Monthly Archives: September 2013

Nothing Much, Part 2

Once again I seem to have nothing much to say, so I’ll share from my journal of collected quotations.  This month’s theme:

Stamina and Faith

“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” –Winston Churchill

“Above all I suffered from a naïve view that writing should be easy.  I thought words were supposed to come unbidden. The idea that errors were steppingstones to truth never once occurred to me, because I’d absorbed the echoes of the Times, that errors were nasty little things to be avoided, and misapplied that ethos to the novel I was attempting. When I wrote something wrong I always took it to mean that something was wrong with me, and when something was wrong with me I lost my nerve, my focus, and my will.” — J. R. Moehringer

“The first draft of anything is shit.” –Ernest Hemingway

“Try looking at your mind as a wayward puppy that you are trying to paper train. You don’t drop-kick a puppy into the neighbor’s yard every time it piddles on the floor. You just keep bringing it back to the newspaper.” ―Anne Lamott

“Fall seven times, stand up eight.” –Japanese proverb

Writers, like teeth, are divided into incisors and grinders. –Walter Bagehot 

“I’m a bit of a grinder. Novels are very long, and long novels are very, very long. It’s just a hell of a lot of man-hours. I tend to just go in there, and if it comes, it comes. A morning when I write not a single word doesn’t worry me too much. If I come up against a brick wall, I’ll just go and play snooker or something or sleep on it, and my subconscious will fix it for me. Usually, it’s a journey without maps but a journey with a destination, so I know how it’s going to begin and I know how it’s going to end, but I don’t know how I’m going to get from one to the other. That, really, is the struggle of the novel. –Martin Amis

“To endure is the great verb—not to succeed.”–Brian Doyle

“Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy, then an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant and, in the last state, just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public.” –Winston Churchill

“Genius is eternal patience.” –Michelangelo

“I heard a preacher say recently that hope is a revolutionary patience; let me add that so is being a writer. Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.” ―Anne Lamott

“Faith is a bird that feels dawn breaking and sings while it is still dark.”  Rabindranath Tagore


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S.W.E.P.T.: Making a Clean Sweep or Time Management for Dummies (like me*)

*Note:  If you are a well-organized, well-rounded, balanced, and productive writer, no need to read any further. This won’t be for you.

Woman with a Broom--Vincent van Gogh

Woman with a Broom–Vincent van Gogh

I grew up in a family where once we started a project, we stuck to it to the bitter end. My dad spent many entire weekends overhauling our cars’ engines. My mom could make a dress in a day, even if it took her past midnight and into the wee hours of the next. My sister and I always had chores to perform and we had to get them done on the day they were assigned. I have always thought that was how a person got things done; you got up, got started, and kept on till you finished. Even our scout’s honor code included:  “Remember to finish what you begin.”

I understood why such a caution was important because, as I learned once I grew up and set about starting my own projects, if I didn’t persist to a rapid finish, I would clutter my sewing and art cabinets with unfinished projects, projects that lacked their original luster once I had set them aside for a considerable time. This happened with my writing, too. Many of those at first exciting projects were never finished. I learned through those failures, that I needed to work fast before time grew short and my enthusiasm faltered. That meant staying up way too late reading the library book due the next day, even though I didn’t like it. That meant allowing my daughters to stay up way too late to finish that overly detailed poster for school the next day. That meant being a tired-out family way too much of the time.

Time management for me back when I was raising my daughters was constrained by the hours of school or extracurricular lessons and activities. I had to fit everything that needed doing into the few and small time slots available over the course of a busy family’s week, which was not the way I naturally worked. Most of the time, things didn’t fit smoothly and, yet again, I stumbled to bed in the wee hours only to have to wake up early to get everyone ready and out the door.

Then came the time when my daughters were grown and I was divorced and living alone. I could do anything any time I wanted. I could paint the basement all night long or read all day or write for hours and produce pages and pages of material, exhausting myself with the continual drive to ‘finish’. Or I could sleep late and sit around gazing out my windows at the Vermont mountains for hours. There was no such thing as a set schedule or overall plan. I let my enthusiasms and my exhaustions lead the way. I got quite a bit done, but I also amassed a few unfinished projects, and never felt the kind of balance I longed for and thought I’d find once my schedule was up to me and no one else.

Enter the next phase of life:  A new marriage to a retired husband. Jerry, a former librarian, retired early and had been retired for a few years when we met. By then he had established his routines to fit his own daily rhythms. He told me early on that he liked to read in the mornings and listen to music in the late afternoon—those were not negotiable activities. That sounded fine to me, so we began our life together, Jerry with his slow mornings, me with the learned need to get going on whatever project with which I’d become enamored or shamed into doing, whether it was cleaning the bathrooms, painting a piece of furniture, or starting a new book.

