've budged the universe one tiny little bit.

Whatever you plan to do when you fail, think of the cashier at Target. What would you say to her? Be at least as kind to yourself as you would to her.

And now, I'm going to get nerdy and quote an online dictionary.


1. To make a firm decision about.
2. To cause (a person) to reach a decision. See Synonyms at decide.
3. To decide or express by formal vote.
4. To change or convert: My resentment resolved itself into resignation.
5. To find a solution to; solve. See Synonyms at solve.
6. To remove or dispel (doubts).
7. To bring to a usually successful conclusion: resolve a conflict.
8. Medicine To cause reduction of (an inflammation, for example).
9. Music To cause (a tone or chord) to progress from dissonance to consonance.
10. Chemistry To separate (an optically inactive compound or mixture) into its optically active constituents.
11. To render parts of (an image) visible and distinct.
12. Mathematics To separate (a vector, for example) into coordinate components.
13. To melt or dissolve (something).
14. Archaic To separate (something) into constituent parts.

That's fourteen ways of looking at your Resolve for the New Year. (Isn't the music one cool?)

But I really like #11: " To render parts of (an image) visible and distinct." I can't be something that I'm not. But I can be more of what I am. And everyone, absolutely everyone, can fail with more distinction.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008


New Year's resolutions? Old school. This year, everyone has a theme.

Laura Salas has declared it the Year of Losing Control. Robin Brande says it's the Year of Independent Thinking. Donna Koppleman decrees it to be the Year of Uncommon Effort.

As for me, I hereby pronounce 2008 to be

The Year of Once (Upon a Time)

This year, I want to believe in the magic of words on paper. I want to believe in love that transforms, and art that heals. I want to believe in journeys that change you, in spells that are broken, and in rough stones (even me) that become gems.

This year, before saying "no" to something I'm afraid of, I'll say: "Once. I'll try it once."

This year, before saying "yes" to something that beckons to me, I'll say: "Is it part of the story I want my life to tell?"

This year, each day, every day, I'll begin with: "Once upon a time, there was a girl who believed..."

What would you do if it were "once upon a time" every day?