hawthorne books

My manuscript did not win in the PNWA historical fiction category, but this morning I’m feeling pretty good about the entire experience .

I was a finalist!

I heard some inspiring speakers, including Greg Bear and Deb Caletti.

I met Margie Lawson, a psychologist, writer, and writing instructor I had never even heard of. She gave workshops on topics such as visceral emotion and rhetorical devices, all of which I already know (don’t I?) and yet I (gasp, groan) have fallen back into my prologue and first two chapters. For now, my nagging doubts about how to proceed with my unassailable rewrite are scattered.

Of course I bought a big bag full of books and got some of them autographed.

I met other writers who are on this journey, too. (No writer writes alone–conference motto.)

I thought often of my daughter Pearl at the American Idol auditions. When anxiety threatened (I really would have liked to win a prize, competitive person that I am), I thought of Pearl bravely singing in front of the AI producers, one of thousands of other unknown teens and 20-somethings.

And this morning, I got up early, filled my thermos with coffee, walked out to my potting shed, and spent two hours writing.

It’s all good.


Madeleine L’Engle

“I have advice for people who want to write. I don’t care whether they’re 5 or 500. There are three things that are important: First, if you want to write, you need to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you. Where you just put down what you think about life, what you think about things, what you think is fair and what you think is unfair. And second, you need to read. You can’t be a writer if you’re not a reader. It’s the great writers who teach us how to write. The third thing is to write. Just write a little bit every day. Even if it’s for only half an hour — write, write, write.” ― Madeleine L’Engle

I love Madeleine L’Engle, but I came across this not in my voracious, thirsty reading of her books but over at the Aerogramme Writer’s Studio

American Idol?

amerian idol1My daughter Pearl, now 20 years old, has wanted to be a famous singer since she was about 11. When she was in preschool her teacher Kathy told me that being around Pearl was like being in a musical because she was always singing. She has sung in school choirs all her life, and in church sometimes, too. Around age 13 she and her friends went through a very serious High School Musical stage. She was the kind of kid who memorized the lyrics and the dance moves to every song. She once became depressed because we couldn’t move to Los Angeles and do (I guess) a kind of Miley Cyrus make-over.

It seemed to me, at that point at least, that my darling girl wanted to be a “famous singer,” not a singer. I coached her a little bit about what it means to be an artist (not that a 13 year old girl listens to her mother’s advice), how it’s kind of a pyramid and needs all the supporting players underneath that small percentage at the tip top. You don’t get to the tip top, in fact, without excelling at the supporting roles. I told her how I had to decide quite a long time ago that I had no control over whether or not my writing “made it” into some kind of winner’s circle. But if I loved to write, then I should write. And if she loved to sing, then she should sing.

That said, I also told her that if there were ever anything in my power to help her, I would do it. This did not include moving to L.A. Piano lessons maybe? Okay, so she took piano lessons for 9 months. She enjoyed piano lessons. She loved her teacher, my friend Susan (another artist who lives her art). But did Pearl practice? No. Not once in 9 months. When the school year ended, Pearl was surprised that I said that was it. “You need to step up to the plate, Pearly,” I told her. “If you want to sing, then I want to see you singing, not just listening to your music on your I-Pod. I can’t do all the heavy lifting here.”

A few months ago she hatched a scheme to go to San Francisco and audition for American Idol. She started socking her pay checks away. She talked to the music director at our church about trading babysitting for coaching. She thought she would pay for airline tickets and I would find a place to stay and go with her. I thought this was nuts, but when I complained to various friends, they said, “You have to do this. She’ll learn a ton from it. Thousands of other kids will get rejected, too. She won’t be alone.” I decided that if I was taking one kid to SF, I was taking all three. So, plans were made.

Eating clam chowder on the pier and taking a Duck Tour, taking a haunted house walk, walking across the Golden Gate Bridge, those were the easy parts. Getting up at 4 a.m. and SAN%20FRAN_auditions_210x146-210x146standing in the cold with 1000s of other people … two mornings in a row … acting enthusiastic for the American Idol cameras–that was outside my comfort zone.

This is what I learned. 1) I wasn’t alone. There were lots of moms there and we talked. One said to me that even if her college-age son didn’t make it past the first audition, she had enjoyed hanging out in SF with him. I adopted that as my mantra. (It was rather exciting to see him make it past the first audition–I think it was the cool hat.)

2) I learned that many of these young people had tried out for X Factor, The Voice, America’s Got Talent, and American Idol before. No surprise, these were the young people with the most polish. They had learned that it takes more than a good voice. (And I saw several of them take the walk with the golden ticket after that first audition.) Part of the game, I learned, is learning how to present yourself.

3) I saw pimply kids and chubby kids, kids in really bad haircuts, and kids with no discernible fashion sense.

4) I saw kids who love to sing, who pack their guitars everywhere, and tip back their heads and sing at any invitation.

5) For the first time, I saw that my daughter is one of those kids.

“What if the judges don’t pick me?” Pearl said to me, just before her row was called into the line-up. “What if they don’t?” I said. “You made it this far. Enjoy it. Sing your heart out. That’s all you have control over.”

