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Bit by Bit Putting it Together

Monday, January 14th, 2013

First posted December 14, 2012 on our critique group blog, BooksAroundTheTable.

“What’s the story?” my dad used to ask if I was having a hard time pulling together an article for his newspaper.

It’s a question I am still, always, asking.

Being a writer means sifting through memories, experiences and observations for the material that is charged, for the pieces that line up to tell the story. Usually it is the emotional component – humor, anger, fear, grief – that signals an event is story-worthy and has the juice that will hold a reader’s interest as you tell the story.


For instance, last week we discovered both of our kids had chosen the same date for their summer weddings. Unbeknownst to each other, plans were moving ahead for June 8 festivities in Palm Springs and Seattle. Throw in the fact that the six of us are getting together soon to celebrate John’s and my 40th anniversary, and the tension ratcheted up to find a solution.

This is the stuff of story. I put on my writer’s hat for the six-person phone discussion. A story-gathering perspective offers helpful objectivity. Like any good reporter, I tried to gather information. I also noted tones of voice and scraps of dialogue. I considered which words would best describe the weight in my chest – or was it my stomach? Churning? Tightening? And I imagined our way forward. Oh, I am lucky to be a writer. I could see myself dancing at two beautiful weddings.

Mostly it’s unplanned experiences like this that offer fodder for stories, but we could be more intentional. Peter Sagal on NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me said he actively chooses life experiences for their anecdotal value. I think the guy we saw on Nature who gave over his every waking minute to raising a clutch of wild turkeys is this kind of storyteller. An amazing story resulted.  Now he’s off to live a year with mule deer in Montana.


I, too, have a commitment to going after a good story, but the voucher for trapeze lessons that my husband gave me last January for my last birthday still waits on the shelf.

We writers live in a continual process of noting and sifting, weighing and arranging, looking for the potent pieces that add up to the bigger thing. In a heartrending story about her mother, former student at Vermont College, Melissa Chandler, talked about this process. “If we try to act as archeologists of those who gave us life,” she wrote, “what are the artifacts we uncover and keep? Objects? Words?”


Building a story is more than finding the charged bits. It’s about assembling, too. I once mistakenly listened to an audio book on “shuffle.” I enjoy stories with skewed chronology, so it took awhile to figure out what was going on, but it turns out what piece of story rubs up against the next matters.


After I strung the lights on our Christmas tree last weekend, I decided my result was a lot like the plotline of the middle grade novel I am revising. The lights are carefully placed at the top where I began, winding in and out of the branches, but they get sparser and loose toward the bottom, covering bigger and bigger expanses with a single strand. When an LED bulb went out, the rest of the string went dark. It is not a big reach to recognize I need to go back into my novel and add more lights, to twist the plot more carefully around all of the branches, all the way through.

I look forward to that – and to two weddings — in the new year. Happy holidays to you all!

Putting our Best Paws Forward

Friday, August 24th, 2012

Right from the start, our dog Izzi has had a special quality of patience. Shortly after she came to live with us, I started to think she might be a good therapy dog and we might someday volunteer in the Reading with Rover project.

John reads to Izzi.

Reading with Rover’s mission is to: “Inspire children to discover the joy of reading while developing literacy skills and confidence in a safe environment, using Reading with Rover dogs.” The dogs are willing listeners for child readers at schools, libraries and bookstores.

Our Izzi turned six this year. We signed up for a pet therapy training class this summer. She is one of five dogs – with two great Danes and two labs – who gather for weekly sessions at MyPuppyNanny near Snohomish to prepare for the Reading with Rover certification test.

Monday’s tasks included walking calmly through an area of busy people, sitting, and staying. Then came the task that our instructor, Annemarie Kaighin, called “the deal breaker.” She would bring in another of her dogs from the adjacent kennel. The five dogs being trained must remain quiet as the new dog entered the room.

Izzi barked. My heart fell.

But all is not lost. Annemarie coached me to train Izzi not to bark at strange dogs. So Tuesday, Iz and I hung out at a nearby pet store. Every time a new dog came in I gave her treats. She seemed indifferent to the dogs but loved the chicken bits.

Wednesday, we walked around Green Lake. At first I gave her treats each time we saw and passed another dog. Pretty soon she’d see a dog and look to me for the treat. Mostly she ignored the other dogs or sniffed toward them with interest. Apparently she thinks dogs in pet stores and dogs on the walking path are not bark-worthy.