While I continued my usual fits and starts kind of progress, I noticed that Jerry was getting lots and lots done in a day. He might read nearly all morning, but afternoon found him doing little chores, just a bit of something here, something there. I noticed this most when a huge load of firewood seemed to get split and stacked with only a half-hour here or an hour there. I would have worked at it all day, day after day, till completion and I’d be a wreck, sore muscles and nicked fingers. I would have hated it, and I would have hated that it took me away from other things I wanted to do. Jerry relished getting outside every day and watching the stack move from a jumble on one side of the wood area to a fine tall stack ready to burn on the other. He might take a long walk or bike ride that same day, do some repairs or paint a section of the house, then come in, listen to music, and enjoy an evening knowing he’d accomplished a lot. Still having things I needed to do, I often felt frustrated with my day.

That’s when I decided to make a clean sweep of it and change my low-down ways. I’d copy his process and make myself move from one task to another throughout the day and not get so narrowly and intensely focused, which too often resulted in tiredness, boredom, feelings of self-pity, futility and frustration. I analyzed what I needed to do to make my life what I wanted it to be, balanced and productive—and satisfying. Then I came up with this anagram: S.W.E.P.T. for all those things I wanted to do in a day, but usually got derailed from by another activity. I wanted to get more physically fit, get more work done, and manage my household tasks and projects. Here’s my new daily regimen:

S=Stretches—I loved yoga and ballet classes when I was younger, especially the stretches, so I have incorporated a short time for waking my body up with stretches into my mornings.

W=Work—This makes up the largest portion of my days. I include reading, writing, and VCFA work in this, with emphasis on my reading and writing time when we aren’t in packet week, and my advisees’ when we are. I tend to do my reading and commenting on student work in the morning and do my own writing in the afternoon. I have finally stopped trying to make myself a morning writer when it obviously isn’t in my circadian rhythm to be one. I’ve also found I get more writing done when I’m not focused on getting a lot of writing done. I’ll never forget hearing Kate DiCamillo in a visit to VCFA say that she limits herself to two pages a day, but keeps up that steady pace as she forges ahead daily on a new manuscript. I can’t make myself stop after two pages, but I don’t attempt to wring the most words I am capable of out of a days’ worth of writing. I like the way that placing some limits on each day’s production, makes me more ready to sit down the next because I know where I’ll start and am eager to get it down on the page.

E=Exercise—Biking, walking, hiking, canoeing, skiing, dancing. Exercise will slip out of my daily schedule unless I’m very disciplined, but the more regular I am with exercise, the more I miss it when I don’t ‘get around to it’. I’ve learned I need to prioritize it in the day or I allow time to slip away.

P=Projects—These are long-range tasks that I’m learning to break into smaller chunks to accomplish. For example, I spent a couple of months last winter organizing old photographs and filling new photo albums, something that I’d delayed doing because I thought I’d have to do it all in one huge energetic burst. I found out that what I really needed was time to enjoy or grieve as I remembered the precious events and people in my past.

T=Tasks—These are short term and usually recurring jobs, like cleaning the bathrooms or grocery shopping, and tend to take over too many of my days. Rather than exhausting myself by cleaning all day until everything is clean all at the same time, I’ve found that breaking down the tasks to only a couple a day makes the whole thing not so daunting.

I’ve reread what I’ve written above and it sounds so ordinary, not life changing at all, but these changes have made a huge difference in what I’ve been able to accomplish in the last year. However, the most important part for me has been the satisfaction that being a more balanced person gives me. I’m a writer, but not only that; I’m a teacher, wife, mother, friend, and many more things. I am not satisfied with being only one thing in my life; I want to explore and grow and not feel I’m robbing one important part of myself to fulfill another.

I don’t always get every one of these things done every single day. There are still times when one area overtakes another and I’ve given myself that flexibility. For example, I still have a hard time getting myself to exercise daily, but sometimes we take half a day for a hike or a canoe trip. I figure it balances out over time, and that’s what I’m looking for—balance.

Have you S.W.E.P.T. today?

H. Armstrong Roberts (Getty Images)


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Wishing you an ARRR-some Talk Like a Pirate Day!

Talk Like a Pirate Day has now surpassed April Fool’s Day as one of my family’s favorite holidays. Like contemporary Lords of Misrule, the founders of TLPD, Cap’n Slappy and Ol’ Chumbucket, invite us to glory, for 24 hours, in playfulness, trickery, and tomfoolery. What does this have to do with writing, you may ask? Maybe nothing. Maybe everything. Every time we sit down in front of our computers or that blank piece of paper, it seems as if we are engaging in very deep play, fooling around with sound, tricking words into becoming whole new worlds.

