"Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart." ~ William Wordsworth

The Writing Life Too

And if you're reading this, it means you're not writing.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Skies the color of pale pewter although the sun is supposed to break through later. I have lilacs sitting next to my computer screen perfuming the whole room. When I went out walking last night I chanced on a bush bent over from rain, kissing the sidewalk. Clearly the blossoms needed liberating.

As I mentioned, Portland is a writer’s town. Last night I had dinner with four local writer/s authors and we heard from April Henry that her latest book has hit The New York Times bestseller’s list. Which means, she said, that this fact will appear in her obituary. Which brought on a laugh from all of us, about how what is written in your obituary is what counts….April is a mystery writer and the best seller is Face of Betrayal (A Triple Threat Novel) co-written with Fox News Legal Analyst Lis Wiel. After I returned home last night I checked out April’s blog

And if you read down her blog page you’ll learn that Dennis Lehane (author best known for Mystic River) is bringing back his series characters Angie Gennaro and Patrick Kenzie in his next book—yee hah. Meanwhile Lehane’s latest book is The Given Day—a historical. Haven’t read it yet, but it’s on my list.

Another writer in the group is Cathy Lamb. I first met Cathy in the mid-90s when she was trying to break in at Harelquin and was attending my classes. I noticed right away that she was smart, funny, talented, and most important for a writer, persistent. She explained last night why writing romance didn’t work out, how at one point she waited two years for a response to a manuscript that she sent them. She now writes women’s fiction and her first book Julia’s Chocolates did well and her fourth novel is Henry’s Sisters will be available July 29.

At her site she describes her upcoming book: “Each of the sisters in the book has, let’s see… what’s a kind way of putting it? They have ISSUES. Major issues. The brother is gentle and dear and has special abilities.

This is a story about a family that’s fallen apart and ends up being put back together again. It’s about a Queen Anne house, a bakery, a motorcycle, a mid life crisis Corvette, flowery smelling pink letters, an amusing divorce, burning bras, a crime writer, love, a kid who studies different religions each week, fear, giant cupcakes, a lost father, and a disastrous childhood partially spent living in a car.”

We also chatted about marketing strategies—the question is how much time do you spend promoting your books when you need to be writing the next one? Plugging books takes a huge commitment of time, money, and energy. Our group was divided on the value of it. I’m still thinking about it all…..The bottom line is that if you’re going to promote your work you need to choose your methods carefully. Some writers I know spend all their time on the road promoting and seem to me more hucksters than authors. Some don’t do a darn thing. The best advice I can give at this stage is write a book that you want to read and then reserve at least 10 percent of your advance for marketing. That way you can at least mail out review copies and have a professional head shot taken.

And I’m happy Allison made it to the top 4 on American Idol—she’s got star splashed all over her raspy-as-whiskey-oh-so-cool voice.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Cloud cover. That’s all I’m going to say. Since I started working on my latest book, I’ve been thinking about my clients’ manuscripts that I’ve read over the years and the most common problems that occur. When writing fiction and memoir, it can be particularly tricky to depict emotions accurately and with enough nuance. For example, a writer will depict a character’s unease by his stammer, or blush, or hands trembling. Usually again and again. And usually to the exclusion of other emotions.

What seems important to remember is that emotions come in many shades and gradations. Most of us don’t immediately explode in fury without provocation—there are steps leading up to it. (now if you do, that’s a problem for a mental health professional, not a writing coach) Neither does everyone react the same way to loss, stress, infidelity, betrayal, or free plane tickets to Paris.

Go through life noticing how emotions flicker across people’s faces: anger, angst, arousal, bitter, boredom, confidence, confusion, contempt, determination, disappointment, disgust, distrust, embarrassment, envy, fear, hostility, irritation, melancholy, paralyzed, passivity, perplexed, playful, relaxed, reproach, restlessness, sadness, shy, serene, sorrow, stupefied, surprise, suspicion, thrilled, uncertain, vulnerable….

How can you put this into words or express in dialogue or action?

Then too make sure that you’re not using clichéd reactions such as a lump in the throat, heart pounding or racing,or a single tear glistening on a heroine’s cheek.

Know how far your character will go when pushed, angry, desperate, aroused, frightened.
Mix it up, make it real, make it in sync with each individual.

