Author Archives: Julie Larios

Unbelievable! Believable!


So, it’s Wednesday night, I’m in Massachusetts visiting friends, and I go to sleep wondering who might be named this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Maybe the perennial front runner, Haruki Murakami. Maybe the playwright, Tom Stoppard – wouldn’t that be wonderful? Maybe a poet…Paul Muldoon? Maybe (and most likely) someone I’ve never heard of, barely translated into English yet. And then we’ll all have to wait while American publishers scramble to get the work translated. This is what I fall asleep thinking about.

When I go out sleepy-headed in the morning to tell my friends good morning, one of them tells me that Bob Dylan has been named the Nobel Prize winner, and I smile because I think that is a sweet and silly little joke, and she says, “No, really, Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize.”

This is so far off the grid of possibilities I think I might be dreaming. Or maybe it’s a Let’s-Pull-Julie’s-Leg kind of moment.

I laugh again. “No, really” I hear her say again. I laugh again. But it begins to register. This is real. This is a fact. Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Now…I have always and forever loved Bob Dylan. My whole senior year of high school I listened to his records late at night in my bedroom when I was supposed to be asleep. I loved everything he wrote. But my first reaction to my friend’s news was, “But he’s a songwriter.”


A fine songwriter, a wonderful songwriter, working old traditions into new ones, singing to us as Americans about who we used to be, who we are, what we face, and providing us with lyrical reminders of those things. But…BUT…the Nobel Prize? I thought about Seamus Heaney, Alice Munro, J. M. Coetzee, V.S. Naipaul.

Then a friend read me the beginning of David Remnick’s celebratory essay in the New Yorker:

God is a colossol joker, isn’t She? 

We went to bed last night having learned that the Man Who Will Not Go Away was, according to the Times, no mere purveyor of “locker-room talk”; no, he has been, in fact, true to his own boasts, a man of vile action. The Times report was the latest detail, the latest brushstroke, in the ever-darkening portrait of an American grotesque.

Then came the news, early this morning, that Bob Dylan, one of the best among us, a glory of the country and of the language, had won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Ring them bells! What an astonishing and unambiguously wonderful thing! There are novelists who still should win (yes, Mr. Roth, that list begins with you), and there are many others who should have won (Tolstoy, Proust, Joyce, Woolf, Nabokov, Auden, Levi, Achebe, Borges, Baldwin . . . where to stop?), but, for all the foibles of the prize and its selection committee, can we just bask for a little while in this one? The wheel turns and sometimes it stops right on the nose.

Okay, I thought. Permission simply to “bask.” And I’ve been doing just that. Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Unbelievable!  Read Remnick’s essay (link here) and think of the reasons why Dylan won. You can believe it’s believable, and you can bask.


Today’s Poetry Friday round-up is being hosted by Irene Latham at Live Your Poem. Head over there to see what people are sharing.

And to read an exuberant celebration of Dylan’s prize, take a look at Jama Rattigan’s Alphabet Soup. 



Once Again, In Praise of Pencils

My sister just came home from her two-week vacation in London. She had what sounds like a glorious time while there –  went to the British Museum, the Tate, the Courtauld Gallery, the Old Bailey, the British Library, searched for Newby’s elderflower and lemon tea, saw a play at the Globe theater, went on a sunset field trip out to Stonehenge, heard a small choir sing in the crypt (all songs about birds!) at St.-Martin-in-the-Fields, ate at a few lovely restaurants (as well as a few lovely food booths at the Tachbrook Market.)  I imagine she also did her share of buying souvenir do-dads for family and friends here at home. On her 10+hour flight home, she carried a present for me in her carry-on:



Sweet, sweet, sweet! I have a little collection of pencil boxes- some you might call elegant, others plain, others tattered, but all functional – some are wooden, some are old Bakelite boxes from the 30’s., some cardboard, and one (now!) metal.  The first pencil box I ever owned — I was a seven-year-old who loved school supplies, what can I say?– was one I bought with my own hard-earned money the first time I visited San Francisco’s Chinatown. Wish I still had it – it had a bird in flight on it, above an arched bridge. I treasured it; even so, it’s gone – how does that happen? Well,  here’s a poem of mine about it. The poem was first published in the Threepenny Review (go there and subscribe as soon as you’re done reading this post):


I put four bits on the counter
and the box was mine.
Six yellow pencils fit there
side by side, I was perfectly addled,
I was a goner – even before I knew
the alphabet, I knew its cedar perfume –
I flew over the high-humped bridge
painted on the top, over the willow,
the m-stroke for a bird, everything
was suggestion then, before
the putting on of too fine a point.
People expected me to come
to my senses, save the change
in my burning pockets, after all
the box was wooden, cheap
Chinatown, but half a dollar
went a long way toward heaven
when heaven was closer.

