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23 Nov

My last post was six months ago.  I’ve missed all of you.  DSC01687

My excuses?  Being back in Corvallis where we can hang out with dear friends and family; several birthday parties including my own; two Saturdays of highly successful fiction writing workshops (See the underexposed photo of Linda Elin Hamner and me, both of us excited about sharing with a roomful of writers).  Add in several delightful Monday afternoon memoir workshops — a new teaching setting for me — each writer with an important  story to tell.

My last session of chemo was in mid-July, and so, now with new energy, I’m walking, swimming, and getting many things done for the first time since last December.  What joy I took in pruning the neglected roses, washing some musty windows, doing research on how to self-publish the fourth Katie book, Second-Chance Summer. By the way, my first step was to read the manuscript through — the first time in a year.  I was overjoyed to find it’s still a good book!

Some self-publishing companies mark up their printing costs to cut into author royalties.  Some have unfriendly contracts.  CreateSpace offers a direct line to Kindle and Amazon and uses its own printer; the others use Lightning Source as a printer.  BookBaby seems to be user-friendly, mostly because fellow writer Margaret Anderson says a real person will answer the phone when you call.  I’ve almost decided, however, to go with Wasteland Press because of its friendly contract and ratings, and because it has a policy of a good number of “free” paperbacks to the author, which recoups some of the cost.

The cover artist, Tuesday Mourning,  has sent the new cover artwork, and it is beautiful.  When Second-Chance Summer is available in paperback and e-book, you’ll see fireworks in this part of town.

DSC01705The newest member of the family

Salty, a rescue dog, came to us in late October after a long search.  She’s too big to be on Jerry’s lap (notice her long legs dangling off), but try telling her that!  Seven months old, and growing.  Yes, we call her “Salty Dog” after the bluegrass tune (and the drink).

Some good books

DSC01690The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston.  (One of the “Top Ten Literary Memoirs” on a website I found.)  I’m a third of the way through and am captivated by her ability to tell stories.  Her message, which isn’t immediately apparent is a powerful argument against the denigration of girls in Chinese culture, and for recognizing the worth of writers.

I also re-read The Grapes of Wrath along with Working Days, which is the journal John Steinbeck kept while writing the novel.  He wrote the entire book during the summer of 1938 after doing what must have been a marathon of mental plotting.  His goal was to write 2000 words a day.  I loved it that he lost confidence in the middle of the writing and had to force himself to continue.  Sound familiar?

A Powerful Prompt for Memoir Writers

The writers in my summer memoir workshop could not stop writing once they got going on this.  Furthermore, the resulting drafts were good ones:  filled with emotion — anger, understanding, compassion.  This three-part prompt will also work for you.  Try it!

1.  Write for ten minutes about the mysteries that existed when you were young.  Begin with “When I was young, I didn’t know . . . “

When I was young, I didn’t know why my dad scolded my mother for loading up the kitchen cupboards with canned goods.  “One of these days, they’ll fall down,” he said.  I also didn’t know why Mother insisted that I dress up more than all the other kids.  Hat and gloves?  Sheesh!  Or why I could invite some children in to play, and not others.  The more I think about this, the more questions come up.

2.  Write for ten minutes about what you DID know about those cupboards or the dressing up or whatever.

3.  Finally, write as long as you can, beginning with the word “MAYBE.”

Maybe my mother remembered the depression and thought we might run out of food.  Maybe Dad thought she was hoarding, and did she think he was going to lose his job? Maybe he was embarrassed by her need to hoard . . .

If you can write in response to this prompt, I would love to hear how it went.

Happy Thanksgiving!  And to all of you who are participating in the “Write a Novel in a Month,” I send the best of luck.  You’re almost done!



2 Apr


Before we start talking about delicious books, please mark your calendars for two Saturdays in Corvallis:  June 15 and June 22.  Linda Elin Hamner and I will team-teach fiction basics:  characters, dialogue, plot, and fantastic beginnings.  If you know of someone who might be interested, please let them know.  More details later, or e-mail me.

