The Gift of a Question

No hurry …

ganeshaAfter months of neglect of the page and the pen, an unusually long hiatus, a writer-friend said to me, “You must find the time to write. You must write!”

I ponder her words: Writing is so much a part of the writer’s soul that when we don’t write we shallow out, we disconnect from what’s real, we lose the thread. We neglect the balance point between our two natures, a betrayal. The worst of our many selves takes over, and we begin to believe that’s who we are.

Danté placed the betrayer at the lowest circle of hell. Ganesha sacrificed a tusk — the pen! — so that the writer could write.

Some essays pop out of the frontal lobe–opinion easily expressed. That’s product. Others come slowly–a new search prompted by fresh insight, initiated by a question that nags. The early draft takes on levels and sub-text; it gathers both detritus and essential matter; it changes direction; theme appears and disappears; maps are drawn, destroyed, redrawn, followed, abandoned. This is new territory. (And why would one want to revisit the same familiar places anyway?)

Essential to breaking new ground on paper is the pondering. Doubt may hijack a week, a month, but what drives us forward is the question and the creative impulse that cares for it. All this takes time. No hurry.

Good news


“Clear! Seven Theories of Space,” an essay printed in the December 2014 issue of Passages North, has been nominated for Sundress Publications’ Best of the Net Anthology.

This essay, in the writing for three years, justifies my faith in slow writing. Not that I could write any other way …

Here’s the link:

Thank you to the editors and staff of Passages North!

Writing the collage one shard at a time: messages along the road

“Collage is pieces of other things. Their edges don’t meet.”
“… the many becoming one, with the one never fully resolved because of the many that continue to impinge upon it.”
“Story seems to say that everything happens for a reason, and I want to say,
No, it doesn’t.” 
“A mosaic, made out of broken dishes, makes no attempt to hide the fact that it’s made out of broken dishes, in fact flaunts it.”
 “The question is not What do you look at? but What do you see?”

David Shields, Reality Hunger

See what happens when shards — found objects — aPottery shardsre slowly added:


Here:   I read this somewhere recently–“Times Square must be an extraordinary place to visit if you can’t read.”



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“Clear!” has found a home at PASSAGES NORTH

“Hefty literary magazine will keep you entertained through the winter.”
The Review Review

pelican“Clear! Seven Theories of Space” now appears in Bonus Content of PASSAGES NORTH, Northern Michigan University’s literary magazine.  Here’s the link:

“Clear!” is essay — an experimental piece that looks for the connection between lyric, meditative, and personal essay. The seven sections, each a prose poem, touch at their edges, but only just.

It’s about Cessnas and spaceships, pelicans and thrushes and hawks, whelks and waves, pots and pens, and chatty storytellers. It’s a journey inward.

And check out this link for an excellent review of PASSAGES NORTH:

The Goldilocks Zone

Search for a place that’s ‘just right’ … says the fairy tale.

Looking for a plgoldilocksace to write is like the astrophysicist’s search for a planet in the Goldilocks Zone. A trial-and-error pursuit that requires some legwork. The perfect place: not too hot, not too cold, not too wet, not too dry, light aplenty but not blinding, habitable but not overrun, a quiet background buzz but not a cacophony, an environment to like, not much to dislike, few distractions but services available, a cellphone to switch off, letting in only the few, a plug and a wi-fi connection. A place that was there yesterday and will be there tomorrow, undisturbed, never mind bankruptcies, corporate takeovers, or global oil prices. A place I can count on. Forever.

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Jam them together, theme arises

I want powerful, I want lyrical, I want the unexpected,
I want under-the-surface, dive-beneath subtext.

The new essay baffles and delights.whelk

It’s not like fiction:  cause and effect, narrative arc, character development. Or like journalism: who, what, how, where, when. Both want answers.

Essay circles, questions, sometimes doesn’t know and–how refreshing!–admits it. And then the braided essay can run along two tracks at once, each unrelated. Or so it seems.

