Monthly Archives: October 2011

Writer Seeking Inspiration

Coe’s Friday post reminded me how useful morning pages are during transitional times, when the writing just isn’t flowing on its own.

There are lots of places to get stuck when writing. Or not writing. Thinking about writing, wanting to write, pretending to write, avoiding writing, despairing of what you’ve written…. Here are a couple more good ways to jump start yourself:

Ready to hammer out pages on that roughed-in novel? National Novel Writing Month  starts November 1st. A giant support team of other writers you can touch base with. They’ll cheer you on for everything you write, without judging how good or bad it is. No problem with that – if you are like nearly every writer I know, you are critical enough all on your own.

Need a little inspiration from others? Here are a few of my favorite blogs:

Educating Alice: A warm, tender, well-informed blog by Monica Edinger, who teaches fourth grade and loves books.

From the Mixed Up Files: Middle school books, with posts by multiple authors:

(Full disclosure, I was just interviewed by Hillary Homzie on Mixed Up Files).

Cynsations: Want to know what’s happening in publishing? What other children’s and YA writers think and feel? Latest books getting a good buzz? Check out Cynthia Leitich Smith’s blog.

There are a number of wonderful blogs these days. What are your favorites? Let me know and I’ll post the list.

Elizabeth Partridge


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Morning Pages


I’ve had an on again/off again relationship with morning pages.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with morning pages, they are three handwritten pages you’re supposed to write first thing in the morning, fast, without really thinking about what you’re writing. The theory behind them is, when we wake up, our minds are so full of stuff — tasks on our to-do lists, errands we have to run that day, things we’d like to whine and complain about, etc. Our brains are so busy sorting through all those things, our creativity is buried!

So, if we can just write out all that stuff first thing in the morning, our creative minds will be free to come forward and, uh, create! Morning pages are the brainchild of Julia Cameron who writes about the practice in her book The Artist’s Way. She also discusses the purpose of these pages in a video here.

I seem to return to writing morning pages whenever I’m in creative despair, when I’m feeling stuck with whatever I’m working on, or when things aren’t flowing the way I’d like them to. These are the times when morning pages work so well for me. First of all, it’s nice to write by hand. I’ve mentioned before that I have a love of fountain pens, so whenever I get the opportunity to write with them, I’m one happy girl. Also, writing morning pages is good for the psyche. I mean, you start your day writing! How nice is that? And, of course, once you start writing, there’s a good chance you’ll keep on writing! Lastly, I like writing morning pages because it’s a good discipline to get into; no day goes by without writing.

This time around, I’ve been doing morning pages for a few weeks and, once again, I’m in the love phase. I’m really finding this process helpful for my work-in-progress. Maybe in a couple of months, when I’m really deep into this novel, I won’t feel the need to write morning pages anymore. I might feel that they’re a waste of time, a distraction from my real work. But for now, I’m going to cling desperately to what’s working!




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Well Filling

Well Filling
By Tim Wynne-Jones
I don’t believe in writer’s block. I do believe, however, that sometimes the well runs dry. When that happens, a writer might try all manner of exercises to kick-start the creative process, climb back in the saddle, get the juices flowing – so many metaphorical actions meant to allay the fear that somehow it might be all over. If the exercises fail, don’t panic. Step away from the computer. When you have nothing to say there is virtue in not saying it.
About a dozen years ago my well ran bone dry. Did I stop writing? Sad to say, I did not. I churned out two unpublishable novels. When you know how to do this thing, it isn’t so hard to fill a few hundred pages with typing — in the sense Truman Capote meant when he famously said of Jack Kerouac, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” It took eighteen rejections to get it through my head that I was shooting blanks. I had nothing to say. The well was empty. It was sobering. I remember confessing to my wife that maybe it was over — the writing, I mean. I’d had some good innings, knocked a couple out of the park. I was luckier than many. With gratefulness and humility I accepted an offer to teach at Vermont College. After all, I’d learned a think or two along the way and maybe I could help others make a dream come true.
And slowly the well filled up. I’ve published eight books since the “end of my career.” Maybe I was just burned out. I like the empty well image, better.

