Monthly Archives: December 2011

Mrs. Kolodny

One of my favorite minor characters from the oeuvre of Lois Lowry is Mrs. Kolodny, the housekeeper in Taking Care of Terrific.  Mrs. Kolodny is a colorful character — literally.  But what I remember most about her is the power rush she gets from running all of her major appliances simultaneously: “…she had all the machinery running: the dishwasher, the garbage disposal, even the washing machine and dryer.  Mrs. Kolodny says she likes to run the machinery; it makes her feel like Captain Kirk in Star Trek, gives her a sense of power.”

I thought about Mrs. Kolodny the other day as I was preparing for houseguests and Christmas dinner for twelve.  The washer and dryer were running.  So was the dishwasher.  Beans for the vegetarians simmered in the slow cooker; soup bubbled on the stove.  I felt strangely content.

Confession:  I love making things in the slow cooker.  I love making soups that simmer on the stove for hours.  I almost love doing the laundry.  Why?

Becuase I only have to begin these things, and then time and chemistry do the rest of the work for me.

And even as I boiled the cranberries and trimmed the green beans…the final two chapters of the third draft of my next novel were simmering away in the very slow cooker that is my mind.

Work on the novel, due in my editor’s office on January 15, has been suspended many times over the past months — by holidays, family medical stuff, student packets, and crises of one variety or another.  And, though I sometimes daydream about having six months alone in a mountain cabin with nothing to do but write, I know that’s probably never going to happen.  And it might not be good if it did.

Because the slow cooker of my mind is actually smarter than, um, the front burner.  (Possibly I need to jettison the household appliance metaphor at this point.)  But I want to say that while there’s no substitute for setting one’s butt in one’s chair for extended periods, it’s also true that, away from the chair, time and chemistry can be surprisingly productive on thier own.

In a couple of days, when the feast is but a memory and the guests have all gone home, while the dishwasher and laundry machines are churning away, I’m going to set my butt down, pick up my novel, and find out what’s been cooking.

Can’t wait!

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Happy Holidays


Here it is almost time for a new year to roll around and I’m finally able to join in this blog conversation. When I was scheduled to chime in early in September, one of my daughters gave birth prematurely, and then on the very day I was scheduled in November, another daughter had her baby. I don’t think my third daughter is planning to have a baby right now, so maybe I’ll actually get this posted. I’ve enjoyed reading all the previous entries of Writeatyourownrisk and seeing the comments people make, all of which are wonderful. So many good ideas; so many wise writers; so much inspiration. This writing community is really a kind of big extended family and I am so grateful for every one of you, those I know well and those I hope to meet along the way.

Family. That’s what I’m thinking about these days. My own growing family, as it expands through marriages and births, and the family life of my students as they juggle and sometimes struggle with the demands of their families as they set up new schedules of work that sometimes impinge upon the other members, as they sometimes have to persuade the other members that this writing for young people is serious business, real work, and surprisingly not easy or cute at all.

I recently had an email from a former student whose baby was still under a year old and who worried about her need to write and her need to mother and how to reconcile the two. I don’t know that I have an answer for her, but I do know that I’ve had to come to the realization that I just cannot do it all, not at the same time. There are times for writing and times when writing has had to take a back seat to life when I’ve had to just live through the events, some happy, some sad, some just darn hard work. I’ve railed against the interruptions, worried about managing everyone’s needs responsibly, argued against unreasonable demands, allowed myself to ignore important other things, allowed myself to ignore my characters’ voices, and even, once or twice, decided that I wasn’t a writer. My children got ill, they sang in concerts, danced in recitals; they married, had babies, adopted children. For me, a teaching career to begin, divorce, a parent’s major surgeries, several moves, remarriage, and house building (still going on). As Tim wrote in his recent blog:  Sometimes the well runs dry and you need to let it fill up again. Between all these things in life I’ve learned that the writing returns, the brick walls I feel like I keep bumping into fall down, the stories unveil themselves, the characters yammer away again. Sometimes the stories form up into novels, sometimes into picture books, but always, for me, there are poems. When I do as Coe urges and “commit to sit,” my meditations open up for poems. When I have the courage to love what I love, as one of Julie’s blog entries talks about, poetry is there.

