Category Archives: Blogging Life

ALL ON BOARD

Recently our daughter gave birth to our first grandchild, Emmett. I would include his photo here but our daughter hopes to keep his internet exposure to a minimum. Suffice it to say he is the most adorable baby ever.

For the past three weeks John and I have been in San Francisco to help out. It has been a special time and we know it. Everyday Emmett wakes up a little more to the world; his beautiful blue eyes look so intently at us. Already he smiles and responds to music.

One of our jobs was to set up new shelves in the nursery. That gave me a chance to look at the small library of board books that friends and relatives have sent to the baby. Seemed like a good excuse to check in with the board book world. I realize this sample is very non-scientific, but it does provide a nice introduction.

CLASSICS and REPURPOSED

patthebunnyI was glad to see Emmett has Pat the Bunny on his new shelf, first published in 1940 and recognized as one of the first books in this genre. He also has the classic Good Night Moon, repurposed from its initial issue as a picture book.

goodnightmoon

New to me are board books with roots in adult fiction. Emmett’s library includes babylit: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Sherlock Holmes, by Jennifer Adams with art by Alison Oliver.

huckfinnHuck is subtitled “A Camping Primer.”  The text plucks single words from its forebear, followed by a phrase from the original. For example “RIVER,” followed by “I’d go down the river about fifty mile and camp.”

 Sherlock is billed as “A Sounds Primer.” The illustrations are dark and a little scary. The text may raise goosling bumps on the baby: “Hounds howl, Thunder rumbles, Gates screech…Doorbells ring.”

hungrycaterpilMany of Emmett’s books were first published as children’s picture books. Some seem even better in this format, like Eric Carle’s Hungry Caterpillar, whose die-cut holes of the caterpillar munching through the pages will hold up much better in cardboard than they do paper.

areyoumymomOthers, like P.D. Eastman’s classic early reader, Are You My Mother? make me think, what’s the hurry? It is such a perfect book for learning to read. Though maybe reading it as an infant will make it more accessible later?

littlebluetruckThe Little Blue Truck, with rhyming text by Alice Schertle, illustrated by Jill McElmurry, is a board book that first appeared as a picture book. With 15 spreads, it has the most pages of the books on Emmett’s shelf but when his attention span expands, it will be a great introduction to the basic shape of a story. The LBT says hello to lots of animals, (fun animal sounds followed by “Beep, Beep”), then meets a big challenge which is resolved with help of the animals, especially the littlest frog.

CONCEPT BOOKS

prbBoard books do a good job introducing concepts to our tiniest readers. As Emmett devours his little library, he will learn about colors, animals and numbers, in Pink, Red, Blue, What are You? and One, Two, Three, Play with Me. These were my very first published books and I can’t wait to share them with my own little grandson.

sleepylittlealphaHe also was given The Sleepy Little Alphabet, written by Judy Sierra and illustrated by Melissa Sweet, in which a reluctant group of 26 lower case letters are finally tucked into bed by their capital letter parents. Last spread: “Who’s that snoring Z z z’s?”

123peasAnd Keith Baker’s wonderful 1 – 2 – 3 peas, which is animated by a cast of 100 peas in the most amusing ways.

HELLO WORLD

Then there is the bunch of books that will introduce Emmett to his world. This includes the board book that was my daughter’s favorite when she was a baby, All Together, as well as the inimitable Lucy Cousins’ Garden Animals, Country Animals and Farm Animals. I am intrigued by one that is illustrated with photos of babies, Global Babies, put out by the Global Fund for Children.

globalbabies

INTERACTIVE BOARD BOOKS

goodnightconstructI’m especially looking forward to sharing Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site, by Sherri Duskey Rinker and Tom Lichtenheld. While I read Emmett the simple text, he will be prompted by icons to push one of five buttons that provide the sounds of the big machines settling down to sleep. No wonder it’s been on the New York Times best selling list for over 80 weeks.

peekazooAnd I know we’ll have a great time peeking our way through Nina Laden’s Peek-a Zoo, and lifting the flaps in Rod Campbell’s Dear Zoo.

presshereThe low tech of Hervé Tullet’s Press Here has lots of simple appeal. As the title suggests, each spread invites the reader to “press here,” the result being a turn of the page to find what the pressing caused. This, too, has sat for months on the New York Times best selling list. Seems we like that return to the wonder of the page turn.