When I first started writing, it was out of fullness. I was bursting with ideas, with scarcely the rudimentary craft to fashion those ideas into anything readable. But I had lots of energy and desire and literary heroes to emulate. I was prepared to fail again and again – miserably — and learn from every failure. The writing came fast and furious, and for twenty years I harvested that fullness, bucketful by bucketful. I’m staying in a Cornish fishing village right now and I’ve been watching kids on the quay catching crabs at high tide. They drop a line into the water with a cheesecloth bag full of scraps tied to the end. When they drag the line back up again, there will be as many as half a dozen hungry little crabs clinging to that tasty sack. The writing came like that, idea clambering over idea, some dropping away but one or two always making it to quayside. Ideas with claws! And then it stopped. The tide had run out, you might say.

But empty, it turns out, is as good a place to start as full. As long as you are willing to let it be, listen deeply to the silence and not freak out. It’s well-filling time. Step away from the computer. Look up. Do something you never did before. Get on a bus and get off somewhere unexpected. (If it happens to be a blustery moor complete with bronze-age stone circles, all the better.) Get lost. Expect nothing but be prepared for anything. And when you hear the trickle of that deep cavern starting to fill, let it. Don’t be in too much of a hurry to scoop up what is there. The water is likely to be muddy for a bit. Be patient. Know the difference between procrastination and waiting. 

So after that experience of a dozen years ago was I prepared for it to happen again? Like now, for instance? It’s hard to say whether this belated gap-year that my wife and I are on is the cause or result of my present state of writerly emptiness. But the truth is that if I stand at the lip of the deep place inside me and drop a pebble it’s a while before I hear anything and it’s more likely to be a thud than a splash. Is it over? Who knows? But I do know what to do. You might be empty but the world never is. Yesterday I drank a bottle of beer made from stinging nettles. The world is full and calls out to be attended in all its fullness. Waiting should never be a passive thing. Well being for a writer must include well filling.    


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Passing the Book

Laura Kvasnosky’s recent (10/19/11) post on her encouraging teacher jumpstarted memories of my favorite writing teacher, Mrs. Cheadle. She was young and full of zest and, unlike my practical mother, wore bright colors and shoes that matched her outfits. Her second grade classroom was a thrilling place, full of poems she read aloud, stories we acted out, and opportunities to create our own pieces. The gift she gave her students was the example of her own excitement over words and learning.
Do you ever wish that you could thank someone whose presence profoundly touched and changed you? Even if that person may have disappeared from your life long ago? About eight years ago, I finally had a chance to thank Mrs. Cheadle. By that time, she had a different name, profession, and home county but, when we got together, I immediately recognized her voice and enthusiastic spirit.
And Kathi Appelt’s post (10/17/11) on making a list of favorite books started me thinking not just about making such a list myself but of ways to thank the authors of those books. I might write or email. I might give one of their books as a gift or make a donation in their name to a library or literacy organization. We are all informed, inspired, and encouraged by a vast wordy web that includes so many others. What author or teacher might you wish to thank–and how?

–Mary Quattlebaum

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Writing Roots

Recently a booklet made its way back to me: Poems for a Favorite Friend. It’s a collection of pieces that I wrote during my eighth grade year and gathered as a gift for my seventh grade teacher, Mrs. Woodford.

Mrs. Woodford saved my gift for forty years. It was returned to me after her death. I’m touched that she kept it so long, but maybe I am making too much of this. Teachers are notorious packrats and, on close inspection, it seems the construction paper cover has never been folded open as one might do to read the contents.

In any case, the collection offers a look into my early writing self. Like my poem
SNOWFLAKES, which includes these deathless lines:
                        People murdering, kids a’flirtering
                        And snowflakes still fall.

Were I Mrs. Woodford, I would have laughed out loud. Such a serious subject matter for a kid — plus she was death on what she called “desperation rhymes,” a term she may have coined with me in mind. But what I knew from her was nothing but respect and admiration.

Which I could have returned wholeheartedly except for her habit of tucking her Kleenex into her bra.

Mrs. Woodford created that necessary safety zone where writing – no matter how ridiculous – flourished. But she didn’t stop there. She loved to travel and her enthusiasm spilled over as we studied ancient civilizations. We chalked huge murals of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. We memorized short pieces of poetry, which we recited together after the Pledge of Allegiance and a patriotic song every morning.

