Author Archives: maryquattlebaum


Remember childhood lessons on cursive writing?  Remember learning to create the big loopy tail for the lowercase “y” and where, exactly, to dot the “i” and “j”?  Are you a writer who drafts or revises by hand?  Or do you go straight to the keyboard?

Process is fascinating!  What goes on in the brain and body when we write by hand versus on the keyboard?  Do we access ideas/memories/sensations differently?  An article in the New York Times in June 2014 took a look at research into the writing of kids and adults.  One study found that when kids “composed text by hand, they not only consistently produced more words more quickly than they did on a keyboard, but expressed more ideas.”

One researcher reflected on the connection between mind and the movement involved in shaping letters:   “With handwriting, the very act of putting it down forces you to focus on what’s important.”

There’s a certain liveliness to handwriting, too, a spirit that inhabits the letter shapes.  It bristles or floats or wavers or spikes–often a reflection of the writer’s personality or mood.  One of my husband’s great joys is calligraphy.  He often creates whole pages of specific letters or words, delighting in the swivel of the “Z,” the plumpness of the “Q,” the cradle of white space in the “V.”

In the past few years, I’ve been saving a few Christmas cards with handwritten notes from older family members and friends.  In this age of the constant, static selfie, these notes seem not fixed but infused with breath, flowing across the page.  A form of embodiment, perhaps.

How about you?  Before you toss the holiday cards, might you look closely at and appreciate the idiosyncratic handwritten notes and signatures? What do you notice?  Might you try handwriting a few paragraphs of your new creative project?   And as you do so, you might slow down and take pleasure in shaping the letters, letting them build into sounds in your inner ear and sentences that sway or sweep across the page.




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Of Slow Shifts and School Supplies

Leda spoke eloquently of transitions in her recent post and I will speak of them crankily, specifically in relation to these final weeks of summer. I love this golden time, with the coneflowers blooming and the cicadas singing their final song. There should be wine coolers on the deck and corn grilling and the relishing of tomatoes ripe from the vine. Kids in bare feet, a few sighs, reminiscences. Instead … Staples sale signs … towers of bright notebooks at Target … the boxes of college stuff in the neighbor boy’s car. Deserted pools. Halloween candy!

Why rush too soon into Keats’s “season of mist and mellow fruitfulness”? Or, for that matter, into masks and candy corn?

Why leap when we might experience (and appreciate) the slow shift from one season to the next? When we might dwell for a while in an ending?

So, what does all this have to do with writing? (Ah, yes, I do need to do more than wring my summer-tan hands.)

Writing deadlines keep us busy. There are to-do lists to attend to, new, shiny projects to embrace. Right now, I am finishing up a creative project that I loved and labored over and learned a lot from. And I don’t want to rush through it. Nope. I want to give the whole thing its final moments, well, of summer, if you will. I want to offer it one last tangy wine cooler, a lingering good-bye, and thanks for being in my head and on my desk for lo these many months.

And now, I’m off to order my daughter’s high school textbooks. She’s taken a page from her mom, I guess, and puts that off till the last moment.

Wishing you a golden close to the summer.


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Just the Right Place

I’ve always admired the Dewey decimal system, and the organization it imposes on libraries large and small. During my years as a volunteer at my daughter’s school library, I never ceased to be amazed at all the tidy little numbers on the book spines that denoted just where those books should go.

But I confess to subscribing to a much more idiosyncratic means of shelving at home. How do you organize your books? In addition to arranging by broad categories (picture books, children’s poetry, poetry for adults, middle-grade novels, favorite books from childhood, picture-book biographies, gardening, etc.), I like to organize by merit, friendship, project, and level of temptation. For example, the picture-book biographies about women precede those about men because, well, women deserve pride of place after having been denied top billing for so long. Poetry books by Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, and May Swenson can be found side by side since they were friends or strong influences on one another. Project books are stuffed into the bottom shelves with related folders, clippings, objects, print-outs, etc. And all novels by Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer must be kept on the top shelf, behind two rows of other books. I must hide them from myself! If I so much as glimpse a cover, I tend to open the book, read just one passage–and then end up not just reading the whole thing but precipitating a reading jag of all the books by that author. Alas, for now, I must put that indulgence aside.

So where do your books go, exactly, and why that particular place? And many thanks to Sarah Ellis and Susan Fletcher for the conversation that jumpstarted this post.


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Giving Tuesday

Tomorrow is Giving Tuesday (which follows a stream of goofily titled days–Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday–designed to get us spending money after Thanksgiving).  I actually like Giving Tuesday, though, as a time to reflect on meaningful ways to give that don’t involve money.

For those of us who write for kids, probably one of the most delightful ways to give is by working directly with young people and their writing.  This might involve a one-time project or an ongoing weekly or monthly commitment.  Many writers approach local schools, after-school programs, and public libraries and offer to teach workshops or organize contests or readings.  I’d love to hear from you and what you might be doing or planning to do.

