Tuesday, December 30, 2008

90 Degree Turn

I think many of us have this experience: you are about to drop into sleep when an idea comes but you are too comfortable to reach for the pen and paper. So you promise you'll remember the image when you wake. Most of the time that doesn't work. Dream images crowd in and the good idea gets buried under tons of sludge. Last night it sort of worked. I woke to the dog at my side saying it was time to go out, gale-force winds be da--ed. Falling into the usual early routine, I let Duncan out, made the coffee, gave him his morning biscuit and stopped short. Part of the image I had found at the point of sleep popped up like an ad for a free credit report. Not all the things I meant to include in a poem, but enough to get me started. In my journal, I dove in, frustrated that much of what I had planned was invisible, but the bit that remained was enough. I'd write a poem, I thought, about the need to pay attention to the scene in front of us. In my case, that's often mountains, which present a constantly changing view. The mountains stay, but the atmosphere around them varies. Not real news, but good enough. Of course, good enough is another way of saying mediocre, shallow, lazy, scary. Scary?

I think that I often keep to the shallows because I'm afraid to go deep. Then came the turn: from a few lines about the look of the Rockies in winter--a dramatic and amazing thing to a coastal creature like myself--the piece morphed into an apocalyptic warning about not paying attention to what we do to the earth and to ourselves. Whew! This was not what I intended at all, but, you know, it made scary sense and I think it will work. Taking on a huge topic in a poem always makes me pause. Who am I to think I can tell anyone what to think? Well, I don't want to preach or browbeat or thump the bully pulpit, but when I have a fresh image of what we already know,I have to send it into the world. It's cliche, but if one person changes an attitude because she/he read the poem, then I've done my job. And the title for this piece is "An Expert Witness"--someone who swears to tell the truth. What more can I ask for? What else is there?

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Too Many Books

Big book stores or little, I get queasy when I see how many books are in the world. On a bad day it makes me wonder why I should write more. The world doesn't really need more books. Nor do I. When I moved a couple of years ago, I distributed--giving and selling--about twenty boxes of books. I vowed I would not get into that situation again. The library does a much better job of shelving and organizing, it's free, it's greener, and it's dust free. You know the arc or this story, though. Settled into a home of my own, I let the books creep back. I found wonderful used books and have resupplied my reference section and a handful of poetry books. Last week at a holiday party, the host had lined his front hall with boxes of pristine books, inviting all guests to help themselves, to relieve his glut of books. Being both greedy and obedient, I walked out with a handful of books. They sit on my coffee table taking up space, laughing at me and my weak will.

Now for the plot twist: a friend forwarded a link to Paper Back Swap! What a great idea. I list my give-aways by ISBN, the site posts the book, with cover photo and basic press info. Someone who wants the book clicks a box, I get a notice to print out the shipping material and I pay the postage. But, when I order a book, the sender pays my postage, a nice quid pro quo. For now the service is free except for the postage, but may go to a small subscription fee after the first of the year. If no one wants your books, hence you don't build a credit base, you can buy credits at a very reasonable price and use this credit to order books. So far, I am waiting for three books and have established a wish list. The site is easy to use, quite extensive, and much needed. Take a look.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Happy Holidays

Whatever you celebrate, I hope it's a happy, healthy time for all. Neither of these gifts is totally within our control. My neighbor has been hospitalized for weeks and will not be home with her family for Christmas; my friends and relations in New England are struggling with a barrage of snow and ice, putting them and their jobs and their animals in precarious positions. I know they will do their best to endure the deep winter that slaps them around weekly. Health is such a gift, and we can do much to maintain it. Having had a big birthday this month, I am determined to do all I can to correct some bad, lazy habits. Those habits are, if we let them be, inherent in our role as writers. We sit. That's a good thing. If we don't keep the butt in the chair and the hands moving, nothing happens. But praising ourselves for getting the work done might mask the need to move. So, I've joined a gym, had a thorough physical, changed the way I shop for groceries, and the way I eat. I reach for fruit when I'm hungry between meals, eat way less meat, more fish. I passed the plate of gingerbread cookies at a meeting this week. I want to live long enough to finish some of the many projects on my list. I don't want to spend the holidays in a hospital.

So for all my writer friends, all my relatives, all my other dear people, I wish you the gift of health. I can't give it to you, but I can urge you to do what you know is right. Put yourself at the desk when you work, feel good about what you do, then get up and move. Walk the dog an extra time around the block, take up a sport that you love and will pursue, go to the gym, go to a dance. I hope you'll dance. See a health care provider and plan what's next for you. Don't think of your body as separate from yourself. It's not a temple. It's you. Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, Kwanza, Solstice, New Year. Celebrate the coming light however you wish. Be healthy, wealthy, and wise, especially wise. It may be the only thing you can change.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Weather & Books

Famously, Mark Twain warned against relying on weather to set the tone for a book. He never said anything about the effects of weather on writers. Colorado is in the midst of a bitter cold snap (And why a snap? It's more like a snarl.) so I'm hunkered down with coffee and work. I have said earlier about the need to be quiet to write; now I'm thinking about the need to be warm. Fortunately, my heater is very efficient, I have plenty of fleece and wool, and the coffee is as hot as I want it. I'm thinking now about my sister in Maine, where ice is breaking trees and trees knocking down power lines, and coffee depends on electricity. Or my niece driving an ambulance in all that mess. Cold is okay if you're not homeless or duty bound to go out. I'm neither. Yesterday, the first day of this enforced solitude, I sorted things into file folders, because I have so many writing and editing projects going on that I was beginning to lose track of what needed to happen next. That felt good; so did gleaning story ideas from my journal. As some of you know, I am a faithful (compulsive?) morning pages person, so ideas easily get buried in all that free association. From time to time, I go back and pull phrases, plot lines, titles, and put them in an appropriate folder, and forget about them again. But sooner or later, I open a folder and it's Christmas morning, all color and fresh words.

Four folders sit on the desk right now: edits, poems, Ana (a new and, I hope, recurrent character), and non-fiction. I'm done for the moment with the poems folder, having rescued a few good lines from old pieces that seem too watery or sentimental to save in their original forms. The edits folder has one more piece to be dealt with for The Cafe Review editor's issue; Ana's folder is filling nicely with all sorts of ideas and research for future stories; the non-fiction folder bulges, a collaborative project which I'm not ready to air yet. It too has lots of pages, but not enough, so today, as I watch the trees glitter and wonder how birds and rabbits and squirrels survive out there, I plan to add to that folder. I even have an outline! With a nod to Mr. Clemons (happens also to have been the name of my favorite high-school English teacher), I'll avoid weather in the books, but be grateful for weather that pushes me to stay at my desk and work on the books.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Lessons Learned

Since that wonderful discovery about my bent for mysteries, I've been studying. And I have learned a thing or two about my own taste within the genre: Don't bore me! I get the set up, so don't tell me the same thing every time a new character makes the same discovery. That feels like padding or mistrust of the reader. Keep the point of view limited enough so that I can relate to the main characters. And let those main characters on stage early. If I'm tossed a red herring with a bunch of people who don't need to be there, I get lost. I keep expecting them to step up and do something important. I'm not good with long short stories. This attitude surprised me. I love novels, but that intermediate length seems to lose me. Maybe it's hard for the reader and the writer to sustain the pace without chapter breaks.

Keep the dialogue realistic, but concise. And the diction consistent with the setting, both time and place. To notice a word that none of the characters would know lifts me out of the story, as if I were stumbling over a broken place in the sidewalk. As I said in the previous blog, I like the violence off stage. I don't do well with being forced to admire gore, no matter how well written the passage. That's my problem, rather than the writer's, I admit. No writer can serve all readers. I love humor, when I find it, in a mystery story. I love solving the puzzle, but not too soon. I like action to begin--bang!--on the first page, rather than having to wander around in backstory for a while. Amazing what I learned once I knew where to look. Of course, putting all of these discoveries to good use will be the real challenge, but that's one reason I write.

Friday, December 5, 2008


Epiphanies are slow in coming, but when they hit, wow! For years I've struggled to identify my genre in fiction. It's not sci-fi, speculative seems a bit vague, quirky is just, well, quirky, definitely not romance or adventure. Literary? Well, isn't it all when you think about it? Oh, writing cover letters and queries has long given me a sour stomach. I just knew I'd send something out and the editor would immediately toss the ms into the round file or hit the delete button because, hey, if she doesn't even know what she's doing, why should I bother to give her space in my already over-stretched pages? That story line I can imagine all too easily. Recently though, I had a knowledgeable writer suggest that I send a new piece to the "crime" markets. Not having any idea what those markets might be, I did my usual routine. First I looked on line for some suggestions, not reassuring because I could not see my work illustrated with a bloody knife or a law-enforcement badge. So, back from that virtual tour, I headed for the bookstore/my personal library.

And there the lightbulb lit. I read stories in several mystery magazines, and recognized my general approach to the short story. I had just found the keys to a locked door mystery. The real irony is that I've always loved mysteries, especially cosies, those English who-dunnits where the murder happens off stage. I taught a summer course in them one time! How could I not see that in my own work? Please, insert forest-and-trees cliche here. When I pulled out my short-fiction notebook and counted the stories that fit the genre, I found twenty pieces that qualify. Somehow, having looked at each one as distinct has hidden its true identity. As a group photo I can see the family resemblance. Maybe I had to build a collection in order to see where my interest really lives regarding short fiction. For too long, I've considered mystery to be a book category, not a short story label. How silly. Case solved.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Joyous Season

Despite the welcome distractions of holiday gatherings, great food, first snow, and the unwelcome first winter bug, I'm percolating with writing projects. That weekend in Silver Cliff taught me a thing or two that I needed to know about my own process. I really do profit from quiet, so I still rise early to write before the daily stuff of life can intrude, but I no longer reach immediately for the radio. Music, which I love, keeps my mind from wandering, from the free association and focus that it takes for me to be creative. I miss the sound but I'm loving the increase in words on paper/screen. Even allowing for a couple of days under the evil influence of a stomach virus/head cold, I have produced a new short-short, 800 words of a new non-fiction project that will be a collaborative effort, revised another handful of poems, and sent out a batch of submissions.