STAND OUT SERIESES

oxenburyThese books from Helen Oxenbury are especially suited for reading to babies. They each have four spreads, their format is larger, (8 x 8”), and the illustrations of babies are big and bold. Emmett’s two-year old friend Darwin noted: Dear Emmett, My favorite part is the ‘All Fall Down’.” And (on Tickle, Tickle) “Dear Emmett, This one is funny.” Nice to have recommendations from the toddler set.

yummyyukyLeslie Patricelli made her name as author/illustrator with her first board books in 2003. Emmett’s going to love BIG Little, Quiet LOUD, and Yummy YUCKY and the funny big-headed baby who stars in each book.

moobaalaLast but not least are titles by the amazing Sandra Boynton, queen of the humorous, rhyming board book: Snuggle Puppy and Belly Button Book! I will be sure to read him my favorite of hers, Moo, Baa, La la la, as well. Each Boynton book is full of love and good funny rhymes.

••••

I was forty when I turned toward becoming a children’s book creator. My kids were about grown, the oldest heading off to college.

Partly what attracted me was a desire to have my work be part of that circle of reading to a child again: to sit in the big chair in the lamplight, the kids fresh from their baths, their heads damp against my chest; the quiet of the neighborhood settling around us, the warmth of their small selves as we open the cover of a book and enter a story together.

This little shelf is where the newly-expanded family will begin reading together. They’ll share board books that offer snippets of story, or the simple naming of things in our world, or concepts like colors and numbers, and – always – warm humor.

We overheard Emmett’s parents reading to him in the nursery as we left last night. I love that our wee grandson already knows the circle of love with his parents and a book.

AUDIENCE RESEARCH by Wise Owl

When it comes to knowing your audience, nothing beats spending some time with kids.

Recently I had just such a chance. Our triplet grandnephews came over for a night at “Camp Runamok.” They enter fifth grade this week. That’s the age of the protagonist in my middle grade novel-in-progress, so I have more than a great aunt’s interest in kids of their age. My writer self was not disappointed. They are fascinating: their expressions, their songs, games, ideas, interactions. But what hit me most of all is their relationship to story.

dusty

We made up camp names, had a treasure hunt, got started building rockets, set up a four-man tent on our scrap of lawn, ate pizza, played “Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater” many times on the piano, watched the movie Frozen, lit a campfire on the gravel driveway, sang, ate s’mores. I noted that ten-year old boys laugh a lot about bodily functions — as expected — but are also quite entertained by word play. These three are sportsy guys, so between planned activities there was lots of broom ball and jump rope and general messing around. We considered looking up how to throw a lasso on You Tube. We discussed the possibilities of the Mariners getting a Wild Card berth.

But what struck me most was how important stories are to them. They had seen Frozen once before, but wanted us to see it, so that’s the vid they chose. They knew it in detail, even down to reciting some of the lines. We sang along wholeheartedly, “Do you want to build a snowman?” and “Let it go, let it go.” They seemed quite satisfied with the conclusion, with how true love changes the world.

Bedding down in the tent – three boys, one dog and me – we got out the iPad to listen to their favorite scary story. This, too, they knew in detail from one previous hearing. The Axe Murderer. They loved being scared by it. They talked about some of their favorite books: Avi’s The Orphan City, Gary Paulson’s Harris and Me, James Patterson’s The Treasure Hunters, Cal Ripkin Junior’s series.

The boys’ deep response to stories points to a big responsibility. When we write for children, we hope to create stories that matter to them, that become part of how they see the world, that connect.

As the boys slept soundly, I savored the peace that was in our tent. And I wondered how to reckon such sweetness with news of beheadings, ebola virus, police violence, Russian invasions, sea star wasting syndrome, etc. etc.

I didn’t have an answer. But I do know stories can be a refuge. So I started telling myself a story about three boys and a dog camping in a tent under Seattle skies…

Writing with All Six Senses

photoEscudo_Tianguis_de_Tlacolula_Tlacolula_Header

In just a few days my husband and I leave home once again for Oaxaca, having visited just last year and decided it’s the kind of place we want to spend more time. Slow time, slow food, slow reading, slow walking…time to slow down in general. Oaxaca has many plazas with many benches – great places for slow listening (to very fast music, sometimes) and quiet watching. Last year we had just over a week at a nice B&B, and we experienced the Day of the Dead celebrations; this time around, we’re renting an apartment of our own (with kitchen!) and staying for a month, outside the real tourist season in order to get a better feel for what the town is like for the locals. When we go to the market now and see all that delicious fresh fruit, bread, vegetables – we can buy what we want and cook it up back at the apartment. Time to give different moles a try.

A friend asked me whether I would be doing any writing while in Oaxaca, and I wasn’t sure what to answer – yes, no, maybe? One thing I do know: I’m going to open myself, Diane Ackerman-style, to all the sensory input I can – sights, smells, textures, sounds and tastes (especially tastes – yes!)