This past year, I had a wonderful experience through which I received so much more than I gave.  I volunteered as one of the judges for the middle-school contest of the Library of Congress’s annual Letters about Literature program <>  Young people in grades 4-12 submitted letters that they wrote to the author (living or dead) of a book that affected them deeply.  (Youngsters submit first at the state level, and then those winners are automatically considered for prizes at the national level. The link can connect you to volunteer opportunities through your state.)

Book Cover - The Pact

And to hear the winners read their letters at the awards ceremony!  To be in the presence of a new generation of writers and to witness their dedication, skill, and passion for the written word–okay, that was pretty amazing!  Ife Calhoun, the winner of Washington, DC’s middle-school contest, eloquently described how the authors of The Pact helped her to hold fast to her own dreams of medical school.  It’s a book she re-reads, she says, and tries to share with others at her school.

Thank you to Ife and other young people who are already inspiring others through their words and example.

Winner Ife Calhoun and Mary Quattlebaum

Winner Ife Calhoun and Mary Quattlebaum


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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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Crafting Creative Moments During Too-Busy Times

We’ve all experienced those days (weeks, months) when responsibilities and crises and joys and grief dominate our lives and drain our creative energy. During these times, we may not only lack the time to write but also the will or desire. We’re overwhelmed, and writing may feel like just one more thing on the to-do list.

How might you re-charge your creative self? Right now, I’m at summer residency at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Those familiar with the program know how exciting it can be to see old friends and meet new ones while attending to the wealth of lectures, workshops, readings, and meetings that fill the schedule. I asked some fellow faculty members how they refresh their creative selves both during this ultra-busy time and in general.

Rita Williams-Garcia mentioned her rejuvenating “knitting meditation.” Says Rita: “While I knit I let go of forcing solutions. Sometimes the place I am in in my knitting suggests patterns and creative solutions. Knitting sets up my mind to be predisposed to seeing solutions in my creative work.”

Coe Booth, Garrett Freymann-Weyr, Amanda Jenkins, and Betsy Partridge are trying to gather and work on creative projects for an hour several times during residency.   “I put down 800 words today,” says Coe. “They may not be great words, but they still help my story to move forward.”

If she has 15 minutes here or 20 minutes there, Betsy tries to duck into the campus library to research and read for a current project on the Vietnam War Memorial.  “That way I can keep my project in mind and the momentum going till I can find more time for it,” she says.

Bonnie Christesen listens to classical music, especially Brahms, and Tim Wynne-Jones walks early in the morning to a nearby waterfall and listens to music. He protects this quiet time. These moments are important, he says. They are the “opposite of talking.”

Sharon Darrow loves the rushing brook near her home. She likes to take occasional breaks from writing and family responsibilities and walk there and listen during the day. She tries to replicate this experience at residency by visiting the fountain close to College Hall and listening for 3 to 5 minutes.

During ultra-busy times, I find it helpful to be mindful. One of my favorite rejuvenating activities is walking. As I amble, I try to attend to the world around me–the summer gardens, the evening bird song, the shimmer of twilight over the distant hills.  I try to be mindful of this small creative moment I’m crafting for myself and to be alive to  the world rather than simply moving through it.



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Shock Your Teeth!


In her richly detailed One Writer’s Beginnings, Eudora Welty writes of taking train trips with her dad.  As a child, she watched him chart travel time with his large gold pocket watch.  Carefully, she held the “treasure” he would bring out periodically and share: his little metal traveling cup.  She writes of filling it at the water cooler, of raising it to her lips, then  … the clink of the metal tip, a “shock” to her teeth.

A shock to the teeth.  I love that!  So often we privilege our senses of sight and hearing, in writing and life, such that the others go unnoticed, unappreciated.

Here’s a “mouth moment” from a poetry workshop with third graders.  The kids wanted to hear and read aloud certain poems again and again.  They especially liked two lines from Eloise Greenfield’s “Way Down in the Music” (Honey, I Love).

Down in the bass where the beat comes from.

Down in the horn and down in the drum. (p. 16)

The kids giggled, hit certain words hard, whispered others, tapped their desks.

“So, what is it about this poem?”  I asked.  “What makes you want to say it, not just hear it?”

“BeCAUSE”–one little girl practically hopped out of her seat–“I can feel it in my mouth.  I OPEN my mouth and the words … come OUT.”

So, feel that glass of water on your tongue, roll a few phrases round your gums.  Shock your teeth, relish a tasty word.  (I’m off to try this now.  If you want, do let me know what you tried and what words you especially enjoyed.)

~Mary Quattlebaum


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Get Going/Be Still

During these days of bustle and busyness, while cookies bake and friends gather, and as we as a nation mourn the terrible death of the Sandy Hook students and teachers and hug our kids, it can be difficult to find words to express all you may be feeling or to move forward with creative projects.  Here are two approaches:

1.  Get Going.  My friend, the wonderful poet Cynthia Grady, shared this link on how to write while dealing with all the joys and fears, the daily tasks and future needs, of life.  My favorite part is the gentle suggestion to discover something new each day.  I’ve taken to writing down my one daily discovery, and this growing list is a reminder of all the small, large, luminous, amazing, and goofy unknowns that still await.