Not bad for an old lady! Today I will put together a packet for an on-line venue, by invitation! Then I need to find a market for a short story about a ghost horse. And update my rejection/acceptance lists. This is the writing business, always a mix of surprise in the new work and determination in getting the rest out to the readers who complete the process. This is why I left my paid work behind; this is what I have envisioned for most of my adult life. And to think, I just had to turn down the volume to turn up the heat.

Monday, November 24, 2008

She's Back

The retreat cottage was in Silver Cliff, CO--in a high mountain valley near the Sangre de Cristo mountains. The yard was fenced, so Duncan loved it, kept asking to go in and out just for the sheer joy of having me open the door on demand, no leash, dogs and cats and people in the neighborhood to watch. I loved it because there was a fireplace in the front room, lots of color and good art on the walls, and best of all, no phone, no TV, no computer, no noise. I learned that I really can do a lot of writing without all those distractions and excuses. It felt good to just sink down into the poems, wrestle with revisions, and see some results. And of course, get a start on a new piece. I slept when I was tired, ate when I was hungry, walked twice a day in gorgeous weather with those amazing mountain peaks always in view. The air was clear and the sun warm enough in the afternoon to sit outside for a while. I will definitely go back to Bloomsbury West.

Because I have always done my early drafts longhand, not having the laptop with me was no sacrifice, and now I have six pieces revised and ready to retype, and the new one to commit to Times New Roman. These poems give me direction for today and maybe tomorrow. And this morning, I found myself turning off the news after just a couple of minutes. There is no reason that I cannot create the quiet that I so enjoyed in Silver Cliff. What I have realized is that I use music, noise, to mask thinking when it gets hard or scary. I depend on the distraction to relieve whatever anxiety rises with me in the morning as I think ahead to the day's events and wonder if I can do anything right. That's a leftover from being a shy, scared kid who never thought she could accomplish anything, but was too silly to say so. If I can drive through those mountains, live in solitude, and still write, I'm thinking I can maybe write a poem that matters.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Retreat & Revision

Today I begin my long-awaited writer's retreat weekend. My bag is packed, sparsely. After all, it's just a three-day trip. But imagine my angst over what to take. Oh, not the clothes, another pair of jeans, a warm layer or two, and the toiletries kit that's always ready. I've studied the map and will shortly print out the directions to the house where I'll be staying. No, the big issue is what work to take with me. After all, I have at least six writing projects on my list, all of which deserve work. But this retreat weekend has me considering my focus. Right now I've tossed in my reading supplies, a copy of the Best American Poetry 2008 and Back to the Castle by Vaclav Havel (think about transition of regime and read this one), but reaching for a notebook, I went for the poetry. This might be a decision based on the good time I had at a reading last evening, or that I won this weekend in a poetry contest, or just the wish to sink into what I know best. So the dog and the poems will go south with me, once the fog and traffic clear.

What will I come home with? I have a hefty stash of poems that have never found a home and it's time to look at them with a sharp eye. One editor recently returned a manuscript with a request that I up the intensity of the language. Not an unreasonable request, but I don't automatically follow such suggestions from one reader. I want the poems to have more than flash and filigree. I want substance, meaning, memorable images. Typically, I don't compose well in a new location, so revising with these things in mind will be a logical goal for me. And maybe not having my usual distractions around will allow me to focus. Coffee, a couple of books, a lot of poems--I'm ready. I'll report back on Monday.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Read This

E. Annie Proulx's The Shipping News: set mostly in Newfoundland, full of quirky, delicious language and equally quirky characters. In the first part of the book I wanted to smack the protagonist because he was sooooo passive, but we both got over that. Winner of a National Book Award. One of those that I kept hearing about and finally grabbed, didn't put it down till the last page turned.

True Green @ Work, by Kim McKay and Jenny Bonnin with Tim Wallace: A National Geographic product subtitled "100 ways you can make the environment your business." Concise advice on working green, features companies that are significantly committed to eco-responsibility, and an extensive list of resources. I'll be on the hunt for their previous book, True Green, 100 Everyday Ways You Can Contribute to a Healthier Planet.

The new version of Fritof Capra's The Tao of Physics. This book has long been on my list of life changers, and the revised version does not disappoint. A deep look at the correspondences between Eastern thought and modern physics. Don't panic, you don't have to know all those mysterious formulae. In the same genre, look for Murray Gell-Mann's The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and Complex.

You can see why I'm late with this blog! There's a breeze making diamonds on the duck pond, the dog is asleep in a patch of sun on the carpet, and I have all these great books winking and beckoning. Not to mention a handlful of poetry essays to edit and jillions of other tasks large and small. You get the idea. Excuse me, I'm just going for one more chapter, then I'll get down to work, really, I will, promise.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Define "BOOK"

A friend showed me her newest high-tech device recently--a Kindle. You know, that thing that looks like a big calculator but contains thousands of pages of writing. She's about to leave on a plane and cannot pack a month's supply of vacation reading, unless it's compressed into this gizmo, which, by the way, she stores in a case made from a real (i.e. paper) book! This disguise allows her to sit beside the pool, appearing to read a traditional book, not attract thieves, not appear to turn a page, not to look like a techie, but to enjoy her reading for hours. So, I ask you, what makes a book a book? Is it the paper? Is it the cover? Is it the concept? The first definition in my Oxford says, "a written or printed work consisting of pages glued or sewn together along one side and bound in covers." Well, that dog won't hunt anymore. The second entry helps a bit more, "literary composition intended for publication." We could, I guess, debate "literary" for quite a while, but what about "publication"?

Is this blog publication? Have I published when I offer a poem or story out loud to a small, but interested audience? Must the work reach strangers to count as published? Whew! This is getting hard. If a book is not a gathering of pages bound along one side, and publishing does not mean I have a contract and income, we are free! We can define ourselves and our work as we like. Not everyone will agree, but that's not news, is it? I think publication means that some objective third party has read my composition and agrees to pass it on, paid or not, on paper or on-line. The editorial decision trumps friendship, favoritism, and flattery. A good editor is essential to my concept of publication. I cannot see all the competition for attention that exists in my chosen fields of poetry and fiction. Nor can any one editor, but s/he has a wider view than I have. I may not like the opinion offered, but I have to respect the process. If a book can be a handheld screen hidden inside a traditionally bound book, then we can redefine, each of us, what we expect to count in our search for credibility.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Dog is Three!

How many writers depend on solitude for their sanity? And how many of us disturb that solitude by introducing a pet into the scene? Just about every one I know. The advantage, of course, is that a dog doesn't offer his/her opinion on the local news in the middle of a tricky transition or just as the climax of the story finally, after days, occurs to you. Well, my dog doesn't speak in English, but he has a schedule and he expects me to follow it. Duh! I taught him to expect a cookie first thing in the morning, and to expect a walk when I put on my shoes. Duncan the Dog has no concern for my mental activity. As far as he can tell, I'm just sitting still, wiggling my fingers on the desk. So, right now, he has no compunction about patting my leg with his paw, or looking deep into my eyes with his very dark, very beautiful, very intelligent eyes. Elizabeth Barrett Browning had a beloved dog, Flush, who was kidnapped, and the poet almost lost her mind until he was recovered. I understand. Every night when Duncan goes out for the last time before bed, I stand at the door, watching the trajectory of his outdoor leash, hoping no predator decides he would make a great snack. A friend of my daughter's let her beagle out and a mountain lion grabbed it, fortunately, letting go when screams errupted from the frantic woman waving her arms. The dog made it, went on to win in dog shows, his usual job.

Could I write without Duncan curled up beside my chair? Probably, but I wouldn't have any excuse to walk every morning, to admire his gorgeous cream-colored coat, to enoy the fact of having another sentient being near me, one who thinks I'm pretty great, except when I won't let him disembowel his new bed or eat dinner from my plate. Today he is three years old, and I expect--absent coyotes or mountain lions--to have him around for another decade or more. He won't know why he gets an extra treat for lunch, but Happy Birthday, Duncan Dog. And many more.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Funny and True

I am almost though David Sedaris's When You Are Engulfed in Flames. He's one of the many authors I've been meaning to read, so I was pleased to find his book on our library's new-reads shelf. The cover would not attract many, being a skeleton smoking a cigarette. So much for the old adage, because it's a laugh-out-loud book with ridiculous scenes written in a feisty first-person style that is not for children or the faint of heart. Sedaris talks about death a lot, his own and that of others. Seems he worked for a time in a coronor's office, with all the attendant gore and despair. Then, of course, there's the demise of his long-time neighbor and prime tormentor, Helen. Even the near loss of a pet spider named April. The man on the plane sitting next to him, sobbing over the recent death of his mother. Sedaris's memory of his mother's funeral. It takes real courage, talent, and nerve to make a reader laugh in the presence of such morose material.

The strength of the book lies in the absence of lies. Or so it seems. I cannot vouch for the reality of life as Sedaris describes it, but I believe him. He's willing to admit his own dark side, the drugs of years past, the boil on his butt, his chain smoking, his fear of speaking French, even though he divides his time among the US, Paris, and Normandy. The spider was French. When he describes having that boil lanced, the gore is honest, the attitude wildly funny. How many of us would call the amateur surgeon--Hugh just happens to be David's partner--Sir Lance-a-Lot? Sedaris is a smart writer, one who has made his own life his on-going resource. For him research is getting up in the morning, well, mid-morning in his case. I look around and cannot see what's funny in my own life. Thanks to David Sedaris I might learn.