Sunday, April 26, 2009


It doesn't have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don't try
to make them elaborate, this isn't
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

~ Mary Oliver ~

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Dawn is cracking open the sky and spring still is enchanting here—flowers and flowering trees blooming everywhere, the air sweet smelling and soft and new. Even if you don’t live in Portland, you probably know that Portland is this ultra-cool place, this place of beauty, green and hopes like no other on the West coast. Minus the Hollywood scrabbling attitude and Botox stretching every other face. Portland is a place of gardens, parks, and more coffee shops and fabulous restaurants that you could shake a stick at, as my grandmother used to say. I’m so happy I live here, especially in the spring when the whole world is a gigantic, perfumed garden, so magical that I can hardly express it.

But back to Portland cool. This is also a writer’s town and it’s got Willamette Writers, The Oregon Writer’s Colony, Wordstock, Glimmertrain, Powells and a slew of other independent book stores, Portland Arts and Lecture series, famous cool writers like Chuck Palahniuk and Chelsea Cain and Ursula LeGuin. You cannot visit a coffee shop without tripping over writers huddled in corners tapping away on their laptops or swing a dead cat without hitting someone writing a memoir or publishing a chapbook. There’s a place in Portland called the Writers Dojo. It’s in a neighborhood called St. Johns in the northeast area of the city. St. Johns formerly a separate town and then a divey neighborhood, now a new venue of hipdom and arty types. There’s a magnificent bridge there spanning the Willamette River and a writer’s dojo located there now and they’ve started an online magazine called Write. Here’s the latest lead story from author Karen Karbo, Portland, resident called The Dining Room:

“You live with your parents in an apartment building called The Something Arms in Sherman Oaks, a sun-blasted suburb of Los Angeles. The building is standard Sun Belt issues, white stucco flecked with gold, a rectangular swimming pool with no diving board, a panel of mailboxes just inside the front gate. You live in an upstairs apartment overlooking the Dumpsters. Your dining room table is a card table, your dining room is the kitchen side of the living room. They are just starting out, your parents. It is 1962.

Every stuffy apartment has a kid or two in it. All you need to go swimming is one adult sitting poolside. It is usually a mother. It is usually your mother, who can’t swim herself, who is allergic to the sun but has an itch, always, to be out of the apartment. She is a woman with itches, your mother. Days before she dies she will admit as much. She will tell you she was born in the wrong time. She will tell you she should have been you.” The Dining Room” originally appeared in the anthology Home: American Writers Remember Rooms of Their Own published by Pantheon in 1995 and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Clouds smeared across the morning sky.
When I talk with writers about the reality of writing I explain that in the beginning the words and scenes that exist in our imaginations often don’t translate onto the page. In fact there can be a gigantic gap between what we dream and what we write. The only way to shrink that gap is to keep writing, keep practicing. But most of all, we cannot postpone writing for that elusive some day.

Our fantasies about writing will never equal reality. It’s more tedium than glamour, more diligence than inspiration. Avoidance is a natural response to hard work, like Tom Sawyer conning his pals into painting Aunt Polly’s fence. But avoidance only brings immediate relief, not lasting satisfaction. Procrastination keeps us standing on the outside looking in at our work, our dreams. This is a painful stance. It is just a delaying tactic; imagining yourself writing, dreaming elaborate visions of success, but not doing the work. Once you begin you enter a whole new world. A world that is less glamorous than your fantasies, but much more satisfying.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Summer has left the building and large, low-hanging clouds have obliterated the formerly blue skies. Happy Earth Day to all.

A big congratulations to W.S. Merwin for winning his second Pulitzer for his latest poetry collection, The Shadow of Sirius. I was running errands yesterday—I’m looking for a balance board for my rehab program—when I heard Terry Gross replay her interview with Merwin, first taped in December. To close the program he read his poem Rain Light and I was mesmerized. This is my favorite first line of a poem. To hear the interview visit Fresh Air.

Rain Light ©W. S. Merwin
All day the stars watch from long ago
my mother said I am going now
when you are alone you will be all right
whether or not you know you will know
look at the old house in the dawn rain
all the flowers are forms of water
the sun reminds them through a white cloud
touches the patchwork spread on the hill
the washed colors of the afterlife
that lived there long before you were born
see how they wake without a question
even though the whole world is burning

And if Merwin comes to your town to speak, don’t miss the opportunity to see and hear him in person. He’s in his eighties now and a national treasure.

This year's winners also included Elizabeth Strout in the Fiction category for her short story collection Olive Kitteridge . Lynn Nottage carried away the prize in the Drama category for her play Ruined, set in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Las Vegas Sun and The New York Times staff were rewarded for Public Service and Breaking News Reporting respectively, while Lane DeGregory of the St. Petersburg Times won the Feature Writing award, and Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post walked away with the Commentary prize. For a complete list of winners, you can visit Pulitzer.org. A fleshed-out list of finalists is also included.