For me, all along, that has meant that when I do love my life, when I take the time for my children, when I take time to grieve what grieves me, and love what loves me (and I love), then poetry is there, story is there, writing is there, waiting. Even when I’m not producing pages and pages a day, I’m still a writer. When there’s silence in the igloo, that doesn’t mean the wind isn’t still blowing up a storm outside.

Two of the many things I’ve learned from my students and my teaching is that it is rare that two of us have anything like the same writing process and that the artificiality of the schedule of an MFA program is deceptive. We have to be on an academic calendar, turn in and respond to writing on a timeline, but that is what school work is like, not real life writing work. We each have our own ups and downs, our own enervating experiences, our own dramas. We have our own places of peace and ways of meditating. We are not the same; our stories are not the same. If we can honor our differences, learn our own pathways, and allow ourselves to live our lives as they unfold, really live them, honestly and without guilt about what we “ought” to be doing, we will cut out a lot of the anxiety and stress so many of us experience. If we stop worrying about whether we are disciplined enough or dedicated enough or even whether we’ll have another story to tell, then we might see life’s interruptions and demands as a part of our own creative process.

The holidays are a time for family and story, stories we tell and read, and stories we live. I wish you all a lot of STORY in the days to come. Happy Hannukkah, Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year!

Sharon Darrow


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I’ve been thinking a lot about the creative process lately, no matter what the genre. Partly it’s because I live with my 94 year old dad who has been a photographer all his life. Now he’s having a little trouble with things like focusing the camera, and grabbing the right chemical off the shelf in the darkroom. He keeps exploring new ways to stay engaged.

At a party recently, a woman asked him, “What is the most important thing about your process?”

He thought for a moment, and then said, “Imagination.”

“What kind of ritual do you use to get started?” she asked.

My father was completely mystified by her question. “Ritual” is inconceivable to him.

Since I live with him, I can say he is actually as active in the world of imagination as he is in the real, solid world. And not because he’s old. He’s always been like this.

Right now, he rambles around and finds flowers (we’re in California) and leaves that appeal to him. The shape, the color, the who-knows-what. He brings them home and spreads them out on newspapers laid open all over the place. The flowers and leaves blow off the table and chairs, get crushed underfoot and carried throughout the house.

He chooses ones that appeal to him, and arranges them in picture frames. To me, they are like living photographs. He’s obsessed right now with trying to figure out how to preserve the plants’ suppleness and color. Rather than just go to a craft store and get a product for this, he is trying out every home product he can think of.

He’s got the whole project spread out on the huge dining room table, on the desk nearby, and all the living room couches. He constantly goes to his latest part of his project and works on it for 15 minutes to 2 hours, wanders away, has a cup of coffee, comes back again. There is no ritual to move in and out of this space.

So here’s my take away about creativity:

Make a mess.

Have fun.

If you are really lucky, you’ll still be doing it when you are 94.


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The Sense of an Ending

By Tim Wynne-Jones

Before this fall, any literary type mentioning The Sense of an Ending was likely referring to Frank Kermode’s seminal text published in 1967 and considered a landmark in twentieth century critical thought. The publication of Julian Barnes’ novel of the same name and it’s subsequent winning of the 2011 Man Booker Prize will probably mean book people are referring to Barnes not Kermode, these days. But then the novel owes a lot to the book. You might even say it makes into fiction the theories that Kermode puts forward, and Barnes does so in 150 pages, which is pretty short for an adult novel, especially one winning such a prestigious prize.