Monday, October 27, 2008

New Look

You've heard about six degrees of separation? Well, how about changing that to six degrees of connection. That's what we are really talking about, right? I don't want to keep the Dalai Lama away, but to find a way to meet him. Well, the chances are that won't happen, but you just never can predict whom you might meet face to face on any given day. And you won't meet anyone if you stay in your house. I mean, how often do folks just wander up to your door and say hi? No, you have to walk the dog, go out for coffee, shop, and make eye contact. It doesn't always take much, a smile, a little greeting. That happened to me a couple of weeks ago. Two new folks came to church and I said hello in the coffee crunch after the service. Well, turns out Sharon is a very savvy writer and Mary Beth is a bright woman. So we went to lunch and had a fine time. So much so that we did that again yesterday. And Sharon quizzed me on my flaming pink blog site. Huh?

See, on my monitor it looked maroon, a sedate color that I didn't think would offend anyone. Thank you, Sharon, for speaking up. So as not to offend the anti-pink readers, I've just pushed a few buttons and changed the whole thing without losing my mind. And we know that a mind is a terrible thing to lose, right? Who cares what color the blog is? I don't know. Connect, tell me what you think. Is it now easier on the eyes? What color do you see?

Friday, October 24, 2008

Half Act

A few days ago I was moaning about a disappointing grocery adventure. I went to the same store this week. Okay, it's Sprouts, and I spent quite a bit of time shuffling from one end of the meat department to the other. To their credit, I did not see the factory chicken I saw on my first visit, but guess where the organic beef comes from--Uruguay! Having nothing against that country, I still object. I live in the American west, an area built on the back of beef. And I'm expected to buy meat that's been hauled, flown, beamed up, from another country? Not! We already spend more on fuel to transport food than I care to think about. Why don't we have a food policy? We have a government policy or department for every aspect of our lives, but no one dares take on the big food industry in a meaningful way. I know we are all very busy surviving the onslaught of mud that erupts from our media every few minutes, but the election looms and we will have time again to think about what really matters. Not that the election doesn't matter. It certainly does. But the ugly ads don't matter. I've been told by more than one informed commentator to ignore them. Hey, if we took all the money spent on TV ads and used it to support a regional food supply system, we'd be safer, saner, and healthier.

So, what have I done but spout off here? I found the shift manager at Sprouts and politely said that I will not support the supply practices I see in that store. Nor will I buy products from factory suppliers. She smiled and said she would forward my remarks to the meat manager. I plan to repeat my concerns every time I see those vague or ridiculous labels on food. Rules I live by (when I'm not starving, and let's face it, I could stand to starve a couple of days): Don't eat anything that has more than five ingredients or ingredients I cannot pronounce; don't eat anything that has traveled further than the moon and back; pay willingly a fair price for local, organic, humanely produced food; speak up when the food supply gets out of control. Just to be sure I'm doing my part, I wrote a collection of poems about the human-grocery connections. Food is a basic right and an emotional time bomb. Hmm, no not a bomb, something more errosive. It eats us as much as we eat it. Next time you buy bread, look at the ingredients and check out how far it has traveled. Oh, I also have a personal ban on High Fructose Corn Syrup.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Who Am I?

I am a demographic! No, really. Aging is, as we know, a messy business, bringing mixed feelings, mixed messages, mixed everything. What to wear, where to go, with whom, why? Well, I have decided to be my own category. Last evening while Duncan the Dog was getting his hair done, I sat in a nearby coffee shop and read the new issue of Poets & Writers. It may be a subliminal response--Tony Morrison with her gray hair and straight-on confidence sits on the cover--but I looked at an ad for a writing residency and wanted it. I looked at the young people in the ad and hesitated. Would I fit in? Would I even be considered? Who takes a senior citizen seriously? Well, John McCain might, but this situation calls for a different, more personal, political stand. So, here goes.

I am an emerging woman writer at the (almost) age of 65. There, it's out, in print, no backing down. For years I've felt the weight of time: I'm too old for success, I'm out of touch with the newest trends in publishing, I'm not Helen Hoover Santmyer. (She published a huge, best-selling novel in her 80's.) Who do I think I am applying for a prestigious award? Well, Mary Oliver was "discovered" at 63, and she's a force of and for nature in contemporary American poetry. My job now is to help raise consciousness about writers "of a certain age." It's not too late till they nail the cover on my coffin or I'm too dotty to spell my own name. I am going to apply for that residency and state proudly in my application just what niche I fit. This snail is sticking her neck out, and it feels good. Let's hear it for late-blooming roses, asters, winter wheat, and gorgeous fall foliage. Onward!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Foodie Complaints

Last week a notice went around that a new food market was opening in our area, one that promised fresh, local produce. Wow! As a poet-organic eater-locavore I marked my calendar and got there on opening day, along with most of the rest of Colorado. I found things I'd been looking for, whole wheat couscous and whole wheat bread without high fructose corn syrup. I also found beef unmarked as to origin, foods labeled "natural"--a vague category at best and not at all a guarantee of humane, organic origins, and worst of all, chicken from a factory producer known for its awful labor practices and inhumane treatment of the birds. So, I sighed and mentally composed my letter of complaint to the management, fearing all the while that my one voice would make no difference. I've been known to bend the ears of supermarket managers in the past, and no chain has yet to change a thing in my favor.

However, I'm re-reading Gloria Steinam's Moving Beyond Words, an expose of Freud, advertising, and patriarchal power. She's speaking locally this month and I'm very excited to hear her. I last heard her speak to a small group in a church in Maine, sat there amazed that the room was not packed to its historic rafters. She would not flinch in the face of mass-produced food stuffs in a store pretending by its marketing and logo to be an earthy, wise-food supplier. Sigh. Now I have to put myself on trial. Do I roll over and buy what they offer, or do I speak up and make myself heard? It's easy to give in, give up, eat what's offered. "Just go away," I can hear the manager say. But as a writer, I have the skill and the responsibility to say what I believe, to tell the truth as best I can, to separate fact from opinion. And if you think I'm running on opinion in preferring locally grown, organic, humanely produced food, go read Michael Pollan's books and his long, well documented essay to the incoming president that ran recently in the NY Times. Then shop with this information in mind. Meanwhile, I'll cast about for a way to join the fray, and fray it will be to take on the conglomerate agri-businesses of this country.

Monday, October 13, 2008

A la Carte

Since that blog on Thursday morning I have had a rich diet of art: a wonderful poetry reading on Thursday evening featuring Denver Poet Laureate Chris Ransick, with open mic to follow; a small but productive writing group Saturday morning; opera selections at our local auditorium that afternoon; and Saturday evening a boffo poetry reading in Denver by Dorianne Laux. By Sunday I wanted to do nothing but digest and think. That too is part of participating in the arts. No, not rock sitting--too cold and damp--but taking time to think about what we hear and see. Just let it sink in. Like many of us I dash from one project to another, then wonder why I'm frazzled. No roses to stop at now, but making soup, reading, even watching hours of World View on cable was what I wanted. Now it's Monday and I'm back at work, my to-do list at my side, the dog at my feet.

Hurrying around has, you see, affected my work on the novel in progress. When I typed up the last bit of draft, I did not know where the previous chapter had gone. Well, it had gone into the recycle bin on the computer. Not good. I had hard copy, but who wants to retype the whole chapter if she doesn't need to? Not me. My goal for the day then is to sort out the various drafts and get that writing going in a more or less straight line. And reading my cousin Edie's new poem. She and I have made contact through poems, despite being children the last time we were in the same room. All this should make for a pleasant day, these and the bright leaves outside my window. Okay, I'm just chattering here. See ya, KD

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Social Justice Poem

Recently a friend challenged me to write about what I believe. Writing to order is not my usual way of doing things, but, hey, it's worth a try, so here's an effort starting from the big end, the abstract, the general, and getting down to images.

Holiday Gift List

One dime
to the Department of Offense,
a one-way trip to Elba for George,
one tuba and six guitars to every school,
box lunches for the National Guard.

In return
I'd like a nurse and a doctor,
a tax law I can read
about my double-tithe to Caesar.
Oh, I want a bridge, a dam and
a levee without cracks,
good water from the tap,
gardens growing down the street,
my street clear
of broken glass, guns, and dope.

Let's ask neighbors--striped, plaid, and plain--
to sing in many tongues,
give them paychecks,
a three-course sit-down dinner,
roofs, floors, and walls. Let's
give them plumbing!
Hand every kid a ball, a flock of birds,
a book, at least three hugs. Oh, yeah,
an orange, a new toothbrush,
and shoes with really strong laces.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Disjointed and Wonderful

Annie Dillard has long been a favorite author of mine. Yesteday I picked up a copy of her book, For the Time Being, a creative non-fiction work that just shakes every preconception I have of how to structure a book. She demands a great deal of trust. How will the early references to the history of archeology in China, the production line style of care for newborns in the US, the strange detours in human evolution and the Kabbala all fit together? Reading this book is like watching a huge picture gradually come into focus. The ancient bones recovered in China, the unearthing of the buried clay army, the birth of infants, both well and unwell, the meditations on God's involvement in human life--they do connect in a sweeping and provocative way. The style is still her own, with the conversational asides that remind us that a real person, an individual, is producing this work. As always her language entertains while her ideas challenge.

Dillard's audacity has freed me from some of my recent angst over writing. If I learn nothing from the content of the book, I will have yet spent my time wisely and learned writing from a master. I suspect that by tomorrow, though, I will have finished the book and tucked it onto a shelf with my favorites to remind me to read it again and again. I'll use it as a model of what's possible when a writer dares to reach for the clouds, (oh, yes, clouds as individuals also figure in this story) to pierce the veil between us and It. To write what she wants to write, no matter how difficult it is for a publisher or bookseller to categorize. If all you read for is plot, forget this book. The plot is too big to fathom. But the sense that one is in touch with a real person who thinks big thoughts about something other than financial bailouts is, as the credit card ad says, priceless.

Friday, October 3, 2008

No Rock Sitting

Well, I have partly fixed the sludge problem I spoke of in the previous blog; I did not find a rock to sit on, but I did go to a favorite coffee shop and that helped. I also have gathered in a few poems that were in draft form in an old journal, and tried the past couple of days to compose at least a little poem. It does work, once I escape the demon Censor who keeps whispering sweet nothings about how much easier it would be to sweep the porch or do a load of laundry. Yeah, well, not! I came to the conclusion this morning that one thing that gets in my way is that word work. Writing can be play, should be, at least some of the time. So I went ahead and took extra time this morning to play with the images that had surfaced in my morning pages, and voila! A poem on the page. That felt good.

