Archive | October, 2012

Lucy Farewell and Kim Stafford’s Memoir

23 Oct

Lucy at Walker Lake

Two weeks ago we had to say goodbye to a dear friend, our dog Lucy.  She was with us for fourteen years and was a champion soccer player and wonderful hiking companion.  Yellow labs have to be the best; she never stopped trying to please us, never stopped loving us.  She’s featured in Second-Chance Summer, my latest book for kids, which gives me another good reason to get that book out into the world.  This photo is of a quilted wall hanging made for me in 2004 by writer Bett Kearl.  She kept asking for a photo of Lucy, and this beautiful piece was the result.

What am I reading?

I’m excited to share a new book — memoir — written by Kim Stafford, Director of the NW Writing Institute at Lewis & Clark College in Portland.  I’ve loved his writing for years.

100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: How My Brother Disappeared is Stafford’s attempt to make sense of his brother’s suicide at age 40.   Beautifully written in short memory bursts, he shows us the closeness of two brothers, only a year apart in age, as they grow up in the fifties.  They are there for each other until, imperceptibly, the disappearing begins.  A kind of unknowing, a not paying enough attention,  Seeing changes that are at first overlooked and then denied. 

I learned about this book from the Grassroots Bookstore newsletter and, best of all,  the fine people at the store added a link to Stafford’s blog about writing the book.  He called it “How a Book Can Set You Free.”

From that essay, we learn that Stafford “built” this book using techniques that my former students will recognize, going back into memory to reconstruct little pictures — vignettes.  For example, he writes a short piece about their night-time ritual when they were small boys.  Another piece is about the time he had no gift for his brother.  There was a camping trip to the foot of Broken Top, and so on.  The book is made up of these short pieces, not necessarily in chronological order, but making sense, adding up to a whole.  In his post, he tells us how he sat down with the newly published book for the first time in his hands and began to read a story that might have been written by someone else.

I followed him through the 1960s—a puritan in the summer of love, a pacifist in the era of the Draft. I followed him through the drama of early love, first jobs, wandering, then marriage. Working the fire crew in high peaks, as lightning played over the mountains chanting with his buddies, “Strike! Strike!” Eager for fire . . . his music . . . his reticence . . . I leaned closer. What was about to happen?

I cried for him as I read. He caught me. But his story was no longer a stone harnessed to my heart. My heart was not carrying him any more. I had been released from this lonesome duty, for his story was in a book in my hands. And the story had a resolution that consoled me, as by a voice beyond myself. 

As you write your own story, I hope this wondrous thing -this sense of resolution — will happen to you.  During the writing, we worry about what people will think –especially family members.  We recoil from going back to face the demons, relive the horrors.  But as we keep writing, we rise above our fears and regrets; we make a kind of sense of them.  And maybe, (I hope) we even forgive ourselves.  It’s this powerful, supremely satisfying sense of resolution that makes me want to read (and write) memoir.

I respect those of you who dare to write memoir.   I give you my deepest sympathy for the pain you may have to relive.  But I also send my hearty congratulations!  You are strong.  Keep rowing that boat.  We’re there rowing with you, all of us together in this life.

Do You Need a Prompt?

Probably not, after reading what’s above.  Get going on those vignettes.  Little paragraphs, filled with as many sensory details as you can manage.  Toss these into a shoebox for safe keeping.  Who knows?  One of these days, the little pieces will add up to a book.



10 Oct

“Turkey Monster Thanksgiving” in the forefront

Weekend before last, I signed books in Florence, Oregon, at the second annual Festival of Books.  A very nicely organized, easy-to-do festival, but still not enough children coming through.  Perhaps, next year, the organizers will get more buzz into the schools.

Can you see the wall hanging in the photo?  Created by my friend, Jan Dymond, it’s a Velcro-The-Beak-on-the -Turkey mural.  At book signings for kids, we hang it lower and let the kids go at it. 

The children who came by loved the cover illustrations of the Katie Jordan series.  Almost every child who picked up a copy, wanted to own one.   Check out Tuesday Mourning, the illustrator.  I’m hoping she’ll illustrate the cover of Second-Chance Summer.


Here it is, the famous wedding necklace.  It’s done; it’s beautiful, and Amy loves it.

Amy’s necklace

Made of pearls and silver-lined crystal seed beads, it sparkles more than in the picture.  One of the nicest pieces I’ve ever beaded, and it went beautifully with the gorgeous gown my daughter wore last Saturday.  What does beading have to do with writing?  Think about how they both get done:  bead by bead, and WORD BY WORD!  Tiny building blocks that eventually lead to something good.


One of my favorite books about writing, this book by Anne Lamott is full of good solid advice and enthusiasm about writing.  Why this title?  She tells us that many years ago, her ten-year-old brother was assigned a paper about birds.  He had spent three months, gathering information, books, paper and pencils,but was immobilized by the project. The night before the paper was due, with nothing yet written, he went in despair to his father.

“Then my father sat down beside him,” Lamott writes, “put his arm around my brother’s shoulders and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy.  Just take it bird by bird’.”


Lamott believes that we are often stymied by the huge task in front of us.  She suggest “short assignments,” writing only as much as will fit into a one-inch picture frame.   For example, she suggest we write one paragraph that “describes the main character the very first time we meet her, when she first walks out the front door and onto the porch.”  She continues:   “I am not even going to describe the expression on her face when she first notices the blind dog sitting behind the wheel of her car — just what I can see through the one-inch picture frame. “

Can you limit yourself to such small writing exercises?  Of course, you can.  Will they get you closer to writing a book?  Of course, they will.

E.L. Doctorow said, “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night.  You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott

Lamott is famous for her advice about SHITTY FIRST DRAFTS.  Good advice, because it gives us permission to let go of the perfectionism that halts us in mid-sentence.   Writing a shitty first draft, she says, is how we get to good second drafts and terrific third drafts.   This is the way all writers do it, she says, except for one person, and she doesn’t really like that person.

Humor.  Insightful advice.  The certainty that she encounters the same problems that challenge all of us.  We are not alone.