I wasn’t a literary student and haven’t read a lot of critical thought, but Kermode’s ideas hit me pretty strongly as a young writer. To get the gist of his ideas, you could refer to the following essay, originally published in The Critical Quarterly, but now available on line: “New Ends for Old: Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending.”

Basically, Kermode talks about how fictions (including history) impose a pattern on time because we have this basic human need for sense and comfort which time as disorganized as it is, just doesn’t give us. Fiction, according to Kermode, is about the humanizing of time. We want a beginning, middle and ending; we want shape Story  —  something that means. Kermode says:

The clock’s ‘tick-tock’ I take to be a model of what we call a plot, an organisation which humanises time by giving it a form; and the interval between ‘tock’ and ‘tick’ represents purely successive, disorganised time of the sort we need to humanise. (p. 45).

I’m going to give a lecture on plot in July, in which I’ll follow up on this but right now I just want to say that, to my mind, Barnes’ novel speaks volumes to children’s writers, despite its slight size. It isn’t a novel intended for young readers. In fact, it perfectly fits my description of the difference between books for kids and adults: the former is all about getting a grip; the latter is about letting go. Tony, the protagonist in Barnes’ novel, has to let go of something he did in his youth. There are several quotes from the text that jumped out at me as having resonance for us, and the kinds of things we think about. None of the following quotes gives the story away.

On page 16. Teenaged Tony, Colin and Alex have been grilling their new friend Adrian about why his mother left his father. He doesn’t know and the narrator, Tony, questions that.

“In a novel, Adrian wouldn’t just have accepted things as they were put to him. What was the point of having a situation worthy of fiction if the protagonist didn’t behave as he would have done in a book? Adrian should have gone snooping, or saved up his pocket money and employed a private detective; perhaps all four of us should have gone off on a Quest to Discover the Truth. Or would that have been less like literature and too much like a kids’ story?”

By page 80, Tony is now in his sixties, and all the quotes are from that perspective.

“It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.”

On page 82. “Though why should we expect age to mellow us? If it isn’t life’s business to reward merit, why should it be life’s business to give us warm, comfortable feelings towards its end? What possible evolutionary purpose could nostalgia serve?

On page 87.  “I’m sure psychologists have somewhere made a graph of intelligence measured against age. Not a graph of wisdom, pragmatism, organizational skill, tactical nous – those things which, over time, blue our understanding of the matter. But a graph of pure intelligence. And my guess is that it would show we most of us peak between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five.”

On page 93. “I remember a period in late adolescence when my mind would make itself drunk with images of adventurousness. This is how it will be when I grow up. I shall go there, do this, discover that, love her, and then her and her and her. I shall live as people in novels live and have lived. Which ones I was not sure, only that passion and danger, ecstasy and despair (but then more ecstasy) would be in attendance. However… who said that thing about the ‘littleness of life that art exaggerates’? There was a moment in my late twenties when I admitted that my adventurousness had long since petered out. I would never do those things adolescence had dreamt about. Instead, I mowed my lawn, I took holidays, I had my life.”

And on page 103. “Does character develop over time? In novels, of course it does: otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a story.”

Excerpts from The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, Jonathan Cape, London, 2011.


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Holiday Wordplay

by Mary Quattlebaum

The lights on the artfully decorated tree are winking, the scent of sugar cookies is wafting, and the kiddies are writing precious notes to Santa about a wooden puzzle or little red wagon.

Is this the holiday season at your house? If so, may I visit? ‘Cause my home … well, let’s just say that the winking, wafting, and writing are all “in process,” as in “about to happen” or “tomorrow” or “after this.”

Especially my writing.

Coe Booth blogged recently on committing to The Chair and showing up for writing on a regular basis. Oh, yes! I applauded from the chair in front of my computer. Wise words, Coe!

Except this time of year, well, I can pop up from my chair with all the misplaced zeal of an oil-sizzled kernel. To-do list. Pop! Unexpected company. Pop! Dog scratching at tree skirt. Pop!

So a few years ago, I gave myself a two-week gift: To show up at The Chair to … play.

