Monthly Archives: January 2013

getting old

I turn 60 this year, and I have decided to give myself the year-long birthday present of saying whatever I think.

Many things about being old are less than pleasant. I have certain aches and pains in my joints, and after a long plane ride I have to unfold myself like a stiff, squeaky card table. I am somewhat fatter than I used to be, which injures my vanity. My face is wrinkly in spots. At times I have the sense that my stamina for work is ebbing somewhat.

But you know the biggest thing that bugs me about getting old? When I hear this phrase on TV and elsewhere: “Old age is a state of mind.” As if, by getting old, you are weak-minded in some way. Please. Getting old is something that happens to you, not an indication of a lack of will.

I’ve also heard, “You have to get older, but you don’t have to get old.” I’m sorry, but yes you do. Unless you die, that is. If you die you don’t have to get old.

And another thing. Occasionally I have been required to remind people for various reasons that I am getting old.They will often reply, “Oh, now, don’t say that!” But why not say that? I’m not criticizing myself. I’m not sad about it. I’m just making an observation, or warning people of certain attendant limitations. Getting old could be interesting if people would stop making it sound like it’s a failure on my part, or something that shouldn’t be discussed in polite company.

In fact, I find many things to love about getting old. It took me all these years to stop caring what people think about me, but I finally very much have. It is wondrously freeing. I have learned how strangely similar we all are – knowing this means I am never lonely in the world. I love having an old husband. He has mellowed and is more nurturing and less posturing, possibly because his testosterone levels have lowered. Testosterone may be responsible for much of the suffering in the world. I must acknowledge that estrogen caused much of my suffering in my younger years. How lovely never to have PMS or all of the hormonal havoc of the childbearing years, especially since my childbearing years were somewhat excessive. Now I am always in my right mind. Furthermore, I have learned that it is more gratifying to have earned respect for your work than to be admired for one’s taut skin.

Okay, occasionally I have the distressing realization that life has silenced me in some way, that I don’t have as much to say anymore because I am humbled by all I realize I will never know, by all the suffering in the world I will never ease, by the injustice I will never correct. But hey, that’s why God invented young people, right?

I recommend getting old. To be sixty years old is nothing short of a miracle, as far as I’m concerned. When I tell people I’m sixty this year, I expect them to say, How fortunate you are! I do not need them to pretend that age is a state of mind. It is a state of blessedness.

And what does all this have to do with writing? Why, not a thing.

Happy birthday to me!


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As a teacher of writing, I often find myself learning from my students. These lessons aren’t usually about craft or technique, since most of the time I’ve got years (or decades) on them in terms of experience. But that very experience can be a disadvantage when it comes to keeping the impetus for writing alive, the passion and flame that brought me to storytelling in the first place. 

In the past month, I’ve traveled to Costa Rica and New Zealand, and it’s from down under that I’m writing you about a creativity workshop my three sisters and I held last week in a town about an hour north of Wellington. Raised by juicy, creatively alive parents, my sibs and I have each ended up making our living in a different field of art, so our collaborative workshops always involve painting (Helen), music (Suzy), film animation (Janie), and writing (Louise). Just a few days ago, at the most recent Four Sisters Workshop, a young woman helped me remember what trumps structure, plot, and language. Like the others in this course, she had no professional background in writing, painting, music or film. Like the others, she chose an object to bring with her, a totem that acted as a spiritual and artistic fulcrum for each session. What she chose, a small chunk of volcanic obsidian, changed us all.


The final session in our workshop is often a free write, a letter written to each participant from their object. It’s a right-brain, erasure and thought-free expression of why and how the object is with us, why it chose to take this creative journey. In the free write that this young woman shared with us, the small jet-black chunk of stone she’d chosen (without knowing why), wrote her about explosions and fear, about destruction and chaos. It explained that while darkness and pain are usually confusing and frightening, they can also lead to renewal and growth, like the brand new flora that populate volcanoes years after an eruption, or the beautiful shattered face of the obsidian itself. 