So, today you might celebrate the rascal that informs your writer’s soul. Don an eye patch or black out a tooth or two as you work (or take a break, climb into your piratical duds, and head to Krispy Kreme for a free doughnut).

To get you started, the Talk Like a Pirate Day website includes

1. favorite pirate words.

2. an English-to-Pirate online translator (perfect for the annual Christmas letter).

3. history of this illustrious holiday.

4. links to all things piratical.

Here’s a brief video tutorial on saying Arrr from the pirates of the movie “Black Sails.”


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Some Blackbird’s Wing

Feeding off of Leda’s post, lately I’ve also been thinking a lot about landscape and the various ways that it situates itself in our lives, and thus in our stories.  Almost all of my work has been set in the lands in which I either grew up or in which spent a considerable bit of time.

But at the moment, I’m working on a story that takes place far away from my hot, humid coastal plains, in a wintry, blizzardy sort of rocky land cut through by a swift and freezing river, and it’s gotten me just a bit rattled.  What do I know about ice and snow?  It’s not that I haven’t experienced it; rather, it’s that I don’t really know it at a visceral level, the kind of knowing that comes from winter after long winter of persistent cold.

What I’ve discovered is that the writing has made me homesick, and I find myself craving my natural habitat even though I’ve never left.

Does this even make sense?  Maybe?  I doubt it.

Anyways, one person who brings me back home every time is singer/songwriter Nanci Griffith.  Whenever I’m yearning for my beautiful Gulf Coast, I listen to her song, “Gulf Coast Highway,” and I’m there again, right there.

So, I’m sharing her with you, and at the same time sharing this bit of space on earth that I love so well.  Enjoy!


by | September 13, 2013 · 1:00 am



The first spectacular fall day takes me right back to my first fall in New England. I had run away from home, as it were, to college, outside of Boston. Until I was 15, the end of summer meant grief and loss to me: I left my true home, summer camp, and was forced to return to school, which I hated. I cried for days after camp. I was an outsider everywhere but there.

Then, at 17, I drove north. North. I am still here. Camp had been in New England, so I already knew where I had to go to college, but the glory of fall lived only in my imagination. (Leda, stop now and take a deep breath. Do not begin a rant about climate change and what is happening to fall and to everything else. Deep breath, I say.)

Fall in Vermont: buying peaches becomes picking apples and freezing applesauce. Planting the garden becomes clearing the garden. Stacking wood becomes burning wood.  And wrapping up all the endless outdoor chores means more time for reading. Reading books. In paper. Real books. Books in piles in the living room, the bedroom, the basement, the bathroom. Books by VCFA folks, in particular.


Clever segue: there was a time, my children, when I took it upon myself to more or less keep track of books published by the faculty, alumni, and students of our exceptionally wonderful VCFA/MFA/WC. I even sent emails of the congratulatory sort, many of which I titled “World Domination.” It wasn’t an impossible task. There were only about 10-15 faculty at the time (this is ancient history), 60-75 students, and most of us were too busy teaching and learning to have more than a book or two a year published (am I funny, or what?). I knew the names of almost all of the graduates because I’d started hanging out at VCFA way back in another century. Plus, I was still reading review journals—all of them—and I kept my eyes open. Blogs were few and far between, and no one had ever heard of Facebook.  

Ah, it was a lovely time. A simpler time. I loved sending out those little cheery notes.

Writing for publication is an odd thing, isn’t it? I don’t think there are many of us who write novels just for ourselves–or for fun (hold your laughter). We tend to want readers, and not only the readers we know. We have, in fact, probably dreamed of holding our first published book for a very long time, if not forever. Didn’t you imagine how it would feel to open your book for the first time, smell the paper, look under the dust jacket, check the binding, memorize the ISBN, call your friends, maybe throw a party? Didn’t you imagine the first time you would see your book on a shelf in a bookstore? A library? Did you—oh, did you—imagine a child (red-haired, pigtails, maybe? A sort of Anne Shirley child?) approaching you with your book held to her chest and a secret sort of smile, the child who might whisper to you, “I loved your book”?


I think I’m not making this up.

As the semesters piled upon each other, however, I noticed I was falling dreadfully far behind. VCFA books were being published right and left! Reviews appeared everywhere!  Milky Way numbers of stars glistened hither and yon! People were winning awards practically every second! There were two-book deals, three-book deals, six-figure deals: World Domination indeed! (I have used up my 2013 quota for exclamation marks now.)

The task has become overwhelming, and I have apples to pick, wood to burn, books to read. But this is not about me. The point is this, I think: each and every book is cause for celebration. Each and every book means that people can still read, can still find, purchase, or borrow books, and might even be eager to discuss their response with others. Each and every book means that someone’s dream is out there for others to discover.