How can I replicate an indoor situation where strange dogs come by and I can treat her for not barking? We are both scratching our heads, and not because of fleas.

Meanwhile, Izzi and I are working on all the other stuff. She sits reliably at my side when I pause during our walks. She walks well on a leash. Whether or not I am able to teach her not to bark at new dogs, it is truly fun to work with her to sharpen our skills.

And I still hold out hope that our patient pup will pass the test. Stay tuned.

Izzi waiting for John to come home with her best friend, Hudson, our daughter’s dog.

Doozying Up Vocabulary

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

Originally posted May 25, 2012, on our critique group blog, BooksAroundtheTable, at

I expect that every tribe over the years develops a few useful words or phrases that make up its unique lexicon. Here are a few from my tribe that you, too, may find useful.

GMAZEL – an extra stop or errand. This recalls our friend LeRoy Gmazel and the winter day he drove us to the ski slopes. On the way, he made not one, not two, but three side trips: picking up skis, dropping off a bag of potatoes, returning a friend’s chainsaw. Thus in our family when you ask for an extra stop along the way, you request a gmazel.

WOLVERINE! – the opposite of crying wolf. Wolverines are serious, fierce animals. When you call “wolverine,” you really mean it. A family member will rush to your aid. Especially useful if the tp has run out.

MIMI HAIR – hair that sticks up in every direction. My friend Emilee Birrell’s childhood doll Mimi had the most unmanageable of unmanageable hair. Emilee’s mom bought Mimi a new wig– and still the wild hair persists. (Thanks for the photo, Em.)

“IS THERE A DAY YOU DON’T DISAPPOINT ME?” – a smart alec phrase used to get family members moving. We encountered this one on the Greek island of Kea. The innkeeper came by early one morning with maps and advice and helped us plan out the day’s hike. Two hours later, we were still sitting on the porch when he strolled by again. He called to us, “Is there a day you don’t disappoint me?”

Eventually we hiked to the ancient city of Karthaia and the ruins of a 6th century BC temple to Athena above this beach. Beautiful.
Zelda doozied up Ivy’s tail.

When you are creating the world of a story, you may find that words and phrases particular to that world begin to emerge. In my own Zelda and Ivy stories, the sisters  “punch paws” in solidarity, “woozy-weasel promise” to seal a deal, and “doozy up their tails.” These turns of phrase are part of their fox-tribal lexicon.

Now it’s your turn. What words and phrases are unique to your tribe?

The 1,000 Beginnings Project

Thursday, April 5th, 2012
(Originally posted on the faculty blog, Vermont College of Fine Arts, MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults,


I spent four days in Mount Vernon, WA, last week, speaking to students at a Young Authors Conference; three talks a day, a hundred second- through sixth-graders plus their adult group leaders per talk. This allowed me to gather almost one thousand tiny writing samples, one thousand opening sentences of personal narratives.

I was curious to discover what this collection of stickyback strips might say about these writers and their lives. After much shuffling, the majority seemed to fall into the following groups: family stories, 133, (includes moving, 14, and new siblings, 15); pet stories, 97; weather, 89; vacation stories, 76, (15 mention Disneyland and four begin, “Are we there yet?”); sports stories, 65, (includes 11 about swimming); friends stories, 64, (18 about new friends); injury stories, 55; action/adventure/scary stories, 53; stories seemingly related to stories I told in my presentation, 33, (yes, I love how sticky stories are); country life stories, (hiking, fishing, riding horses and three-wheeled vehicles), 16; Young Authors event stories, 11; birthdays, 4.

Before we brainstormed, I talked about how we connect to our readers through the emotion of a story. I encouraged kids to write about a memory that held strong emotion and they responded with an emotional rainbow: sad stories about lost or dying pets, or, saddest of all, a dad in jail; the thrill of a trip to Disneyland, making a new friend, getting a new sibling, sailing down a ski slope.

There were openers that tugged at my heart, like: “One summer day, my dad left for Afghanistan because he was in the Navy.” Or, in a very cramped printing, “The path I’ve gone through is unbearable. But the path only makes me stronger.” I always admire a writer who can put his truth on the page, but I hate that kids have such hard stuff to deal with.

On a lighter note, despite drizzling rain all week, more than 15 percent of these Northwest kids included the sun or a warm day in their opening sentence.