Also, folks the government does listen some times. If you want those crafty folks in the Bush administration who approved torture techniques as were outlined in the “torture memos” that have come to light, you can contact Attorney General Eric Holder’s office at 202-514-2001. I see Cheney’s fingerprints all over this policy don’t you? Is that why he’s flapping his jaws on Fox News and other conservative media outlets these days?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Morning sky is pale blue and we’re expecting temperatures in the 80s again. A few summers ago a bird took up residence on the phone wires near my place and sang all day, all night. With only a few pauses for breath, or whatever birds pause for. I swear he didn’t eat. Last summer he wasn’t around. This summer the same birdsong is coming from nearby treetops. I’m so amazed at the capacity of these tiny creatures to sing all day. I wonder what the human equivalent would be? Perhaps writing War and Peace longhand?

I’ve been falling behind in blogging lately—but have edited the copyedited draft of my manuscript from Tarcher. A few more steps and that baby is going to press.

So in the midst of my editing I forgot to post several notes. First, I read a review of Slang: The People's Poetry. by Michael Adam. According to the reviewer: “That "Slang" is so slim, concise and lively is proof of Adams' commitment to the idea of language as something that's living, breathing and constantly changing. If you've even been trapped at a dinner party or a lecture (depending on the guests, sometimes they're indistinguishable), listening to an alleged person of letters use as many of them as possible to express how much he or she "loves words," you'll be grateful for Adams' concision. "Slang" is a gem that Adams has taken great care in cutting and polishing. Unlike so many academics -- Adams is an assistant professor of English at Indiana University -- he doesn't feel the need to give us the whole damn diamond mine.”

Then there were two author’s birthdays last week: Novelist and essayist Cynthia Ozick, She is the author of The Messiah of Stockholm (1987) and The Puttermesser Papers (1997). She said: "The sentence is my primary element, my tool, goal, bliss. Each new sentence is a heart-in-the mouth experiment."

Another birthday person is Irish poet Brendan Kennelly, born in Ballylongford, County Kerry (1936). He's a literature professor at Trinity College in Dublin, and a very popular poet — he has published more than 20 books of poems. He said, "To be born in Ireland is to inherit not only one of the most beautiful little countries in the world, but also an entire legacy of prejudices, hatreds, clichés, and an impressive supply of apparently invincible ignorance." One of his best-known works is Cromwell (1983), a book-length poem about the English leader who invaded Ireland in the mid-1700s and sought to wipe-out Catholicism. Another of his books is The Book of Judas (1991), a 400-page epic poem from Judas's point of view. He said: "Poetry is, above all, a singing art of natural and magical connection because, though it is born out of one's person's solitude, it has the ability to reach out and touch in a humane and warmly illuminating way the solitude, even the loneliness, of others. That is why, to me, poetry is one of the most vital treasures that humanity possesses; it is a bridge between separated souls." (from the Writer’s Almanac)

Oh yes, and Charlie Huston's latest book, The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death is combustible, nonstop, blistering, cannot put it down thrill ride. That is if you can describe a story about cleaning up after dead people fun. I felt jacked up on life while reading it--as if I was living and cringing amid the story events. He writes the sassiest, wickedest, most true-life, damn-I-wish-I- would-have-said-that dialogue in the business. And if you're writing an anti-hero with a traumatic past, he's the boy to read.
Keep writing!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Happy Tax Day to all. I'm not part of tea bag protests, and I'm not so sure that anything sponsored by Fox News could be called "grassroots." But if you read this blog you know I protest here in my own way, especially about political stupidity and corruption. And then I write about writing, because that's what I do with my life.

Elie Wiesel, was freed from Buchenwald concentration camp and went on to write more than 50 books, including his memoir, Night (1958). In 1986, he won the Nobel Peace Prize. He said: "The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference." (from The Writer's Almanac)

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Just wanted to note that it's the birthday of one of my writing heroes, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, born in Chicago, Illinois (1937). He has written for The New Yorker for many years. He said, "I don't make deals, I don't party and drink with sources, and I don't play a game of leaks. I read, I listen, I squirrel information. It's fun." (from The Writer's Almanac}

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Skies are a promising shade of blue and temperatures are going to be in the 70s again today. Woohoo!
Here's the information on Summer In Words Conference at Manzanita, Oregon, June 19-21
Center for Contemplative Arts, Manzanita, Oregon
Passion for Words: Instruction, enlightenment, and a passion infusion.

