Monday, October 31, 2011

Writing in the Snow with Dragons

My weekend: snow, writing, dragons (of the self-doubt variety.)

Revision is SO scary. It can feel like battling a three-headed dragon. You deal with one problem, you make two more for yourself. Everywhere, there are teeth.  But if you look for it, there is also snow. Miraculous, unpredictable snow.

See those silhouettes underneath the dragon? They're fairytale postcards I bought in Germany.  And the gypsy doll is a marionette I found in Prague one bitterly cold winter day.  (So is the dragon.)

Back to work now.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Poetry Friday: Ghost in this House sent me a link to "Ghost Poems." But if you really want to experience a haunting, listen to  the phantasmagoric voice of Alison Krauss inhabit the drifting, melancholy beauty of this song. Pair it with a viewing of Robert Duvall and Bill Murray in "Get Low" (which also features Alison on the sound track, singing "Lay My Burden Down") and you'll be shivering feverishly for a long while.

"Ghost In This House"

I don't pick up the mail
I don't pick up the phone
I don't answer the door
I'd just as soon be alone
I don't keep this place up
I just keep the lights down
I don't live in these rooms
I just rattle around

I'm just a ghost in this house
I'm just a shadow upon these walls
As quietly as a mouse I haunt these halls
I'm just a whisper of smoke
I'm all that's left of two hearts on fire
That once burned out of control
You took my body and soul
I'm just a ghost in this house

I don't care if it rains
I don't care if it's clear
I don't mind staying in
There's another ghost here
He sits down in your chair
And he shines with your light
And he lays down his head
On your pillow at night

I'm just a ghost in this house
I'm just a shadow upon these walls
I'm living proof of the damage
Heartbreak does
I'm just a whisper of smoke
I'm all that's left of two hearts on fire
That once burned out of control
And took my body and soul
I'm just a ghost in this house
Oh, I'm just a ghost in this house

Poetry Friday is hosted today by Random Noodling.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


Linda Urban's in town, and she and I talked cheese at Jaleo's last night.

Okay, we talked about more than cheese. We talked craft, and art, and fears and dreams in our current writing projects.  But cheese did get me riled up.  We ordered the six cheese sampler, and it was fantastic, a delectable collage of varied pungencies and textures, served with honeyed apricots, each triangle or round of cheese hand-crafted to perfection.  And I ranted about the newest campaign against cheese (spokes-demon: The Grim Reaper) pushed by some doctors who feel it's the main source of fat in American diets.  That may be. But it's also sublime.  It's an rustic art form, for pete's sake!  I'm offended it's under attack.

I guess it was also because we'd just visited the National Gallery, and seen their exhibit of artist's books, called Text as Inspiration: Artists' Books and Literature.  And let me tell you, it was tiny---one petite gallery with four glassed cases. And some of those books were as quirky as artisanal cheese.   I loved the book that featured a poem called EVE, which unfolded out of a cover made to be Adam's intricately designed, highly realistic paper rib. And the one with the slightly off-color poem that could be read two ways with the bold wire design of a cat proudly sitting in front of it.

Worth savoring, it was.

I guess what I'm saying is that campaigning against cheese is like saying life is a dry sandwich.  And everything I saw at the National Gallery---from that tiny exhibit to the arresting and often highly individualistic portraits in the Chester Dale collection---says that ain't so.

Give me some cheese. And some great art. And a friend to share both.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Poetry Friday: Bad Taste

I don't want to be accused of bad taste here at Read Write Believe---




Out of a desire to find a poem to pay tribute to Jama, hostess of Poetry Friday today---and insatiable consumer of poetry and delectable food---I lazily googled "cooking poem."

Oh, my.

Jama, I'm sorry.

Today I must serve these overbaked goodies.

First Course:

 Ye Muses nine inspire
    And stir up my poetic fire;
    Teach my burning soul to speak
    With a bubble and a squeak!

Second Course:

Light of triumph in her eyes,
Eleanor her apron ties;
As she pushes back her sleeves,
High resolve her bosom heaves.
Hasten, cook! impel the fire
To the pace of her desire;
As you hope to save your soul,
Bring a virgin casserole...


We shou’d submit our Treats to Criticks’ View,
And every prudent Cook shou’d read Bossu.
Judgment provides the Meat in Season fit,
Which by the Genius drest, its Sauce is Wit.
Good Beef for Men, Pudding for Youth and Age,
Come up to the decorum of the Stage.
The Critick strikes out all that is not just,
And ’tis even so the Butler chips his Crust.
Poets and Pastry Cooks will be the same,
Since both of them their Images must frame.
Chimera’s from the Poet’s Fancy flow:
The Cook contrives his Shapes in real Dough.

Quick! Run to Jama's and cleanse your palate!

Thursday, October 20, 2011


I'm sure there will be rapturous odes to the writing gods everywhere for National Writing Day. By way of contrast, I give you "how it really is" from one of my favorite writers, Lloyd Alexander, in his Horn Book essay, "The Flat-Heeled Muse."