We learned poems by heart that have nourished me ever since. To this day I cannot walk into the woods without intoning: This is the forest primeval, the murmuring pines and the hemlocks bearded with moss and in garments green stand like druids of eld, (from Longfellow’s Evangeline); or, in times of trouble, I find myself whispering these words from Hamlet: This above all to thine own self be true, and it must follow as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.

I was sitting in Mrs. Woodford’s class, watching the even loops of her handwriting slant their way across the blackboard, when we found out President Kennedy had been shot. The news came over the loudspeaker from the principal’s office. We looked to Mrs. Woodford for how to respond, how to make sense of this event. I remember that tears shone in her eyes (which would undoubtedly lead her to reach into her bra for a Kleenex). She asked us to observe a minute of silence in face of this enormous tragedy. Then we sang God Bless America. The comfort of the right music at the right time. She taught us that, too.

I suppose it should be noted that Mrs. Woodford was not perfect. She overlooked it when John Klaverweiden sprayed air freshener to disperse the cooties every time Susan Edwards walked past his desk. She made Eddie Filiberti cry in front of the class when she felt he was too braggy about a good grade.

But maybe that’s partly why I remember her so well. She was a living, breathing, fallible human being, warts and all – in fact she did have a rather large warty/mole on her left cheek – but for some reason, I knew she was on my side. She believed in me in a way that helped me believe in myself and, as it turned out, most importantly, my writing.

Research suggests that it only takes one encouraging teacher to make a writer. So I am wondering. What writing teacher made a difference for you?

 – Laura Kvasnosky


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Making a List



    When Roseanne Cash was eighteen, her famous father gave her a list.  It contained the 100 songs that he thought she should know if she was going to make it in the music business.  More importantly, the songs meant something to him personally, so he wanted her to know about them.  They included an array of gospel, country, folk, blues, and traditional tunes.  At least that’s what Roseanne says.   She’s only divulged 12 of them so far.

She calls them her “personal legacy.”  I love what she has to say about “the list” being part of her geneology, as if these songs are embedded in her actual DNA. I’ve uploaded an interview that she did wtih Terry Gross on NPR.  It’s one of my favorite interviews ever. 


Listen on Posterous

And here’s the link:

At any rate, Roseanne’s list has made me think about what books would comprise my own list.  Which ones, I wondered, make up my own DNA, those stories that have not only influenced my writing, but that live within the heart of every tale I’ve ever told? 

So, one of the things that I’m doing for my sons this Christmas is to give them my list.  One hundred books.  You might think that’s a large number, but once you start writing down titles, you’ll be surprised by how many pop up as you go.  One title begats another begats another.  Soon, if you’re like me, you’ll discover that you’re making choices, asking which books get to stay on the list and which ones have to go. 

Unlike Johnny, I have no idea whether my sons will follow me into the writing business like his daughter followed him.  But it doesn’t matter.  What I hope is that my sons will know something about themselves via these books, just as Roseanne learned something about herself via her dad’s list, because it makes sense to me that what we pass along is more than chemistry and physics.  

Something else…I considered trying to find double copies of all 100 books to give to them, along with the list, but then I realized that finding the books was part of the experience.  Nowadays, they’re relatively easy to locate thanks to on-line resellers, but not always.  My hope is that they’ll find themselves at a library or a used book store or maybe even a neighborhood yard sale, and there will be one of the titles, but next to it will be something rare and wonderful that is not on the list.  And that will be for them to pass along to my grandchildren . . . someday.  A girl can wish, right?


Calloo, callay, my homies!








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National Book Awards 2011 finalists — Uma Krishnaswami

It is not my scheduled day to post on Write At Your Own Risk but hey! This is enough reason to shout out. Look at the National Book Awards finalist announcements! Just look–one faculty finalist and two-count-em-two finalists who are VCFA grads from our own MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Congratulations, Franny Billingsley, Lauren Myracle and Debby Edwardson!


