Monthly Archives: January 2012

Celebrating the residency, parentheses, and winter


Winter Is the Best Time

By David Budbill

Winter is the best time
to find out who you are.

Quiet, contemplation time,
away from the rushing world,

cold time, dark time, holed-up
pulled-in time and space

to see that inner landscape,
that place hidden and within.

From While We’ve Still Got Feet. © Copper Canyon Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission of the author.


The winter residency at VCFA is my favorite, primarily because I hate hot weather, and the dorms can be stifling in July. But also because of so much more, and fellow Vermonter David Budbill says it better than I could. (This winter, snow is noticeably absent, so of course I keep going off on tirades about global warming.)

I love love love winter; the colder and snowier the better (see above: global warming). There are fewer reasons to go outside and do something , particularly when there’s no snow. (Ditto.) I hate doing things.  Instead, winter brings the glowing laptop screen, the habit of daily writing, the delight of reading next to the wood stove, and, of course, playing with dogs.

At VCFA, the dogs are absent, but the community of writers is so extraordinary that I manage. I draw on my inner strength. VCFA’s community of brilliant students, administration, and faculty (welcome to new faculty members Matt de la Peña and April Lurie!) is truly a Vermont version of Brigadoon. We even had some singing! And our visitors, Libba Bray and Marla Frazee, added to the enchantment.

After each residency, I come home full of ideas, well-plated food (this seems to be the new descriptor), and usually a stomach virus or a cold. (And I don’t even have to get on an airplane. Condolences to all of you who traveled.) Then I sleep for a while. A long while.  

This January, I woke up in time to watch the ALA awards, and I am very very happy about the Caldecotts, in particular. Note that the gold medal went to a dog book. I haven’t read Dead End in Norvelt yet, but I will. Jack Gantos helped start our program! Chris Raschka taught a semester with us!

The photo above, courtesy of Roger Crowley, includes all the January faculty minus (sad to say)  Coe and Mark. As for the bear: s/he is celebrating fifteen years of the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. You can buy one from the VCFA bookstore.


I close with congratulations to the Keepers of the Dancing Stars, the class of January, 2012. May the muses always be with you.


(For more photos from the January residency: 

Roger Crowley does a great job. The snow you see in some of Roger’s work doesn’t count. Mere inches. See above, global warming. Note: you can learn a lot from this photo, particularly about footwear.)




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Getting the Glory: A Note about Awards


By the time you read this post, the ALA awards will have been announced, and unless you were actually there for the press conference in Dallas, you probably, like me, got up early, grabbed a cup of coffee and logged on to the live-stream for the announcements.

As well, if you’re like me, you probably had your favorites, the ones that you were holding onto for that treasured recognition. Indeed, there are some in our midst whose books have been “buzzing” with award fervor.  We especially longed for medals for you. (And I hope you had a good supply of both vodka and Maalox by your side). 

As the conference proceeded, you probably jumped up and down with joy for at least a couple of the choices, (I’m still smiling about Ashley Bryan and Susan Cooper) and likewise you scratched your head and grumbled about the titles that were left out. 

This is the way it was for me this morning when my own personal list of favorite books and favorite authors were both announced . . . and not. 

In the space of an hour my wise and generous, downright magnanimous self watched in wonder as the titles showed up on my computer screen.  Little squeals of delight burst between my lips.  But at the same time, my darker petulant and downright angry side was shouting, “What the . . . ?” 

And that’s it in a nutshell, isn’t it?  This whole writing/publishing/recognition thing speaks to how subjective it all is.  I’ve been on both sides of publication and rejection, of receiving awards and judging awards, of being highly recognized and shut out. 

What do we do with this?  I don’t have any clear answers because to deny the sheer happiness and alternating sadness would diminish all of it I think.

What I know is that humans have a driving need for acknowledgement, for others of our kind to recognize good work when we see it.  Thus the overpowering desire for publication.  A book is a sure sign that we’ve done something significant, that we’ve broken barriers and worked hard.  An award amplifies that. 

What I I think is that we’re all in search of glory. 