The Tucson Festival of Books

On March 9 and 10, Book Heaven came to town in the form of the wonderful festival held on the U of A campus. Completely organized and run by volunteers, this is the fifth year for this amazing festival.  With more than 100,000 attendees, 450 authors, and over 300 exhibitors, the annual Tucson Festival of Books   is one of the top five book festivals in the U.S.  with author signings and presentations, writing workshops, vendor booths, and more.  Sounds like heaven?  YES!

I studied the massive schedule and chose to attend five panels. The first one featured Chang-Rae Lee, Korean-American novelist and Pulitzer nominee, whose writing is described as lush, sensuous.  His latest book is The Surrender.  He’s fascinated, he said, by accents and voices, perhaps because when he came to the U.S. at the age of five, he could not speak English, had to listen hard to learn the language.  He loves seeing his characters persevere in the face of adversity.  To him, endurance is triumph.  Mary Doria Russell, author of Doc, which Jerry and I read and enjoyed last year, said she loves expressing the strength of family.  She wanted to present a picture of the Doc Holiday who was formed by his very strong Southern family — not the gambler we think of.

I went to the next panel to see Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife,  and enjoyed her account of how her own life echoed the life of her main character (impending divorce) at the time she was writing.  Also at the table was Chitra Divakaruni, Indian-American author of Oleander Girl, Sister of my Heart, and The Mistress of Spices.  The third author was Alice LaPlante, who wrote a book I loved, Turn of Mind, told from the amazing viewpoint of a woman who is accused of murder, but who has Alzheimers.  All three talked about sisters, friendship, and women in changing cultures.   They love it, they said, when readers attribute deep meanings to their writing — meanings they themselves didn’t realize were there.  Chitra observed that she thinks the text may have its own intelligence, its own life, and the author is only part of it.

The next panel featured Ann Hood, author of 13 books, the latest one, The Obituary Writer, which I just finished reading on my Kindle.  I recommend this book, beautifully written as sort of a mystery, but full of compassion for all those who grieve. When she was asked where that seemingly endless compassion comes from, she told us about her daughter’s death and how she fully recalls the pain of the years that followed.  When she was finally able to write again, she wrote The Knitting Circle in which the characters are facing grief.  Her latest book, not out yet, is an edited one, Knitting Yarns, with essays contributed by Jane Smiley and many other well-known authors

Finally, I went to see Susan Vreeland who wrote Girl in Hyacinth Blue,  but the star of that panel was actually B.A. Shapiro, whose book, The Art Forger, I immediately downloaded onto my Kindle. Her knowledge of the details of fine art, painting, and forgery are fabulous.  As I read, I was right there dabbing paint alongside of the very likeable protagonist.  This tense forgery story is based on the actual 1990 art heist from the Gardner Museum in Boston — a mystery that’s just now beginning to be solved according to an AP account of March  19 (

The pile of books in the photo above includes a mystery, Burn, by Nevada Barr who was also at the Festival, ( I liked it, even though it was creepy); a dated, but fun book — Sea Jade by Phyllis Whitney;  a mystery by Louise Penny; and Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather.  Also, I just read two new-to-me memoirs:  Ruth Reichl‘s Not Becoming My Mother and Joan Dideon‘s Blue Nights in prep for a memoir workshop I’ll do on April 18.

Happy reading to you! 

Happy Reading!

21 Dec

DSC01538As you can see, the poinsettias grow huge in Arizona, and guess what!  You can leave them out on the porch if you want to.

I’ve been cookie baking, wrapping presents, going to concerts, and, of course, hiking the trails.  We’ll both go out to Catalina State Park tomorrow — Jerry to climb to Romero Pools, me to trek Romero loop, which is not quite so strenuous.