The other thing that has helped is forging through the To-do list with some persistence. I do overwhelm myself with tasks that often do nothing for my own writing. Clearing off some of that extra stuff helps me to breathe more deeply and think more effectively. So, today I may actually use this morning to work on submissions and queries. My fortune from lunch yesterday points out that not trying is a certain road to failure. So I'll persist. Gather up a handful of addresses for agents, explore my folder with fiction and poetry markets, walk the dog, finish the laundry, oops! There I go again. Life has to be more than dirty socks.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Deep Blue Funk

I've known for years that when I start slogging through mental goo, mud, sludge, whatever, I need poems, my own and others. But somehow, negative thinking blocks that knowledge. For days now, I've gone about my business--read busyness--but under all the action is mental inaction. I'm clearing up the to-do list, slowly, and spending too much time with TV and computer solitaire. Neither one entertains me. They just fill the minutes, sometimes hours, when I don't know what else to do. Books have not captured me, much, though I finished Memoirs of a Geisha and liked it. Breakfast with Buddha has not moved me, though people have recommended it, and in other times, in other frames of mind, I too might love this book. Not this week. I thought about fall, becoming obvious in the foliage and the return of ducks--noisy, busy, wonderful--to the pond. But this doesn't explain anything. I've seen plenty of foliage, heard hundreds of ducks, and never felt they were omens of anything but a natural turn of the wheel.

Finally, it came to me. I haven't written a poem in weeks, and that's not good for me. I need to go off by myself, as my friend Michael would say, and sit on a rock somewhere, let my mind wander like a half-grown child. Maybe something will swim to the surface and I'll get that frisson of imagination that means a poem is coming together in the depths. It will start with a phrase, an image, a tickle in the brain. The first draft will be messy and out of focus, but if I write it over and over, letting it take shape slowly, that moment will come--YES! This is a glimpse of the world I've never noticed before. It may not, as we are wont to say, make anything happen in the larger sense. No one listens to poets but other poets and a few blessed readers, but it will change something in me. I'm off to pack a lunch, fill the dog's busy ball with kibble, and find that all important rock. I'll let you know if it works.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Hero Worship

As I age and change, I am both more selective and more adventurous in what I read. Not too long ago, I set myself a goal to read the collected works of an impressive list of American women poets, beginning with Emily Dickinson. Well, I just finished poem #610 out of 1789, as well as much of the collection of letters she wrote to her beloved sister-in-law, Susan. And you know what? I'm tired of death and abstraction, of slanted truths and that coy, little-girl persona. Granted, when Emily hits her stride, she's great, but I'm not sure I can slog through the entire collection. I had the same attitude toward Eliot's collected poems. The ones I already knew through anthologies were stunning, still are. But I didn't make a lot of discoveries. R. W. Franklin's The Poems of Emily Dickinson--let's thank him for a masterful editing job--will sit on my poetry shelf as a reference and a reminder that all poems are not created equal. Sorry, Emily, I know you did us all a favor by breaking the mold, or scraping off the mold, of American poetry, and for that I do admire your work.

A more recent writer, Annie Dillard, still amazes me. I pulled down her Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a book that matters to me, to take an excerpt to a writing group. I wanted to display my idea of detailed writing that is more than a catalogue of the obvious, and her first paragraph (Are you taking notes?) is a marvel. So much so, that when I walked Duncan this morning I wished that I had her skill in noticing the world. I must admit Dickinson had that too; she saw snakes in the grass, the shapes of clouds, every daisy that ever grew, and every robin that lit in her yard. I sit here, day after day, without knowing what to call the trees in front of my eyes. I see the squirrels and rabbits, the geese and ducks. I hear the coyotes in the middle of the night singing around their dens, but I don't have the depth of vision that Dillard and Dickinson have. Maybe that's a thing I can change. I'll try; I promise.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Back to Work

Finally, I dug out the novel-in-progress, and reconnected with it. Between vacation (I don't write well or much at all away from home.) and reconnecting with my life, I've put off digging in and getting back to work. How nice to find that I had, indeed, finished the chapter I was working on and had only to print it out and tuck it into the notebook. Now I'm on chapter eight, with ten already done. Filling in nine will not necessarily be easy, but at least I'll be bridging from one known value to another. I heard an interview with Philip Roth on the radio recently, and he works a full day 6-7 days a week. And he's happy if he gets one page a day, knowing that some days he'll throw out the whole page. I'd jump into the duck pond if I had to throw out a whole day's work. Who am I, though, to judge Roth?

I felt guilty about my hit-or-miss work on this novel. I like the characters, like the surprises they offer me, and generally think that it will be a good read. But I can hear my inner critic saying, you are supposed to work on it every day. Now get your pen and get going. Well, you know, I think that critic can jump in the pond, duck weed and pond scum and all that. Since Boot Camp in June, I've strung together 8-10 full chapters and worked out a tentative story line. That's about ninety days, and I'm at about 80 pages, so I'm not that far behind. I do plan to begin the work earlier in the morning because that is when I'm most energetic and focused. My daily journal may have to wait till the coffee break in the afternoon, but I'm more and more okay with keeping my own schedule, if I dare call it that. Letting my brain lie fallow for a couple of days or a couple of weeks lets things settle and repercolate. Plot problems that seemed impossible somehow work out. I am working, but at my own pace, not Roth's or any other famous writer. After all, it's my life and work. I'm responsible for doing it the best way I can.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Good Reads

Would you say that we should write what we like to read? If that is so, I'm in deep water and have forgotten how to swim. Lately, I've read Marge Piercy's Gone to Soldiers, a thick, detailed, at times horrifying account of WWII, beautifully researched and gripping. Then I read a short memoir by a park ranger who learned his ranger skills in Maine, Bear Dogs of Mt. Katahdin. Last night I finished Maeve Binchy's Evening Class, a character-driven web of how people in a community build and break down relationships. Trust Binchy to give us honorable characters and well-built plots. I love her habit of connecting one book to another; I feel like I know the landscape and the people. Next up in my stack is popcorn--Janet Evanovich's Fearless Fourteen. I definitely feel at home in Jersey with the familiar characters who change little from one adventure to the next. Humor and wild imagination drive this series about clumsy bail bondswoman, Stephanie Plum, with big hair, eye shadow, two sexy guys on her hands, and a supporting cast of wackos. I love these books like I love chocolate brownies.

So, you see my problem: I want the humor of Evanovich, the warmth of Binchy, the familiarity of that park ranger's setting, and the depth and wisdom of Piercy. That's a shopping list that could break my back or my bank account. The truth is, I can only write what I write, keeping one eye on my favorites, and the other on my characters, where they choose to live, love, die, fail, or succeed. It's hard work, and it's a grand game of chance. Just when I think, ah, I want to write a book like that one, another good read pops up, and I chase after another hero. Maybe I'll get a bead on my own books one of these days, maybe not. But what fun to fall in love with so many unique stories. When I get scared that we have too many books in the world, I think about the joy of variety, the pleasure of surprise and change, and I relax. Now, excuse me, I hear Stephanie starting her engine, hoping the car won't explode, though it always does. Later!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Home Safe

After three weeks away, I hardly know how or where to resume my usual work. I've traveled on planes, boats, trucks and cars, driven two horses and carriages, and ridden on two buses. My brain is still spinning, but I saw lots of people I wanted to see, not spending enough time with any of them, but at least back in touch with friends and family. Not all the news was good; there are illnesses and misfortunes, but mostly I had fun. A friend and I went to Nova Scotia to see the sights and search for ancestors. I was very excited to think that I had discovered, just before leaving for my trip, a Mi'kmaq ancestor, and poured over literature, visited heritage centers, bought a wonderful anthology of Mi'kmaq poetry and history, and imagined how life might have been for this woman who lived 400 years ago, married a man totally out of her culture and bore many children. I toted that book, The Mi'kmaq Anthology, all over the back roads around the Bay of Fundy, trying to see back into her view of that geography. It was hard to do; she wouldn't have had roads, motels, pubs, and TV. The best I could do was stand on the shore and pretend all this modernity was a mirage.

Back in the states, I went to the genealogy forums and learned--it was all a big mistake. Though many people have registered an "unknown Indian woman" in our pedigree, maternal DNA has disproved the idea. It's more than an idea, though. It's a longing. Every relative I had told of this possibility was honored, pleased, to find a possible link to a woman so different from who we are today. I'm still happy to have encountered the wise museum docent who married into the Mi'kmaq world, still happy to read the myths of Glooscap, a culture hero, and to learn about the trials of Indian children wrenched from families and punished for speaking their mother tongue. So this unknown woman, not a blood relative, has given me more than her DNA. She has given me a shift in perspective, an enlargement in my viewfinder, a picture of life and family that includes me anyway. Thanks to Rita Joe and Lesley Choyce for their book and for their courage in teaching us all, again, about diversity. Sometimes, family is what you make it.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Vacation and Other Interruptions

Four days separate me from work and vacation. On Saturday I will fly out of Colorado, change planes in Charlotte, and arrive in Portland, Maine, where my friend will toss my luggage in the trunk and we'll drive to her house full of poodles and barn full of horses, cats, and goats. Heaven! The next morning we will bug out early for a local horse show. I imagine I will see lots of old friends and repeat myself endlessly about my life here and why I'm not moving back to Maine. Then on Monday, we head north to Nova Scotia, cool temps, cool Canadian scenery, lots of personal and public history. Both Brenda and I descend from Nova Scotia lines--mine French, hers English. We joke about her ancestors exiling mine. We plan not to partake in that sort of division.