But let me just say that glory comes in many sizes.  Some days it ends with a small “be,” and that’s enough.  When I say “glory be” out loud it reminds me of the joy and wonder that I experience at the end of a well-formed sentence—both my own and others.  It’s there when my cat jumps onto my keyboard and reminds me to stretch.  I can tuck it into my back pocket and sit on it while I look for the missing plot point.

And then there are those wondrous glories that end in “hallelujah.”  Because they’re a bit more rare, they give us something to reach for . . . something like writing a book that is prize-worthy even if doesn’t actually get the prize.

So at least for today, I’m inviting you to join me in that hallelujah chorus for all the winners, (and Larry Dane Brimner, if you’re reading this I’m talking to you).  Let’s sing our hearts out for the ones we totally love, who got those beautiful medals, as well as for those we personally think should have won but didn’t.  Mostly, let’s raise our voices for the wonder of stories and books and the children we write for too.

After all, when it comes down to it, we’re all members of the same choir.   And that all by itself is glorious. 

Shalom y’all. 

P.S.  Just in case you need a little something to get you going, here’s my friend Ruthie Foster to lead the way: 

Listen on Posterous






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Jottings, Scribbles, Bits, Pieces, Idiosyncrasies


I’m ten days into the eleven-day January residency of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. By the time this posts, we’ll be just hours away from Graduation, but I can feel the “Low Battery” alarm about to go off. When I get home to Seattle, I’ll need about a week to get over not only jet lag but the intensity of lectures, readings, panel discussions and workshops, not to mention all the conversations over breakfast, lunch and dinner…and late into the night. My notebook is filled with jottings.

A writer’s notebook is nothing if not unique to the individual who fills it. What our minds pay attention to is so definitely our own, and almost inexplicable. I’ve tried in the past to define it as “where our attention comes to rest.” In workshop this time around, I’ve been calling it “idiosyncratic attention” which is close to what I mean, though the phrase sounds like a straightjacket on something that’s most attractive when out of control.

So I thought I would share some phrases which got jotted down in my own notebook over the last ten days. Ask anyone else here at the residency, and his or her notes would be completely different. For me, it’s a matter of scribbles, bits and pieces, ideas that suggest a poem or two, questions to nudge me in the direction of further exploration:

  • Not to produce action, but to produce a desire to act – social justice. To imbed what you care about into everything you do. The need to be agents of change. 
  • Dialogue – the illusion of conversation. Monologue – performance piece.
  • Narrative restraint. Slowing the information down. Reader and author collaborate. Wait. Provide beats.
  • Is the landscape ever neutral?
  • Gesture is the ultimate act of “Show, don’t tell.” Implied gestures.
  • “Shining forth.”
  • Loud yearning. Quiet yearning.
  • Verse novel – physiological component? Eye movement down page.
  • Ha-ho-ha-ho – impossible.
  • Incongruity theory. The violation of expectations. [possible poem?]
  • Ask yourself, “What am I mad about?”
  • The law of diametric opposites.
  • “Reality bridges.”
  • Flannery O’Connor: “To begin where human knowledge begins, with the senses.”
  • Kerouac: “First thought, best thought.” True?
  • Dante: Go through Hell to get to Heaven.
  • Conrad: “Into the destructive element submerge”
  • “Tagesreste” – Freud’s idea of “day residue” (dreams.)
  • Over-allegiance to order. [poem?]
  • The “decorative” antagonist. [poem?]
  • Mind anticipates narrative.
  • “Worthy” books – an “applecart in need of upsetting.”
  • Funny is just serious with a mask on. Humor both assigns and subverts identity.
  • Look for Save the Cat (screenwriting)
  • Look for Raymond Carver’s story, “One More Thing.

I love the people I teach with. It’s a giddy feeling

Busy getting dizzy.

Girl in a swirl.



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The Boy Who Couldn’t Imagine Himself a Writer — Tom Birdseye

He sat in the back of his fourth grade classroom staring out the window. It was time to write, and he couldn’t seem to get going.