So my new pencil box from London has no bridge, no willow tree – it lists stations on the London Underground. I remember riding the Tube line up to Hampstead – past Camden Town, Chalk Farm, Belsize Park – when I was there as a college student, caring for the daughters of a professor from Berkeley. I did a lot of walking around  when I was there – London is a great walking-around town (see Margaret Chodos-Irvine’s recent posts on this blog from her 2-year stay in London!) Charles Dickens would agree with me, as would Virginia Woolf, whose essay titled “Street Haunting: A London Adventure” (you can read it here) I printed up and gave to my sister before she left. It starts like this:

“No one perhaps has ever felt passionately towards a lead pencil. But there are circumstances in which it can become supremely desirable to possess one; moments when we are set upon having an object, an excuse for walking half across London between tea and dinner. As the foxhunter hunts in order to preserve the breed of foxes, and the golfer plays in order that open spaces may be preserved from the builders, so when the desire comes upon us to go street rambling the pencil does for a pretext, and getting up we say: “Really I must buy a pencil,” as if under cover of this excuse we could indulge safely in the greatest pleasure of town life in winter—rambling the streets of London.”

Of course, Woolf was wrong about no one feeling passionate about a lead pencil.  I  could go on for quite awhile about the swoon-inducing quality of a Staedtler Norica # 2 pencils, my current favorite. Once upon a time I was passionate about (and wrote a prose poem about) my Dixon Ticonderoga 1388 #2 pencils….

Ode to My Dixon Ticonderoga 1388 No. 2

The first pleasure is the deep pleasure of delay: the plain form waiting straight and yellow, lying perpendicular to the edge of my cleared desk. I sit listening to its Quaker moment, its old soul not set to any purpose. Just how long should I wait to take it in my hand for the second pleasure which is the pleasure of its sharpening? That cedar shaft, dried at a white-hot heat, forced by my dome sharpener to make a fine point under pressure – yielding to the third pleasure, the strange joy of exposing its resin-fused core, that stick used to carbonize the brains of poets and the manifesto of the common man who mines the graphite near Los Pozos, Guanajuato. The fourth pleasure, the physical word, like Jehovah’s name, should not be written here. So right to the fifth and final pleasure, the one allowing for my hand’s unplanned errors: the most amazing pink eraser sitting firmly crowned, crimped into the green and gold ferule. This brand new pink eraser – oh, has God ever made anything more pure?

I also remember Julie Paschkis’s post a couple of years ago about how pencils, pens and brushes feel in the hands of an artist. And the poet Marianne Boruch wrote a poem titled “Pencil” which, like my poem tried to do, senses something quasi-religious about them (“…its secret life / is charcoal, the wood already burnt, / a sacrifice.”)

This week kids across the country headed for their first day of a new school year. My grandson down in Oregon filled his backpack with school supplies – I hope there were some pencils and a pencil box in there. It would be nice to think I passed on to him, via my daughter, an appreciation of pencils/pencil boxes, hidden somewhere in the double helix of our DNA.

My sister, who knows me well and who is often instrumental in providing me with pencils, gave me several packets of Dixon Ticonderoga’s as a gift when I went back to college to get my MFA. Now she’s brought me a set of Tube pencils from London. She carried them across the Atlantic Ocean, all the way across the wide North American continent, she made sure they survived the nearly 5000 mile journey  tucked safely inside my new pencil box. And they’re on my desk in Seattle now, newly sharpened. I may have shaved off some Tube stations when I put their points on them. But here they are, calling to me. And what do you do when a pencil calls to you? You write.



By the way, if you’re a follower of Poetry Friday, it’s being hosted this week by Amy Ludwig VanDerwater at her blog, The Poem Farm. You can head over there (after you first follow my suggestion to subscribe to the Threepenny Review) to see what other people have posted.


A Quick Heads-Up


My Family Tree and Me by

from My Family Tree by Dusan Petricic

Just want to make sure you all know about (and have a chance to subscribe to) the site called ART OF THE PICTURE BOOK, which comes out online with interviews of wonderful picture book illustrators from all over the world. Listed on their main page right now, among others, are interviews with Oyvind Torseter (of Norway),  Renata Liwska (born in Poland, now lives in Calgary, Canada),  Kris Di Giacomo (born in Brazil to American parents, now lives in Paris), Yasmeen Ismail (born in Ireland, now lives in Bristol, England)  and Dusan Petricic (of  both Toronto and Belgrade, Serbia.  I’ll let the drawings and photos speak for themselves – just know that the site often features glimpses of the artists at work and spreads from their sketchbooks. I encourage you to subscribe – it’s free and easy! You’ll find a subscription form here.