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“LuLu” has found a home at Prick of the Spindle

Gathering Storm“Your story is so well written, I really felt it deserves this honor.” Cynthia Reeser, editor, Prick of the Spindle

A favorite online literary journal — Prick of the Spindle — has accepted a story I completed this winter.  It’s about my paternal grandmother, who was a piece of work.

“LuLu’s Southern Beach House School for Wily Deceivers” has been chosen to appear, exclusively, in the journal’s Kindle quarterly issue.

It’s been said that grandmother stories don’t make it into print.  It’s been said that creative writing instructors’ and literary journal editors’ eyes roll back in their heads when presented with one of these sentimental relics to read. But this story is fun … and perhaps a little disturbing.  LuLu’s a memorable character. We should all be tutored by a grand dame with an agenda. You can’t make this stuff up.

Check out the story if you have the time. An excerpt is included on About My Stories — Published. And if you have comments, I’d enjoy hearing them.


 …there is a silence, not filled too quickly, lest the response be shallow, ordinary, known. Go there with a new question … go there.

The spotlight’s on in the backyard; the light in the bedroom’s off.  I watch the wind, made visible by snowflakes. Expect 8 to 10 inches tonight, we’re told.

The word driven comes to mind–snowflakes driven down like rain, perpendicular.  Or pulled down like gravity on meteorites–white, dragging  their neon ribbons.  Then a change in the mind of the wind: snowflakes waft like May flies in a swarm, short-lived.  Then that testy wind laughs.  A cyclone in white explodes in silence.

I think of other silent spaces.

There’s the silence in some books.  In Marilynn Robinson–I’m thinking of Home or Giliad–and I imagine her writing new lines early in the morning, before she uses language for anything else. No talking, no listening to others talk, no listening to herself talk.  You know, that associative chatter in the head.  Just stillness.  Essential to craft. She places pockets of potential silence at the end of sentences, of paragraphs.  Can you see them?

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“Claws” now at Milk Sugar Journal

bearAfter five years of writing, I decided I’d might as well submit something, so I submitted “Claws,” a true story of tall trees, of bears, both real and imagined, and of memory that bursts forth upon the scent of wet and matted leaves.   Accepted by Milk Sugar, an online literary journal, it’s currently there for you to read.

The website is not easy to find.  Try

Frankly, as soon as I read it online — my first read in three months — I began to revise it. Isn’t that how we are?  Isn’t that what we do?  Isn’t that at the center of how we live with the editor-voice in our heads who never shuts up?

Still, the first one is sweet. And real bears are scary.


The game closet, yesterday.  I was rummaging through it, looking for something, when I found a small piece of a jigsaw puzzle in a corner.  Stem green with a purple edge, one side a ninety-degree angle, the rest of it like fingers flung out. A cornered amoeba.

I do not like jigsaw puzzles.  They crop up everywhere in my life, as if the universe continues to send me not what I want, but what it thinks I need to see … until I see it.  I suppose, then, the universe will be sending me jigsaw puzzles forever.  Because I won’t do them.

Take, for example, the jigsaw puzzles for the beach house.   Prior to our family trek to the Outer Banks each summer, all puzzles are dragged out of the game closet, unpacked, spread out, picked over, dismissed or chosen, repacked carefully, talked about in the car for 500 miles, removed from the car first, set up on a card table, and fussed over.  The year we forgot the card table, we used the dining room table for the puzzles and ate on our laps. Ketchup was difficult.

“Coming down to the beach?” I say to four family members.  It’s 10:00 – beach time – and I’m at the door, greased up, hat on head, beach bag packed with the day’s supply of books, pens, and notebooks.  Four heads bend over a puzzle.

“Looking for this piece,” one of them says to another, pointing to a hole.

“Try this one.”  Murmurs.

“No, I need a ninety-degree angle.  Green.  With a little purple showing.”

“Y’all coming?” I say.

“Found a different one!” my husband shouts, and applause breaks out. He looks at me as if to say I’m not a team player. I know this.

I go down to the beach alone, schlepping my chair, umbrella, bag of books, and frustration.