I will not quote from the actual free write here, since workshop is a sacred space that needs to be protected, and a blog is the last place something one of us channels from our emotional core, needs to end up. But I have obtained the writer’s permission to share with you here the phrase, the exhortation that her totem, the small dark stone thrown off hundreds of years ago by an eruption, kept repeating. “Where is your volcano?” it asked. It urged the writer (and the rest of us) not to go where it’s safe, but to go where things are bubbling under the surface, where the footing is dangerous, where we are uncomfortable and unsure. It told the writer that the lifestyle and career choices before her could all be decided by asking herself, “Where is your volcano?” 

Not a bad way to make writing choices, too, I think. At least for me, from now on, a great many decisions, from the initial undertaking of a book-length project, to the selection of view point, to the determination of scene content and even word choice, will depend on the answer to a single question: “Where is my volcano?”


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Be the Radiance


“We all crave radiance in this austere world.” —Elizabeth Alexander

At the January 2011 VCFA residency I prefaced my lecture on teaching writing with this:

“Last Sunday morning as I was preparing to leave my cozy, warm house and enter a snowy world to drive to Vermont College for our all day faculty meeting, I heard an interview on NPR with Elizabeth Alexander whose new book, CRAVE RADIANCE, contains a poem with these lines: “We all crave radiance in this austere world.” While I don’t habitually consider the world I live in all that austere, I was feeling its bleakness that morning after hearing news the day before of the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords along with eighteen other people, another sad, senseless, violent act perpetrated by a person whose lack of radiance in life sought to steal another’s. Elizabeth Alexander’s poem caught fire inside my imagination in that moment and I realized that I live as I do, as a writer and teacher of writing, because I crave radiance, and that you are here studying writing because you, too, crave radiance. We are meant to be radiant beings and to share that response to life with others, teaching and learning, reading and writing, bringing stories of radiance into our world—sometimes joyful or funny stories, sometimes sad ones that reflect the reality of moments of austerity and pain, real stories and fantastic tales, ones that are read by children who also crave radiance.”

Now, as I prepare to attend the January 2013 VCFA residency, I am still feeling the dimming of radiance we all experienced on December 14, 2012 when little children, some in the act of reading our books in hopes our words would bring them comfort, courage, and escape, were shot down in the halls and classrooms of their own school, Sandy Hook Elementary. Between this 2013 residency and that 2011 one, there have been other violent acts, many others, in our world, so many ways to dim the radiance in these children’s lives and in our own lives.

Over the years I’ve assumed we would make progress in curbing gun violence, but I’ve never taken an active part in trying to make that happen. Now, that has to change. I must find a way to do whatever is in my power to make change happen. As a writer whose books these very children might have read, those books, in fact, that were silent witnesses to their last moments, I cannot write another word for children to give them stories if I do not fight for them to live to read them.

When I was a child there was a saying that went something this: “Your freedom extends to the end of my nose.” Can we not say that the freedom of the gun extends only to the beating of my heart? When a fist hits a nose, the bully’s freedom must be curtailed. After all, we always say freedom implies responsibility. Who is responsible for the terror of these children and the grief of these families if not all of us who do not act to stop the next bullet before it hits the next innocent heart? Whether we who write for children and young adults take overt political action or write stories that help change the world and save lives or stories that change lives and save the world, we will do what we can to overcome the world’s austere darkness with radiance.


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Dreams and Paper

by Elizabeth Partridge

In writing a book, there are two major points where I feel like I am standing at the top of a high dive, and I just don’t want to jump off. The first is when it’s time to begin. That doesn’t include any research I need to do. I love being immersed in research. It doesn’t include any dreaming about my characters, places, possible plot twists. It’s the actual pen-to-paper that is hard. Those little squiggly words are such a tough way to catch those dreams and shape them into something that I can excite someone else with.

With slogging, I can get words down. And there are occasional flights, where my feet leave the ground and I lift off. I look up from my desk and I’ve been writing for hours. The words are never good enough, but they’ll do for the moment. Ponder, shape, rewrite. I get closer. And a little closer. But at a certain point I realize I will never make the book be the dream. I’ve hit my second hard point: time to turn in the manuscript, and I don’t want to.

But I do. And when the real book arrives in the mail months later, it is imperfect, and perfectly beautiful.


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