This actually can be more complicated than it sounds. It can mean winding up (or not taking on) big ongoing writing projects for a couple of weeks in December; it can mean trying not to feel guilty; it can mean not squandering wordplay time on the to-do list; and it can mean eschewing The Chair for other possible writing spots (bed, kitchen, local coffee shop).

And it means playing. With words. As if they were mud. (What happens if I stick three random words together? What starts to form?) Or as if they were stones, placed in different places on a white field (paper). (What connects them?) Or as if they were tiny, lively beings wanting to leap or stroll, march or roll or curl up in a quiet corner. (How can you help them to move? What will the sentences look and sound like?) Write goofy, write silly, write slowly and with beautiful penmanship. Try writing with tools you’ve not explored in the past or with your least dominant hand.

A wonderful wordplay companion is “The Aspiring Poet’s Journal” by Bernard Friot. Each page includes a writing prompt, abstract illustration by Herve Tullet, and short quote and/or poem. Odd and inspiring, these prompts can jumpstart the muse for both poets and prose writers. Surprise yourself. Choose one at random and write as much or as little as you wish.

Here’s my randomly chosen prompt–a gift for you to play with. For #66, Friot suggests that we choose one of the following five titles and explore it in writing:
The Lockless Door
There’s a Certain Slant of Light
Parting at Dawn
What Are Years?
When I Think About Myself

And the quote Friot shares, which we might take back to The Chair and into the New Year: “The urge to write is driven by the curiosity of what we might find.”–Alain.


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Notes About Notes

by Laura Kvasnosky


Author Karen Hesse once said that she does not keep a notebook of ideas. “If an idea is strong enough, it will stay in my head,” is the quote I wrote into my notebook as I listened to her lecture.

Clearly that habit is working for her. But for me, a notebook is a necessary part of the generative process. I count on the ideas in my notebooks to fester and grow like germs on a middle school drinking fountain. Some of them are particularly contagious. They attract others. Eventually a critical mass is reached and it’s time to start writing.

My notebooks not only gather ideas for new work, they are useful in revision. Today I have been revising (yet again) my middle grade novel-in-progress and I have gone back through my notebooks in search of source inspiration. What was my intent? What other details can I include to shine a light on that intent?

In the last couple of years, I have also kept notes on my cellphone, in an aptly-named app called Notes. I noted writing ideas, blog ideas, words to savor, books to read, movies to see, a theatre log, the three good things about each day that John and I named before going to sleep — the lists went on and on.

These lists were all safe in my cellphone until last Thursday. That’s the day I connected to the iCloud. Somehow I overwrote my treasure trove of cellphone Notes with a few piddly Notes that had been hanging around on my computer. According to three geniuses at the Apple store, my notes are lost forever.

I want to be like Karen Hesse, to trust that the strong ideas will stay in my head. But I can’t help grieving my cellphone Notes – at least for awhile. Then I’ll dig back into my notebooks.



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So, it appears that Leda has thrown down the gauntlet.  Can I, a bona fide cat lover, let Leda’s former post go unanswered?  I think not.

While some in the world enjoy the vagaries of slobber and the sounds of toenails clicking on the tile floors, others of us prefer the comfort of purrs and oh-so-velvety fur.

And while dogs do loom large in the history of picture books, so too do our feline friends.

Here are some of my favorites.  What are some of yours?

SOPHIE’S SURPRISE, Shirley Holt and Lee Richardson



WILDERNESS CAT, Natalie Kinsey-Warnock, Mark Graham

CHARLIE ANDERSON, Barbara Abercrombie, Mark Graham


CAT HEAVEN, Cynthia Rylant


KAT KONG, Dav Pilkey


WABI SABI, Mark Reibstein, Ed Young


Honorable mention goes to Tabby in the MR. PUTTER AND TABBY books, by Cynthia Rylant and Arthur Howard.

May your lives be filled with kittens!






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