Author Archives: elizpartridge

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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The God of Storytelling and Rita’s Newbery Dress — Elizabeth Partridge

Years ago my editor handed me a book she thought I’d enjoy: Like Sisters on the Homefront by Rita Williams-Garcia. I loved it, and I’ve kept an eye out for each of her books since then.

Rita hates to fly. She’s not the least bit ambivalent about it: flying is not for her. But when she was invited out to Oakland to speak about her latest book, One Crazy Summer, she felt she owed us a visit. After all, One Crazy Summer, set in Oakland at the time of the Black Panthers, had won Newbery and National Book honors, among other awards, and brought Rita all kinds of crazy good things.

So I hopped down to Marcus Bookstore to see her read. It was a thrill. Besides being a great writer, Rita is a fantastic storyteller and she had all of us spellbound. Teaching with Rita at Vermont College, I know she is a pretty shy person. But you never would have guessed as she read, and talked about the writing.

Two favorite tidbits for me: She ran into a problem with a real life event she decided to put in her book at a different time than actually happened. She puzzled out how to explain her choice to us, then said, “You have to obey the God of Storytelling before Father Time.” I LOVE this! It’s also, for me, the difference between fiction and nonfiction: when I write nonfiction I obey Father Time scrupulously, and pray that the God of Storytelling will work with me.

After the reading Rita said to me, “This is my Newbery dress,” indicating the brown knit dress she was wearing. I remembered that dress back when it was huge balls of yarn in her lap, being knit into a dress as the faculty sat in the back of the room listening to lectures. The soft click-click-click of her knitting needles. “I got a call I’d had won the Newbery Honor,” Rita said. “And that I wasn’t to tell anyone until the winners were announced the next morning.”

We were in our winter residency. Rita had to keep her great big secret surrounded by writers. So she gathered up her knitting, and brought it with her everywhere, keeping her eyes on her fingers and her lips sealed.

Elizabeth Partridge


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Advice from a photographer on getting lost

Craft books are full of advice on how to do it. Writers try all kinds of new ways to do it. Hemmingway was infamous for getting drunk to do it, reportedly saying, “Write drunk, edit sober.”

Most of us struggle with it. How to find your way inside what you are writing, rather than standing outside of it. And oh, the joy of that translucent space when you find yourself, one foot in the real world, one foot in your imaginary or researched world.

I just came across this great quote by Dorothea Lange, who made the well-known Migrant Mother photo which became the icon of the Great Depression. “I’m trying to get lost again,” she said, speaking to an interviewer about taking her camera out into the field.

I didn’t know photographers needed to get lost inside their work like we do. But that’s exactly how Dorothea Lange took Migrant Mother. She was at the end of a month-long trip photographing in California. She saw a small, handmade sign: Pea Picker’s Camp. She drove past. But she’d photographed the pea picker’s camps the year before. She knew the destitution, the difficult conditions. Miles later she swung around, drove back to the camp, took six shots of Florence Thompson and her children, then packed up her camera and headed home again.


I especially like this image. The photo is on the original gray cardboard it was pasted onto decades ago at the Library of Congress.

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Neil Young and Inspiration

I am always fascinated by what triggers a creative bout for any kind of artist, and this really caught my eye:

John Mutter at Shelf Awareness had an article today about Patti Smith’s interview with Neil Young at BEA. They talked about music, writing, and creativity.

“Smith asked about the inspiration for Young’s classic “Ohio,” and he told a story about being with David Crosby and two of the Crosby, Nash, Stills and Young crew at a peaceful cabin in the redwoods, smoking weed, when someone threw down on a table a copy of Time or Newsweek whose cover was the famous picture of a woman grieving over the body of one of the students killed at Kent State. ‘It’s an unbelievable picture,’ he said. ‘It still gives me the chills.” In reaction, ‘I picked up my guitar, and it took about a minute to write the song.'”   …

“If you want to write a song, go ask a guitar,” Young said. “Pick up someone else’s guitar and the next day a song will come.” He added that “music lives in guitars, sounds live in them,” and compared old guitars with old cars. “When you sit in an old car, you can feel all that happened in it right there. It’s why I like to go to junkyards.”