While I wait for him to reappear, I’ll sit under a Palo Verde tree and read.  Right now, I’m reading two books at once.  The short one, which is almost due back to the library, is  The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce.  Quick synopsis:  Harold, recently retired and in a loveless marriage, gets a letter from an old friend who is dying.  He very abruptly decides to walk 600 miles, the length of Great Britain, to deliver his reply in person.  He believes that as long as he walks, his friend Queenie will live. As he travels, he relives his life, meets people as crazy as he is, and reconciles his losses and regrets.

I love this book because I love Harold.  And hey, I want Queenie to stay alive as much as he does.

The second book, a longer one, is by one of my favorite writers — Richard Russo.  Nobody’s Fool is funny because of the quirky characters and their wonderful dialogue.  I quote from the back cover:  “[This] novel follows the unexpected operation of grace in a deadbeat town in upstate New York — and in the life of one of its unluckiest citizens, Sully, who has been doing the wrong thing triumphantly for fifty years.”

These characters delight me because of their humanity, their flaws, and their wonderful sense of humor.  Nothing beats the treasure of laughter.

May your coming days be filled with good books, good friends, and most important of all — love and laughter.

Write About the Holidays

26 Nov

Jerry and me with the Saguaros

What do Tucsonans do on their holidays?  Thanksgiving Day, Jerry and I climbed the trails in Catalina State Park along with hundreds of other people.  They weren’t there for the silence or roadrunners or coyotes or javelinas.  Holidays in Tucson are the grand excuse for the whole family to get out hiking — wishing Happy Thanksgiving to everyone they encounter on the trail.

Last year, we first discovered this tradition on New Year’s Day in the Tucson Mountains.  These trails are not gentle pathways; the grandparents, the moms and dads with a baby in the sling, and all the little ones climb up amazingly rugged terrain.  Once they reach the viewpoints they hand cameras to anyone who will point and shoot their happy group.

Thursday, after we returned from Catalina State Park, we put the turkey into the oven and read our books out on the deck.  Clear skies; temps in the low 80s.  See the photo below.  Lucky us!

Here’s a Writing Prompt

Holiday traditions are often memorable.  Janet Burroway in her book, Writing Fiction (see earlier post), tells a story of two picnics — one in which the weather is fine, the food is delicious, everyone gets along.  Ho hum.

Then she tells about the picnic when the blanket was spread on top of a nest of ants, there was no corkscrew for the wine, rain suddenly poured down, and during the dash back to the car, they were chased by a mad bull.

Which picnic is worth writing about?  Looking back at your own life, which holiday tradition or dinner is worth writing about?  The ones that had some disastrous element, of course.

So here’s the prompt:

Write about a holiday dinner or other tradition that has stuck in your mind for some reason.   Take us to your table with specific and sensory details — Name names like the mushroom dressing that Rebecca hates, Christopher’s buttery yeast rolls, Grandma Jan’s famous apple pie.  Give us all the smells.  Let us hear the ticking of the grandfather clock or the football game still on in the other room.  Let us see the faces of the people around the table, including the way they chew, or how they go to the kitchen to sneak more wine.  Let us hear some dialogue, especially the kind of talk that raises questions, creates tension.

A Bit About Craft — Powerful Verbs

Once you’ve written your holiday piece, go back and kill the adverbs.  Adverbs are weak compared to nouns and verbs.  Am I suggesting that we NEVER use them?  Not at all.  After all,  think of J.K.Rowling and Vickram Seth, author of A Suitable Boy, one of my favorite books.  They love adverbs, and they have certainly done well.  However, I think the rest of us should treat adverbs with great suspicion.

Why is that?

Instead of grabbing an adverb, let’s take the time to discover a strong verb – one that won’t need an adverb to make its meaning clear.  Let’s take the verb “to walk.”  At first, we’re lazy and use the following adverbs:  He walked briskly, slowly, haltingly, fearfully, quietly, erratically, despondently, crookedly, uprightly, evenly.  You can think of more adverbs, but don’t do it.  Instead . . .