Sights – the colors in the markets: flowers, fruit, vegetables, bread…

marchande_de_fleurs_a_oaxaca

fruit market

market021Oaxaca-Bread-01

 and the spectacular sky, whether stormy or bright…like this view from Monte Alban…

Mount-Ablan-Oaxaca-Mexico14-1024x685

 Smells – a cup of hot champurrado, especially sipped from a clay or greenware cup made in Atzompa (close your eyes and think steaming milk, corn flour, chocolate, cinnamon, vanilla, anise seed, plus the wet ceramic smell of the cup) and the ripe guavas in the markets(so sweet and pervasive, it can make you giddy)…

Oaxacas hot-chocolate

guayaplate-400x400

Textures – the soft cotton weavings, the hard rock walls, the delicate petals of a squash blossom…

huipiles

20110626_Oaxaca_385

squash-blossoms3

Tastes – so many! Moles of every color (coloradito, negro, verde, chichilo, amarillo  – here’s a recipe from Rick Bayless), tlayudas, tamales, jugos, pan dulce, pipian, and tomatoes that really taste like tomatoes…

7-moles-8 

MexicoMainlandOaxacaFoodMoles

tlayudajugos

 Sounds – birds in the trees, danzon music at the Zocalo every Wednesday

Watch this wonderful video of a midnight concert in Tlacochahuaya

and this video of the amazing organ in the church there)….

organ

Seems to me that writing which is not grounded in the senses is writing that becomes slack, abstract and dull. So I’ll let my five senses push me to write in Oaxaca. Plus one more: the sense of wonder. Can’t write without that.

Maybe I’ll be able to put those six senses together on a metate and work them, work them, work them…into a story.

metate

 

Maplewood Elementary Fourth Grade Writing Club

In April, I wrote here about my plans to lead a writing club for fourth graders at Maplewood Elementary in Edmonds. For a month, 16 or so kids gave up their Monday and Tuesday lunch recesses to participate.

The results were impressive. I was astounded at what these kids could create in a half hour session. I loved their open willingness to dive in and write.

One of the exercises we tried was sent by Terry Pierce, UCLA-ext. writing teacher: author Jill Corcoran’s Art-Music-Poetry Jam Workshop. We turned it into a three-parter. I will use the work of Maplewood student Damaris I. — with her permission and her parents’ permission — to illustrate our experience.

We began by painting to music. My friend, pianist Julan Chu, suggested Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Perfect! Mussorgsky wrote this composition in 1874, after viewing the retrospective art show of a deceased friend. It offers yet another layer of cross-arts jam.

We set up all my paint palettes and laid out brushes on the library tables. The kids listened carefully to the music and responded with paintings.

DI.painting

Damaris’ painting, created to Mussorgsky’s music.

At our next meeting, we spread out the paintings and the kids walked around the tables, post-its in hand. They gave each other words suggested by the paintings.

DI.words

Damaris was given these words: splatter (to which she rhymed matter), colorful, explosion, mixed, whispy, wocky, very green, grassy, wonderland, big and new, magic, magic spell, wet, mystical, mystery, misty, green mist

The third part was to turn those words into a poem or prose piece of writing.

DI.poem

Damaris wrote: “A green mist rose from a magic spell. The land would be mixed the forest could tell. Then a explosion arose, and everything was misty. The sky turned gray, and the trees became whispy. Everything was a mystery, with tons of spatter, and nothing knew what could be the matter. When the mist cleared, the woods were wet. Everything changed, a whole new set. The forest was grassy, mystical too, a great wonderland, big and new.

The writing was amazing, as you can see: pieces of writing that began as a painting exhibition that inspired Mussorgsky’s music that inspired our student paintings that inspired words, then poems. Round and round the arts we go.

Next time I feel like there is not enough time to sit down and dig into writing, I will think back to those lunch recess meetings of the Maplewood Fourth Grade Writing club and get started.

I want to add a shout out to Mr. B., aka librarian Paul Borchert, who also gave up his lunch recesses and helped in every way to make our writing club so wonderful. More thanks to Terry and Jill and Julan and Damaris — and to Betsy Britton and Grabrielle Catton who carried on for Paul and me the day we were both unable to teach.

