Monthly Archives: November 2012

Blurry, squishy clay

This is my first blog post in the new home for Write at Your Own Risk, and as I typed these words, I had a feeling they might show up under my WordPress blog instead.  Yep!  For a while, it was an effort that went nowhere at all…like so many of my pages in so many of my drafts.

Sometimes when I do author visits, I show a picture of pot making.  I ask kids how they think a potter starts out.  They usually tell me earnestly that a potter must start out by making A Plan.  I earnestly want A Plan whenever I start writing something new, too.  Plans should work!  Why don’t they?  (And maybe they sometimes do.)

Usually, though, I have to get up to my elbows in clay.  I have to feel confused and lost and messy.  I have to goosh and squoosh that clay around for a while before I can start shaping.

I wonder if this strange process has something to do with the same thing that happens when I move.  Every time I’ve moved (and I’ve lived in seven different places in five states in my adult life so far), it takes me about a year before my cells settle into the new spot.  Until then, no matter how I try to force the situation, I feel uneasy and strange and not-at-home.

An editor I was listening to one time talked about an author who sent drafts of stories and each one was clearer…the way a photograph (in the old days of printing) might gradually come out of the developing fluid with sharper and sharper details.

Maybe some stories–like some places–simply have to be lived into.  Backed into.  We coax out one fuzzy image after another until something pops…and runs clear.


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The other day I received, in the mail, in a real envelope with a real stamp and all, a card from my Toyota dealer, reminding me that my Prius needed to be serviced.

Here’s what it said:

I was irrationally tickled by this poem, but it’s fairly clear that the folks at Toyota did not hire a writer to compose it.  So, here’s what I imagine happened:  Some Toyota executive is sitting at her desk one Friday afternoon, staring at a spreadsheet. Oh no. Another recall.  Water pump problems. When will it end?  (Existentialist doubt peeks around the corner.)  How did I end up here?  What does life mean? What happened to my youthful passion to be  . . . A POET!  The executive, mindful of the proper tools of poetry, pushes aside her screen and finds a piece of paper and a pencil.  I can just imagine the pleasure she felt when she found a rhyme for Toyota, the delight of “stop on by” which not only makes the rhythm work but has a lovely banjo-ey, folksy feel.  What I imagine is that this executive got a kick out of composing this poem, pleasure that transferred itself to me, the reader.

When you are a writer by trade it is easy to forget the pleasure principle.  Think of all the ways, as writers and readers, we get pleasure from the written word.  The note on the fridge, tweets and twitters, the various things we can add on the bottom of a birthday card, the quirky email, the to-do list, the memo, the grocery list (see Milk, Eggs Vodka: Grocery Lists Lost and Found by Bill Keaggy) the letter of complaint even.  This pleasure is different in scope from work on a novel, but not in kind. Don’t forget to have fun.  From this conviction I won’t waver one iota.


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My Book of Life by Angel – by the numbers…

4              date in September it was officially published

 2              toilets I cleaned on September 4

 3              years it took me to write the book

3              hours it takes most people to read it

 3              number of times I gave up on the book when I first began writing it

13           number of rewrites before submitting it – it might have been more, but this seemed like a nice unlucky number

2              agents who turned it down before Brenda Bowen took it

100         number of poems that didn’t make the final cut – at least

4              my children who have read the book – the rest are afraid

12.5        number of my grandchildren who aren’t allowed to read it until they’re 30 years old

0              number of movie options I’ve been offered – dang!

 49           number of women Pickton confessed to murdering – the number that really counts


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I know, I know. I’m coming late to this table, and you’ve probably all already read the October 26 NYT book review of J. K. Rowling’s, THE CASUAL VACANCY. Which novel, I hasten to add, I haven’t read. What I’m anxious to share here is my outrage at the way in which the Times‘ reviewer, Amanda Foreman, chose to minimize the book- i.e. by minimizing writing for children. Here’s what she says about Rowling’s reliance on modifiers and clichés:

 “In her move to adult fiction, Rowling has not been able to shed certain stylistic features that are acceptable or even expected from children’s authors. Juvenile literature often uses physical metaphors to highlight emotional states because in children the two tend to be so closely allied. “The Casual Vacancy” has various characters feeling guilt “clawing” at their “insides,” a “hollowness in the stomach,” fear “fluttering” inside the “belly,” a “queasy” stomach, a “lowering in the pit” of the stomach, a “knot” in the stomach. In adult fiction, it isn’t necessary to load so many actions — or objects — with adverbs and adjectives. Children thrive on heavily signposted plots, on moral exposition masked as dialogue. Adults don’t need or want such direction.”

ACCCKKKK! How long do we writers for children and young adults need to fight the same discrimination and misperceptions about what we do? And about our readers, for heaven’s sake? Children “thrive on heavily signposted plots, on moral exposition masked as dialogue,” do they? And hackneyed metaphors, too, apparently? Geez, Louise!

