What Is My Path?

trees“To focus on what you don’t want and don’t like is like getting into your car and programming into your GPS the exact location of where you don’t want to go.” -Jacob Glass

Fifteen–or sixteen–years ago when I was in the application process for my current teaching job, I came across a book by Jon Kabat-Zinn about meditation. I couldn’t see that I had time to meditate. But he insisted that it wasn’t hard. He suggested meditating while walking or driving. He suggested a tree meditation that appealed to me. Just look at a tree (I don’t have the book with me, but this is what I remember) or a group of trees and ask, “What is my path?” We had recently moved to our house on a greenbelt, and so I had trees I could look at. In the early morning, before my daughters woke up, before the day’s routine began, I would pour my cup of coffee and step onto the back deck, look at the trees, and ask, “What is my path?” I don’t know what role this meditation had on my getting a tenure-track teaching job, but I know it relieved my anxiety.

Fifteen minutes a day on the manuscript, no matter what else is going on. As July dawns–a new on-line class to teach (and a new on-line system to learn), trips to take, daughters and their birthdays–that is the path I intend to follow through these trees. I want to remember to enjoy the trees and the path. I want you to remember, too. Just stop, look at the trees. Ask “What is my path?” Breathe.




Gabriele Rico: An Invitation to Write

gabriele-lightning-300x191Early spring quarter, a Book Rep dropped by my office, blustered into my office a little out of breath, her paisley shirt pulled out of kilter by her immensely professional bookbag. Her name was Simone. Prompted by her breathless entrance, I did something I never do with book reps; I invited her to sit down.

Simone began telling me about how she had taken a few years off, but perhaps I knew her from before–I seemed familiar to her? I didn’t think so, but, yes, I’d been at the college eight years ago, so maybe. What was I teaching? What books do I currently use? What might I like to see? And then Simone’s eyes lit on one of my bookshelves, and she burst into tears.

“That book,” she said, pointing vaguely. “That’s my mother’s book.”

The book was Writing Poetry by Rico and Guth. I took it down from the shelf and handed it to Simone, along with a box of tissues. Then, instead of talking about books, we began talking about our mothers. Simone told me about her mother’s other book, Writing the Natural Way, and how she’d been in graduate school when Simone, the youngest of three daughters, was a little girl. She told me how she had gone to classrooms with her mother and drawn pictures on the back of her mother’s homework.

We talked about what I am writing, and about my three daughters. We talked about my mother. When Simone left my office, I hopped onto amazon.com and ordered a copy of Writing the Natural Way.

When the book arrived a few days later, I found that it is all about mapping and clustering, those damnable little bubbles all over the page, brainstorming. In the 80s, my teachers were daft for clustering, which I found annoying. Wasn’t I in school in order to stop being natural? Wasn’t I in school to learn something, well, brainier?

Holding this book in my hands, I remembered Judith Werne and Pat Nerison, my very first English teachers at Edmonds Community College. They must have read this book or attended a conference workshop with Gabriele Rico. I saw it differently now. It was an invitation. For another thing, there were drawings in the book labeled, “Simone, age 2 3/4,” “Simone, age 3 1/2.”

I read a chapter. I got out my notebook and I drew a cluster. And then I wrote.

(If you have time, I highly recommend this video, which Simone forwarded to me and gave me permission to share. It is a tribute to Gabriele, but is also a visual poem about love, aging, and death. You can visit Al Young’s blog for additonal information. )

Reading Aloud to Children

ChildrensBooksCollageRemember my spring quarter students and their life-changing small changes?

Of all my my students’ projects this quarter, this one was probably the nearest and dearest to my heart. A__ decided that for her one-small-change she would commit to reading aloud to her young children. Being a pretty serious English major, I’ve always read to my kids, but as I read her end of the quarter report, I found myself reflecting on when my husband and I decided to start having family meals–at the table–with our almost 3-year-old twins. I am here to tell you that it is very, very hard to change the routine of toddlers. A__ and her husband did not read for every one of the 40 days, but without checking her log, I would guess she made 45-47 of the days (which is awesome). It took some flexibility on her part (she had to give up her strict 20-minutes per day goal to begin with and go for “any” reading), but like my twins with family dinners, A’s children not only embraced this change, but began to love it. After the first week of logs, I suggested that A__ jot down the titles they were reading, and the whole class enjoyed this trip down memory lane. The project reminded me of that old axiom, “When you rock your baby to soothe her, you are rocking yourself, too.” So with reading aloud.

A__ shared “Mem Fox’s Ten Read Aloud Commandments” (Fox is an Australian writer and educator), which I hadn’t seen before. I want to share them with you.