Oyvind Torseter - Whyt Dogs Have Wet Noses

Cover Art for Why Dogs Have Wet Noses by Kenneth Steven

Oylind's Studio

Oyvind Torseter’s Studio Desk

Renata Liwska - The Quiet Book

The Quiet Book by Renata Liwska


Renata Liwska’s Sketchbooks

Kris Di Giacomo’s illustration from Take Away the A by Michael Escoffier

from Kris Di Giacomo’s sketchbooks….

One Word from Sophia

detail from Yasmeen Ismail’s illustration for One Word from Sophia by Jim Averbeck

Dusan Petricic’s cover art for The Color of Things by Vivienne Shalom

I love poetry. I think it is the most important field in literature for me. With poetry you have to be very precise, very focused and explain simple things. There’s always something a little bit conceptual in each poem. So I love to do that. It’s a lot to do with my opinion about cartoons in general, not only political cartoons. The cartoon is a way of thinking. So poetry and cartoons are similar to me. And that similarity is very simplistic, with the concept of how to find the right, the most precise way to explain yourself. With the least possible words.” [from the interview of Dusan Petricic]

Liking Root Beer, Disliking Liver


For the last few days I’ve been reading a book titled You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice by Tom Vanderbilt. Very interesting, though (for my taste)  a little heavy on statistics from sociological, psychological and marketing surveys (“In a group of 100 Americans of widely differing incomes, 100% will consider themselves middle-class” and “11 of the 12 rats went for the sugar,” etc.) Still, the whole idea of the whys behind liking and disliking fascinate me. They feel wildly complicated and (as  Vanderbilt admits) almost impossible to determine. So, of course, I want to try.

A majority of people, when asked their favorite color will answer “Blue.” Is that because it’s the color of the sky? Cool water?  Faded levis? Do infants prefer blue? Statistically no, they do not. Nor do the majority of people want blue cars. So a “favorite” – that is, the act of liking – can be changed by context, connotations, associations, experiences…or the lack of any of the above. Notice, by the way, that a blue cover was chosen for You May Also Like. Coincidence? Probably not.


Blue sky, blue water, blue jeans….

“Taste” is one of those words that pushes several directions at once (poets love words like this) because it can be a verb (“When I taste ripe raspberries right off the vine on a sunny day, I’m in heaven”) or it can be a noun with several definitions (“It was clear she had good taste” – that is, discerning judgment – and “She loved the taste of a root beer float”  – a sensory experience, in the mouth, on the tongue, all fizz and creaminess going down the throat. Words like that can be used to twist a sentence, make it ring two bells at once, and  surprise someone (hopefully both author and reader.) The poet Heather McHugh taught me to look at words that work hard and do double duty like that. You can play with them, like kids play with playdough, reshaping them constantly.


As for liking and disliking, I like the taste of root beer, though I have to admit it’s a little odd. Still, sweet is sweet, and humans apparently are programmed to like what’s sweet (so some liking can be a genetic predilection.) But I don’t like things too sweet. Don’t like membrillo, too sweet. Love sauerkraut, not the slightest bit sweet.  So liking can be quantified, as can disliking. Don’t like apricots very much, but compared to liver – ugh, gag, etc.- apricots are delicious. Like Auden’s poetry, while Ashbury’s poetry leaves me thinking meh. Usually prefer non-fiction to fiction, unless the non-fiction is badly written and the fiction is brilliant…those opinions being a matter of personal taste (discerning judgment, right?) I like Matisse, don’t much like Rothko, though my sister keeps telling me to look more carefully at Rothko. I try. Maybe Rothko for me is like an apricot. Not liver, but also not root beer.

Refreshing Root Beer Float with Vanilla Ice Cream

Classic Root Beer Float


Classic Ugh…That Is, Liver

I trust my sister’s judgment – we often have similar likes and dislikes. But last night I watched Episode 1 of a TV series she recommended and I found it too long, badly paced, confusing. The guilt I felt about not liking it made me want to like it more, but on the root beer-to-liver scale, it was too close to liver.  Still, when there is this kind of pressure to like something, then unadulterated liking is at risk. We want to like what someone we admire likes. I remember wanting to like coffee when I started drinking it, and not really liking it, but all the adults I loved liked it, and I wanted so much to like it that eventually I did. So taste can be a matter of habituating ourselves to something. It’s not always logical or pre-programmed. It’s sometimes slow in coming. Shared likes can create a community of sorts, as Facebook tries to demonstrate.