Sure, there was that story-starter his teacher had written on the board. But he didn’t feel like writing about how he would govern if president. He dreamed instead of basketball, that last second fall-away jumper from the corner that wins the game, a place for him in the Hall of Fame.
And anyway, even if he did get a sentence started, he knew it was ultimately hopeless. His spelling was rotten. His paper would come back with each mistake — each and
mistake — circled in red.
His punctuation skills weren’t exactly top of the class, either. Capitals, periods, commas, semi-colons and quotations all confused him. More blood on the page.
And then there was the unfathomable paragraph. Just how do you know when it’s time to start a new one, anyway? 
Of course, there was his handwriting to contend with, too. The fact that he was left-handed didn’t seem to dampen one bit his teacher’s insistence that his cursive slant to the right like everyone else’s. He could do it if he turned his paper weird and curled his arm around and over what he was writing. But quickly his hand would start to ache, and it all smeared anyway. What was supposed to be a neatly written story always seemed to turn out looking like the school bus had run over it . . . after the dog had tried to eat it for lunch. He’d be lucky — very lucky — if he got a C, given the inevitable blood.
 The boy sat and stared out the window, waiting for recess, waiting for 3:10 and the end of the day, dreaming of the swish of the basketball through the hoop, crawdads under creek rocks, forts built in the woods, bicycles without fenders, butter pecan ice cream, and school called off on account of snow. It was 1961, and never once did it enter his mind that some day he might become a published author.
And yet several decades later, that is exactly what happened. The story is true. That fourth grade boy was me. 
At first the transformation amazed me; I wondered if it were some strange sort of a fluke. When I visited schools and talked to kids about the writing process, I found myself chronicling my belated journey to becoming a writer as if telling it aloud might finally confirm the reality. “You’ve all got a story to tell,” I said as much to myself as the reluctant writers in the audience. 
Later, thinking of my writing history brought out different feelings. Anger crept in as I found myself wondering why I wasn’t encouraged back in fourth grade instead of discouraged. Why wasn’t I told that the story comes first, mechanics second, that being a lousy speller, punctuator and penman didn’t mean I had nothing of value to say? Why wasn’t I shown through good literature that my entire life — the carnival-like wonder of childhood, along with the scraped knees, broken arm, injured pride, dashed hopes, and cruel moments — was meaningful, important, and worthy of a story, worthy of my pen? 
Why was it so many years before the right mentors finally came along and helped me to see past the hurdles of writing, emphasizing instead the joy of and the satisfaction to be had in it? The seemingly impenetrable maze of story structure was demystified, setting and character development guidelines offered, the part and parcels of a satisfying piece of literature defined. With their help, I began to see how I could turn the material of my life into the material of a story, fictionalizing to my heart’s content, as long as I honestly conveyed life’s emotional truths. I was urged to carry a small notebook, to be on the lookout for things to jot down: the funny, telling, or poignant glimpses of life that are too often overlooked, ordinary people that would make good characters, memories of my childhood triggered by what I might see and hear, the wonderfully wise things people will say at the most unexpected moments. Feedback was honest, but always constructive. Support for my efforts was unwavering; no pom-pom thrumming throng of cheerleaders could have been more encouraging. And slowly, very slowly, I began to think of myself as a writer, to believe in myself as a writer, to write.
But why so late? Why not as a child?
The easiest answer was to blame my earlier teachers. It was their fault. They didn’t understand writing, and so taught it wrong. But I knew teacher bashing to be unfair — we do the best we can given what we know — and besides, it missed what I finally came to realize is the point: not that as a child I wasn’t a writer, but that today I am, and if well-intentioned but misguided teaching did in fact silence my writer’s voice years ago, well-intentioned and well-informed teaching brought it back. Teaching made the difference, both times. The power of it is phenomenal, the responsibility awesome in the truest sense of the word. I bow in its presence when done well.
True, no amount of good teaching can fix everything. Learning is not a Cinderella story full of happily-ever-afters. Despite all of the wonderful help I continue to receive, I still have to wrestle with the spelling beast and the punctuation monster. I still have to find my way through the the labyrinth of paragraph construction, plus grapple with many more subtle and complex issues. I’m compelled to write and rewrite, fight off frustration, then rewrite some more, in order to finally glean my best. Like most things, writing takes time, practice, and perseverance. It is work.
But thanks to good teaching, my day-to-day experience with that work is now built more of pleasure than of pain. I love writing, and I love sharing the intricacies of the process and the results of it with others. You see, for me, the bottom line is this: The boy who couldn’t imagine himself a writer, now can’t imagine himself anything else.