  1. Spend at least ten wildly happy minutes every single day reading aloud.
  2. Read at least three stories a day: it may be the same story three times. Children need to hear a thousand stories before they can begin to learn to read.
  3. Read aloud with animation. Listen to your own voice and don’t be dull, or flat, or boring. Hang loose and be loud, have fun and laugh a lot.
  4. Read with joy and enjoyment: real enjoyment for yourself and great joy for the listeners.
  5. Read the stories that the kids love, over and over and over again, and always read in the same ‘tune’ for each book: i.e. with the same intonations on each page, each time.
  6. Let children hear lots of language by talking to them constantly about the pictures, or anything else connected to the book; or sing any old song that you can remember; or say nursery rhymes in a bouncy way; or be noisy together doing clapping games.
  7. Look for rhyme, rhythm or repetition in books for young children, and make sure the books are really short.
  8. Play games with the things that you and the child can see on the page, such as letting kids finish rhymes, and finding the letters that start the child’s name and yours, remembering that it’s never work, it’s always a fabulous game.
  9. Never ever teach reading, or get tense around books.
  10. Please read aloud every day, mums and dads, because you just love being with your child, not because it’s the right thing to do.


The Work — an update

cabin4Classes are over. I have survived a year of teaching full-time. Other people seem able to do this. They teach extra classes! I don’t know how they do it, but it’s hard for me. (How do those other people have time for their students, let alone for themselves?!)

I realized after Christmas break, that I was not ever going to get my novel rewritten if I didn’t work on it. The time was not magically going to appear (it hadn’t over the holiday break, and that was my best chance). I worried that all the fabulous work I had done on my October retreat was going to be lost to me. My fantasy that I would suddenly get two or three days — or another week! — to write, that I would write 24 hours a day (two days, that’s 48 hours!), I realized, again (yes, I’ve had this fantasy before), was just a fantasy. The only way to get the novel rewritten was to work on it every day.

I know how to deal with time limitations and with procrastination. I got out the old tools. Foil stars. A 12-week calendar (one quarter worth of blank squares). If I worked on the novel in the morning, before I went to work, for at least 15 minutes I earned a foil star. At Writing Lab on Tuesdays I started working on the novel instead of poems. This felt like a sacrifice, at least at first. But then the pages began to accumulate, and that felt good. It felt wonderful.

Lists are another of my tools. During the break before spring quarter, I wrote a long list of what I needed in order to finish. The most important: to have a clean copy of the entire manuscript, or at least the 2/3 of the manuscript that was all marked up. I don’t know why I would resist typing, but I decided that I could only earn my star by working on the manuscript, on my laptop, for fifteen minutes — before journaling or anything else. For Mother’s Day, a friend of my daughters gave me a Barnes & Noble gift card and I used it to buy a 15-minute hourglass (if it’s 15 minutes, is it still an “hour glass”?) It gives me a wierd pleasure to turn it over again and go for 30 minutes (this morning — one hour!).

I am happy to announce that the process has worked. And it’s been working all along. In February, for instance, and against all odds, I managed to submit 30 pages to the PNWA historical fiction contest, and my manuscript is now a finalist. But even without that nod from the universe, it’s gratifying to look back at my journal and find April 30, Stuck on chapter five. Don’t know what to do next. Cleaning it up, after all, wasn’t a simple process. It meant dealing with all those cryptic notes, things like “This isn’t working.” “You need action here.” “What is Pearl thinking?” Cleaning it up, meant writing. But here I am, on chapter seventeen, which is the beginning of the end.

starsI know that I say this all the time, and you probably get tired of hearing it. But if your dream is to write, I am here to tell you that you can. Don’t make excuses. And you don’t have to believe me. Go buy a copy of Sark’s Juicy Pens, Thirsty Paper. Whenever you hear yourself saying the word “can’t,” imagine it as a big, flashing neon arrow pointing you in the direction you have to go.

Superstition Review: The Writing Assignment

cropped-blogbannerwithwithoutsecondaryheaderToday I’m the guest blogger at Superstition Review. I’m very excited about this — their guest blogger series is well worth the time, and because of it I’ve become acquainted (virtually!) with some exciting voices.

Although I wrote this post over a month ago, it still holds true. Grading papers, taking care of children (and my wonderful mother–I’m just home from an overnight trip to Lewis County)…those things never end. I don’t want them to end! Even so, my fifteen minutes on the manuscript this morning (despite being at my mom’s place) turned into 37 minutes, and this afternoon on the way home I stopped, got a latte, and wrote in my car.

Which reminds me, several of my students gave up coffee (see my blog post), or at least the expensive mochas. I am thinking very seriously of doing the same.



Louise Erdrich

I may have shared this video before. But today I’m talking about Louise Erdrich’s “The Red Convertible” with my American literature students, and yesterday afternoon I had a conversation with a friend about how women get writing done. Erdrich, who has five children, offers some poetic advice. It’s a good one to mark as a favorite and watch whenever you need encouragement.

It’s from Bill Moyer’s Journal, the post is dated April 9, 2010.



What’s Your Passion?

388691_445645662187687_850795261_nEmma’s choir took first place today in a competition in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Emma sings high soprano, and she has a gorgeous voice.  She also has a passion for music, and it’s rare that the tinny sound of her tunes aren’t trailing along in her wake. You have to get her to take out her ear buds before you can talk to her. If it takes 10,000 hours to master a discipline, Emma is well on her way to mastery. Maybe you should take piano lessons, I suggest. She shakes her head. She puts her earbuds back in. She sings along, closes her eyes.

I worry about this plugged-in generation, and especially about my three plugged-in teenagers. Their passions are still emerging, uniquely their own, certain to be different from my passions. But shouldn’t they be? 942896_462788093806777_1680409533_n