Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Writing the Beach

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

First posted July 26, 2012, on the blog of the faculty of Vermont College’s Writing for Children and Young Adults, WriteatYourOwnRisk on posterous.

Who better than Julie Larios to serve up a writing prompt? I have often admired the wide-reaching content of her poetry and I got a little insight into her process when our northwest contingent of the faculty of VCFA MFA WC-YA gathered in June at Cannon Beach, Oregon.

(L. to r.: Marion Dane Bauer, Margaret Bechard, Jane Kurtz, Tom Birdseye, Julie Larios, Susan Fletcher, Ellen Howard.)

Julie suggested we each come up with ten strange facts, trade our lists, then choose two items to address some way in a poem. This makes sense with what I know about creativity, how the pairing of disparate things can lead to new thinking. As I worked I felt a tiny shift from writing with intention to writing to see what I might discover. An interesting turn.

The list Julie handed me oozed with possibilities:

  • Seahorses swallow their food through their snouts.
  • The eyes of the seahorse move independently (helps them see predators – compensating for slow movement.)
  • Newborn babies take 30-40 breaths per minute. Adults over 18 average 8 – 20 breaths per minute.
  • When flying, the blue-throated hummingbird’s heart rate can reach about 1250 beats/minute. When perching, 500-600 beats per minute. At night, resting, as low as 40 beats per minute.
  • The hummingbird is the only bird that can fly backward.
  • Birds have many bones which are hollow.
  • One sentence in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is 823 words long.
  • Stress can cause your hair to “turn white overnight” by causing the darker hair to fall out, (alopecia areata), leaving only naturally de-pigmented (white) hair.

One item seemed to be a found poem:

The home of the Collyer Brothers,

famous Manhattan hoarders, was

emptied of 19 tons of junk after

they died – that was only the first floor.

Eighty-four more tons of rubbish were removed

from the second and third floors during the second

attempt. In total, 130 tons of garbage

were removed. Included:

1. bowling balls, 2. three dressmaking models,

3. 25,000 books, 4. kerosene stove, 5. top of

a horse-drawn carriage, 6. 14 pianos,

7. two organs, 8. eight live cats, 9. rusted bicycles,

10. hundreds of yards of silk and fabric, 11. bugles,

banjos, violins, accordions, 12. decades of


The younger brother saved decades of

newspapers because he thought his brother

might like to “catch up on the news” if his vision

ever improved.


I ended up going with only one fact:

  • “four-eyed” fish (anableps) actually have two eyes, the half above water sees one world, the divided half below water level sees the underwater world. Vision is simultaneous.

It was a lovely retreat. I learned that gathering quirky facts can inspire and buoy my writing. I reveled in early morning, mist-shrouded walks down the beach almost as much as my dog, Izzi. And I loved being with my wonderful colleagues.

Perhaps you, too, might be inspired by Julie’s list. See where your wandering takes you.




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?

A Rock Solid Story

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

Originally posted April 4, 2012, at our critique group blog, Books Around the Table,

Last week, the guys from B&D Rockeries built a long wall along our driveway to stabilize the steep slope below the house. While they were down there working, I was up in the house constructing a revision of my middle-grade novel-in-progress.

B&D is a partnership between Neil Eneix, 62, and his dad Clayton, 81. Neil sets up their projects and Clayton runs the installations from his seat high in the track hoe. By manipulating levers that control the big boom, the dipper and the jaws, Clayton can land an 800-pound rock with the precision of a mama bestowing a kiss on her baby’s forehead.

I watched them lay out the materials: soil for filler, and the one- and two- man rocks. Then, in 20-foot stretches, they started to build. Working with both the track hoe (Clayton) and shovels (the rest of the crew), they cleared the way for the new wall by digging into the hill, working around big tree roots.

Rocks were placed one by one. Clayton selected from the rock pile with an expert’s eye. Then he maneuvered the track hoe to lift each rock, turn and lower it into place. At the jaws end of the track hoe, Mark, who’s in his 40s, settled the stones in place, making smaller adjustments. Clayton and Mark have been working together for nine years and seemed to communicate telepathically. Mark’s son, David, 22, shoveled to backfill as the wall grew. Four generations working together to build our wall.

Our new rock wall has a traditional, purposeful design. The biggest rocks were laid first, creating a sturdy base along the bottom. Next came the smaller secondary rocks filling the voids between the big stones, and finally the top course, providing a flat and finished top. As Neil told me later, “Every rock has its home.”

The B&D Rockeries Crew

Back up in the house, I considered my novel in stretches, too: beginning, middle, end. It’s the middle that has my attention lately. The big stones are in place and seem to have found their homes, but I am playing with the secondary pieces, moving some around, discarding others, finding new pieces that are a better fit. I’m trying to find a combination of chapters and scenes and beats and even words that builds a story as interdependent as our new rock wall. A story where every piece matters. In a way, I am working across generations, too. This story has roots in my father’s childhood. If only he were still here to pull the levers and guide the construction.

The rock guys completed our wall by early afternoon. In one day they built a thing of beauty and utility that will be here long after we’ve left the scene. I can only hope to create a story as enduring.

Our new rock wall

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