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         Words have lives.  They are born – fresh, unique, screaming for attention.  They grow and find their places.  The go-getters have many jobs in their careers, sometimes even invading other languages.  The more subdued cut a narrower swath.  Words live much longer than we do but they too are mortal.  Some get marble headstones such as those in Jeffrey Kacirk’s Forgotten English.  Others, presumably, are buried in unmarked graves.  But, great or small, every word changes over its lifetime.
         Over the past several years I’ve been wondering about the verb “smirk.”  The first time a student used it as a synonym of “smile” I corrected her.  After the fourth student used it in this sense I began to suspect I was missing something.  Was “smirk” melding into “smile” and losing its particular meaning?  I decided to set up a carefully-constructed etymological study.  I got in a couple of bottles of wine and asked some friends what they thought about  smirk.  The free-wheeling discussion included the ideas of power, derision, privacy, inwardness, coldness and self-satisfaction.  In part two of the study we had a smirking contest.  The best smirk involved a kind of smile/grimace accompanied by lowered eyes, a small sniff and a subtle head toss.  In part three we nominated notable public smirkers.  George W. Bush received several votes and we confirmed his eligibility by checking him out on youtube.
In particular note the smirk at 1:10.
         I was relieved to find that smirk in its particular sense seems to be alive and well.  For a recent sighting in the wild see Margaret Atwood’s  story “Stone Mattress” in The New Yorker. ( This is a chilling revenge tale and at its climax Atwood uses smirk  to delicious effect.   “She remembers that smirk.”  A smirk as the final straw in a motive for murder?  In this story – absolutely.  Long live smirking.

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I was stunned a few months ago, to find nearly every one of my books offered to all comers on a pirate book site. I’ve since learned, of course, that there are hundreds of these sites, offering poorly scanned copies of books in print for next to nothing. Needless to say, none of these sites returns a cent to the authors of the books they sell. 

What to do? For thousands of years, monasteries, libraries and individual book owners employed choice and far-reaching curses to curb book theft. In Egypt, for instance, sometime between the first and third centuries, a papyrus warned would-be vandals: 

“I am the guardian of the letters. The reed pen wrote me, with a right hand and a knee. If you use me for anything, assist another. If your rub me out, I will slander you before Euripides. So desist.

The middle ages specialized in dire scenarios for fiends who stooped low enough to pilfer someone else’s book. Here’s a dandy example:

“Whoever steals this book let him die the death; let be him be frizzled in a pan; may the falling sickness rage within him; may he be broken on the wheel and be hanged.”

I don’t know about you. But frizzling sounds like something I’d rather not chance! Churches, of course, went corporeal punishment one better, offering up damnation to those callous enough to purloin God’s word: 

“Should anyone by craft of any device whatever abstract this book from this place may his soul suffer, in retribution for what he has done, and may his name be erased from the book of the living and not recorded among the Blessed.”

But would threats, no matter how deliciously venomous or righteously indignant, have any impact on today’s nefarious book pilferers? On the anonymous, greedy techno-nerds who spend a few minutes copying what it has taken authors years and years to write? Or even on the readers tempted by downloads that cost a fraction of the ebooks that pay royalties to their authors? I doubt it. 

Still, there’s a certain satisfaction in a well-formulated book curse. I intend to revive this nicely nasty tradition, if only on my website. I just wish I were a proficient enough hacker to wangle one onto pirate sites as a warning to visitors. Because who knows? Maybe there’s some mojo left in ancient spells like this one: 

“This book belongs to none but me
There is my name inside to see.
To steal this book, if you should try,
it’s by the throat that you’ll hang high.
And ravens then will gather ’bout
To find your eyes and pull them out.
And when you’re screaming “oh, oh, oh!”
Remember, you deserved this woe.



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