Here are some of my favorites, with attribution when available.

  • It all started with the Batman pajamas.
  • Having bloody noses is not the best way to spend a whole summer.
  • There was a time, there was a time where everything was perfect in my life.
  • “You get the shovel, I have the rake,” said Chuck. “We will meet in the woods.” – Ethan
  • “Molly! Look!” I whipped my head around and saw five dorsal fins poking out of the water.
  • Chris liked birds. He liked robins, ducks, swans and bluejays.
  • It was cold but I still took hold of the K.G.M.I. banner for St. Paddy’s Day. – Maddie
  • Over the gleaming river, it seemed that nothing would ever happen that could be bad.
  • Me and Grandma was sitting still in a boat fishing. – Tessa
  • Rose was lying on the trampoline staring at the blue sky when she heard some giggles. – Lilly
  • The rain pounded down on the backs of the weary travelers.
  • My name is Larry and I am a tornado watcher. – Keaton
  • The happiest day of my life was when I knew about dinosaurs. The first dino I knew about was triceratops.
  • My dad drove up to a house and two people walked out wearing Groucho Marx glasses. I didn’t know they would become my two favorite relatives.
  • “No! I don’t want to take a bath,” I yelled.
  • “What was the last thing you said to Grandma?” asked Mom.
  • “Dad, Dad. No not that. I told you to play a music video, not home videos. You are the most embarrassing dad in the history of embarrassing dads.” – Carsin
  • The bell sounded. Everyone ran. I lined up. I saw the smoke flying off the top of the school.
  • I looked about the room. I hadn’t seen so many boxes since Christmas.
  • “You are going to have a brother,” Da said. “But I want a kitten,” Kyra cried.
  • I cannot believe my hamster teddy – a grey dwarf hamster with a white stripe down his back – died.
  • How can I get out of this cage thought Chewy?
  • I was looking at the thousands of sad-seeming cats at the shelter, when I saw an almost familiar looking, smokey-grey cat. – Gilly
  • Really, only Alexa was going through the Young Authors conference since Juliya had been snoring most of the time. – Alexa

I want to end this post with a shout out to Marie Weltz who has worked on this conference for each of its 20 years. She celebrated her 80th birthday Thursday. Think of all the young writers who have been inspired by her efforts. The conference is sponsored by the NW Educational Service District and Skagit Valley College. The kids come from 40 elementary schools, including public and parochial, private and home schools. Each attended a workshop with an author and a workshop with an illustrator and my presentation. They also had an hour where they met with students from other schools and shared the manuscripts they’d brought along. Though Marie is stepping down this year as head, her legacy will live on.

Meanwhile, when I need an idea for a new beginning, I know where to look.


Saturday, May 16th, 2009

I am at the dump trying to pull a Volkswagen-sized tangle of prickly pyrocanthus out of the back of the pickup. The branches have all knitted together. It won’t budge. In the slot next to me, a lady is unloading a truck that says “Garden of Weedin” on the door. When she’s done, she grabs her loppers and starts chopping away at my prickly mass. “You need to process it more,” she advises. Then she helps me pull that huge thorny meatball out and over the chains, where it drops into the clean green pit. “Thanks,” I say. Before she drives away, I turn to the guy on my other side who has a load of pine tree prunings. I help him pull out the last of his load. The Garden of Weedin lady gives me a big smile. This is the way the world should work.

The ladies of the LaConnor Garden Club have come to visit the Dunn Gardens where I am a docent. The tour requires about a half mile walk over lawn and gravel and duff paths. I notice various garden club members helping Joyce, who they tell me is 90-years old, taking her arm when the ground is uneven, making sure she has a bench to rest on when we pause to admire the dazzling gardens. Joyce is the one who gives me her email address so I can answer some plant i.d. questions. She plans to send me a poem about their garden visit. This is the way the world should work.

It is Mother’s Day and I am doing what I love most: gardening. We are making a new raised bed for veggies at Noelle’s house. Noey and I chop back blackberries and rhodies in her overgrown yard, opening it up so more light reaches the new bed. “I wish you could have had times like this with your mom,” she tells me. “Me, too,” I say. “Me, too.”

This is the way the world should work.

California Dreaming

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009

I have often wondered why the human species doesn’t all live in temperate weather – weather like they have in California or Italy or anywhere in their latitudinal band.