Here’s a link to Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DXy50exHjes&feature=kp

And here are the writing exercise instructions:

Jill Corcoran’s Art-Music-Poetry-Jam Workshop:
Suggested grades: 2 – 5
Time required: 1 hour
Supplies needed: Boom box with selected music, 11” x 17” white paper, crayons, pencils, Post-it notes, scotch tape
1. Briefly discuss the power of art, music and poetry to evoke emotion.
2. Pass out 11” x 17” piece of white paper and crayons to each student.
3. Have students listen to music for several minutes and then draw whatever the music makes them feel. (I play about 4-5 minutes of music)
4. Pass out a pad of Post-it notes and a pencil to each student and have them form a line to walk around the room and look at each picture.
5. At each picture, the students write the first word that comes to their minds on the sticky paper. They leave that word with the picture. Instruct the students not to write words like “cool” or “fun,” but to write nouns, verbs or strong adjectives.
6. The students then return to their pictures to find 20+ words written by their fellow students.
7. With their words and pictures in front of them, and the music playing once again, students create a poem from the words they have been given. (Once their poems are finished, have each student tape their Post-it-notes poem to the back of their picture. Otherwise the notes tend fall off.)
8. Ask the students to read their poems aloud. At the end of the hour, each student has created a poem that reflects the music they encountered, the art this music evoked from them and the words their art evoked in others.

CALLING THE MUSE

Seattle hosted the national AWP (Assn. for Writers and Writing Programs) conference for four days last week. My fellow BATT-blogger Julie Larios and I were on a panel entitled, “Calling Your Muse,” along with authors Zu Vincent and Debby Dahl Edwardson who we know from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

For my part, I hoped to leave our listeners with an easy-to-follow, How to Call Your Muse list.

In our audience were over 100 writers. Surely these people had some ideas how to call a muse. If I’d known anything about crowd-sourcing, I could have crowd-sourced a good list.

Or I could have based my list on my experiences over the past 20 years, creating 17 picture books and a middle grade novel.

But I felt more research was needed.

So I imagined hiring George Clooney to lead an investigation. Yes, he looks hot in a lab coat, but this would be strictly scientific. He’d film me writing, then do a frame-by-frame analysis. Maybe the Muse would even be caught on camera?

moose

mousse

George’s research would reveal exactly how I do it: Eight Easy Ways to Call the Muse

    • Snuggle your dog
    • Nibble dark chocolate
    • Look out the window and squint
    • Tap out a few words.
    • Check your email
    • Sip tea
    • Google something, possibly related to the project
    • Scratch your ear
desk

On location for George Clooney film.

That’s it: snuggle, nibble, squint, tap, check, sip, google, scratch.

But the more I thought about it, I realized what’s actually happening when I SNSTCSGS is not only calling the Muse, but also answering the Muse’s call. Or maybe – more exactly – conversing with the Muse. It’s a two-way street. I gather the storybits and tools that call her. In turn, she calls to me, urges me to use all this stuff. That’s how the Muse works.

The 12,000+ writers who attended AWP have gone home but I’ve continued to muse on this muse thing. I’ve decided there must be more than one muse, that it takes a village –  well, at least a Swiss army knife of muses –  to get the work done. For starters:

THE ILLUMINATOR MUSE – How else to explain why a writer’s attention is drawn to stuff that is charged with story? She shines her light on ideas, objects, memories, experiences, words themselves, art materials, research, juicy bits of overheard dialogue. The list goes on and on. For instance, my attention is drawn to my #4 watercolor brush and naples yellow gouache and I want to paint something. It will be sunny. Oh, already a story starts to gather.

Making stories depends on assembling material and tools, on gathering quirky facts and notions, on laying seemingly disparate things side by side, on comparing, contrasting, connecting. Sometimes the Illuminator Muse carries a candle like Wee Willie Winkie, and other times she holds a Klieg light high above her head. “Pay attention,” she says, “And report back.”

GESTAPO MUSE – This one has a big glue pot and keeps me in my chair. I almost wish she’d carry a cattle prod, too, and deliver a jolt when my attention wanders.

MARSHALL McLUHAN MUSE – The Marshall McLuhan Muse calls with the seductive nature of the creative zone itself. The medium is the message. Work comes out of work. Or, as Julie Paschkis puts it, “Put in the drudgery and the alchemy happens.”

CRAFT MUSE – A practical gal, the Craft Muse inspires with conferences like AWP, classes, SCBWI talks, and, of course, through other people’s writing. I’m especially inspired to create books that become part of the circle of parent and child reading together, a circle I loved dearly.

I am sure a muse team assembles for each writer, offering skills as needed. For instance, a journalist friend reminded me about the Deadline Muse. How could I forget this muse that calls me every month when it’s time to post here?

What we were really talking about at our AWP panel was twofold: where do ideas come from and how do you sustain motivation?