Now, take the jigsaw puzzles at The Heritage, my mother’s retirement community.  Rummaging through closets in the club room, the Puzzle Queen of South Carolina discovered 179 boxes of puzzles, dragged them out, shouted “Come on, y’all” to everyone in her building, and thus founded The Heritage Jigsaw Puzzle Club, going strong for three years now.  Puzzles are fussed over and discussed as if they are intractable children. She has told me three times that The Puzzle Club has completed 53 puzzles.  This is not from short-term memory loss.

“Let’s walk down to the club room and see what’s happening with the puzzle,” my mother says to me.  I’m visiting her for two weeks, and we’ve just finished three loads of laundry and a chocolate treat.

“I’m not into puzzles,” I say.  “You go.”

“But I want us to do stuff together while you’re here.”

I’d rather read Pam  Houston’s latest book.  “OK, OK,” I say.

I sit down at the card table in the club room.  Three other elders are there, intent on the puzzle of the week.  Hot air balloons.  The workers murmur, eye one another, poke through puzzle pieces, try one, then another, ease pieces into right places, and snap them into place to a chorus of exclamation.  I look down at the tiny pieces, all similar in shape, size, and my interest in them.

“Why don’t you like jigsaw puzzles?” my mother says.

“No idea.”

“Puzzles keep you young.  They work your brain.”  She’s ninety-six.

“My brain’s just fine.”

“Epiphany happens outside language,” we are told.

“They help you understand how the small things fit so you can figure out the big picture,” she says.  “You know.  Puzzles are like life.”

“Mama, you know I don’t believe that.”

Opinions on the subject rip across the faces of my mother’s friends, but no one offers support for either side.

“You should think about it.”  Heads nod.  She finds a piece that fits, lets out a whoop, and applause breaks out around the table.

My brother sits with Mama and me in her living room.  I’m go back to reading reading Pam Houston.  She spreads dissimilar fragments of her life around with her pen, sees some odd relationship among the pieces, some quirky theme; the pieces don’t fit together and she doesn’t force them and she doesn’t tell us every little thing. But I know somebody is present.  We are left to infer. “Epiphany happens outside language,” we are told.  My yellow highlighter and ballpoint are poised over the page – How does she do this?

My brother and I are sitting with Mama in her apartment.  I am reading.  They are working a crossword puzzle, another family activity I’m not good at.  Or don’t have the patience for.

“Can’t get this last word,” my brother says. “Eight letters — begins with M — means ‘Vacancy on the top floor’?”  His pencil is tapping, his leg is pumping, he’s leaning toward Mama whose brow is furrowed over the coverless Webster’s she uses for her crossword puzzles. It’s almost as old as she is.

“Mindless,” I say without looking up.

They jump as if they’ve been shot from off-planet.  My mother says it fits, my brother says it’s perfect, and the Sunday crossword is completed.

Words I can do.  Words are not a game. I remember what Mark Twain said about words.  “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between a lightning bug and a lightning strike.”

It’s 11:00 by the time my husband arrives on the beach with his chair and his own books.  I hold his red beach cup of tea with lemon, no sugar while he sets up for the day.

“I don’t feel deprived because I don’t like jigsaw puzzles,” I say.  “And I’d rather write.”

“The puzzle’s missing one piece,” he tells me, frustrated.

I backed out of the game closet, pulled the dust bunnies off the green and purple puzzle piece, and took it downstairs.  I put it where he’d see it.  When he came home, he said something like, “Finally we’ll see the big picture!”

Writing again, finding “the zone”

Returning to writing after a couple months away is like going back to the gym.  It’s hard.  “The zone” has disappeared, and I have to search for it, work for it, find it again. It’s not fun.  I don’t like it.

I pick a day.  Then warm-ups help.

Read somebody I like, preferably something I’ve read many times — this morning, Somerset Maugham; old, fusty to some, but restful, rhythmic; a short novel about place and characters who are not in the beginning introspective, and then are forced to be.

Read something I’ve written; read it aloud, and don’t change a word; just listen.

Write a twenty-minute free-write on something banal.  Say, ripping off pantyhose.  Or fishing a mouse out of the pool. How’s that? Lift the spirit, get down, work the muscles, let the words run from the right brain through the fingers and flow onto the page. Feel that? Wow! I have an occasional smile now.