Take a moment to replace “walked plus adverb” with one word that does the same job.  “Marched,” “sauntered,” “hobbled,” “tiptoed,” and so on.  Thinking up these new verbs takes brain energy, but your new verb shouts out specific meaning for your reader and your writing takes on the energy you gave it.  Besides all that, each time you replace a verb and an adverb with one strong verb, you save a word and lower your overall word count.

Time to soak up some sun.

Day after Thanksgiving, 2012

See you next time.

Powerful Prose

6 Nov

Bite That Bullet

Recurrent ovarian cancer is not curable; it’s manageable . . .  with diet, exercise, and chemo.  My future will undoubtedly be a series of chemo and remission, chemo and remission.  Many women manage to do this and maintain a good quality of life for many years.

Last April, even though my CT scans showed tumors, I decided to put off chemo because I felt too healthy.  Chemo makes you sick, and I didn’t want to go there.  Also, the research shows that starting chemo right away as opposed to later doesn’t seem to make an overall difference; it may just add up to more chemo and a lower quality of life.   I’ve continued to feel great, and we’ve had a super wonderful healthy energetic carefree delightful summer and fall.  Unfortunately,  in spite of all those adjectives, a miracle didn’t happen.  My cancer has continued to grow.  I’m now scheduling four rounds of chemo, starting soon after Thanksgiving.

All this is to say that I remember my chemo brain of two years ago.  This blog may go in spurts and pauses for a while.  What I say may not even make any sense.  Who knows what my befuddlement will bring us.  It could be interesting.  Stay tuned.

Power in our Writing

A couple of years ago, I taught a course called Powerful Prose.  The first class was a banquet as we tasted our wonderful language — listening to the noise words make.  We filled our platters with alliteration, made-up words, preposterous ideas. We talked about why some phrases are “catchy”:  Leave it to Beaver; Breaking Bad; Gone With the Wind; Make Love Not War; Power of the Press; and so on.  (Why are those memorable?  Is it because of the shortness of the words?  The repetition of consonants?  The rhyme?)

All of the above.

Learn to Listen

Little children are tuned into the sounds of words.  “Trip Trap Trip Trap went the three billy goats gruff.”  “Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin.”  These lines NEED to be read out loud.  Once we begin to read silently, we lose some ability to listen to the sounds of words.   How can we get that back?

For starters, in class, we made lists of words that intrigue and delight us.  We shared these with a buddy, speaking each word with great attention to how it feels in the mouth, how it hits the air.  My list had these words: artichoke, bountiful, bodacious, outlandish, to name a few.   Parsimonious . . . a good one.  I want to say this word over and over.  I keep a back page of my notebook for more words:  punctilious, scappoose, plainsong, brunch.

Fool Around

In class, we read out loud from Gertrude Stein, Jabberwocky, and a Just-So story.  Nonsense flowed, and we began to loosen up our ideas of what makes a proper sentence, a proper story.  We noticed prose rhythms, the effects of consonants and vowels, long words, short sentences.  We noticed powerful verbs that surprised us with flexibility of meaning.   At home, you can reach for a book of poems or prose by a good writer.  Forget about meaning.  Read out loud, with great attention to the sounds.  PERFORM them.  Have fun.

“Steering the Craft” by Ursula K. Le Guin

Writing Prompt

Many of these ideas come from Ursula LeGuin through her book, Steering The Craft.
On page 26,  BEING GORGEOUS, she says:

Write a paragraph to a page (150-300 words) of narrative that’s meant to be read aloud.  Use onomatopoeia, alliteration, repetition, rhythmic effects, made-up words or names, dialect — any kind of sound-effect you want.

Write it for children, if that’s the only way you can give yourself permission to do it.   Have fun, cut loose, play around with word sounds and rhythms.  This is a read-aloud piece, performance prose.

This can be done more than once, by the way, as a warm-up piece.  I’m interested in what happens when YOU follow this prompt.  Did you find a voice that you don’t often use?  Did you hate doing this?  Love it?  Share the piece in your writer’s group.  It’s not for critique; it’s for enjoying.  Please let me know what happens.

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.