bluebell“Without play, learning and evolution are impossible. Play is the taproot from which original art springs; it is the raw stuff the artist channels and organizes. Technique itself springs from play, by testing the limits and resistances of our tools.” -Stephen Nachmanovitch (qtd. in Writing the Natural Way by Gabriele Rico)

Yesterday I had a bad day. I discovered that instead of losing weight this week, as I expected, I had gained 1.2 pounds. I let my discouragement get to me. I did a lousy job of writing and felt stuck. About 3:00, when I had finally finished grading my English 101 papers (which were splendid, by the way), I realized that my uncle’s graveside service was beginning in Dryad, and I wished I was there — a 2 1/2 hour drive. Not possible. I drove home instead, and I went to bed. I slept for two hours!

A good dinner, my 13-year-old home safely from her field trip to Wenatchee (I picked her up at 6:00), a jigsaw puzzle. Bed by ten. Slept all night. This morning I sat down at the computer and instead of editing, editing, editing (which is what I usually do when I’m stuck), I tried to imagine what else might happen. In an abandoned house a child’s toy, a carved horse, appeared. A character I didn’t know was in the scene scooped it up and stuck it in his pocket.

This is why I write.

Don’t Shoot the Dog

dontshootdogAs part of my homework for our class project, I have been rereading a book a friend recommended to me when my twins were toddlers. It is Don’t Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor, and a great teaching manual to have on hand whether you are working with dogs, dolphins, or college students. No, I can’t claim to be much of a trainer, but the message I’ve absorbed from multiple readings is that it isn’t really the animal’s behavior (or the child’s) that you have control over, it’s your own. It’s also filled with good humored anecdotes (from her cat’s perspective, Pryor tells us, “she is training me; she has found a way to get me to ‘Come'” — and offer food, besides).

Pryor saved my life when my children were small by showing me that catching them doing something right was a key to the entire process. Okay, so they don’t clean their rooms, and at least two of them are still the slowest girls in the entire world. But they have great hearts, and they care about their parents and each other. I’ve been too lazy to “train” the other stuff.

Here’s an eye-opening passage: “One of the most useful practical applications of reinforcement is reinforcing yourself. This is something we often neglect to do, partly because it doesn’t occur to us, and partly because we tend to demand a lot more of ourselves than we would of others. …As a result we often go for days at a time without letup, going from task to task to task unnoticed and unthanked even by ourselves. Quite aside from reinforcing oneself for some habit change or new skill, a certain amount of reinforcement is desirable just for surviving daily life; deprivation of reinforcement is one factor, I think, in states of anxiety and depression.”

Writing every day is a big commitment. I think I now deserve a latte and a few minutes sitting outside in the sunshine. I’ll take Don’t Shoot the Dog with me and read a few pages.


pen“Stay committed to your decisions, but stay flexible in your approach.” – Tom Robbins

Have you ever noticed that whenever you commit to a change, the universe rushes in –no, not the universe, your kids, all the significant others in your life — as if to test your resolve? Are you sure, they seem to ask. Do you really, really mean it?

That’s what a number of my students experienced on the first day of our experiment to change one thing. And, I have to admit, I got pretty busy, too. Crazy busy. It would have been easy to put it off for one more day.

My goal is to add fifteen minutes of writing to my afternoons or evenings. At my desk or at home. Fifteen minutes. That’s all (though it’s okay if it turns into more).

The excuses began immediately.

Fifteen minutes isn’t enough–what I really need to do is retire from teaching and write full-time.

My desk is too messy.

I already write in the morning.

I need to grade student papers.

I should go for a walk instead. I’ll set a new goal.

You get the idea. But what can it hurt? It’s only fifteen minutes. What if I developed a habit of dropping into my work in the afternoons, the way I do in the mornings? Wouldn’t that be a good habit? Why don’t I give it a try?


horse2My composition students today began a forty-day experiment. We’re reading a book called Real Questions, and thanks to editor Kathryn Evans and Bedford-St. Martins we have a bunch of great essays and book excerpts to read about media, food, violence, and relationships. I had a brainstorm that while we were writing about real changes people can make in the world, we should try to make one real change. The students signed on, and today is the first day.

Forty days sounds a bit Lentish, I know. It’s also a number of days deemed optimum for a fast in Franz Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist,” which is a weird and wonderful tribute to passion.

The photograph is of me on my cousins’ horse. I was three, and this picture reminds me that our passions and our practices always have a beginning somewhere.

I’m late getting away from my desk today (lots of meetings this afternoon), but here’s an inspiring quote to hold you until I can get back here tomorrow and explain more:

“If we did all the things we are capable of, we would astound ourselves.” -Thomas A. Edison

The Poem in My Pocket

Yesterday was “Poem in Your Pocket” Day, and I was fortunate to be invited by David Horowitz to read poems with four other poets at the Edmonds Bookshop, where I sold four books, and bought two.

Here’s a poem for your pocket from Jane Kenyon:

The Thimble

I found a silver thimble
on the humusy floor of the woodshed,
neither large nor small, the open end
bent oval by the wood’s weight,
or because the woman who wore it
shaped it to fit her finger.

Its decorative border of leaves, graceful
and regular, like the edge of acanthus
on the tin ceiling at church…
repeating itself over our heads while we speak in unison
words the wearer must have spoken.

thimble2(I found the image at

It’s been a week of wounds, great and small, which somehow makes the idea of retrieving this artifact from under a woodpile additionally comforting.  My uncle died on Saturday after a long illness, a friend wrote to me about her grandbaby’s unexpected death. Boston. Waco. Everything in between.

Over at Wait! I have a Blog?! Kathleen Kirk put up a poem yesterday for Boston. I hope you will have a chance to drop by.

Ellen and Eclipse

Someone emailed to tell me “that foal looks like a goat,” so here’s a picture of Ellen with Eclipse, who is all grown up now. I’m not sure what’s going on with the costume. Whenever I see Ellen, she’s wearing blue jeans. These pictures happen to be from a blog called Photography with Soul. And there are many more.


While I’m sharing blog addresses, I also want to direct people to my favorite, The Pen and the Bell, whose letter this week features a quote about writing — for ten minutes — from Rumer Godden. How could you not?