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Finding Stuff Out


Just about every story I’ve written, whether published or unpublished, has involved research. Lots and lots of research. Some examples: the life of Marcel Marceau, McCarthyism, George Balanchine, Igor Stravinsky, John Ringling North, Modoc the elephant, Vera Zorina, the Atlantic telegraph cable, and recipes for borscht. I love finding stuff out, and the internet, with all its databases and countless other resources, has meant I don’t even have to leave Vermont most of the time. (I hate leaving home. I’ve only flown–on an airplane–once in the last eleven years and have no plans to do so again.)

In the early days of the internet, which I remember as if they were yesterday, the prevailing wisdom was that it was a mile wide and an inch deep. This has not been true for a long time. The danger for me is how very deep it is. Years go by and I am still finding stuff out, because it’s more fun than writing. It’s seductive. It calls to me, waking me from sleep. My long-suffering husband and I have dinner with the laptop on the table in case a question pops out of the salad or an idea bubbles up from the pasta. As recently as last night, while eating at a friend’s house, I demanded she retrieve her laptop so we could find out where Cormac McCarthy lives. It was a birthday dinner, too.

Eventually a very sad day arrives and I realize it’s time to figure out what the heck the story actually is. 99% of the research then disappears, never to surface again. Everything has to serve the story. What becomes fascinating—and frustrating—is the balancing act of what to include, how to include it, and what to leave out.

I’m planning to offer a workshop at VCFA this January around this very topic. In the meantime, what are some of your favorite examples of well-researched (and not necessarily non-fiction!) stories that achieve a perfect balance? And what kind of research are you yourself engaged in?



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Touching Silence — Uma Krishnaswami

Essayist Reg Saner says, in Reaching Keet Seel, his collection of reflections on the Colorado Plateau, “Mountains echo whatever you tell them, but desert space is always a listener, its only voice a quiet so unbroken it hushes you, thereby making you fit to enter in.”

Some days it seems as if I’m being badgered by voices, all kinds of voices telling me all the things I ought to be doing, all the things I should have done already, all the hundreds of ways I’m falling behind. This is not a frame of mind conducive to entering into real spaces, let alone fictional ones. Listen to all the voices and it’s likely I’ll begin to feel the way I do when I hear about symptoms of some rare disease–they all sound familiar and they all sound so final, so impossible to argue with!

The desert rescues me at such times. It gives me sky and 360 degrees of horizon, and silence.

But it seems to me that I ought to be able to recreate that for myself, an interior space that can be summoned up when the voices of reality become too loud and insistent, when the work demands quiet, to allow those other fictional voices to make themselves heard. It doesn’t matter how. Walking, exercise, music, daydreaming, gardening. Whatever it takes. The rituals might change from one person to another, or even with the passage of time. But they matter because the ability to touch silence matters in the life of a writer.


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I make a practice of sending my students at Vermont College of Fine Arts what I call “distractions.” The label fits because these bits and pieces do distract hard workers from their work. But an occasional distraction is healthy, isn’t it, if done in moderation? It’s like following the optometrist’s advice to look up occasionally when you read a long book – the eyes and the mind need to rest, and you can come back to your task refreshed. Or, to imagine it from an Emily Post perspective (does anyone do that anymore, or did the 60’s finish off the Queen of Etiquette forever?) it’s like providing lemon sorbet to cleanse the palate during a seven-course meal.

Often I send my students a TED talk – one of a series of brilliant thinkers talking to a crowd of brilliant thinkers about brilliant things: visual information processing, Zulu wire art, New York City’s topography before it was a city. Sometimes I send them something funny – at least, something I think is funny (like Bucky the Cat reading bad poetry to Satchel the Dog in the Get Fuzzy comic strip.)

Sometimes I send information about an artist that intrigues me – Vic Muniz, for example, or Theo Jansen.

Usually, it has to do with wonder, mystery, beauty, pleasure….which all play a role in creativity, so maybe my distractions do not really distract. Maybe they intersect with and influence the work in progress in subtle ways. Maybe that’s my sinister (in the original sense – “left-sided”) plan.

Here is a link to the distraction that’s going out to students tomorrow – definitely click on that. I chose it because 1) it’s a mystery and 2) it’s about art and 3) it’s beautiful. Here’s a sneak peek:


Thanks to my good friend and co-worker Sarah Ellis, who sent me that particular link and who from time to time sends me other things which get me to look up from my reading and fill me with wonder.




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