I've been packed for days to be sure what I need will fit into a carry-on bag and one tote. The biggest problem is deciding what books to take! I can't imagine a flight across the country without a book or two, but I don't want to carry a tome that weighs more than my head. So, sadly, I'll leave my new poetry collections home and take a couple of paperback novels, Marge Piercy's Gone to Soldiers, and Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose, both recommended by friends who know a good read when they see one. I have, of course, packed three small journals, because, while I may not work for the next three weeks, I will write something, a travel journal, a commentary on genealogy from the ground up, notes about the people I'll watch in the airports. And I'll take to my son a scrapbook with his genealogy in it. I've been working on that for a while now, and whether he values it or not, I want him to have it. Maybe when he's as old as I am now, he'll realize how these faceless people have shaped our minds and personalities.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

School Days Again

Most people feel a sense of relief when they finish their formal education. I did too. Finally, I was free of the pressure from semester schedules, exams, deadlines for papers, etc. So who would think that I am now proposing to myself that I take up a serious course of study when I have so much else to do? Not me! But I am planning just that. When I look at the time I spend on unimportant, frivolous busywork, I know I can do better. When I opened Joseph Parisi's anthology 100 Essential Modern Poems by Women, my ignorance hit me like a blast of cold air. Here I sit with a masters in English lit (Garrison Keillor's infamous English major) and an MFA in Creative Writing, yet I know too little about the poets in Parisi's book, and I should know more. I should know more because there are still places in the world where women cannot go to school, cannot publish, cannot keep their female culture alive. Why then would a free woman who has access to books, libraries, ideas, and poems, not study? I'm doing this for myself--because I can--and for those who cannot study. Maybe there is some catalyst effect, an enzyme for learning, that adds intellectual freedom to the world. I think it's worth a try. I don't need to watch reality TV. I don't need to shop for amusement. I need to model and promote free exploration of ideas and ideals.

So for however long it takes, I plan to read poetry written by women. I will start with the primary sources, their own poems, letters, autobiographies. Then if my eyes hold up and I don't fall out of my chair, I'll go on to criticism and theory. I'll begin with the ubiquitous but poorly understood Emily Dickinson. Yes, yes, of course I've read her poems, some of them. But she wrote 1789 of them. I have work to do. When I get on the plane next week to go on vacation, guess what book will be in my tote bag. When I get back, it's on to her letters, then an exploration of Mina Loy, H.D., Marianne Moore, Eleanor Wylie, and many more.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Books for Sale

Forgive my absence but it's been a busy week since I last blogged. One of the highlights was the Rocky Mountain Paper and Book Fair in Denver. As a volunteer I greeted people at the turnstile and checked their tickets, made sure they had a program, etc. At the end of the day, I helped check books that had been sold for receipts and vendor numbers to be sure they had been sold and not lifted. Vendors came from as far away as Connecticut, a lot of miles and a lot of schlepping boxes and display hardware. They deserve to sell their wares. And their wares were amazing. I've been friends with book dealers for a lot of years, been to a few fair in the process, and never before seen such a clean, well-organized, altogether pleasant event. The Denver Merchandise Mart was air conditioned, spacious, clean--did I say clean? Books so often drag dust and mold with them, that I'm impressed by clean.

I am also impressed by books in general, particularly legendary books way beyond my budget. One of my duties on Saturday was to allow solitary vendors to take a break while I book sat. Mostly it was for short breaks like coffee or restrooms, but in the afternoon a dealer wanted a sitter while he had a handful of books to be signed by a visiting illustrator, one much in demand and the cause of a long line, and a long sit for me. But get this, I was in the company of first editions by Frost, Eliot, Hemingway, Wolfe (Tom, not Virginia, who has, I think, two o's). These books bore asking prices in the thousands, some so expensive they didn't have obvious prices and all assumed that if you had to ask, you couldn't afford them. These treasures were, of course, in glass cases, so I couldn't touch them. I'd probably break out in a sweat and make a mark on their covers anyway, so just as well. I did wonder about all the people browsing booth to booth, who among them could afford such collecting. As far as I know, most of the books I sat with went back to Chicago with their ownership unchanged, but another dealer said he took a deposit on one item that would pay for his trip to Denver. I bought a ten-dollar book as a gift for a friend and was happy with that. I'll go again next year and if I've won the lottery in the meantime, I know just which booth to look for.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


An admitted radio addict, I heard recently a discussion of the word elitist. Among other things the discussion revealed that it now costs as much as $400 for a ticket to a Broadway play. Wow! I'll have to cross that off my life-goals list. How have we managed to cut up the arts till only the wealthy can afford to take part? We know that paintings have risen to astronomical highs, and I guess I never questioned that; going to a movie is more expensive but with careful budgeting, we can manage that, or wait for the film to come out on the rental lists. Books, my personal favorite, are pretty readily available at our wonderful libraries, used books stores, thrift stores, and sale tables in the big chains. Thank heavens for that. Buying new hardbacks strains my budget.

What amazes me, though, is the generosity of poets. We long ago gave up on the idea that we would make money on our art. Few poets publish in hardback, none expect the famous advance for a publisher, and the majority give free readings, publish in non-paying venues, share their wares in a variety of ways. I heard amazing poems at a coffee shop on Saturday for the price of a large decaf latte. This doesn't mean that we wouldn't accept payment if offered, but we go on doing art for the sake of connecting with other minds and souls. In a wonderful essay that appeared on the website for This I Believe, George Bowering, Canada's poet laureate, says, "I believe that the human intellect is the closest thing we have to the divine. It is the way we can join one another in spirit." That's exactly what poetry does, lets us join minds. Who could refuse to share such wealth?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Po Biz Cranks Up a Notch

The contract for the poetry book is in hand, the notebook designated for the marketing plan, and one favorite writer has signed on to write a cover blurb. I'm making lists like a madwoman: bookstores, friends, relatives, anyone on either coast and in the middle who can read (and that's pretty much everyone I know) . I'm asking lots of questions and hoping the publisher won't eject me from her email file. But these poems matter, and I want them to go to a very good home. The Great Hunger ms started a year ago, though some of the poems are older than that. Seems I've been aware of food as necessity and metaphor for years. One of the first poems I had accepted by a total stranger is called "The Last Supper." It's a retelling of the story from the point of view of the cook. "And no one said it was the last of anything." 

First readers of the ms have varied in their responses to individual poems, but favorably to the collection as a whole, despite its quirky construction. Unlike many / most slim volumes of poetry, this one has a preface, a Food Time Line, a manifesto and a reading list of influential non-fiction books related to our endangered and wasteful food supply mechanisms in this country. My heroes are Kingsolver and Pollan, among others. The time line idea came from Ed Sanders two-volume history of America, though not nearly so extensive as his.  I am very happy to join the ranks of writers who put their skills in service to the greater good.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Coffee House Effect

I had a busy weekend, but not so busy that I had a real excuse for not working on the novel. A poetry service at the UU Fellowship did take a lot of my time last week, but inside my head that nagging voice would not go away; it said, repeatedly--nagging--that I just hadn't given the book its due attention the past few days. When I get into that awful state where I'd clean out the silverware drawer before I'd sit down to write, well, that calls for a change of venue. I've always known that, but I can talk myself out of the most sensible approaches. Finally, I turned off the Snood game, ignored the TV, grabbed a blank notebook and left the house. The dogs were not happy to see me leave in the late afternoon when we customarily settle in till supper. Tough! They are wonderful dogs, but they're dogs. What do they know about writing novels? Books are mysterious toys that require no chewing or throwing, just staring!

Having seen an ad recently for a new cafe, I took myself to that block--nothing there but a gift shop, a real estate office and a day spa. None of those would do. So I backtracked to a place I had visited before. It's a chain and I prefer an independent, but hey, this was getting serious. Unless of course I want my tombstone to read, "She played Snood." If leaving home and daring the heat of a Colorado summer Sunday were required to grease the wheels of creativity, I'd better follow through. Iced tea in hand, I settled into an easy chair across from a young woman with a cell phone welded to her head. That could have been a distraction except that she spoke Chinese, and since I mostly speak English, it was easy to ignore her conversation. I did what I used to do to my students, kept saying "Just keep the pen moving. You can revise later." In less than two hours and one iced tea, I had a decent bit of work, about 5 1/2 pages, handwritten (my usual approach to a first draft), and I could go home with a clean conscience and a good jumping off place for this morning's work.

Friday, July 18, 2008

If Wishes Were Porches

Beggars could drive. Since moving to Colorado over a year ago, I have silently and verbally bemoaned the lack of poets to hang around with, talk shop, etc. Hooray for MeetUp! Having tried here in my hometown, unsuccessfully, to create such a poetry group, I had about given up on the idea. Well, the Denver Poetry Group is alive and well. We met at one of my favorite cafes last evening and had a great time. Four of the six of us brought and read work and got feedback. The variety was good, the feedback was good, but best was finding others who speak my mother tongue--poetry, right down to the effect of an n-dash in place of an m-dash. (I swear it was the computer's fault!) We laughed and drank--coffee or wine or what looked like Guinness--and compared venues for readings. There are plenty, now that I've had someone point me in the right direction. About 2am I was planning what I'd take to read first. It's going to be a busy time in po biz after all.

And--drum roll--the publisher I mentioned a few blogs back is interested in the ms! I haven't seen the contract yet, but will soon. This is a cooperative press, which means that I will share the cost of production, different from self-publishing and vanity in that there is a screening/editorial process at work here, and poets I know and trust are publishing with them. Once things firm up, I'll be giving this press a boost here. Knowing how long it takes to produce a book, even a poetry volume, I'll have to be patient, but I'm sure it will be worth it. Meanwhile, I keep whittling away at the novel, a little scared of it at times, but creeping up on it, believing that taking it in small bites works better than running away from it. I miss my colleagues from Boot Camp. If any of you are listening, get back to me and let me know how the writing goes.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Carson McCullers at Last

Probably many of us have a list of books we always meant to read, books with huge reputations, maybe books in the honorable canon of American literature. Such a book is The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. Wandering through my favorite thrift shop I found a copy and tossed it into the cart with the sleeveless tops and my one-millionth purse. Between checkout and home I lost the new sterling silver earrings (a fact that I still cannot believe, since I had carefully tucked them into a zippered compartment of my current purse!) but I got the book home safely, and over the weekend I read it. McCullers was in her very early twenties when she wrote this novel, but her age cannot be held against her. The characters range from Mick, a precocious pre-teen who comes of age over the course of the book, to Benjamin Cady, a doctor in his final years. In between we meet Singer (ironic name), who is deaf and mute, Biff, who owns the local diner which serves as a hub for the locals, and Jake, a wanderer, drinker, and ineffective labor organizer. The rich stew of characters impresses me, as does the shabby, small-town setting, complex but lucid, and totally believable.