Friday, June 19
9:00-9:30 Registration/Continental Breakfast
9:30-12 Writing a Book that Makes a Difference, Jessica Morrell
Write an important book that expresses the music of your heart or your deepest concerns or interests. We’ll discuss how your book can touch a reader’s imagination and life; how to choose a format, focus on themes, develop your voice, and leave a creative legacy.
12:30-2 Free Time
2-5:00 Writing With and From Your Passions, Jennie Shortridge
Forget the old adage, "Write what you know." Write what you are passionate about to enliven your prose, your characters, and your story. Session includes brainstorming, story modeling, and writing exercises to bring forth a breakthrough essay, novel or story.
6:30-9 p.m. Out Loud—an open forum for writers.

Saturday, June 20
9:00-10:00 Q & A: Getting Published and Staying Published, Jessica Morrell, Jennie Shortridge
10:15- 11:45 Unforgettable Characters, Jessica Morrell
After a fiction plot fades from a reader’s memory, the characters linger with a physical presence, a twinkle of personality, unforgettable actions, and their happy or sad fates. We’ll cover character roles, dominant traits, emotional needs, and character arc.
12-1 Lunch and Keynote by Gloria Kempton Chasing the Shadow: Finding the courage to stare down your writing demons
1:15-3:15 Creating Narrative Tension, Bill Johnson
When readers feel tension they’ll keep turning pages to experience the relief offered by a story's resolution. To create this tension, a crucial ingredient must be set in motion. This workshop will teach how to recognize how narrative tension is created in popular fiction.
3:30-5:00 Shadow Writing, Part 1, Gloria Kempton
Writing is so hard at times because we’re often only skimming the surface of the truth that lies beneath. We all have a shadow where the richest of writing material resides; our most authentic passions, obsessions, longings, desires, intentions, and dreams. Learn to unlock the most creative and honest part of your writing self and bring it into the open.

Sunday, June 21
9:45-11 Shadow Writing, Part 2, Gloria Kempton
11:15-12:15 Revising Without Losing It, Jessica Morrell
First comes the blank page and how to fill it, then comes the rough draft and how to fix it. Most often it is in the revision process that the real writing is accomplished. Learn how to whip a manuscript into shape so that it’s polished and ready for submission.
12:15 Closing remarks and raffle
Summer With Words: Details for Registration
Pricing: Friday workshops only: $70 / Out Loud only: $10
Saturday workshops only: $70 / Saturday sessions, lunch& keynote: $80
Saturday Lunch & Keynote Only: $20
Sunday workshops: $40
Cost for all 3 days, including keynote speaker, lunch, and Out Loud: $180
Manuscript evaluations are available.

Space is limited so we recommend that you sign up early. To reserve your space contact Summer in Words at jessicapage at spiritone.com to be sent a registration form. Please note a deposit is required to hold your place. A confirmation e-mail as well as a follow-up emails on lodging and other information including merchant discounts will be sent via email or snail mail. Manzanita, Oregon, is charming village located in Tillamook County on the Northern Oregon coast. Traveling to Manzanita from Portland takes about two hours, traveling west via Highway 26, then south on Hwy 101. It is located 13 miles south of Cannon Beach and 25 miles north of Tillamook.

Instructor Biographies
Bill Johnson is author of A Story is a Promise and Deep Characterization, a workbook; web master of Essays on the Craft of Dramatic Writing, (www.storyispromise.com); and host of Oregon Writers Speak, a site on YouTube with video clips of Oregon authors. Bill teaches writing workshops around the U.S., including the Southern California Writing Conference, Surrey Writing Conference, and the Expo Screenwriting Conference in L.A. Bill is a produced playwright, optioned screenwriter, and has read manuscript submissions for a literary agent.

Gloria Kempton is an author, writing coach and former magazine and book editor. She is the author of Love One Another, Forgive One Another, and The Passionate Edge, and two young adult novels, Jocelyn and Andrea. Write Great Fiction: Dialogue was published by Writer’s Digest Books in 2004. She’s a contributing editor to Writer’s Digest and an instructor with www.WritersOnlineWorkshops.com and www.writers.com. Kempton also conducts workshops at writer’s conferences across the country including the National Writer’s Association Conference, the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Conference, and the Maui Writer’s Conference. Contact her at www.writersrecharge.com

Jessica Page Morrell is the author of the upcoming Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us and Bullies, Bastards & Bitches: How to Write the Bad Guys in Fiction, The Writer’s I Ching: Wisdom for the Creative Life, Voices from the Street, Between the Lines: Master The Subtle Elements Of Fiction Writing, and Writing Out the Storm. She works as a developmental editor and teaches workshops in the Northwest, at writing conferences throughout North America, and at Evergreen College in Olympia, Washington. She was formerly the writing expert at iVillage.com, has contributed to The Writer and Writer’s Digest magazines, and hosts a Web site at www.writing-life.com.