Hated it, then loved it….

Hope to finish Vanderbilt’s book soon. Then I have to focus on finishing a book one of my friends chose for our next book discussion. She chose it because she liked it, of course. I am only on Page 53…no real opinion yet as to its root beer/liver quotient. Some of us in the book group will love it, some not, that’s the way it usually works – it takes a pretty extraordinary book to be universally loved, and we are perfectly happy just to read books that will expand our reading horizons.

I used to tell my creative writing students to write for themselves and for the type of readers who will love their particular story. It’s not smart to write for the widest possible audience unless your motivation is all bottom-line. Instead, write for readers who will browse the shelves of the library aching to find just your story. Think of your audience as small. If that audience widens up to include more people – that is, if it turns into a blue sky people point to and say, “Blue is my favorite color” – then so much the better. But there are lots of colors in a paint box. My favorite color? Well, today it’s green. I wouldn’t want a green car, but I like green hills. And wouldn’t a green story be wonderful?


What We See and What We Don’t

. St. Helens - Before

Mt. St. Helens – Before

My husband and I drove recently from our home in Seattle down to Eugene, Oregon, to help celebrate our grandson’s ninth birthday. It’s a five-hour trip down I-5, which runs north-south roughly parallel to the Cascade Range of mountains to the east. North of us stands Mt. Baker – near the Canadian border – but to the south we would be passing Mt. Rainier, Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams, and finally –  crossing into Oregon – Mt. Hood. The Three Sisters peaks are to the east of Eugene, and Mt. Shasta in California is well to the south.

To pass the time as we drove, I got the audiobook version of Steve Olson’s Eruption: The Untold Story of Mt. St. Helens. After all, we were going to be passing through the countryside most affected by the volcano, and the date of the drive down was May 20th, exactly thirty-six years and two days after May 18, 1980, the day of St. Helens’ disastrous eruption. I looked up the word “disaster” while thinking about this post. The dictionary says the word is “derived from Middle French désastre, and that from Old Italian disastro, which in turn comes from the Ancient Greek pejorative prefix δυσ-, (dus-) ‘bad’ and ἀστήρ (aster), ‘star’. In other words, slightly Shakespearean, “ill-starred.”

St. Helens - After

Mt. St. Helens – After

St. Helens is far enough to the east of the interstate that you can see it well only on a clear day. When you do see it, it’s still nerve-jangling thirty-six years after the eruption. Nerve-jangling, thrilling, awe-inspiring, horrifying. 57 people died that day. The force of the blast moved at up to 650 mph. and the vertical plume rose 80,000 feet into the sky – 15 miles high.

On I-5 headed south you cross a bridge over the Toutle River, the river which was devastated by the mudflow and log jam caused by the collapse of the mountainside. Twenty-seven bridges in the eruption zone were destroyed that day.

St. Helens bridge in mudflow, North Fork Toutle River, north ...

Bridge in mudflow, North Fork of the Toutle River, 1980.

Driving north on I-5 you don’t see much about the mountain that is disturbing: a diminished peak, 1300 feet shorter than it was, less elegant, fewer glaciers. But heading south from Seattle,  you see the north side of St. Helens, which is the side which collapsed. The landside – largest ever recorded, definitely “ill-starred” – presaged the lateral explosion and the vertical plume made familiar by photos of the eruption.

mt-st-helens 2

8:32 a.m., May 18, 1980 – Lateral Surge and Explosion

mt. st. helens 4

Vertical Plume – with Mt. Rainier visible to the north. Ash from Mt. St. Helens traveled around the world.

For our trip, we had an overcast day – the gray of a typical day in the Pacific Northwest, with low bunched clouds obscuring the view. We saw Mt. Rainier – the king of the Cascades – as we headed out, but we couldn’t see St. Helens. At least, not visually. Not with our eyes. But with Olson’s narrative playing on the CD player, there’s no doubt we could see it.

Is there anything better than that kind of story, a story which can transport us from a car traveling easily down the freeway in 2016 to a strange spring day in 1980 when Nature reminded us how fierce and uncontrollable it can be?

We listened to Olson’s story all the way down to Eugene and all the way back, pulling back up to our house just as the last CD was ending. Five hours down, five hours back, and they passed like a blink. I’m not sure how much we actually paid attention to what was on the highway during our drive. Did the traffic slow down when we hit Portland? In fact, did we even drive through Portland? I don’t remember. What happened to that usually boring stretch of the road between Kelso and Olympia? What about the irritating traffic jams by the Tacoma Dome? Those, I didn’t see.