Some of us, however, are still struggling, still hoping. It is you I celebrate as well. Either someone will publish your hard work, you’ll publish it yourself, or, maybe, you’ll stop writing. People, you can have a full and rewarding life without that particular dream fulfilled. Your friends and family will still love you, you will still love them, and there will be perfect fall days when the earth is so beautiful you can hardly bear it.

 I have come full circle. Happy fall, happy writing, happy reading, and congratulations to all of you.


by | September 8, 2013 · 3:06 pm

Beyond Craft: Reaching for Texts That Do Not Segregate


Consider becoming a CBC Diversity Partner

Most often, when we talk about writing, it’s about craft. Tools. Techniques. Elements of fiction. For me, those things are inseparable from historical or psychosocial aspects of our field, e.g., the legacy of colonialism and how it lingers in children’s books, or the persistent representation (or non-representation) of characters of color. Just two examples but do they not, even now in the 21st century, still hold the power to stir conversations  to boiling point? And then there are the statistics.

Since last year, the Diversity 101 Posts on the CBC Diversity blog have offered us a refreshing forum for a thoughtful conversation on a variety of related subjects .  Quick peek:

None of us will ever have all the answers here. We all always need to remember that each character, author, and book is individual, and that each deserves our careful reading and consideration. But we hope this “Diversity 101” series will further the conversation with a little more information, and help all of us to write and publish the truest and best books.

And this from our own VCFA graduate Lyn Miller-Lachmann. Excerpt:

Even when the stereotypes are more benign, they serve to set people apart. Because emotional and developmental disabilities are usually invisible, it is tempting to exaggerate behavioral differences so that readers know a character has a disability.

The Sidekick Syndrome from Andrea Davis Pinkney.

It’s a common cliché, and it’s very subtle. In our ever-increasing commitment to include diverse characters in novels, we’ve also, at the same time, increased a stereotype ― that black kids (when they’re among an “ensemble cast”) don’t have much going on and aren’t worthy of the spotlight.
My own forthcoming CBC Diversity 101 post will be about interweaving “foreign” languages into English texts. Why does that matter? What are the alternatives to authorial translation? Oddly, that two-part post led me back to craft, to the details of words on the page in texts I loved as a child. But more, it led me to the truths about worldview that lie beneath a powerful, consistent, accurate voice. Accurate for a place and time and people, but more, accurate for a particular story. Good writing may equal craft but there’s something larger at work here. I think that something is an awareness of the moving, shifting forces that lie beneath craft choices.
In the end understanding our own sensitivities and biases can help us to create texts that do not segregate, texts that can instead reach the whole, rich, rainbow array of young readers for whom we write.


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It’s That Time of Year

It’s Labor Day here in the U.S., so you know what that means — a day off!!!

Actually, I don’t think writers ever really get a day off. Sure, we can spend the day at the beach or at a picnic, but our writer brains are always at work. We’re always observing people, listening to conversations, reading, experiencing something new, and getting inspiration from the people and things around us.

But Labor Day means something more than just a holiday for me. Labor Day still signals my brain that summer is over and it’s back-to-school time. Here in New York City, school starts next week, so Labor Day is that time of year to stock up on school supplies. (Yes, I miss those days!)

So, just to get myself in the mood, I decided to refresh my supplies by buying (or eyeing) some new things. Here is my Back-to-School list:

1.  Whitelines Notebook

I had just finished my old notebook, a Rhodia Webnotebook, so I picked up this cute A5 black Whitelines notebook. Whitelines is my favorite brand of notebooks; the paper is wonderful, especially for fountain pen users. And these notebooks are oh so purdy!


2.  TWSBI Diamond 580 Fountain Pen

I haven’t actually bought this yet; I promised it to myself after I finished my current WIP. But since my deadline is in ONE WEEK (gah!), I’ll have my hands on this beautiful fountain pen in no time. Can’t wait!!!


3.  Laptop Stand

I’ve been having some pain and stiffness in my neck lately, probably from writing hunched over my laptop for hours at a time. So I invested in the Aidata Laptop Stand, which raises the screen up to eye level. This one wasn’t too expensive, and it supports my extremely huge, heavy 15″ MacBookPro with no problem. It’s also collapsible. I highly recommend it if you get pain in your neck or upper back when you write. (You’ll need an external keyboard to use it though.)


4.  Editorial for iPad

I need a new text editor like, well, like I need another notebook and fountain pen! But since I do more and more writing in coffee shops on my iPad (with an external keyboard), I convinced myself I really needed a new writing app. And this one is fantastic, especially if you’re a fellow geek! Will it help me write better or faster? Absolutely not. But, hey, sometimes you have to treat yourself. I mean, c’mon, it’s a holiday!


Well, that’s it for me. I can’t break the bank on “school” supplies when I’m not even in school, now can I?

So, tell me, what’s on your Back-to-School shopping list this year?



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