You’re Alive for a Reason

alive for a reasonOne of my nieces posted this picture on Facebook this morning, and I’m pretty sure it showed up because I needed to hear it.

In my literature class this quarter, we’re reading monster books — Frankenstein, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. It’s a learning community combining English 101 (college composition) with an introduction to literature. Fifty-five students, many of them Running Start (that is, High School) students. It’s been a slog. I keep reminding myself that even when I assign “great” literature, my students tend not to be English majors, and they are often non-readers.

A long time ago, when my children were small, I read a book called Kids Are Worth It by Barbara Colorosa. The title says it all — even when your children misbehave, don’t listen, embarass you by refusing to come out of the big climbing tunnel in McDonalds, they’re still perfectly good little human beings experimenting with what works for them. It’s not personal, Mom or Dad. It’s just what kids do.

Students, too. Even when they gripe about the books I assign. Even when they plagiarize the paper on Wuthering Heights. Even when they check their smart phones all through class and think I don’t see them.

We talked in class today about how one of the things an author might be dramatizing by writing about a vampire or another undead sort is how hard it is to be human.

So, just for the record, I want to tell you that students are worth it, even when they’re monsters. And so am I.


annie and daisyCatastrophe fits this post because I’m here to tell you about the death of a brave soul, our cat Daisy. Daisy joined our family in September of 2001 and I thought of her as our 9/11 cat, as that was when she showed up at my college, looking for handouts, and my feelings of helplessness and vulnerability led me to take her home. She was never as tame as our other cats, but my daughter Annie persevered in turning her into her best friend. On Valentine’s Day we learned that Daisy’s persistent difficulties with an infection stemmed from a tumor in her eye cavity. It was too late to do anything except let her go.

Catastrophe has a really cool etymology, and I’m pleased to learn that it was in use in the 16th century (the century in which my novel is set, and yes there is a cat in my novel):

catastrophe (n.) Look up catastrophe at
1530s, “reversal of what is expected” (especially a fatal turning point in a drama), from Latin catastropha, from Greek katastrophe “an overturning; a sudden end,” from katastrephein “to overturn, turn down, trample on; to come to an end,” from kata “down” (see cata-) + strephein “turn” (see strophe). Extension to “sudden disaster” is first recorded 1748.

And just to round things out, here’s a poem about my daughters.

On this Earth

             “in which / all the characters who died in the middle chapters /
            make the sunsets near the book’s end more beautiful.” – Tony Hoagland 

All the sunsets are not more beautiful
but sometimes one is. Sometimes
the moon is so fulsome in its fullness
it’s like a soccer ball my daughters have left out
in the cul de sac, that close, that round and white.

I rest my foot on it and feel
for a moment the gravity of the earth
tugging us both from our orbits.
Sometimes the moon hangs there–
drop-dead gorgeous in her negligee of clouds–
I take my daughters out in their pajamas to see it.

I take them out in the night air knowing fully
what a cliché we are, I am, never forgetting
the poetry workshop advice to forget hearts and moons.

But knowing, too, that someday I will be gone
and for my daughters, some nights, the moon
will be more beautiful because I was here
on this earth with them, though I couldn’t stay.

daisyThe veternarian reminded us that cats live in the moment, and that’s partly what they seem to be here to teach us. She said, “Go ahead and cry, but try to think some happy thoughts for Daisy, too, because she’ll feel your emotions.” Goodbye, Daisy.


coyote-glancing_510_600x450I have been sick for a few days with the flu…ack! But meanwhile Kathleen Flenniken has posted my poem, “Hunger,” at her Washington State Poet Laureate blog, The Far Field. It’s a wonderful site.

And I was raised to say “Ki-yotes.” Not ki-yo-tee. (Kathleen was, too, and I think this may be why she chose this particular poem.) Photo credit to

Blog Hop: The Next Big Thing (Part II)

450px-Nathaniel_Hawthorne_statue_-_Salem,_MassachusettsIn my previous post I shared with you one thing I’ve been doing lately, which is visiting blogs and looking for someone to tag. I also regularly visit a number of blogs of journals or in association with books, The Pen and the Bell, and the Superstition Review and Blackbird sites, and Canary (Hip Pocket Press). I need to make it a priority to get these linked on my opening page.