Instead of being on the freeway for those ten hours, we were right there with David Johnston, the young USGS volcanologist who died within seconds of the explosion. “This is it,” he said before his radio went dead. We were right there with the couple who almost drowned trying to cling to logs banging madly down the Toutle River. There with the two people circling St. Helens’ summit in a Cessna airplane right as the north face of the mountain collapsed and the lightning-filled ash cloud began to rise. The mountain, the mud-choked river, the blue sky turning black, and those people struggling, I could see them all.

Non-fiction awakens our imaginations just as formidably as fiction, doesn’t it? Real mountain, real eruption, real people losing their lives or fighting to stay alive.  All of it real. Non-fiction: stranger than fiction, and at least as mesmerizing.

mt. st. helens 5

North Face, Mt. St. Helens, 2016

 P.S. Over at my blog, The Drift Record, I’m this week’s host for the Poetry Friday round-up. I posted an original poem about a disappearing river, based on something I read in The Smithsonian magazine. Again, non-fiction! (Well, the article is non-fiction. The poem is appropriated non-fiction, perfectly fair, right?) Head over there to read it, and to see links to all the other Poetry Friday posts.

Art, Pleasure, and Beauty, No Less

Beauty, everywhere you look....

Beauty, everywhere you look….

Getting back from Europe last week, I started reading a book titled Better Living through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth by the New York Times critic A. O. Scott. I know that his opinions about movies/art/culture often jibe with mine, and I loved the lunch-room conversations — videotaped and posted under the title “Sweet Spot” on the NYTimes website and on YouTube — he had with the late David Carr. So I’m interested in what he has to say about these four slippery-fish abstractions: Art? Pleasure? Beauty? Truth (the slipperiest and fishiest of the four)?

I thought a lot about the first three categories when I was in Europe. Can you be in three of Europe’s great cities – Paris, Rome, Barcelona – without thinking of them? The first two – art and beauty – are everywhere outside you,  and the third – pleasure – fills you up inside to the point you can barely sleep. And since I was traveling with my husband, our married daughter, her husband, our grandson, both of our grown sons and one of their girlfriends – eight of us on the Grand Tour! – I got to see what moved them and what they thought was beautiful, too, so my pleasure multiplied. I think we all agreed there was beauty everywhere we looked.








image image image image



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image image image image image image image

When beauty is underfoot, overhead, in front of you, behind you, all around you, you feel it, don’t you? I’m not sure I understand the “why” behind my feelings –  maybe while I travel, the feeling is all I need.  Now that I’m home, I have a good book to read which might help me learn “how to think” about those feelings, about why something appeals to me — why a particular Etruscan vase or Roman lamppost or Paris thistle or Barcelona chocolate shop makes me stop my wanderings long enough to snap a photo — when a host of things I walk right past might appeal to other people. Is there any accounting for taste? Is “beauty” always a subjective quality, or is there some universal standard? As a writer, I learned to question “beauty” because it can be too easy, too pleasant. I like the idea of “wabi-sabi,” the imperfection that makes for perfection. It will be interesting to see where A.O. Scott takes me. I think “Truth” might be a hard nut to crack. But Art, Beauty, Pleasure…I’m ready to think about them. Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with a little something of Scott’s that I marked with a star. It involves a question that I think writers should ask themselves:

“[Criticism] has always been part of the landscape…arising from our desire — nearly as strong as the urge toward pleasure itself — to think about, recapture, and communicate our delights, to make them less solitary, less ephemeral. The origin of criticism lies in an innocent, heartfelt kind of question, one that is far from simple and that carries enormous risk: Did you feel that? Was it good for you? Tell the truth.” 

Aha. Truth.


Bumps in the Night

Fairground - Phrenologist

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, phrenology is “the study of the conformation of the skull based on the belief that it is indicative of mental faculties and character.” I love the idea of having bumps on my skull that can be read carefully enough for “character analysis” (i.e., to explain my questionable behavior?) Reading bumps is as good a way as anything to explain the unexplainable, I guess. We love to understand things, even if we invent silly ways to do so.


As the English writer William Hazlitt once said,”The origin of all science is in the desire to know causes; and the origin of all false science and imposture is in the desire to accept false causes rather than none; or, which is the same thing, in the unwillingness to acknowledge our own ignorance.”

Should these bumps and grooves correspond to the “map” drawn by L.N. Fowler for his famous 19th-century “Phrenology” bust?  It includes Ideality, Sublimity, Cautiousness, Constructiveness, Causality, Hope, Acquisitiveness, Combativeness (hmmm…I can think of a few politicians lately that might have large bumps in particular areas of the skull….)