Ah! Read John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story for inspiration, for wisdom, for craft, or just because he makes sense. How does anyone write without a good, recent dose of Truby?

Then the day’s real work-out:  read the scary story, the one I’m working on, the dark monster, the one where the middle’s a muddle. Read it from beginning to end, read it aloud, punch up Verdi in the background, keep some distance, put one little checkmark next to each jarring bump-in-the-road. Read on. Read on. And don’t frown.

Have veggies for lunch. Check the Weather Channel for Hurricane Irene.  (Are the Outer Banks safe?  Should I stack the lawn chairs, bring in the wind chime?) Look out a window. Follow the chipmunks and the hawks. Take a walk around the yard — left, right, left, right. Move.

Then, start with the next chapter and write. One word at a time. “The zone” returns slowly.  As does the joy.

Staying in “the zone” means no more month-long breaks. And it’s good to be back. But getting here’s a bitch.


Remembered rhythms

Ask me how many excuses I can conjure for not keeping to my (usually disciplined) writing schedule in the summer.  Count them:
It’s too hot, too humid, too buggy.
There’s too much yard work, and I’m tired.
I have to pack for the beach, and make lists.
The hawks are too loud.
The chipmunks are distracting.
I can’t get a wall plug at Borders.
My writing room’s too …. quiet? isolated?  stuffy?
I have three emails to answer.
The printer won’t work.
I have to research … hmmm … the surfacing and swarming habits of black ants.
We’re out of mesclun.
I have to watch the hawks teach their youngsters to hunt, or the racoon paw at the bird feeder, or the fox stalk a mouse like a cat.
I’m stuck in the late-middle of a scary manuscript that has me stumped, and I need a p&j sandwich and a Tazo chai tea.
The summer pop lit book I’ve started is too heady, not trashy enough for summer.
Cold, winter reading it is.
Rain’s coming across the field, and I have to be here for that.
After that release, I’ll probably need a nap.
But mostly — and here I reach the truth — my body remembers the rhythms of childhood when we stashed paper and pencil, multiplication tables flash cards, and Weekly Readers in drawers for the summer, threw on shorts and sleeveless shirts, retrieved sand buckets and little shovels from the shed, and took out fun books by the armfuls from the town library across the causeway.
Creativity went into making mud pies for sale on the tar-hot street, surviving days of  battle against brigands in the dunes, lolling in the tide pools with the minnows, making drip castles, digging to China, and daring aerial tricks on the front porch swing that worried the old folks and shook the cottage.
Even today, I bow to this remembered rhythm of the body.  My stack of library books is right here, packed:   among them the latest Kiran Desai and Sebastian Junger, older John Fowles and Salmon Rushdie favorites, an Ondaatje I must have missed, and an E. O. Wilson on … yes! … ants.  And Patchett.
That scary manuscript that has me stumped for now?  I’ll print it out and ponder it through August.  It’s the hawk-watching and the afternoon-napping and the reading of lyric Ondaatje and the beach combing that will work it free — the rhythmic way forward.

Theta’s Gift

Last night, I had an idea for a story.  It felt smart and clever, and I came to it after a long day of reading Rushdie and Maugham, critiquing another writer’s new chapter, trotting my new MacBookPro to the ER (an inexplicable coma, at least inexplicable to me), and hunting for un-green poison to kill the inch worms that sucked the living daylights out of the new growth on my roses since last weekend.  I was up in my head for sure, cranking along like a machine.

(“I have a really good idea,” I say often to my daughter, my husband.  “Do you want to hear it?”  “No.”  “No.”)

But turning over into another cloudy May dawn, still swimming in semi-dreams, theta’s early morning gift of the subconscious — when then is now, when body and feeling and mind are one, where mysterious connections are made and we-don’t-know-how — I am in accord with Robert Olen Butler:  ideas are not the source of good stories.

Tell me something or give it to me to read, and it’s still your knowledge.  Let me experience it for myself, and it’s mine.

Thank you, Prof. Butler.   A new day, and I’m off to see if I can get some of these theta wave connections on paper before my head sucks the living daylight out of them.