Ms. Foreman, the daughter of one of our most famous screenwriters, was, if her daddy allowed her books as well as films, a young reader herself once. Does she really remember craving obvious, heavy-handed plots? Or wanting to be morally instructed by such stories? Or did she simply take the path of least resistance here, and try to force a misguided comparison between apples and oranges? Good writing is good writing, hear me roar. No matter whom it’s written for.

Yes, that rhymes. Maybe adults, who thrive on reinforcement, will remember it better that way.

Okay. Now that I’ve calmed down, I’d love to hear what those of you who’ve read THE CASUAL VACANCY thought of it…


Conclusive proof that children’s author, Lisa Yee, couldn’t put Rowling’s new novel down!


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I reread some of my writing from earlier today and found it rather dull.  Time for a break.  Or, more to the point, time to attend to some of the things on my ever-lengthening list, most of which have something to do with the house to which I am as fettered as an indentured servant.  A library sale was coming up and, especially since we’d be moving, an item on the list read: Lug Books From Barn.  Now was the time, I decided.  

Most of the books in the barn are ones I’ve been hauling around with me since college, a few from even earlier.  Most I haven’t opened in years.  But I should have known.  There were a number I didn’t put in a box for the library, but rather carried into the house, a kind of way station where I could further consider their fate.  Among these was Munro Leaf’s Sam and the Superdroop.

Sam and the Superdroop has a green cover with a red picture of a cartoon-like Sam flying on the back of a dragonish creature, the Superdroop.  The binding is practically missing and the book is held together by some very old and peeling masking tape.  Two arrow holes pierce the binding, the result of my having long ago, as a kid no larger than Sam himself, placed a target on my bookshelf and shot arrows into it.  Sam and the Superdroop was somewhere behind the outer rings of the target, an early indication that I would never in the future enter a minor event in the Olympics or join Robin Hood’s Merry Men. 


 The last time I glanced at Sam and the Superdroop:  9-10 years ago.  

My memory of it: a very boring book.  (Why, at age eight, did I love it so?)

Opening it now, I read in the preface:  “Sam was ten years old, in the fifth grade, and just about the middle of the class.  Not too bright and not too dumb — just about like you and me, except for how old he was when this all happened.”

So, here we have it  — the dull middle, the not too bright and the not too dumb.  Just like you and me.

Me?  My writing that morning?  My life?

Does dullness, I now wondered, albeit desperately, ever have its place?  Let’s take, as an example, another book that accompanied me into the house, Moby Dick, a book I once, some years later than my Sam and the Superdroop period, dearly loved.


            POP QUIZ

Is Moby Dick ever boring? 

  1. Always.
  2. Never
  3. Some of the time
  4. All of the above.

 Although D would be the more interesting answer, I’ll go with C.  Yes, some of the time.  But it is those slow, dull passages  — the blubber chapter, for example — which are needed for the whole.  It can’t always be exciting harpooning of whales and cannibals in your bed at the inn and crazy peglegs ranting on the foredeck.  Sometimes we need slowness and calmness.  We need a little downtime from excitement.  We need a rest, a space to recuperate.  In short, we need the blubber.

Books, especially long books, need this.  Our writing needs this.  Our lives need poking around a dusty barn, carrying books into the house and back out again.

At times, writing, both published and forming, is not only blubber but also old apple cores, carrot peelings, dead leaves, and rotten lettuce. In short, compost.  If I let the dull writing sit for long enough, add some other cast off bits, give it a stir now and then, some heat may build up, transformation occur. After all, even blubber can turn to oil and ignite into flame.

Okay.  So writing can be blubber and writing can be old carrot peelings.  But both seem to require time and patience.  And, as I discover trying to sort through the books for the sale, I don’t have a lot of either.

I pick up Sam and the Superdroop once again and open to a random page:

“This [space] ship, good as she is, can’t get very far without plenty of hot air, and it’s tough and vicious going in the Sea of Miracle-Mad Mud we must break through to reach Koolakuk.”

“Yes,” agreed Plutanium, “and don’t forget the Giant Wing Worms will be guarding it with their slimy lives.”

“I had forgotten that,” said Mac O’Roon.

“It’s things like that you must never forget if you want to command a Zoomcruiser yourself some day.  Frankly, Mac. . .  if you could only learn to remember things like that you might not have to stay a lieutenant all your life.” [78-79]

Have truer words ever been uttered?  Maybe that eight year old me did know something.  There is a Sea of Miracle-Mad Mud we need to face sometimes, and then face again.

And maybe chance — or grace or serendipity — is there in the vast expanse of blubber or the stinking pile of compost.  Maybe these aren’t just calming breaks or investments in the future, but invitations to possibility, to the unknown.  Just as opening a random page exposed another option in the world of Sam, perhaps returning to my desk will give chance a chance.





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Cats and Dogs

One of my wonderful colleagues at Vermont College of Fine Arts is a dog lover. I mean a REAL dog lover, and yes, Leda Schubert, we all know I’m talking about you. Some of my other wonderful colleagues are cat lovers….REAL cat lovers. And this week, an amazing thing happened with Leda’s approval and support: The dog lovers among us agreed that the cat lovers probably loved their cats as much as we love our dogs. We decided we had room in our hearts for both bow-wowers and meowers. It was an AHA moment.