As authors, we know how important it is to examine a character’s motivations, so it wouldn’t be satisfying to our readers if we said that someone like Anne of Green Gables had a bump right where the “Friendship” area is. We want a little more than phrenology to explain a character’s personality and actions. Otherwise, a novel would be built only on plots and bumps.

When I put my fingers up there – on my own cranium-  I’m not quite sure what I feel. How tiny or large must a bump be to qualify as a readable bump? Inquiring minds want to know. Let’s see…I think I feel a bump in the area marked “Gesture” and “Mimicry.” Mr. Fowler (first name: Lorenzo!) or the woman in the country-fair tent pictured above (“She will tell you what you want to know”) might suggest that a bump in that area means I have imitative tendencies. Do I lack originality?  Do I imitate? Or do I have an even larger bump within the section marked “Self-Criticism” that makes me believe I’m akin to a parrot?

Close-Up Phrenology

Sigh. I was hoping to find a bump just a little farther back, in the sections marked “Liberality” or “Hope.” A bump in “Wit” would be wonderful. Or maybe a bump by “Wonder.” Now a bump there  would be a good bump.

Sometimes late at night, with my head on the pillow, I feel a bump towards the far back behind my left ear. It’s near an area labeled “Extermination” and “Destructiveness” but that can’t be so. Maybe, maybe, I feel it slightly farther back and up….ah, yes…up past “Evasion” and into “Repose.”  A bump in “Repose” means I can stop worrying about bumps and fall asleep.


Apparently, the silly phrenologists got some things right – the area we now know as the parietal lobe is involved with calculation, the area of the hypothalamus has something to do with appetite, the amygdala goes hand in hand (or bump in bump) with combativeness.  Ambrose Bierce had a less generous approach to advocates of phrenology when he defined it as “The science of picking the pocket through the scalp. It consists in locating and exploiting the organ that one is a dupe with.”

Still, Walt Whitman had his head “read,” as did Mark Twain and Clara Barton. Maybe at the time they did it for goofy fun, the way a group of friends would get Tarot readings now, though Clara was not known to be as goofy as Mark and Walt. Another goofy soul, Steve Martin, inspired his own “map”:


My sister gave me a ceramic Phrenology-by-Fowler head which I now keep on my desk, just in case I feel a bump when scratching my head in puzzlement about some writing project I’m involved in. I want to feel a huge bump in the area Steve Martin labeled “Author.” No luck so far, but I’m wondering now whether it counts if the bump is self-inflicted…? I’d have to aim it really carefully to hit the right area, otherwise I might just end up being a Human Cannon Ball.

Empty Notebooks




When I was about ten, my grandmother gave me a little white diary that had a lock and key. I was thrilled, mostly about the lock and key, not the actual diary. I read Nancy Drew books at the time, and locks and keys felt very private-detective-ish. But I don’t remember having any secrets that required high-security handling. In fact, I believe most of my entries related to how the day began: “Mush for breakfast” was common.


Mush: My Favorite Breakfast AND My Favorite Diary Entry

I never wrote about heartbreak, disappointment, or disillusionment, nor about what I wanted to be when I grew up (in charge of a doll-repair hospital) nor about being under- (or over-) appreciated (though does any 10-year-old feel over-appreciated?) As far as I recall, I had no secret crushes on anyone at that point nor did I want to rant or rave about how my sister, brother, friends, and parents treated me. Frustrated desires – diaries are good for those, but I didn’t long too much for things I didn’t have. I didn’t brood about being liked or disliked. It’s possible I was oblivious to a lot of things. Truth be told, I was happy as a clam; I didn’t have a clue what to write in a diary because my life, unlike Nancy Drew’s life, felt pleasant and ordinary. And I was fine with that. I abandoned my diary after approximately one month of entries re: eggs, toast, oatmeal, orange juice, etc.

That lack of a need for a private journal seems to have followed me into adulthood. I’ve never kept a journal – at least, not the kind of self-reflective journal that a lot of writers keep in order to sort through their feelings. Not that I don’t fall asleep reflecting on the day’s strange bits and pieces and my relationship to them. But I don’t feel a need (or is it just laziness?) to keep a record of those thoughts. If I try to puzzle my thoughts out, I usually do it while washing dishes. No wonder I rarely use my dishwasher….


Some bound, some stapled, some handmade by me, some berry-ed…all empty.