Another great site for Washington State poets — and for any lover of poetry — is our Poet Laureate site, a blog curated by poet extraordinaire Kathleen Flenniken.

There, now I think I’ve cleared my throat sufficiently to respond to these interview questions.

1. What is the title of your book? Is it a working title?

I hope to goodness it is not a working title. For the past decade I’ve been working on a “parallel novel” which takes up where Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter leaves off. Mind you, I have not worked on it continuously. In fact, I have three other novels in draft (and waiting for me to return to them). But over the last two years I have had an agent and have been putting PEARL’S ALCHEMY through rewrites.

2. Where did the idea for your book come from? 3. Who and/or what inspired you to write your book?

My doctoral dissertation (completed in 1995) centered on The Scarlet Letter, looking at “female bastards” throughout American literature. (Great fun.) Reading, rereading and teaching TSL made those little questions that nag readers (especially “What happens to Pearl?” and “Why does Roger Chillingworth leave her his entire estate?”) loom. I wrote an article, which was published in Studies in the Novel, and in The Norton Critical Edition of the novel. And at some point around 2001 or 02 I started writing out sketches in my morning journal.

4. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I wrote what looked like a chapter about once a month. I’d reread and make more notes, and eventually I’d scribble a little more. Then a friend started a novel workshop and that gave me the momentum to get the dang thing typed.

5. What genre does your book fall under?

That’s a great question for this particular book. For the first few years I classified it in the historical category, and Young Adult (YA). I found three agents who were willing to look at it, and two who (I felt) would have liked to take it, but didn’t know how to market it to an audience too young to have read the original novel. Then a friend and I met Gail Tsukiyama (The Samurai’s Garden, Women of the Silk) at a writing conference and we were inspired to trade novels and give each other some feedback and encouragement. She was a high school English teacher and her first comment was, “This is not a young adult novel. It’s a literary novel.” So I spent the next year rewriting it, and after that found representation with agent Elizabeth Wales.

6. What books would you compare yours to in your chosen genre?

I would love to see PEARL’S ALCHEMY compared to anything by Geraldine Brooks. My favorite of her books is The Year of Wonders. My agent thinks that Girl with a Pearl Earring makes a good companion novel.

7. What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book?

After spending her entire eleven years in the shadow of her mother’s scarlet letter, Pearl Prynne wants to know who she really is; when she’s befriended by a lonely old man and an African girl who works in the house where he boards, she begins to believe there is a place for her and possibly a world larger than the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

At one time I had a sharper one, but that’s what I can come up with on the spot.

8. Do you have a publisher, or will you self-publish your book or seek representation?

I have an agent, which of course does not guarantee a publishing contract. At present I am putting the novel through what I am calling “the unassailable” rewrite. This time through, I have figured out how to “do” tension (it’s one of those things that I can see in novels I read and teach, but it has proven shockingly elusive in practice). I am wildly hopeful that this is going to find a publisher.

9. What actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie or to read your work for a recording?

My brain refuses to wrap around this question.

10. What else about your book might pique readers’ interest?

I’ve always believed that readers of The Scarlet Letter will be compelled to give my novel a look (as you might guess, there are MANY parallel novels to TSL; however, I think I “get” Hawthorne in a way that no one else thus far has…that’s my grandiose voice talking). On the other hand, I’ve had a couple of readers who never got around to reading TSL and they report that that was no obstacle.

Pearl3I hope that I’ve brought Pearl to life in an unexpected and at the same time completely Hawthornian way. When I haven’t been in utter torment, I’ve had great fun on the journey. If it is not asking too much, I’d like to finish this rewrite in the next month or so…and move on…to the next big thing.

So thanks for asking. And, yes, I will keep you posted.

MY NEXT BIG THING — My Sojourn in the Blogosphere

spiral-galaxy-ngc1232-1600Thanks to Jennifer Bullis for tagging me in this Blog Hop. I could not have chosen a busier week of the quarter — two new sets of papers waiting to be graded, a new lesson to plan, a teaching retreat over the weekend to prepare for…but I said I’d do it, and here I am.

As part of the blog hop, I’m supposed to tag several blogs — this is supposed to be prearranged and all very tidy and organized. But it seems that the bloggers I read are just as busy as I am, and no one has gotten back to me. So I am merely going to TELL you about some blogs that I visit, and hope that some alchemy will take place.

