Writing anyway…

stoweWhile preparing for my library talk about Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I made a number of discoveries, many of them about my own process. So, in no particular order:

1. No matter how busy and overwhelmed I was on various other projects, doing a small amount of work every day toward the library book-talk helped.

2. Fussing and fuming about having not started earlier was not helpful. If only for five or ten minutes, doing a bit of work was a better way to spend my time than fussing and fuming.

3. When I was really, really stuck, opening a document on my computer and typing a list of possible topics was a great  strategy.

4. Putting together a slide show of pictures around the five or six biggest topics also helped. Audiences like pictures. (So do I.)

5. Rereading the novel (even though I didn’t have time to finish rereading it) helped enormously. In fact, opening the book and reading a few pages was a great way to put aside the fussing and fuming (again) about not having enough time.

6. I already know a huge amount about 19th century literary studies, which is, after all, the context I wanted to set this novel within. Once I had a list of topics, and had decided which ones were the most important, I had no trouble talking for an hour.  The worry wasn’t merely unhelpful, it wasn’t necessary.

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) had seven children in 1852 when Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published. Yes, I presume she had household help. Yes, she said that she didn’t write it (God wrote it; she just took dictation). Even so, she had plenty of excuses not to write, and she picked up her pen and wrote anyway. stowe%20house%20front

Books you’ve always meant to read…

stowe cover

This Wednesday–tomorrow–at the downtown branch of the Everett Public Library, 7 p.m.–I will be talking about and (if all goes as planned) leading a discussion about Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

This is a sentimental book, racist, political to the point of being propaganda. It is also a very powerful book and an important part of the American story. Its author said God wrote it. Abraham Lincoln (it’s said) considered it a catalyst behind the Civil War.

If you haven’t already read it, that’s okay (it’s available on-line, by the way). Consider yourself  invited.

This link should take you to the library website: http://epls.org/

Giving Thanks

P1040290Saying “thank you” hardly seems adequate. This morning I am feeling blessed by my generous friends.

I am also thinking about Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, which I have been reading with my American literature students. Most of my students are really, really young, and it’s not an easy book for them. When I asked them to write down their initial questions, a few wrote, “Why did you assign this weird book?” It’s full of terrible people and terrible crimes, racial hatred and incest and dead fathers. “Ridiculous epic incest,” as one student put it. So why did I assign it?

Yesterday we looked at a chapter in which there are two communions. Ruth, the mother of the main character, tells about attending a Catholic wedding and taking communion ignorantly, even though she is not a Catholic. The priest finds her out, but somehow, despite everything (race is also involved, as it always is in Morrison), she receives communion. At her own dinner table she recounts this story and it infuriates her husband. He strikes her, and her son defends her. What I wanted students to notice is that the dinner table has become a second communion. We could say that the dinner table is the desacralized communion. Certainly something is broken here. But merely paying attention to this scene allows us to raise better questions than “Why did you assign this weird book?”

Why does the father get angry when he hears this story? Is religion somehow on trial here? Why would the mother tell this story about herself, and tell it as though she is bragging? Is she proud of having received communion? Of breaking a boundary? Why does the son finally defend his mother in this scene, under these circumstances? When Morrison had every possiblity in the universe to draw from, why did she give the scene a religious twist? So why does religion have that same lig root as ligament and ligature?

Breaking bread together in a novel or short story is always symbolic of communion. And it is in life, too. I don’t know why I assign one book and not another (and most of canonical American literature is weird in one way or another).

I said to my pastor once, when I was nervous about having been asked to lead a church workshop, that I knew how to teach a class, but didn’t know if I was really qualified for that particular venture.  “Bethany,” he said, in a somewhat exasperated tone, “it’s all sacred.”

When my students are at their most weird and recalcitrant, just remembering the sacred context of our gathering together is usually enough to remind me to give thanks.



Book Signing…and party

My college is throwing me a book party!

Bethany Reid Book Signing May 22

English instructor Bethany Reid will read from her recently published poetry collection and sign copies of her book May 22 at Everett Community College.

All employees are invited to the celebration from 4 to 6 p.m. May 22 at EvCC’s Nippon Business Institute, 905 Wetmore Ave. at the main campus.

Reid, who teaches American literature and creative writing, will read from “Sparrow,” winner of the 2012 Gell poetry prize

“What struck me first when I read ‘Sparrow,’ straight through from beginning to end because I could not stop reading, was the quiet aliveness and sensuality of the poems,” wrote Dorianne Laux in the book’s foreword. “Nothing in ‘Sparrow’ is overdone or overstated, and so the poems feel utterly timeless…”  

Reid, also the author of the poetry chapbook “The Coyotes and My Mom,” earned the 2011 Lois Cranston Memorial Prize for her poem, “The Apple Orchard.” Her poems have appeared in numerous journals. She is a graduate of the MFA program at the University of Washington, where she also earned a doctorate in American Literature. She blogs at https://awritersalchemy.wordpress.com/

Seek Calm

emma sharpieMy 13-year-old has been doing art doodles. I have found her at our local elementary school playground drawing them in a notebook. She usually holes up in her bedroom to draw. At one of our homework dates recently she talked me into buying her a cool sketchbook and sharpies. I recently found this photo on Facebook (and the doodles, yes, on her legs).

On impulse I bought her this book: How to Be an Explorer of the World, by Keri Smith. (Check out her very cool blog.) I haven’t decided whether or not to save it for her July birthday. Maybe graduation? Maybe now is a good time.

I am choosing to see this as all good. As Keri advises today, “Keep Calm.”

Minor Characters


Here’s a quote I came across yesterday — again — while cleaning my office. It’s from Scott Nadelson’s essay, “What About the Suffering?: the Quiet Power of Minor Characters,” which appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle in December of 2010 (and has been resurfacing in my office ever since).

“[M]inor characters are bearers of possibility, but they also bring into relief the impossibility of knowing what will come, the unavoidable mystery and uncertainty of living….The power of minor characters, then, lies at least partly in their limitations–they offer protagonists nothing concrete, only guesses, intimations. They may reframe a central character’s conflict, but in the end they hand it back to him to deal with himself.” (27)

There’s more (the opening paragraph and what it says to fiction writers is worth copying in full). But now I’m going to put this issue of WC in the recycle bin.