6) I realized that what Pearl is trying to do is really no different from me, 20 years ago (30?), sending out a few poems to total strangers (called “editors,” a very mysterious profession, it seemed at the time). I only very gradually discovered what I had to do in order to compete at a new level. For me that meant enrolling in a poetry workshop, and eventually getting an MFA. In the process, I became a teacher, and sitting in a classroom with students who want to write, teaching them how to write mo’ better (as one of them recently praised me), has had its own satisfactions. Not that everyone has to go that route. I suppose it’s the equivalent of Pearl’s voice coach finding a singing career in church, or Susan teaching piano to children. Getting to live your art–well, that makes it worthwhile. (And, as I often say, you do get paid for doing what you love, just not always in money.)

P1040922“Change your life today,” the American Idol producers challenged, through bullhorns and in big letters on a screen hanging over AT & T Park. I imagine that a large percentage of the young people trying out in the foggy morning hours in San Francisco with my daughter will never make it “big.” But you don’t have to make it big to change your life. It starts small. If you want to sing, sing.




HoaglandTony Hoagland said it so much better:

“A real diehard, indestructible, irresolvable obsession in a poet is nothing less than a blessing. The poet with an obsession never has to search for subject matter. It is always right there, welling up like an Artesian spring on a piece of property with bad drainage.” (To read the entire, very short essay, click on this link to Sabio Lantz’s blog “Fields of Yuan.”)

But I gave it a try. At It’s About Time, the reading series at the Seattle Public Library, Ballard Branch, last night I began by talking about what I learned from the OED about obsession, that it has a 16th century origin, from the word “siege,” and meant, originally, to besiege. What I notice, living among teenagers (like Jane Goodall among the chimpanzees, as I’m fond of saying) both daughters and students, is that we are besieged today by data. Smartphones chirping and humming all day with updates from Facebook, texts, Instagram, and who knows what-all they’re into, but also the usual suspects in our already very busy lives. To be a poet, IMHO, one must BE the besieger.

P1040959I then talked about one of my current obsessions — let’s call it a passion, shall we? — an old obsession, in fact, with the farm on which I grew up. The excerpt (above) from Hoagland’s essay provided a perfect segue, as our farm was both boggy and it had spring water. This was a problem for the surveyor (don’t call it wetlands, he warned us) as we needed a well associated with the property the house sits on in order to sell it. Wells in this corner of Lewis County often prove disappointing. My uncle says his water tastes of sulfur. When Mom sold the timberlands in May, we retained a one year right to the spring, but we hadn’t yet gotten around to contacting a well-digging company. Despite our one year agreement, when logging began, the water line was broken. The property has been logged before, of course. It was clearcut before my grandfather bought it in the early 1920s. In recent years, my dad had selectively logged some of the bigger timber.

A day or so before logging began, I took a walk across the property — in the rain — with my daughter Annie. We got soaking wet. We lost the old tractor road amid downed trees and overgrown undergrowth (no cows now to keep it down). I had hoped to walk all the way to Deer Creek, but in the deep woods we stopped and took several deep breaths, and turned back. I’d like to maintain that had it been a sunny day, I could have easily made it. As luck would have it, on turning back we immediately stumbled onto the new logging road, and walked out through splintered alder and fir trees.

P1040971I keep waking up at night and thinking of the trees. Sometimes specific trees, especially the big firs not far from the old barn, and the huge maples at the edge of the woodlands.

I lost my way in my talk, too. I had intended to weave in one more definition, of aporia. You can see the “pour” in this old word, and the a- which blocks it. In literature or philosophy aporia means an impasse or a paradox. Think of where the logs fell, preventing the water from passing through. When you’re obsessed with an issue, as an artist, you want to stick with it, to keep focusing on where you can’t seem to get through. It’s exactly where the most interesting stuff lies. Your job is to get it flowing again. To paraphrase my poetry professor, Nelson Bentley: When an image keeps returning to you, deviling you and ruining your sleep, that’s a poem asking to be written.

My talk was supposed to be a craft talk, but it turned into something as rambling as our walk across the farm that day. I think I should have titled it, “Where my next book of poems will spring from.” P1040951


What is your path? (2)

P1040995Today is the 20th birthday of my older daughters, Annie and Pearl. I can no longer say that I am the mother of three teenaged daughters, which, I feel, gave me a lot of street cred.  I so well remember being 20, and that sense I had then that my life was about to begin…but, somehow, wasn’t beginning. Who was I supposed to be? My mother had married at age 20 (in her family, she was considered an old maid), and I was no where near that. I don’t think my girls are either. But where boyfriends are concerned? They are already far more experienced than I ever was.

At the Ballard Branch of Seattle Public Library tomorrow evening (Thursday, July 11, 6 p.m.) I will be talking about obsession. Here’s one:

naming the boyfriends

A red car at an intersection occurs like a premonition.
My daughters’ boyfriends enter our lives bearing the names
of Old Testament prophets, saints, and Irish poets.
I gave my daughters each a name with a metaphor’s heft—
Emma Grace, Ann Rose, Pearl—as if they could become
their own talismans. Who are these cavalier young men
swaggering past me through the house’s corridors?
Tall, dark-clad, bearded, brooding,
my girls like lucky stones in their pockets?
I didn’t sleep half the night, and feel a pang
of the martyr’s guilt for having slept at all.
Who needs any other obsession, having children?
At the next intersection, three red cars and two red pickups.
For the next several blocks, red, red everywhere.