McCullers was born in Georgia in 1917, so she belongs in that wonderful batch of Southern writers I barely knew existed until I lived in the South. I remember feeling angry that no one in New England or California had introduced me to Flannery O'Connor, and now I wonder why, in attending a Southern graduate program in English lit, I was never ordered to read McCullers--likely an oversight created by the limits of time and the competition from O'Connor, Faulkner, et al. Then again, my cock-eyed optimism excuses this failure: I was meant to read this novel now, when I read like a writer as well as a devoted and hungry reader of fiction. I can hardly wait to go back to the used book shelves and see what other treats await me.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Great Read

Some books deserve to be spread around. I plucked this one off the new-books shelf at my library (Mamie Doud Eisenhower Library, a great place) and haven't stopped thinking and talking about it since I opened the cover. Robert Kaplow wrote Who's Killing America's Great Writers? Think Sue Grafton, Danielle Steel, Stephen King, and Tom Clancy. Add one lesser known, possibly fictive novelist, and a Steve Martin look-alike, a witty Anne Bancroft, and lots of knowledge about the book world, the structure of a mystery, and the individual styles and themes of these mega-million-seller authors.

The concept is unique, rich, absolutely wonderful. And the writing is excellent to the point of Wow! Kaplow taps the style of each major writer as the point of view shifts to his or her focus. I confess to not having read Steel, but I imagine that Kaplow has, and he nails her lush, sexy style. He knows a great deal about King's home and the coast of Maine where I used to live and can verify the authenticity of the setting. I don't want to spoil this great, funny satire for you, but let me just tell you that King gets to play the hero. And the villain gets it in the end. Find this book and read it.

For those of you addicted to Stephanie Plum, I just discovered that number Fourteen is on the shelf. I can't wait.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Shell over Shell

Robert Kaplow has written a very funny book, Who's Killing the Great Writers of America. Sue Grafton, Stephen King, Tom Clancy, and Danielle Steel, so far, are the targets. A character looking and acting like Steve Martin keeps showing up and may be "a person of interest." Remarkably, as the POV changes, so does the style, to reflect the writer in focus at the moment. Of course, it's hyped satire, and in that hyperbole lies a nugget of wisdom that makes the book a model of psychology as well as of style. Each of these mega-selling writers appears as an ego that has thickened to encase the human individual completely. Every action is calculated to boost the image. King's fearful stories fit him like a suit, as does Clancy's military, action-packed persona, Steel's ultra-sexy themes, etc. Never do we pierce this armor.

And that shell effect makes me stop reading long enough to wonder how many of us are caught up in being A Writer, rather than in being a human being who writes. I think there's a distinction. A Writer is a public figure, obeying the rules of the market and media. He/she responds to the demands of tending the outer shell that has become the controlling image by which the world at large knows him/her. This may, I suspect, lead such A Writer to create only in his own image. I hope I'd beware of the pressure and prefer to be me, writing. I think I want to write because it satisfies me. Not to say I don't want readers, because I certainly do. But I don't want to grow that carapace that will prevent me from writing out of my humanity. Vigilance!

Monday, July 7, 2008


I am waiting, not patiently, for a call back from the vet. I have a sick cat and I feel like my whole day is on hold. Granted, I did my morning pages and I finished some correspondence, and here I am blogging away when I would like to be slogging away at my creative work. I do not work well anywhere but home, so sitting in someone else's house, (I am house sitting and usually go to my own place to work.) waiting, makes me restless and frustrated. I hear about writers who travel to write in exotic or secluded retreats, but that does not work for me. I want my desk, my own computer, my notebooks close at hand. Maybe I need to do more of what Natalie Goldberg suggests in Writing Down the Bones and work in coffee shops, or in the park. I've tried that, but I get distracted watching people, wondering what's going on at home, day dreaming, anything but productive work. 

Well, the vet still has not called and it's almost time for lunch. The cat's holding up fairly well, but I know this will be another lost day. I made myself take yesterday off and I pretty much hated it, kept thinking, ah, tomorrow I can write. And now look at this, no work, not a line worth keeping. I'll try to be more flexible, but I doubt it will work. After all, with the morning pages I've dumped all the dross and now I'm ready for something really good to pop up. I feel like Eeyore, oh, my, nothing works today. 

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Small World

Hooray for a classic Fourth! Grilled food, fresh fruit shortcake, good company, and spectacular fireworks. From our seats in a huge green field we saw distant displays from as many as four other locations, before and during our own city-sponsored extravaganza. One of the other guests in this company turned out to be a writer also. We compared notes and talked shop. She explained her day job in which she mid-wifes books into life, and her work as a regular columnist for a Colorado paper. Well, turns out it's the same paper for which a good friend of mine writes. Then we did what writers do these days, exchanged blog links. So, Marla, if you're there, good morning. Even though it's Saturday, I'm at the desk, with much to do. The apartment is quiet except for the birds in the front yard and a distant lawn mower. The neighborhood has gone away for the weekend.

The world is small, as evidenced by the theory of six degrees of separation, a theory on trial at Face Book. So far, 4 million people have linked themselves electronically. I'm not sure this supports the original theory as I understand it, that if we think hard, we can draw a pretty short line through people we know directly to the person we want to meet. For instance, if I wanted to meet the Dalai Lama, I bet I could connect through friends/aquaintances at the Shambala Center where I used to attend meditation classes. I respect HHH the DL, but have no real reason to meet him. To do so might be presumptuous. Meeting someone at a party, however, who knows someone you know, but whom the hostess does not know strikes me as more synchronous. A long time ago, a nurse/officer in the AF warned her new recruits to behave because the AF was a small world and shenanigans would come back to haunt the miscreant. Just so, the writing world is small. Isn't that a kick?

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Upside, Downside

You cheer when a publisher says she likes the work; you put your head in your hands when she says she needs another thirty pages. No unadulterated good here. But I'm about to root around in my notebook and journals, see what I've missed, and talk to a photographer friend about rounding out the manuscript with pictures, a suggestion from said publisher. All this comes as I face a very full plate: house sitting, helping coordinate a poetry service for my fellowship, a lead on a part-time dream job, a 9-week writing program to facilitate in the fall, three weeks of pre-paid vacation that I really cannot forgo, an editing project for The Cafe Review, coordinating a poetry reading for our public auditorium, and, oh, yeah, working on that novel I just started. Who said there's no work for writers? There's no pay for writers, but plenty of work. If I seem a little distant for the next few weeks, you'll understand.

Monday, June 30, 2008

What Next?

Procrastination comes in many forms, distraction being the one I most often succumb to. For the past few days I have written little, concentrating on planting flowers, restocking my pantry, and coping with panic attacks in the dog, who relaxes once we go outside. Unfortunately, I cannot write while we walk off the anxiety or drive to the farmer's market. Oddly, all that market commotion doesn't bother Dog. But let a blackbird squawk here at home and he runs cowering to hide in a corner or sit as close to me as he can get. Today I left him at my daughter's house so that I can work. I managed a draft of a scene for the novel yesterday, so that will, I hope, grease the wheels and get me back into the story. I do morning pages faithfully, and often in that journaling I come up with ideas or bits of insight about the novel. And tell myself that sort of thinking on paper counts. But truth is, it adds little to the page/word count.

Putting off the writing is a vote of no confidence in myself, and that will get me nowhere. The only way writing works is for me to string the words together into coherent sentences and paragraphs. The growth is organic, cellular, necessary. And it won't happen unless I keep my mind at least halfway engaged. A bit of wool-gathering (does anyone use that metaphor now?) is fine, but making chicken soup is not a great way to write a novel, good for the body as it may be. Then there's the phone, solitaire, coffee, a bathroom break, my to-do list, email, a thousand excuses to interrupt the dream. Even now, I am putting words up here for all to see, and my characters are yelling in the back of my head, "What about us? Hey, you, writer, get back here. Remember that we bought a car yesterday? You said we would start packing for that road trip. And we cannot do anything without you. So get your weak little will over here and let's hit the highway." Okay, okay, I'm coming. I just have to make one hotel reservation for the third week in August and then I'll help you test drive that junker you bought from that cute salesman."

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Deep Poetry

Last evening I heard a wonderful selection of poetry at a Naropa faculty reading. I cannot say which work was best, although for me the draw was Alice Notley, whose work I know but whom I had not heard. Notley has, to all appearances, lived a poet's life, full immersion, and has the respect of the poetry world for it. The common factor among the poets I heard was the willingness to dig deep for the work. Notley read from a long narrative, in which she showed us images of a woman's struggle to act in a world of violence and manipulation, a world of resentment over women with power. She read with confidence and style, and while I could not grasp and hold all that I heard, I certainly came away with a sense of the worth of what she gave us.