On another occasion, I had planned to include a mysterious and menacing portent in the shape of a dark cloud. The Muse, an early riser, prodded me awake sometime well before dawn. 
"I've been meaning to speak with you about that cloud," she said. "You like it, don't you? You think it's dramatic. But I was wondering if this had occurred to you: you only want a few of your people to see the cloud, is that not correct? Yet you have already established a number of other characters in the vicinity who will see it, too. An event like that? They'll do nothing but talk about it for most of the story.  
Or," she purred, as she always does before she pounces, "did you have something like closed-circuit television in mind?" 
She clumped off in her sensible brogans while I flung myself from bed and ripped up all my work of the night before. The cloud was cut out.

The entire article was published as “The Flat-Heeled Muse, Horn Book Magazine, April 1965. I wish, wish, wish it was still clumping around online somewhere.  A bit more of it is here, at least.

Not a sensible brogue. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Cute Photo Approach to Speaking

Is it wrong to pull out cute photos of your kids when you're speaking in public?

That's me, showing the adorable baby passport my daughter, Rebecca, was issued before she left Japan at four weeks old. In my defense, I was talking about military families and how much we move.  And how story can help. How "doing something" is better than pretending these families are invisible in our classrooms and in our literature.

I think it went well.  In fact, I think it all went well at the new Joy of Children's Literature Conference held in Williamsburg this past weekend. I especially enjoyed the other presenters' sessions which I was able to sneak into, including one by teacher Amy Moser, who recounted how her class embarked on a study of Ellen Potter's middle-grade novels, which culminated in a Skype visit with the author. Amy had the foresight to interview her students right after the visit, to document their reaction. I wish I could show you that video----talk about cute. And smart. And wonderful.

Handouts from the presenters (including mine) can be found here.  You can read about the conference here----and note that organizer Denise Johnson has already set the date for next year: Oct. 12, 2012, with headliner, Lester L. Laminack.  Denise is a firecracker of a person---determined to champion children's books in the classroom---and if you ever doubt that teachers and writers belong on the same team, read her blog.

Here's another shot of me at the conference---this time during my afternoon workshop, talking planning and improv.  That's an actual planning sheet used by my cousin, Chris, (also a military spouse) in preparing for her move to Egypt.  It's not as cute as a baby, but at least the picture isn't of me wearing a clown nose. (Yes, I put one on, briefly.)  Many thanks to all for a great day!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Poetry Friday: Garlic

My mom is a superb gardener. So is my daughter. Me? I confess to having killed a rubber tree plant once. And many other varieties of green things many times over.


I bought this lovely herb planter. Walked it home in my arms from the farmer's market. Everything in it is still alive, except for the dill, which mysteriously shriveled overnight and has but one teeny leafy sprout left. I've used the basil and parsley. Admired the rosemary and marjoram and chives. And if when the nasturtiums bloom, I can even put flowers in my salads.

Why do I keep buying plants when I fear they are doomed? Because I cook. I need fresh herbs. And I'm too lazy to keep running to the store. And I like the shape the plants make as they curl down from the pot.

I'm also thinking of planting some garlic--- even more so since I found this terrific quote, which was pungent enough to inspire a poem:

"Garlic is as good as ten mothers." (from this site, no source)

Who needs admonishment
when you can plant
three or four squeaky
clean cloves of peeled
garlic between your back
molars and bite down, hard?

Who needs milk
when a steely press 
will pulp a half-moon
breast, flattening 
it to a papery empty

Who needs love
when hours later
your breath will cleave
the world into those
who don't mind your
stink and those who do?

Yet, in the ladle of my belly
I grew you, bulbous;
sulfurous juices thick 
inside your husk of skin,
til by your tender scapes, I seized you,
now a knotted rose. Ten times over 
I will crush your enemies.

                --- Sara Lewis Holmes (all rights reserved)

Image courtesy of Fresh Off the Vine

Poetry Friday is hosted today by David Elzey at fomagrams.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

New Children's Lit Conference

In full, furious (but happy) prep mode here. I'm leading two workshops at the Joy of Children's Literature Conference in Williamsburg, Va this Saturday. (Check online; it might not be too late to register)

My two sessions:

Beyond Veterans Day: Connecting with Military Families in the Classroom

A student told me her favorite chapter in Operation Yes was the one called "Do Something."  I asked why.  "Because that's my motto, too," she said. Wow. I wanted to hear everything she had planned!  And it made me think, too, about what we, as teachers and writers, can do to understand and connect with the families of our military, through fiction and beyond.  Resource list and link to online teachers guide provided. 

Saying Yes: Improvisation on the Page (and on the Stage)

Does a good writer outline or fly by the seat of her pants?  Is improv the opposite of planning? What place does teamwork have in the creative process? I'll talk about how I brought my love of the theater into my writing.  Come prepared to let loose. Link to online teachers guide with more improv games provided.  

Resources for both talks can be found on my Teachers Page at the Operation Yes website

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Dog Rule

This is brilliant: the "dog rule" for journal keeping as revealed by Author Erica Perl in the Washington Post.