Of course, something else happened this week that was amazing: We had a national election.  After the dust settled, much earlier in the evening than anticipated,  President Obama was named the winner. The pundits (ready for a long night of conversation about campaign strategies before the election was called) suddenly had quite a bit of dead air space to fill. I began to hear talk about “working together.” The words “cooperation” and “compromise” came up often.

What a nice thought. Let’s put the phrase “obstructionist Congress” behind us and let’s admit that though we might look on people of the opposite political party with a jaundiced eye, when it comes down to it we all do love our pets, whether cats, dogs, turtles or guppies (of course, there are a few loonies who own and love boa constrictors, metaphorically speaking…I’m not sure I have room in my heart for those.)  Is it possible that some recognition of commonalities will keep us from falling off that fiscal cliff everyone is talking about? Will we finally be able to agree on a few things instead of fighting like…like…oh, just say it… cats and dogs?

Can they get along with their eyes open?

Meanwhile, I have this poem by Eugene Field (1850-1895) on my mind. As with many lessons we learn on the path to responsible behavior as neighbors and citizens, it comes in the form of a poem for children. I might send it to my Congressman (no, I don’t need to, because my Congressman is Jim McDermott and he doesn’t need reminding about how to represent me, he’s been doing it perfectly for the last couple of decades,  and I salute him.)  So – here’s the poem. I share it with you now as a person who writes poetry for children, as a person with an interest in politics and American culture, and as a person who will keep her fingers crossed that the next four years will be better  (in terms of lawmakers working for community and the common good) than the last four.  The poem might indicate I’m pessimistic, but I’m not.  Calico fur and gingham fur has been flying, but we’ll be okay.  I’m feeling hopeful.


The gingham dog and the calico cat
Side by side on the table sat;
‘T was half-past twelve, and (what do you think!)
Nor one nor t’ other had slept a wink!
The old Dutch clock and the Chinese plate
Appeared to know as sure as fate
There was going to be a terrible spat.
(I wasn’t there; I simply state
What was told to me by the Chinese plate!

The gingham dog went “Bow-wow-wow!”
And the calico cat replied “Mee-ow!”
The air was littered, an hour or so,
With bits of gingham and calico,
While the old Dutch clock in the chimney-place
Up with its hands before its face,
For it always dreaded a family row!
(Now mind: I ‘m only telling you
What the old Dutch clock declares is true!

The Chinese plate looked very blue,
And wailed, “Oh, dear! what shall we do!”
But the gingham dog and the calico cat
Wallowed this way and tumbled that,
Employing every tooth and claw
In the awfullest way you ever saw—
And, oh! how the gingham and calico flew!
(Don’t fancy I exaggerate—
I got my news from the Chinese plate!

Next morning, where the two had sat
They found no trace of dog or cat;
And some folks think unto this day
That burglars stole that pair away!
But the truth about the cat and pup
Is this: they ate each other up!
Now what do you really think of that!
(The old Dutch clock it told me so,
And that is how I came to know.

–Eugene Field

The poet. Not a cat or dog in sight.


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The Soul of Wit — Susan Fletcher

Last week, tuned in to A Prairie Home Companion, I heard Garrison Keillor sing a song called “Brevity,” and it struck a chord with me in more ways than one. I wish I could quote it for you—it’s hilarious—but quoting original song lyrics is dodgy. Here’s the link, though, so you can hear it.

Anyway, I was reminded of a couple of things, one of which was the time when, reading  at an event sponsored by an Oregon writing organization, I decided on the fly to read one chapter instead of the two I’d planned. There were about thirty people in attendance, several of whom were seven or eight years old.  At the end of the first chapter, I looked around the room, and every eye was fixed on me. I thought to myself, “It doesn’t get better than this,” and quit.

Honestly, I knew those kids were going to start squirming at any moment, and nobody wanted that. The organizer of the event came up to me afterward, pumped my hand as if I had just won the Nobel Prize, and congratulated me for a great reading, by which he obviously meant: short.

The other thing I thought about while listening to Keillor’s song was…scenes. I think it was Ellen Howard who taught me the trick of reading backward from the end of a scene I’d written to find the true ending. Try cutting the last line of the scene. There, is that better? No? Then try cutting the next-to-last line. Is it better yet? Keep going in this fashion until you come to a line that ends with a satisfying thump. There’s the end of your scene.

So often, in those days, my scenes dribbled on and on after the true ending, robbing the scenes of impact and boring everybody. I suppose there are more rational guidelines you could use to determine the proper ending of a scene—when does the tension drop off, for instance. But over the years, my ear has become attuned to a good scene-ending line. Even if I think I have plenty more to say, when I write one of those lines I realize I’m on the verge of overstaying my welcome and it’s time to say goodbye.



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