I do have lots of blank books which could be journals, but that’s only because I like blank books. Blank notebooks, too – cheap stapled ones, nothing fancy. Composition books, things like that. I seem to like blank paper in general. So full of possibilities! So pristine! I even collect notebooks when I’m traveling – buying them in stationary stores or school supply stores when I can find them. Here are two I found in Italy, one of them depicting quite a moment of discovery in the history of electricity (I think.)  Sadly, or not so sadly – I’m not sure which –  the notebooks are empty.


Though I don’t keep a journal, I do from time to time write down things I see or read which seem remarkable. A sign that said “Men Working in Trees” struck my fancy and made it into the little leather notebook I keep – I call it a “drift record,” that name taken from the idea of being a flaneur and drifting around the city, observing mostly people but also this, that and the other. Like interesting signs.

men working in trees

I named my blog after my drift record, so sometimes blog entries become a kind of journal (though ouch, no tactile pleasure, no lovely paper. Rather than keeping a record of my own thoughts, my real drift record serves to remind me that the world beyond me is a fascinating place. I often put scientific facts from The Smithsonian into my record – a couple of the latest being that it rains metal on Venus and that half of a river in Minnesota is missing. I keep a list of odd occurrences or sightings or facts that have nothing to do with secret thoughts. No lock and key necessary.


On the left, my drift record. On the right, a notebook (artwork by Julie Paschkis) where I jot titles of books to look for at the library. These two are not empty.

Empty notebooks. I keep buying them despite the fact I never fill them up. It’s a notebook addiction. Now I try to give the ones I buy to friends. I get some beauties from my friends, too; it’s one of the reasons we’re friends, I’m sure – a mutual love of little notebooks. When I go to Europe this spring, I’ll probably buy a few more – I’ll even pack a small notebook for recording where I stay, what I eat, what I see. That’s the plan. But chances are I’ll abandon it in the same way I abandoned my little white diary. I’ll be “in the moment” and I’ll forget my notebook. If I have a quick minute, I might write something – probably “farine d’avoine pour le petit déjeuner ” – mush for breakfast, Paris-style.

Paris Porridge

A Bowl of Oatmeal at Paris’s Bol Porridge Bar (10th Arrondissement)



My Reading Resolution


I’m going to do it. I’m actually going to make a New Year’s Resolution, something I haven’t done for many years now, possibly because I’m a bit of a pessimist (no, a big pessimist) about the chance of keeping it. But my fellow Books Around the Table writers are coming up with writing resolutions of their own, so I’ve decided on a reading resolution. Here is what’s inspiring me: The upcoming American Library Association announcement of 2016 Youth Media medal winners and honor books. It happens on Monday, January 11, coming to us via live webcast from their midwinter conference in Boston.

My New Year’s Resolution is to read the winners (or honor books – my choice) in the following categories (explanations of what these categories represent can be found at this link): Caldecott (I’ll read the winner and all honor books for this),  Newbery, Sibert, Pura Belpre, Coretta Scott King, T.S. Geisel, Batchelder and Prinz. And I’ll read them some time before next year’s announcements are made. I’ve got 12 months to read approximately 12 books (well, in addition to other non-kid books that I’ll be reading.) This might just be the year I keep my resolution!!

Read, read, read – that’s the best advice a creative writing student can get. Read like a writer, read for techniques of structure, voice, pacing, setting, character-building. Read!  It’s time to follow my own advice. Speaking of time, the announcement webcast will begin at 7:30 a.m. Eastern time on Monday – easy for East Coasters, harder for those of us on the West Coast. The ALA is setting up a contest involving the time factor:


When I taught at Vermont College of Fine Arts, our winter residencies sometimes coincided with the ALA announcements; we held Mock Caldecott discussions, led by the divine Leda Schubert. If the announcements were being made on a residency day, we took a break from our tightly-packed schedules to watch and listen carefully, see how we did with our predictions, and either 1) dance a jig because a book we loved had been chosen or 2) stand silent and dumbfounded because a book we loved (and/or one that had gotten many starred reviews and/or had been mentioned in many Best Books of the Year lists) didn’t even get a nod. Committee-made decision are usually quirky, and committees making the choices for 2016 categories will no doubt run true to form.

I have some favorites but feel superstitious about mentioning them – bad luck follows? But here are some books bound to get the attention of the committees:


For the Newbery and the Sibert, maybe?  Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg & the Secret History of the Vietnam War

A big favorite for the Newbery, though, seems to be this one:


And for the Caldecott…?


April Chu for her illustrations of In a Village by the Sea by Muon Van…



The Night World by Mordecai Gerstein (a long shot…?)



so many other wonderful choices….

and I’ll be reading the ones that get chosen.