Back in 2008, I called it "taking out the trash" and then "magpie intelligence," but I like "the dog rule" better. Much better.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Can you help me spread the word?

At Cynsations, Rosanne Parry is talking about military family culture and how "It was both an honor and a terrific responsibility to try to depict the life of a reservist’s son"  

Which prompts me to remind you that Rosanne, Suzanne Morgan Williams and I will be part of this New York Public Library program:

Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, Margaret Liebman Berger Forum (Map and directions)
Fully accessible to wheelchairs

Yes, that's the main branch, the building with the two famous lions out front. Please come and share your thoughts with us. I'll remind you again closer to Veterans Day.

As an added incentive, if you tweet, blog, or share this link between now and November 11th, please put your link in the comments section, and I'll enter your name into a drawing for the Audie Award winning audio recording of Operation Yes.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Poetry Friday: Jar of Pens

Mine aren't in a honey crock, but a Mason jar. But they are just as mute and expectant.

Jar of Pens
by Robert Pinsky

Sometimes the sight of them
Huddled in their cylindrical formation
Repels me: humble, erect,
Mute and expectant in their
Rinsed-out honey crock: my quiver
Of detached stingers. (Or, a bouquet
Of lies and intentions unspent.)

Pilots, drones, workers—the Queen is
Cross. Upright lodge
Of the toilworthy—gathered
At attention as though they know
All the ink in the world couldn't
Cover the first syllable
Of a heart's confusion.

This fat fountain pen wishes
In its elastic heart

the rest of the poem is here.

There's also an audio link, if you'd like to hear Pinsky's voice.

Pinsky did an extended reading of his poems at the Folger Shakespeare Library on Tuesday, and as I said earlier this week, he claims we can find in any one thing----a jar of pens, a shirt, a Plexiglass lectern---a portal to the whole world.  Jar of Pens is from a series of poems he wrote in which he had to take as his topic the first object he touched...and then the next object...and then the next...

It has made me aware, ever since, of the weight, history, and possibility of each thing in my life.

Poetry Friday is hosted today by Mary Ann at Great Kids Books.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Francisco Stork at DC Public Library

This one almost slipped by me:

Francisco Stork, author of the much loved YA books, Marcelo in the Real World and The Last Summer of the Death Warriors, is speaking at the downtown DC Public Library, MLK Branch, this Saturday at 1:30.  The topic is "Writing about disAbilities," and like his books, he will charm you with his humble manner and humor and empathy.

Details (what little there are) are on the DC Library site.

If you'd like to know more about Francisco, I shared the quiet goodness of his blog and his poetry for Poetry Friday here and again here, and I wrote, very passionately, about his Marcelo in the Real World right here.

I have yet to write about how moved I was by The Last Summer of the Death Warriors, but I'll say that I read it many, many months ago, and even now, I can close my eyes and think of certain scenes, and sometimes those characters pop into my head and talk to me. Encourage me, really. If you haven't read his work, you are losing out on feeling that much more alive today.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Better have a story ready

 Better have a story ready to tell.

All that talk of the moon at Linda's place earlier this week reminds me that I'm signed up for a Full Moon Hike at the National Arboretum. One of the moonlit sights will be these columns, which formally graced the East Portico of the Capitol, but now hang out in a grassy field and inspire writers. 

Okay, well, maybe not all writers. Or only writers. But me. And Robert Pinsky. 

The former United States Poet Laureate, who spoke last night at the Folger Shakespeare Library, claims we can find in any one thing----a jar of pens, a shirt, a plexiglass lectern, perhaps a set of sandstone columns---a portal to the entire world.

Is that what these columns are then? A portal? For some reason, I picture them attached to an outsized, ballooning parachute, each staid column holding down one tenuous tie, the whole thing billowing in and out like a squid, trying to get our attention.

Then I wonder if these columns are more like chapters, each standing on its own, but forming a semi-enclosed space---a space that clearly invites you to come in and think awhile. Kind of like a book. Or a poem in stanzas.

Or, possibly, they are not a finished work but a sad outline that didn't get the go-ahead to be the real article. 

One other thought: perhaps they are an obituary. Robert Pinsky loves those too---says they compact life to its best bits---children, accomplishments, flashes of fame.

If so, these columns are part of the life story of Ethel Garrett, who refused to let these beauties be destroyed, and campaigned for twenty years to save them after they were left to drown in the mud of the Anacostia River.  A bit of the story of how she and landscape artist, Russell Page, pulled it off is here.

Wouldn't you like to have that listed as one of your life's accomplishments----Mover of Columns?

And yes, they make an absolutely fabulous End of the World movie set. Sadly, you cannot hold a party here.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

How does a story grow?

Worthy stuff:

Linda Urban is bravely sharing an early draft of Hound Dog True and opening a discussion of how story happens

P.S. Linda is coming to DC!  I'll be getting my copy of HDT straight from her at Politics and Prose. Event details are here. Who's with me?