Jennie Shortridge Bestselling author Jennie Shortridge has three published novels: Riding with the Queen, Eating Heaven, and Love and Biology at the Center of the Universe. Her fourth book, When She Flew, will be published November. 2009. Prior to writing novels, her nonfiction work appeared regularly in magazines and newspapers, including Glamour, Mademoiselle, Natural Home, and others.

Monday, April 06, 2009

When I speak of writing, the image that comes first to my mind is not a novel, a poem, or a literary tradition; it is the person who shuts himself up in a room, sits down at a table, and alone, turns inward. Amid his shadows, he builds a new world with words. ~ Orhan Pamuk

Sunday, April 05, 2009

There are pale lavender bands streaming across the sky this morning and the temperature is supposed to reach the 70s today. This blog is a mishmash of tidbits. I try not to bitch about politics too much here, but the Obama finance team is driving me crazy. Talk about the foxes watching the henhouse! Sometimes don’t you get the impression that many politicians think the American people are idiots. We need to speak up. For example, here is tidbit from Glen Greenwald’s column: Lawrence H. Summers, one of President Obama's top economic advisers, collected roughly $5.2 million in compensation from hedge fund D.E. Shaw over the past year and was paid more than $2.7 million in speaking fees by several troubled Wall Street firms and other organizations. . . .

Financial institutions including JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch paid Summers for speaking appearances in 2008. Fees ranged from $45,000 for a Nov. 12 Merrill Lynch appearance to $135,000 for an April 16 visit to Goldman Sachs, according to his disclosure form.

$135,000 is not onlya hefty pay check for a single visit, but what’s really disturbing is that in April either Clinton or Obama were likely winners in the election so Summers current position as a government big wig. Or, as Greenwald writes, “It’s basically an advanced bribe. And it’s paying off in spades.”

But if you don’t believe me, take a look at the transcript from Bill Moyer’s most recent show when Professor William Black outlined how Tim Geithner was involved in a massive fraud and how he and Summers were involved in blocking regulation. It’s positively chilling. Didn’t we have enough of this sort of corruption under the Bush administration? The interview can be seen here and the transcript is here. Read it or watch it and weep.

And speaking of Bill Moyers—he interviewed both Glen Greenwald and Amy Goodman for recently winning the I.F. Stone Award. Congratulations to both of these fine journalists. They were on the show to discuss the media’s role in this on-going corruption. It’s been a long time since I thought of I.F. Stone and it was lovely to remember a writer of such passion and integrity.

Here’s another tidbit from Jim Hightower explaining how to “too big to fail” really means too big to regulate: “A new report by Wallstreetwatch.org reveals that from 1998 to 2008, the finance industry made $1.7 billion in contributions to Washington politicians (55 percent to Repubs, 45 percent to Dems), spent $3.4 billion on lobbyists (3,000 of them on the industry payroll in 2007 alone) and won a dozen key deregulatory victories that led directly to today's financial meltdown.”

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Grey, grey skies here and this morning I woke at 6 and switched on CNN to check out the protestors at the G20 Summit in London. And was surprised to see the tens of thousands and their tents parked in the midst of busy London as bankers are camouflaged for the day in jeans and t-shirts. The people are shouting “shame on you” and calling today “Financial Fool’s Day”, smashing windows at the Royal Bank of Scotland which awarded a $1 million lifetime pension to its CEO. Meanwhile, in France workers at the Caterpillar plant have taken their bosses hostage after it was announced that 700 jobs were going to be cut. I wonder where all this populist outrage will lead us—in the 60s it led to better things. Is anyone listening?

I was talking to members of Oregon Press Women on Saturday on the demise of the newspapers. Many of the members are free lance journalists and their gigs have dried up or are dwindling. I posed the question--what will a democracy be like without a press—after all, the Founding Fathers thought freedom of speech so important that they rolled it into the First Amendment. We talked about Rupert Murdock's influence on the news and the death of the Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. But now the Chicago Sun-Times has filed for bankruptcy protection, the San Francisco Chronicle is likely going down, and even the venerable The New York Times is on life support. What this world needs is more investigative reporters not more bloggers (myself included.)

And the corruption charges against former senator Ted Stevens have been dismissed. Sigh.

On to better news--it’s National Poetry Month, inaugurated in 1996—so happy April to all and you can visit poets.org to find a calendar about worldwide celebrations. Also, if like me you like poems arriving in your in box, beginning today, Poets.org sends one new poem to each day to celebrate National Poetry Month. The poems have been selected from new books published in the spring.