2.  Be Still.  Give yourself a space and time unfilled with words or movement.  We writers tend to think of the blank page or computer screen as a negative, as something that requires filling rather than as something that already exists, a quiet, a presence.  Musicians learn to sculpt silence with a single note and dancers to change the open air with form and gesture, and I have been trying to learn to better appreciate the “living silence” that exists before and around a word.  What I have discovered:  often for me, it can feel much easier to be busy, more comfortable to crowd that silence too soon with thought and word.

So, below is a small gift of space and time.  Be there as long as you want, visit whenever you’d like, and then scroll down to a message.




Wishing you a bright holiday season and a beautiful start to the new year.

~Mary Quattlebaum





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Of Soup and Tea and Light-tan Beans — Mary Quattlebaum

The season is darkening ever closer to solstice and the dog tucked up, tail over nose, in his bed. The tomato-ish smell of slow-cooked soup lingers in the air. What better time to mull over food and the way our characters (and ourselves!) are revealed through what they eat and how?

Do you have any favorite food scenes from novels? Any particular phrases or sentences that have allowed you to enter the dining experience and the character’s feelings?

Here are two of my favorite literary food moments:

1. In “A Little Princess” by Frances Hodgson Burnett, destitute orphan Sara Crewe is starving in the attic of the boarding school where she once reigned as star pupil.  She “feeds” herself as she drifts to sleep by imagining a “little hot supper” and awakens suddenly in the night to find “savory soup” and toast and muffins and tea “so delicious that it was not necessary to pretend that it was anything but tea.” She and her best friend, the scullery maid, sit in their rickety chairs and feast. (I loved those passages as a kid and read them over and over.)

2. In her memoir “The Gastronomical Me,” MFK Fisher writes of feeling “in flight” for months after her beloved had died from a long illness that deprived him, first of each leg and then of his arms. Unable to settle, unable to rest, she finds herself at a hotel in another country picking through a series of tasteless, “pretentious” meals. One evening, her concerned waiter presents her with a “brown clay bowl and plate.” It is a simple dish, prepared not for the tourists but for the waiters, and MFK Fisher eats the “light-tan beans” with a “big spoon.” She realizes that this dish is the “first thing” she has really tasted since her lover’s death, the first thing that has truly fed her. She thanks the waiter and that night sleeps deeply in her “sea-filled room.”

What telling details! I love the “big spoon” that affirms life for the grief-wracked writer, and the bereft child sharing with her friend a cup of tea so amazingly real that she no longer has to pretend. MFK Fisher writes: “There is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk.” Might the awareness of this power help us to craft more resonant “food moments” for our own characters?

~Mary Quattlebaum


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Your Favorite Book from Childhood

Judy Blume loved Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans.   Andrew Clements adored The Sailor Dog by Margaret Wise Brown (illus. by Garth Williams).  Jon Scieszka was a big fan of Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss.

What’s your favorite picture book from childhood?  What book did you return to, again and again?  And why?

Writers, plumbers, scientists, dog trainers, stargazers, gardeners–I love to hear their replies to those questions.  The answers seem to give such a glimpse into who they were as kids and insight into who they became as adults.  If anything, those questions are great ice breakers.  Everyone has an answer, ranging from an older brother’s Superman comic books to The Little Prince, read aloud exquisitely in French.  As a child, a poet friend could listen only so long to Where the Wild Things Are because she’d get scared–and yet she’d request that book again and again.  One of my sisters, who loved to play mustang as a kid, would pore over Wesley Dennis’s detailed horse pictures in the Billy and Blaze series. 


My favorite was Jane’s Blanket by Arthur Miller, illustrated by Al Parker.  I read this quiet story of a girl outgrowing her beloved baby “bata” over and over.  I remember examining the black-and-white illustrations, with the pink blanket as the only spot of color.  At one point, Jane lays down on the tiny, holey thing:  “Jane had gotten bigger and bigger, but her pink blanket had gotten smaller and smaller.”  And I remember feeling that this whole growing-up thing was mysterious and strange and sad and a little scarey, that it called for leaving and loss; and I remember crying sometimes over that.

And part of the magic of this book was that it was my very own.  In a family with seven kids, practically everything was communal–toys, dolls, the set of children’s encyclopedias.  We went to the library frequently and carted books home in my mother’s laundry basket, but those, of course, had to be returned.  Jane’s Blanket had been a gift (from some unremembered classmate at my birthday party), and I immediately marked it with my name.  Over the years, I protected it from squabbling siblings and carried it with me, into adulthood–a reminder, perhaps, of the mysteries of childhood even in a “bigger and bigger” world.

So, what’s your favorite picture book from childhood–and why?

~Mary Quattlebaum

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