I just love the image that inside of a resonate guitar is a song just waiting to be formed.

We don’t have guitars, at least that’s not our principle work tool. We have pads of paper, and computers. We can take long walks or hot showers or sit in old junky cars. But while brilliant songwriters like Neil Young can pull off a song in about a minute, we have to stick with it a lot longer, inhabiting both the real world and the world we are imagining.

Susan Campbell Bartoletti just reminded me of a great way to stay in our imaginary worlds: the plain one dollar notebook. When she finishes writing for the day, Sue jots down what she is going to be writing the next day: what scene, what emotional reaction, what little gem she wants to make sure she doesn’t forget.

Here she is, presenting me with my very own notebook. And yeah, I know it’s a kinda dorky,  set-up shot. But besides the notebook, see a little bit of that serene, empty room around us? That’s Sue’s snuggery, a little building her husband constructed for her in the back yard where she goes to do her writing. Just big enough for a couch, a desk, and a book shelf. Even better than a junky car for sitting and getting inspiration.



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Creativity and Feeling Squeezed Empty


Sometimes it happens. No new ideas. You just feel flattened…. squeezed empty. No excitement around sitting down at your desk and seeing what’s waiting to pour out of your fingertips.

We’ve all felt that way. And will feel that way again. It’s hard to know when to try to create the space that will let the ideas flow. When to do the writer’s work that requires a different part of the brain. The rewriting. The PR. The Everything Else.

There is a fascinating new book out, Imagine: How Creativity Works by Johan Lehrer. He covers a lot of territory, including what conditions may help increase creativity. One aspect of the book that really fascinated me was the link between depression and creativity. “People who are successful creators — especially writers — ” said Lehrer in an interview on NPR, “are anywhere between 8 and 40 times more likely to suffer from bipolar depression than the general public.”

Wow. I’ve always known that creative people had brains wired differently — after all, I grew up in a family of photographers who mixed with painters, furniture makers, musicians, and an array of San Francisco bohemians. They were different. More exciting. More likely to be enthusiastic one day, down in the dumps another. But us writers… 8 to 40 times?

Could it be that when we feel flattened out, we just need to wait for our brains to cycle back to some mysterious sort of manic state? That it mostly depends on catching the rhythm of creativity that we are hard-wired for?

Here’s the NPR interview with Jonathan Lehrer.


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Tough Love from an Old Poet

My friend Andrea Nachtigall recently took me to see Mary Oliver at City Arts and Lectures in SF. There was a wonderful anticipatory hush before the poet came on stage, as if we were going to hear a really wonderful orchestra. Magic was hanging in the air, just waiting to be evoked. Mary Oliver read her poems, interspersed with talking to us about writing. Some of it was her way of writing, some of it was advice, some admonition. She had the whole auditorium completely mesmerized. I thought I’d share a few of her words of wisdom. Here are a few quotes and paraphrases:

·     *   I am very disciplined about working. You don’t accomplish anything without discipline. I write every day. It is an invitational.

 T    * The creative part of your mind is always there. You’ve got to keep a schedule. If you say to it “let’s meet at seven a.m.,” it will be there. You will struggle less.

·       * I go to the woods. They are my primary sources.

·      * I always carry a notebook. One needs to capture an idea as soon as it occurs.

·       * Silence is the door into the temple. If you ever go into the woods with me, I must love you very much.  (Adored this one. I only go into the woods with people I dearly love as well.)

And here, a poem by Mary Oliver.

Sleeping in the Forest

I thought the earth remembered me,

she took me back so tenderly,

arranging her dark skirts, her pockets

full of lichens and seeds.

I slept as never before, a stone on the river bed,

nothing between me and the white fire of the stars

but my thoughts, and they floated light as moths

among the branches of the perfect trees.

All night I heard the small kingdoms

breathing around me, the insects,

and the birds who do their work in the darkness.

All night I rose and fell, as if in water,

grappling with a luminous doom. By morning

I had vanished at least a dozen times

into something better.

 © Mary Oliver


May your pockets always be full of lichens and seeds and, of course, a notebook.


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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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