A Moving Target

For someone who doesn’t write fiction, I spend a lot of time thinking about it. The basic problem is this: I don’t get it -that is, I don’t get how it’s done. Given all the things a novelist has to do – create a believable plot and believable characters, provide momentum so the story doesn’t sag, choose a point of view and make it consistent, determine a structure,  make the language compatible with the imagined audience, choose a significant setting, create dialogue that sounds real, avoid cliches, avoid coincidences, avoid sentimentality and melodrama, be modern, be unique – the possibility of so many elements being handled with dexterity by a single person takes my breath away.  It’s like watching someone juggle chain saws.


Or maybe it’s more like watching a man who is really good at three-card monty. You swear you’ll stay focused and keep your eyes on the cards as they move around, you’ll figure out which card is the Ace of Hearts, and you’ll be able to point to it when asked. But every single time, you end up befuddled, pointing at the wrong card and then thinking, “Wow – nicely done. How did he do that?” Same question for a well-written novel.

Three-Card Monty

I go through phases of liking certain fictional elements more than others, which over the years has allowed me to like quite a few books where the juggling act wasn’t all that stellar. For example, I liked plot for a long time  – from kindergarten through sixth grade, with a sub-category tucked in at the end. The initial Plot Phase culminated in two lists (poets + lists = cream + sugar) where I checked off everything ever written by Marguerite Henry and Carolyn Keene. Good memories, and good (enough) books.

Marguerite Henry

Nancy Drew

The sub-category of Plot Phase was Melodrama, a capital offense but unavoidable, since I  was, at that point, a teenager. What can you do when you become a teenager in the early 1960’s except re-read Gone with the Wind ten times? And cry when Lorna is shot and falls into the arms of John, her true love, in Lorna Doone?

Gone with the Wind


Lorna Doone

Next came the Read-What-You’re-Told-to-Read Phase – junior and senior years in high school, my first couple of years in college. Some brilliant fiction came along and knocked on my door at that point, but I wasn’t exactly at home. I was busy protesting the war in Vietnam and supporting the Third World Strike,  so I skimmed many classics, knowing I would come back to Moby Dick and Crime and Punishment after my friends and I had saved America from itself. We never managed to do that, but I did finally finish the Dostoevsky.

Books Before You Die

What I preferred during this fiction phase was a modern aesthetic – short sentences, clarity, an ironic tone.  Nuance and luscious language weren’t high on my list then, but I craved humor, social commentary, English as it’s really spoken, straight-forward structure.

I read Vonnegut…


  …and Salinger


…and more Vonnegut.


Since then, I’ve gone through other phases – cared a lot about dialogue for awhile, found prose disruptive, so I read plays.  Found humor forced and happy endings unrealistic, chose to read only depressing and confusing books, alienating all my friends in my book discussion group who just wanted me to get over it. Went through a phase of believing too much in critical responses, so read quite a few prize-winning books I thought I should like but didn’t.

pulitzer_prize2  man booker


When I went back to school and studied poetry, I wanted to hear poetic language in fiction, plot be damned. Continued to drive people in my book discussion group crazy by choosing plotless books with gorgeous sentences – lots to think about, but no adrenaline to make the heart race. Began to teach creative writing and found many students had so much trouble with plotting a story that all I wanted for several years were good plots, better plots and best plots. That is, traditional plots – the kind with a beginning and an end, with stuff happening in-between.

For a while I gave up on fiction and believed I couldn’t read it. Checked out a lot of non-fiction from the library. Found myself longing for a good story. Read Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and its follow-up, A God in Ruins – got excited about fiction again. Entered a Structure Phase – wanted to take a book down to its studs, see the house plan used to construct it. If you’re a writer in addition to being a reader, you probably pay attention to this, have some curiosity about it running in the background no matter what you’re reading.


Sarah Mithcell

Book Structure by British Artist Sarah Mitchell

This month it was my turn again to choose the book for our discussion group. I’d been keeping a list (another list!) of books I was interested in, and gradually I settled on one titled The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by G.B. Edwards. I hear the narrator has a unique, quirky voice, like an old-fashioned storyteller.  Voice was what I loved most about M.T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: Volume I: The Pox Party. I feel a Voice Phase coming on.


So here I am, still confused, still trying to figure out how it’s done, still trying to figure out the magic and the movement and to guess correctly which card is the Ace of Hearts. I understand my own standards for poetry (musicality, mystery) and my standards for non-fiction (interesting subject, graceful prose), but the standards by which I choose fiction and respond to fiction periodically shift. I don’t have a target with a clear bullseye, so my arrows keep straying. Actually, I should reverse the metaphor and name myself the target. The fiction I read keeps shooting its arrows, but I keep moving.