I have a few bloggers who follow me — and I follow them. If you’ve been reading me for very long, you’ve probably visited Kathleen Kirk’s Wait! I Have a Blog? If you haven’t, I am happy to recommend her. (The Valentine’s Day post is especially swell.) While you’re there, hop on over to EIL (Escape into Life), the on-line Arts Journal (and blog) that she edits.

I frequently link to Priscilla Long‘s professional blog sponsored by American Scholar, but I can’t mention blogs without referring you to her, so here it is.

Abbie Johnson Taylor’s Abbie’s Corner  is a blog to visit when you’re feeling down. She is a poet, a fiction writer, a memoirist, and a full-time human being who I have grown to admire greatly. Someday I’m going to find out if we’re related through my maternal grandmother, whose maiden name was Taylor.

Amanda Laughtland’s A Teeny Tiny Blog is a must see for anyone who loves teeny tiny poetry — or poetry, generally.

I have several good friends who blog — occasionally. Although Deep Grace of Theory does not have any recent posts, it is one of my favorite go-to places for serious thinking about serious things, and links to more such places.

My friend Shawna is launching a new career as a wellness coach, very busy on Facebook and Pinterest, but she also has a blog, Shawna Michels Lifestyle Coaching. Who knows? If I tag her maybe she’ll start taking it more seriously. If you want to change your food, she’ll help change your life.

Carol Dunn used to work for the American Red Cross, and she is the creator behind the 2Resilience’s Blog, which is a great resource for information about disasters. She hasn’t been posting for a while and I hope it’s because she’s writing a bodice-ripping novel about pirates.

Finally, my dear friend Carla Shafer is the mover and shaker behind Chuckanut Sandstone Readers Theatre and all sorts of other literary doings in Bellingham.

I know that I have some other lurkers on my site who blog — I’ve met them at the It’s About Time readings at the Ballard Public Library (click on the link to find a schedule of upcoming readings). This reading series was founded by my friend Esther Helfgott, a Seattle poet, writer, and writing coach.

I’ll see you in Part II, with my answers to the interview questions. breidjul09

Getting It Done

On Wednesday my Creative Nonfiction students have to turn in a rough draft of their Big, True Story. I went into today’s class determined to make a last-ditch effort to get them to think about narrative arc.

Not that it’s the only way,  or the best way, but I like to look at stories through the hero’s journey. Well, I like to, but — I admit — the hero’s journey doesn’t always work for me. I’ve looked at a model called the heroine’s journey, too, but there’s always something slightly “off.”  It has to do with not taking it quite so literally. You can’t cut a story out with a pattern. It has to come from a very deep place inside of you.

Candle1Today — partly because of a conversation I’m having with a friend via email, partly because of a big break-through in my story during my foil-star time in the morning, and partly as a function of having a 35-minute drive to work, plus as a result of my plan to talk about graphic stories in class today — I came up with a graphic model of the hero’s journey. I don’t think I’m talented enough to represent it here — graphically — but if you email me at I can send you a PDF of it.

I gave each stage of the journey one box, sometimes a circle (for mentor and for inmost cave), sometimes a quick series of smaller boxes (ordeal, seizing the sword, and road back). As often happens when I attempt to teach something visually, I got a big lightning-flash bolt of insight.

I’ve known for a long time that the inmost cave is not just “the darkest moment,”  “lowest point,” “belly of the whale,” but also that it’s the place where you rest and get strong enough to carry on. You HAVE to do that in order to face the ordeal, seize the sword, and make the good but often difficult choice to follow the road back.

I didn’t realize, however, that those three steps are PART of the inmost cave. Duh! The road back is the threshold step, the step OUT of the cave. Until you face the ordeal and seize the sword, you can’t get out of the cave.

One student talked with me after class about how she can’t use the hero’s journey, how it will not work. This young woman has a particularly dark story to tell. The reason it doesn’t feel like a journey is that she’s still curled up in the cave in a fetal position. She hasn’t decided yet if there’s a going to be an end to this story. In her position, a lot of people would retrace their steps and take the back way out of the cave. They would take up knitting or watch a lot of TV or do good works. They would not face this.

I told her she had my permission to write whatever she needs to write for this rough draft. I’ll read it. It might be that it’s beautifully lyric and formless. That could be fine. But it might be that she needs someone to hold her hand while she walks out of the cave.