Muse-assisted or not, my ideas come from paying attention, a habit of mulling, and from savoring stuff that amuses me. (Ah, “muse” is hidden there.) And why write? Writing’s how I figure out what I think. It makes sense of my world.

So I’ll stick with my snuggle, nibble, squint, tap, check, sip, google, and scratch.

But I wonder. Maybe we could sort of crowd-source with our BooksAroundThe Table readers. How do YOU call the Muse?

Abundance

When I was almost 7, my family moved from the Seattle area down to the Santa Clara Valley, about an hour south of San Francisco. Before it became “Silicon Valley,”  it looked like this:

Old Photo Postcard of Santa Clara Valley's Cherry Orchards

Old Photo Postcard of Santa Clara Valley’s Cherry Orchards

It actually did look like that – it’s not just nostalgia playing tricks with my mind. It was so beautiful, such a generous landscape. Of course, we moved into a house that was part of a development that was one of dozens of developments that would eventually wipe out the orchards and pave over the farmland and replace it with freeways and suburbs.  But my family got there before too much had been destroyed – 1956 – there were still great fields of garlic and artichokes to the south of us, with cherries orchards surrounding my neighborhood

Each spring, walking home, we watched the cherries ripen. Mustard plants grew at the base of the trees in late spring, and if you wandered far enough into the orchard, you could look in every direction and not see anything but mustard blooms and fruit trees.

Mustard and Cherry Trees in San Jose

Mustard and Cherry Trees in San Jose

Then, in June, the cherries were ready.  I picked them every day – we all did, everyone who headed home that way,  and we ate them until we couldn’t eat any more.  I like to think the farmer knew that the school kids would eat all the cherries from the row of trees nearest the road. We felt like there was enough for everyone, and then some.

Even a decade later there were still enough orchards in the valley that high school kids could make their summer money in the canneries. The heady smell of hot tomatoes and ripe fruit would drift out all summer from the Contadina and Del Monte canneries in the Bay Area.

Reading Laura’s post from last week, about the weddings of her son and her daughter, and the lovely poem by Li-Young Lee about peaches, I started thinking about those cherry trees, and the Santa Clara Valley. I thought about orchards and summer, and about happiness and abundance.

Rainier cherries from east of the mountains have gone on sale in the farmers markets, and I have been buying a lot of them. The person selling them lets you try one or two first:

Rainier Cherries - The Absolute Best Cherries in the World

Rainier Cherries – The Absolute Best Cherries in the World

So you buy some, but only a handful, because they cost a lot:

A Handful of Delicious Cherries

A Handful of Delicious Cherries

But before you go home you decide a handful is not nearly enough, and you wander back to buy more:

Yummers

A bowlful….

and the next day, when you can already see the bottom of the bowl, you go back for more:

...and a basketful.

…and a basketful.

What I’m really trying to do, of course, when I eat those cherries is to conjure up that delicious abundance I once experienced in the Santa Clara Valley. Not just conjure it up, but take it into me, cherry by cherry.

Northrop Frye once described the genres of literature according to the seasons. Fall, according to Frye, is tragedy – fatalism, the hero pushed toward ultimate failure. Winter is irony and satire – the final absurdity. Spring is comedy – new beginnings and light-hearted endings. But summer is romance – the season when belief is in full bloom. Summer is abundance.  No wonder that in the summertime, I want to write something wholehearted, something unrestrained. Not a sample-cherry story, not a handful-of-cherries story, not a bowlful-or-a-basketful-of-cherries story, but an orchardful-of-cherries story. A story that measures up to this:

Abundance, Summer, Belief, Cherries

Abundance, Summer, Belief, Cherries

So when it’s cherry season, I think about the Santa Clara Valley. If I’m in a writer-ish mood, I think of Frye. I strive to write something worthy of summer, something from the heart, full of belief.

If I’m feeling more like a teenager than a writer, I think (unbelievably) of George Carlin singing “Cherry…cherry pie…cherry…cherry pie….” Click here to listen to Carlin on YouTube. Less literary, but sweet, glorious and openly sensual. Like those fields of mustard, with the trees rising up out of them.

And since I’m talking cherries, and since I’m going for abundance, check out this George Gershwin song – Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries – sung by Dean Martin and Gisele MacKenzie. A little cherry to put on top of the sundae. Enjoy.

From Blossom to Blossom

Our son Tim is married! he tied the knot with Deanne Reynolds in Palm Springs on May 11.

Tim and Deanne on their wedding day with Chicken Noodle and Foxie.

Tim and Deanne on their wedding day with Chicken Noodle and Foxie.