Hearing and seeing a poet who has the courage and talent to keep producing fresh work long after she has attained the stature which Notley has encourages me, challenges me, makes me eager to see what might come next in my own work. Some days I flirt with despair, think I'll never produce poems worth the effort to read them. Then I look at a woman who keeps going because she still has new things to say or new ways to say what we all know. Hats off to endurance, persistance, life-long work that satisfies, wherever it comes from. And thanks, Alice, for your powerful work and your example.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


After losing three days to a weird connectivity problem, I'm back in the saddle, well, the desk chair. It's been a busy three days, in large part because of writing-related socializing, and that's all good. Friday evening was a writers' garden party, beautiful surroundings and interesting people and a finger buffet of the highest order. The storm clouds passed over without ruining anything. I loved being among all those writers, maybe fifty or so. In a group of like-minded people one need not fish too deeply for something to talk about. Saturday evening was a concert, again with the finger buffet, and a silent auction. Not so much about writing, but art was in the air, so it was all good. Sunday I read a lot, visited family, then went last evening to a staged reading of a play written by Melanie Tem, Fry Day.

Staged readings are a great way to get audience feedback. I had seen a reading of a shorter version of this play, a surreal drama about a family in grief over the loss of the eldest daughter. Melanie had decided to expand the play and she did so seamlessly from what I could tell. The audience gave her cudos for the work in general, big loud cudos, and mentioned the effect the play had on them and offered points to consider in fine tuning the current version. This is one of the acts of community that really works, to take the time to go out in the evening to see a work in progress and to talk openly about how well things work. Tonight I plan to go to a poetry reading to hear one of my favorite poets. I'll let you know tomorrow how that goes. KD

Thursday, June 19, 2008


Last evening I attended the second set of indy films at our city auditorium. This is a wonderful event, the films always well made and well chosen. Ideally the producer/film maker appears for a conversation after the showing. Only one of three was present last night but she talked a bit about making her film and fielded a few questions from the audience. In addition to the pleasure of seeing the films, I was reminded about how like film my experience is when writing fiction. I see the scene I'm working on, as if it were a little movie in my head. Of course, there's no sound track, so it's not quite the same. (Hmm, maybe we need books on tape with a sound track. Now that's bizarre, but interesting.)

This scenic approach to writing surprises me because I'm not a big movie fan, never developed the taste or habit, having lived as a child in small communities without theaters (and without the money for such luxuries when the wood stove needed a new lining for the firebox). Now, I just don't sit still for many movies. I think Hollywood is too slick, too violent, too dull much of the time. I can manage documentaries, mostly on TV, because they dig deeper, last only an hour, and rarely show gore that is too graphic for me. Once years ago, a friend and I wrote a stage play, an interesting experience, but working with the whole cast frustrated me. We filled the theater for two staged readings, got good feedback, and I put it on the shelf and said, nope, not for me. Dissect me as you will, I like the independence of poetry and fiction in the making. But I did learn about stage business versus talking heads. Good fiction moves. Something happens. If we stay in a character's head, or in a dialogue that goes on and on without so much as a cup of coffee getting refilled, I get nervous. Where's the action that moves the story along? Film does that, keeps people moving. Good camera techniques work in fiction--where's the shot? Who's on screen? Close up or panorama? Try it, you'll like it.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Attending to the Audience

Recently I went to a poetry reading and came away less than impressed. It is fact that some poems work better on the page than they do in an auditorium. Those are the poems that need careful involvement, a second or third reading, a will to understand. Heard without being seen, they may sound like barely lucid noise. It is possible, though, to enjoy even disconnected, tough work if the poet engages the audience. It works less well if he/she speaks in a monotone, never makes eye contact, never looks up from the page on the podium, never gives the listeners a break between poems to absorb the images. To read headlong without regard for the effect on the crowd is, well, wrong. It bespeaks either stage fright or disregard for the audience. Neither factor entertains me. And while we like to think that poems are a cut above the circus act, we must not forget that our purpose is to connect with other minds, to amuse (See the word muse in there?).

I've heard hundreds of poets read, and it does matter to me whether or not they know I'm in the room. Not me specifically, but me as part of we, we the people. If you plan to give a reading, not a slam (about which I know little), please remember to interact with the audience. Look at them, even if the house lights are down and you cannot quite see them. Make an effort to make eye contact, the first level of communication. Of course, you won't mumble into the mike, nor will you drone on as if you were reading a grocery list--even if your poem is a grocery list, and that's possible. Body language and inflection make up a more impressive amount of communication than do words. Give a beat, with maybe a tiny intro to each, between poems. Read slowly enough to let the work sink in, but don't let folks nap. It's not hard to do a good reading, but it does require a will to be part of the crowd, however elevated you might feel on that podium.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Time Out

Yesterday I organized the material that grew from Novel Boot Camp, put the drafts in a more or less logical order, and began reading them consecutively to see if they will really fit. Then I put the notebook aside, went out to lunch and then to visit family. I don't sit here 24 hours a day. I sleep some of those hours, keep my life going, stare out the window--well, that means I am here at the desk. Today I plan not to touch the novel draft at all. I've lived with it daily for the past two weeks and we both need a break, what in teaching circles is called incubation. Let the subconscious chew on it for a while. This does not mean I will sit on the porch eating chocolate all day. All may be the operative word there. A little porch time and chocolate might urge my sub-conscious on to greater glory. Or at least one little idea. Today will be a business day. I have in front of me the submission info for another agent recommended by the last one, so I'll get to cross that query off my list; and I'll survey my short fiction and see what needs to go out again. Some day I might have enough stories for a book, but it would be good to see some of that work in print first. Okay, kids, I'm off to polish my query and get it sent.

Monday, June 16, 2008


Writing every day is a pleasure and a burden. For years I wanted this life, worked toward it in a more or less haphazard way, till time and circumstance plunked me at this desk, with this view and a lot of writing projects on the To-do list. For years I wrote during stolen time--after the children went to sleep, while others were partying, watching TV, exercising, gardening, learning to play the dulcimer. I felt unclothed without a pen in my hand and a notebook at my side or in my lap. Yesterday, for the first time in a couple of years, I did not write morning pages in my journal. It felt weird this morning to see the gap in the dates. I apologized to myself and to the blank page, like I'd ditched work to go see the Celtics play. (As if I could afford that!) The fact that I spent four hours in a writing workshop counted, but not as much as it should. The will to do the private, individual work drives me to honor my job, which is to put words together in a way in which they have never before appeared. No one would know or care if I didn't write, but I would. I wouldn't be myself.

Novel Boot Camp ended yesterday, we parted with a little wrench, and drove off in eleven directions. We have emails for everyone and a deep look into each project, and some will return to the Lighthouse for more workshopping sessions, but I'm on my own again. Granted, I'm better prepared to take on the big job of creating a world and the people in it, but still, it's me and the keyboard, me and the blank page. Stretching the creative muscles keeps me fit, no matter what shape my body might be in. I promise to keep this blog going, because it, like the morning journal, sets the tone for my day's work. But the work, ah, the work. That keeps my life going.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

World Building

Last evening one of the writers in my fiction group talked about world building and logic, big deals for all of writers, whether we know it or not, whether we write speculative stories or the most traditional. We still need to set the scene in such a way that the reader knows the landscape, one room or a thousand acres. However, in sci-fi, fantasy, magical realism, we have a greater responsibility to create logical rules of the local reality. If turtles talk, they talk. Under what circumstances though? Are they understood by other creatures? Can they understand human beings? Do they care to communicate with us? It's writer's choice, but if they can and do, then we accept that skill and read with that condition in place. Turtle talk is, for the length of what John Gardner calls the fictive dream, acceptable, expected, an element that moves the story along. The problem comes when we don't know fairly early on that our turtles speak and all of a sudden we turn a page, come around a corner and there's a turtle on a soap box orating.

A kindly reader will perhaps shake her head and keep going. A less patient one will close the book and go out for coffee, feeling that the writer broke the contract. The book was purring along on the track of a serial killer with a contagious disease, and suddenly we're in another world. Not good. I'm reading, again, Watership Down. The rabbits talk to each other and in a pidgin form to other creatures. Okay, I'm good. But Adams keeps poking his head into the room to tell me in his own voice about Lapine culture. He puts footnotes on many pages explaining the rabbitry vocabulary, but the notes are not neutral. They too are in his voice. Yet no human being is part of the world he has built. So he continually pulls me out of the dream. I'm ignoring him as best I can, but I have to work harder to stick with the story than if he had just built the world according to Hazel (protag) and let me sink into it. Writers cannot always be, as Joyce described it, like God paring his nails and ignoring the story unfolding on the page. We are there, building the world in a lot more than seven days. We have a responsibility to build well and true.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Writers' Groups

Meeting new writers is always a gamble, right? Some groups work well; others feel like a forced march barefoot through mud. I have a warm, smart, helpful group of fellow fiction writers who have taught me a great many things, and I'm more than ever grateful for them. We have leadership, an accomplished writer and teacher who keeps things from spinning out of control. It is possible, desirable, to exert a little control over the creative process. We have a few set procedures: use of prompts, either in group or between meetings; critique of a volunteer's current work; and a regular check-in for writing news. This little system keeps us focused. Would that I could find a poetry group with such endurance and dedication to the writing.

It's not that I haven't tried. I found a meeting place, advertised on line, showed up as promised and we had exactly one meeting. When it became obvious that, as facilitator, I suggested that people actually write poems and share them, the group dissolved like salt in hot water. Then the venue closed (Coffee shops do that.), and I used my line-item budget veto to save the cost of posting on line for new members. So, my poetry pals are still long distance, and I miss them. I'll keep my options open. Go walk the dog and keep writing. Sooner or later, other poets will pop up and I'll get to talk about line breaks and images and rhythms. Sigh!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Why write?

In an email to a good friend and fellow poet, I heard myself say things about why I write. And that insight is part of why I write. Good writing, and I've said it before, changes the way I see the world. When I reach a reader, my words have the potential to change his/her view also. Which statement does not entirely explain it all. I don't intend to preach in poem or in prose, but to show the world as it might be, seen through different eyes. Ellen Cherry Charles is the protag in Robbins' Skinny Legs, and as an artist, she plays what she calls the eye game. She looks intently at a scene or an object and sees potential color, shape, relationships, that were not immediately obvious. That's what we do when we write. If we stop at describing what everyone takes to be the common view, there's no news in that. And Pound says that poetry is "news that stays new." I believe that. I believe it about any genre of creative writing.