Because in ancient times, before polar fleece and Goretex, rain and cold must have been even more miserable. So why didn’t those ancients start walking toward the warmth? These people braved the land bridge from Asia to North America, for godsakes. Why would they stop in Alaska to live in igloos and face months when daylight hours were in the single digits? Why would they stop in the northwest to sit in windowless longhouses waiting for the rain to stop?

I think there is a need, especially in Seattle, for a website called You would punch in your grey, depressing zipcode and some high tech combination of maps and weather forecasts would direct you to the closest sunny roadside spot. Ideally these spots would have wi-fi. When the rain became unbearable, I could consult, hop in the car and go there.

Of course, there is the alternative offered by full spectrum lighting. My friend Ileen has accustomed herself to this. She sits before her light each day of winter for a half hour, in her sunglasses, reading. It seems a sort of worship – the Klieg light at the end of the world – but cool, too, because of the sunglasses.

I guess it makes sense that sun-worshipping religions sprung up in sunny places: Greece (Helios), the Aztecs in Mexico, India, Babylonia. But it’s not that I want to worship the sun, it’s just my childhood in California set up an expectation that has gone wanting for 35 years in Seattle.

I suppose there is some character building going on here. I’m not one of those sunbirds who escape to Phoenix for the grey months. At least when the beautiful days from April to October come along, I can feel I earned them.

Yes, here we have another day of grey. Cottony grey-blue clouds rest on the darker blue-grey of the Sound. Luckily our family has a getaway to Palm Springs planned.

Glad I don’t have to walk all the way to get there.

Winter Count

Friday, December 19th, 2008

What better day for a Winter Count than a day we are snowed in? All around us snow on snow, snow on snow — and yet another snow cloud moving in across the Sound. 

Winter Count is the Plains Indians practice of recording each year’s memorable events in a spiral of symbols drawn on an animal hide, sometimes on the sides of teepees. These drawings were added to each year at winter camp, commemorating, for instance, the year of the one horned buffalo, the year of the comet, or the year of the flood.

It is something to think about. What significant event would you record for 2008 in your own Winter Count?

For me, it is Mom’s death. February 16, 2008. 

Were I to mark a symbol on the side of the teepee that is this new blog, I would paint my mom with wings — because she spent some of her happiest hours piloting her Piper Commanche. After more or less raising five kids, she turned her considerable intellect to air racing across the United States. In one of her rambly conversations near the end, when her mind was loosely tethered, she told me she and Dad had flown their little plane around the world, though she wasn’t quite sure what route they had taken over the Himalayas to get to China. Even when she could no longer get out, she was still flying. 

Into the void left by Mom’s absence has flooded the love and energy of my sisters Susan, Nancy and Kate, and my brother, Tim. We are closer than ever. I think Mom and Dad must look down on us and be glad for that.


Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008

Q: How do you begin writing?
A: I sit down with my laptop and start moving my fingers over the keyboard. I can’t wait to see where my writing will take me. Wendell Berry says it better in this poem:

Traveling at Home

Even in a country you know by heart
it’s hard to go the same way twice.
The life of the going changes.
The chances change and make a new way.
Any tree or stone or bird
can be the bud of a new direction. The
natural correction is to make intent
of accident. To get back before dark
is the art of going.
– Wendell Berry

What “tree or stone or bird” will be the bud of my new direction? Will I make it back before dark?

Today I join the league of writers who blog on the Internet. My journal here is a new beginning and beginnings are my favorite part of any writing project. With beginnings, all the promise, all the possibilities, are still out there in front. Shining. I relish finding those first words or images that belong to a story and seeing where they lead.

I wonder if my dad felt like this when he sat down to write his Sierra Lookout column for the Sonora Union Democrat? Year after year, column after column. I expect that for him, too, writing was a way to figure out what he thought. His topics veered from early spring in the foothills (exquisite) to the shenanigans of Tuolumne Water District No. Two (frustrating).

In the months to follow I expect I will write about our dogs and the garden and writing and books and kindnesses and things that make me laugh, friends and family, growing old, bicycling, marriage, the kids, playing the ukulele, Yosemite, how to purchase athlete’s foot cream in Florence, Italy, and – hard to avoid in the Northwest – the rain.

But for this first one, I think I will begin with thanks. Thanks to the talented Max Waugh and his able assistant Jenn Hixson for creating and developing my new website.

Thanks for this new beginning.

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