Here is a poem that captures the feeling:

From Blossoms in Rose
By Li-Young Lee
 
From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.
 
From laden boughs, from hands
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.
 
O to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.
 
There are days we live as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
To joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.
 
 
 

On Goldilocks, John McPhee and Cows

goldilocks

I feel a little foolish this week, complaining about the weather in Seattle. “Too hot,” I whined on Wednesday when it reached 83 degrees (87 at the airport!) and we took to the shade. Last week I was putting on wool socks and whining the other direction – “Too cold.”  Weren’t we just looking out the windows at the rain and feeling sorry for ourselves?

Yesterday, my husband got out the garden hose and watered the clematis vines running along the rail fence: “Too dry!” he explained. Last week, my aunt and I were both talking about Seattle gardens looking like jungles this spring, with dandelions growing as high as the peonies: “Too wet!” we said, shaking our heads.

Death Valley: Too Hot. [photographer unknown]

Death Valley: Too Dry. [photographer unknown]

Too Wet: The Hoh Rain Forest (Photo by Kevin Muckenthaler)

The Hoh Rain Forest: Too Wet (Photo by Kevin Muckenthaler)

Have you ever heard of the Goldilocks Principle?

Don’t laugh. This is a term that psychologists, biologists, astronomers, engineers and economists (hot = inflation, cold = recession) use to describe an ideal state where “something falls within certain margins as opposed to reaching extremes.” In September of 2010, astronomers said they had discovered a “Goldilocks planet” circling a star in the constellation Libra, at a distance “just right” for the presence of water and possibility of sustaining life.  In our solar system, Venus is too hot and Mars is too cold. Earth is just right.  Earth is the eatable bowl of porridge.

What Planets Need In Order to Be Contented - That Middle Star

What Planets Need In Order to Be Contented – That Middle Star

Babies, according to some cognitive scientists, provide examples of the Goldilocks Principle, too, paying most attention to activity that is neither too complex nor too simple, but somewhere between the extremes, somewhere “just right.”

Even bloggers are asking people to leave effective “Goldilocks Comments” – not hot and bothered, not prim or abstract.  Instead, “just right.”

“Just right.”  It sounds like a term from a fairy tale – aha, it is a term from a fairy tale!  Like that other condition that eludes us called “happily ever after”?

How does anyone ever reach that cool center, that point of equilibrium? Maybe reaching the fairy-tale’s “just right” is about zoning out.   Maybe it’s a zen thing.  And maybe it’s no coincidence that Carnation Milk, which started in Carnation, Washington, first came up with the advertising phrase, “Milk from Contented Cows.”

Carnation Milk's Contented Cows

Carnation Milk’s Contented Cows

See in the background, behind those cows? That’s Mt. Rainier on a perfect day. No wonder they are calm and contented, those cows. No wonder they aren’t wondering or obsessing about anything, just slowly munching the grass. The day is just right.

But I find myself wondering: Is the Goldilocks Effect something artists subconsciously avoid, since contentment might be counter-productive when it comes to producing good work (or producing any work at all)? Are we most energetic when something is just slightly – not horribly, just slightly – off? When something bothers us – like the porridge being too hot, the bed too soft? When we sit down on baby bear’s chair, when people are too complicated or not complicated enough, and the chair breaks and we fall to the ground. Too big, too little – is that where we get our stories?

John McPhee suggests in his recent article in the April 29th issue of The New Yorker that revision is the way to produce good writing. You revise when you are dissatisfied. There are ways to work hard, and then harder, to make the writing perfect. McPhee’s own writing is all about revision and perfection, not about writing in a way which falls between “certain margins” of acceptability.

John McPhee - Hot, Cold and Just Right

John McPhee – Hot, Cold and Just Right

I wonder if he is a calm man? He doesn’t look obsessive. He looks calm and kind. How can that be? How can a perfectionist be anything but a nervous wreck? If you read the article, Mr. McPhee sounds like a nice guy, a sweet dad, but also like someone who has learned to strive toward perfection. Does he ever say, “This is good enough?” I doubt it.  But I wonder what he thinks about the maxim of “all things in moderation” – nothing too anything? I would like to hear John McPhee talk about the Goldilocks Principle.

I like the possibility that a life-sustaining element exists in me as it does in a planet that is “just right” in relation to the star it orbits. But I have the feeling I’m hurtling through space a little too hot or – sometimes – a little too cold. I whine a lot. Does discontent inspire me? Do I strive for perfection? That’s what I’m wondering on this hot day in Seattle.  One thing for sure: I wouldn’t be satisfied living in a barn in Carnation, coming out in the morning, chewing the green grass and going back into the barn at night.