My message to my friend was that if we have the gift of gab, the poet's mind, the storyteller's outlook, we have a responsibility to use it, to share it, to put it ahead of other things that might bring us momentary satisfaction (Okay, I confess, I rearranged my book shelves before I sat down to write this morning.), but not inform others of what might be possible if we squint or stare at a thing till it reveals something new. Digging a ditch is important, but not a writer's primary responsibility. Our job is to stare out the window till the scene or stanza takes shape and we can catch it in a wordnet. Granted, sometimes it's catch and release, throw back the idea not big enough to matter. But we keep on fishing. So, dear friends, please put your butt in the chair and a pen in your hand and stare at the Atlantic Ocean, or a pine tree, or a Rocky Mountain 14er, and make me a poem. Tell me a story.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Novel Boot Camp

What a weekend! Saturday and Sunday I spent four hours in a fine workshop about novel writing, led by Bill Henderson, author of Augusta Locke and others. You've probably seen arguments on line and in print about whether or not writing can be taught. I plump down solidly on the + side. (No, not my clothing size, though that's close.) I've been through grad school and learned enroute to an MFA that I could learn much about writing poetry. No one hurt my soul or my skills. I didn't always agree with the instructors, but I learned from them. I don't think I came out of Vermont College writing "like everyone else." I did not sign on to any one school of poetry, did not see the more practiced folks as gurus, didn't grovel to particular publishers. Agents, of course, are extraneous to most of the poetry set. I may yet learn to grovel over the fiction.

Now, with the guidance of Melanie Tem in my fiction writing group, I've learned a thing or twelve about short stories, and with Bill's easy-going approach to the monumental work of novel writing I'm learning again. He has a way of looking for organization without locking oneself into a formula or a tight suit of words. About every third sentence from him is essentially "of course, this may all change as you go along." Keeping that in mind, it feels safe to plan ahead, to try to anticipate where the story might end. Just to keep an eye on the prize, so to speak. The story I'm working on has bedeviled me for years, because it has been totally out of control. With a nudge here and there, I can see a magical realism novel with a focus. It's like riding a spirited but well trained horse, as opposed to a hare-brained, half-broke nut job of a cayoose. I just may get a good ride and end up in a beautiful but safe place. I'll let you know how it goes. KD

Friday, June 6, 2008

Permission Granted

Tom Robbins--again--has a troop of five inanimate objects as characters in Skinny Legs and All. With his assistance, the Spoon, Can O Beans, Dirty Sock, Painted Stick, and Conch attain the ability to move, to express complex ideas, to feel complex feelings. Outrageous! But a perfect example of the range that opens to a novelist not afraid to go boldly where no adult has gone before. Several blogs ago I mentioned my apprehension about a story line that I thought might be too outrageous and beyond my ability to carry off. Not now. Given the example of the Spoon and company (actually Painted Stick is the leader), I think I'm willing to try it. And this could not come at a better time, since Novel Boot Camp startes tomorrow morning. Synchronicity at its finest. I needed a nod and I got one. Not that I realized this initially. I started the Robbins book yesterday morning, and only as I crawled under the covers did it come to me that I had something to learn from him.

During lunch yesterday, my friend Cyndeth and I talked about a lot of things, but of course, part of the conversation involved books. And she mentioned the need to know a wide range of books in order to write. She described a character she had come up with and discussed with another writer only to learn that the name and several characteristics were similar to Mrs. Dalloway! She had yet to read Woolf's great novel and could have been (gasp!) accused of writing derivative stuff. Now, the truth is, yes, we do benefit from wide reading, especially in our chosen genre, but we also write derivatively every time we put words on paper or screen. We share language and human nature and inevitably the inventions overlap. I will not use Spoon et al in my proposed novel, but I will think of the great example Robbins has set for me. And be grateful. Here's to you Mr. Robbins!

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Look at this!

Finally, I figured out how to put my books on the blog! Now I just have to figure out how to clean up the layout. That will come. Seems that my problem was PDF. Just wouldn't cooperate, so I rescanned and saved as jpg and voila. Much better. Now I'm off to have lunch with a good friend and I'll write again tomorrow. Ciao!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Reading my way to Ireland

Maeve Binchy writes books that do one of the wonderful things that I want novels to do. They entertain me and allow what used to be called armchair travel. For years I have dreamed of living in Ireland, but given the circumstances of my life and the despiccable state of our economy, that hasn't happened. Instead of living in County Clare, I read Binchy's stories. They do a lot for me because one of the things I love about Ireland is the people. During my two visits, I felt welcome and safe. People went out of their way to be helpful. The people rule in Binchy's books. Right now I'm two thirds through The Copper Beech, a novel made of stories about the population of a village called Shancarrig. Each section focuses on one well developed character, but includes the relationships with others who have been or will soon be featured. The structure, for a novel, is intriguing because we hear about the same time frame in the life of the village from different angles. A character who might seem cold and distant in one view becomes warm and vulnerable in another. And isn't that real?

I pondered yesterday on the expectations of a reader, the ability to pick up a book and judge it not by its cover, but by its author. I know what to expect from Binchy, and she does not disappoint. When I need a fix of Irish life, I depend on her characters to supply it. I wonder if she ever tires of being consistent, wants to write about sheep farming in Australia, or mountain climbing here in the Rockies. Clearly, she has not exhausted her material. And it's not a case of writing what you know, because we all know and can never know human nature. That's her real subject. The Irish landscape and life are specific and necessary, but the behavior of her characters will never be fully plumbed. KD

Tuesday, June 3, 2008


What a relief to have cleared much of my to-do list and face writing for the next couple of weeks. I start a workshop at the end of this week called Novel Boot Camp, and I look forward to being a student again, and to coming out of this two-weekend intensive with a good start on a book that has long defied my ability to finish it. I think that's because I've started with a thin idea and put a great many other projects ahead of it. The original nugget came to me at least seven years ago. Maybe my subconscious has worked out the problems. The story line will be speculative, to say the least, but that seems to be where I do my favorite work. As I survey the fiction that I have finished, the stories I like best are a result of a big, bizarre what if--aliens invade a church sanctuary, a young girl reverts to a past life persona, a deluded woman kills herself when she thinks she's poisoning her "husband" who does not exist. That sort of thing.

It took lots of words on screen and on paper to see that this is my thing. Amy Tan has her Chinese-American family focus, Louise Erdritch a tribal focus, Tom Robbins a carnival of words and images overlaying big ideas, etc. Finally, I see my own. This, of course, leaves me mourning those bits that don't fit the category, some good pieces that would disappoint the expectations of a reader--blessed be the day--who has come to expect a certain weirdness from me. Of course, my long-time favorite writer is John Fowles, a man not afraid to vary his focus, from the bizarre and convoluted Magus to the straight forward mystery of The Collector to the historical romance of The French Lieutenant's Woman. Maybe Emerson is right, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." The key here is that word foolish. Wisdom is knowing when to step off the path and strike out for the badlands. Now that I have figured out my own deal, I'll at least know when I've left it behind.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Odd Bedfellows/gals

Here's an odd connection: I just finished reading Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, all 19th century and a mile wide. It focuses on the fortunes--romantic and monetary--of a semi-wealthy family in England, as experienced through the viewpoint of the eldest daughter, sensible Elinor. The premise is that good girls marry honest, upstanding, respected men, and with a "living" on which they can depend. Clothes, manners, social connections drive this system, and when one fails the system, censure is immediate. The clever foil for Elinor is a girl of less than wonderful qualities, Lucy Steele, who does a good-enough job of fitting in and manages to marry well, wins the affection of her sour but wealthy mother-in-law, and ends as Elinor's sister-in-law. It's a girly thing.

Then yesterday I saw, in company with half a dozen other women, Sex and the City. Among other things, this film is Jane Austen on steroids! It's clearly a girly thing, all about clothes, sex, and marriage. At one point, the wedding dress becomes a trap for Carrie, the main character. Shoes and handbags figure heavily. And there's another similarity: both the book and the film manage plot lines for several women at once, and their positions in their culture. Each of the four famous friends in the film has her own story woven into the whole. In the book, three young women provide a similar structure. Almost two centuries later, after all the bra-burning, protests, and progress (We very nearly had a viable female candidate for Pres!), our popular image is still what we wear and whom we marry. To be sure, the graphic sex in the film sets it clearly in our time, but the underlying themes are twins. Fun, but nothing new. We still love Cinderella. KD

Friday, May 30, 2008

Techno Tango

Well, talk about confirmation of belief! I just finished my usual two paragraphs, this time about the ways that on-line messages and submissions may or may not work. And when I hit post, the whole thing disappeared! Now I have other things on the list, kids, so I'll just make my point and move on: faith is the belief in things unseen. Have faith that I did blog today and will likely do so tomorrow. You just cannot see it. Yet. Keep the faith, KD

Thursday, May 29, 2008

A Good Day

Yesterday and today (so far) are good days. Last evening I went to a meeting of my fiction group. Our usual fearless leader was away, so we were a little loose in getting organized, but we managed. Of the seven people at the table, four had new work, written in response to that ET prompt I mentioned last week. As always, I was amazed at how varied were the responses to the same prompt. In one story the ET's were Flatlanders, with a twist, of course; in the next the astronomer presented the ET, modeled on the Roswell NM descriptions; the third twisted the original prompt so that the ET was the astronomer's brother, a green, foul smelling creature, and then there was my stunned priest coping with ET's who took sanctuary in his sanctuary. We had a great time.

This was on top of finally making myself send out a query to yet another agent for a book that has been in the making for years. I have not had much success with writing a synopsis, a task that goes against the grain because it requires telling, rather than showing. But the book sure won't get read sitting in my file box. So off it went. And today I will mail the ms for the poetry contest. Then do some work for The Cafe Review, and that will clear the decks before I start Novel Boot Camp a little over a week from now. I still have to force myself to do these business letters and submissions. They are not nearly as satisfying as composing a new poem or story. But I know that they may lead to readers, and I want readers.