Cows - Everything Is Good

Cows – Everything Is Good

Of course, something about that little scenario does sound sweet and appealingly simple. But no. Zoning out is not my thing. I failed at my first and only official attempt – a meditation class at UC Berkeley in 1968. I couldn’t keep out the metaphorical and literal noise of people protesting in the streets. Berkeley in the 60’s – talk about  a hot planet. Since then, I have not tried to meditate.

So – another hot day today.   If you have a logical mind, you’ll see that I’m contradicting myself, because I long for the weather to be just right. Shouldn’t I be loving the extremes? Shouldn’t I want heat so hot it makes me write a poem? Rain so wet I write the great American novel?

Oh, contradictions, schmontradictions. When it gets above 80 in Seattle, I sit in the shade and fail to make sense. I hear cows mooing from 50 miles off.  I fall asleep and dream that I am calm and kind.

Too Hot in Seattle

Too Hot in Seattle

Skinny Books, Dust, Dandelions, Sneezes, Apple Cake and Inspiration

Books...

Books…

The other day, with many tasks calling to me, I decided to spend the afternoon doing something that is a ritual task-avoidance activity of mine, something not on any of my To-Do lists: I decided to move books from one place in my house to another place. I do this from time to time; my husband is used to it and he just rolls his eyes and ignores my sneezing (dust) and my talking to myself (about how silly I am to be doing it when I have so much else to do.) Several months ago, we had to eliminate an entire set of bookcases to make room for french doors out to the deck. Total chaos! It seems I’m always carrying big bunches of books from one place to another.

and more books....

and more books spilling over….

When I say “big bunches,” I mean big. This time around, I moved my collection of poetry (about 400 books) from the living room to my study. Why? Well, I didn’t want to do anything on my To-Do list, that was probably the biggest motivator. And I had been looking for some time at how messy the poetry books were.

and the poetry books....

and some of the poetry books….

Minus the Collected Works of someone, and minus anthologies, poetry books are a skinny lot – many don’t even have 1/2-inch spines, and they’re visually “busy”  compared to fiction (which took poetry’s place in the living room.) Fiction is less cluttered, less multitudinous, less random in its trim sizes. The effect of a house over-filled with books is not always calming, and I was going for calm.

and books on chairs...

and more poetry books in stacks and more books on chairs…

No matter what the motivation was, I found myself with stacks and stacks of books, wondering yet again (as I do periodically) about how to organize the poetry. Fiction, no problem – I do it alphabetically. But with poetry I wonder if the  alphabet of last names should prevail.  There are other possibilities on any given shelf of my poetry bookcases:

1. Poets I love 2. Poets who loved each other. 3. Poets by the century in which they lived. 4. Poets by the places they lived – England, France, Russia, Spain, (maybe a shelf of everything in translation?) and the American South, New England, the American West – poets known as “regional.” 5. Poets who have won the Nobel Prize or have entered “the canon.” 6. Poets who are private little discoveries of mine, or so I think. 7. Poets who are friends of mine. 8. Poetry reviews in which I have poems of my own. 9. Poetry criticism by poets. 10.Poetry criticism by non-poets. 11. Big anthologies. 12. Miscellaneous (sometimes, my favorite category – unclassifiable.

In the end, after all the pondering, the alphabet prevailed, except for a few I like to keep handy on my desk.

and a few books on a messy desk....

and more books on a messy desk….

When I’m looking for something, I want to find it fast, so practicality won the day. Admitting this makes me feel slightly ashamed, but there it is. I do manage to keep a few special old books around the house.

and books with hands....

and old books next to old hands….

For one afternoon of carrying great bundles of books from one room to another, thinking about ways these writers related to each other (Should I put Ted Hughes’s Collected Works next to Sylvia Plath’s? Raymond Carver’s next to Tess Gallagher’s? Should I make sure the Welsh and Irish poets do not get mixed in with the English?) and ways I related to them (Do I really love W. H. Auden enough to add him to the shelf with Seamus Heaney and Richard Wilbur? Do I love Walter de la Mare in the same way I love C.K. Williams or Robert Graves?)…for that time of pondering, I was gloriously lost in the world of poetry.

and special books....

and a lion and a foot and complete set of The English Poets, of course……

I opened quite a few books and read a poem or two or ten. And I was inspired. How wonderful to be a poet – that’s what I was thinking at the end of the day.

So I sat down and wrote a poem.

Moral of the story? Avoiding your To-Do list (“Write!”) does not always mean you’re being unproductive. It doesn’t mean you’re wasting time, not always, not if what you have in front of you (a good book…or 400 good books!) inspires you. And inspiration doesn’t always come from something intellectual – not always a book. It could come while your surveying the almost-spring garden, Sometimes it come when you’re in the kitchen – the color of an apple or the smell of an apple cake makes you feel creative and makes you sit down to write a picture book (yes, Julie Paschkis, I mean you.)

I honestly believe that everything a writer does is a source of inspiration. Moving books from one room to another, baking a cake, playing the ukulele, drawing, reading a personal essay in The Threepenny Review (oh, it is so good),  pulling dandelions, pruning a tree, taking a walk, talking to a neighbor. Don’t feel guilty when you spend time not writing. Eventually, the desire to write will overwhelm you – when it does, pay close attention. Heed the call.  Do it. Write. Let it take you over completely.

The author Gordon Lish, photographed by Bill Hayward

And an author and his book (Gordon Lish, photographed by Bill Hayward)

You might not be prolific if you follow my advice. But you’ll stay engaged with the world of real people and real objects. Engagement – that’s a good goal, and I think it’s what makes for good writing – and a good life.  Touch things, move things, make music, bake things, get your hands dirty, unsettle the dust, sneeze.

and books that need dusting! (Achoo! Salud!)

…and books that need dusting! – on my To-Do list!

Then come back to your writing, inspired.

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Through a Child’s Eyes

Image

A couple of weeks ago my husband, my daughter, my son-in-law, my grandson and I all took a trip to Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico, to visit my husband’s family. I was thrilled to go – not only to meet all the new little grandnieces and grandnephews (in Spanish, I’m called “Tia Abuela” – Aunt Grandma!) but to do so with my daughter and her family in tow. The world is a whole different place seen through the eyes of a five-year-old, and that’s why being with Mary and Jackson is such a pleasure. Watching her look at him with delight, and watching him look at the world with wonder – well, there’s nothing better.

I’ve never seen much of note in Hermosillo – it’s not a beautiful old Mexican town, certainly not a World-Heritage site like some of the colonial towns in southern Mexico. There’s a pretty cathedral and a plaza with a bandstand. There’s a government office that’s been fixed up and looks like it might fit in to a tourist town.  But I’ve always thought of Hermosillo as Tucson South – strip malls, flat-roofed businesses, failing infrastructures, barren desert – not the moist, green landscape I’m used to in the Pacific Northwest. So when I go, I only care about seeing family (well, that and eating the wonderful food they put before us while we’re there!) But aesthetically, no, I’ve never seen anything I’d call exciting.  Hermosillo passes before me in a blur.

On the other hand, what you see above are the lists Jackson made of “Special Things” he saw. The long list was made on the drive over to Kino Bay – about an hour away from town, due west through the Sonora Desert to the Sea of Cortez. The short list was made during a quick car ride through the center of town.  Jackson has all the markings of a good writer – a sharp eye and desire to record what he is witness to. He keeps his head up and his eyes open.  I’m not going to explain everything on the lists – let some of them remain a mystery to you. But I can testify to the fact that he saw them.  If I told my students, “Write a story with five things on these lists,” I bet they could come up with some doozies. I made a copy and have it near my computer now – it reminds me that good writers always see the world with fresh eyes.

Below is a slightly more legible account – I was transcribing as we rode around, and we hit a LOT of bumps, so the handwriting is wobbly:

Around Town: 1. Crazy blue car. 2. Yummy food. 3. Fountain of mountain goats. 4. Blue truck with flames. 5. Palm trees. 6. Double long truck. 7. Dollar sign $$. Ostrich.

List of Special Things on the Way to Kino: 1. Buzzard on a light pole and two more on the grass. PAJARAZOS! 2. Heron 3.Vermillion flycatcher. 4.Cactus bush. 5.Mountains. 6. White rocks that say “I love you.” 7. Millions of orange trees. 8. Flying hawk. 9. Saguaros. 10. Seagull on top of a cactus. 11. Beach! 12.Shapes in the clouds. 13. Dead cow.

Vermillion Flycatcher

Vermillion Flycatcher

Zopilote (Buzzard)

Zopilote (Buzzard)

Orange Grove in the Desert

Orange Grove in the Desert

Kino Bay on the Sea of Cortez

Kino Bay on the Sea of Cortez

Shells on the Beach at Kino

Shells on the Beach at Kino

I’m going to keep the photo below as my new screensaver. It was taken in the plane on the way down to Mexico. This one reminds me that all a writer needs is a pen.  And a napkin.

Trip to Hermosillo 01-13 Jackson Drawing