Collected Wisps of Thought

Are you interested in building strong foundations for you novel and your career? March 16 – 19, I will be co-hosting a writing workshop with the lovely and talented, Clara Gillow Clark. We’ll critique the first fifty (50) pages of a work-in-progress, and we’ll offer workshops targeting character, plot, and the most common mistakes that we see when critiquing manuscripts. For more information contact the Highlights Foundation.


Here’s my interview with Clara! Enjoy!

Q. What makes the start of a novel so challenging?

CGC: Before I begin to write a novel I go through a spell of what I call “dream time” when a character has caught my attention who has a story that wants to be told. Dream time is sweet, the sweetest part of the writing process for me. I always walk my stories, and that’s when scenes come to life and characters tell me things. What a shivery sort of thrill it is when that happens. The opening pages start to take on shape as I jot down notes. But, still I wait. And I wait some more, waiting for the character to share her secrets with me. And still I wait. Images come. Maybe they’ll turn into a symbol or a metaphor, but it isn’t until I can see where my character will be at the end of the book, that I sit down to write.

Usually, some of the first chapter comes out smoothly and fully formed, but there are always hard places where the writing is a struggle. Likely, it’s that unwieldy back story that begs to be included in the very beginning, because I really MUST put it there. Or I decide a prologue would be nice, which always seems a delightful way to begin and such a great way to slip in all the information readers MUST know. Kill the prologue. Give it up. <sigh> Then I remind myself of Flannery O’Conner’s words to writers: Don’t worry about what to say; just make pictures and conversation. And that’s what I try to do.

Q. What do you know now that you wish you’d known at the start of your career?

CGC: Everything changes. Everything. We write and over time we become confident and feel comfortable with our style and our writing voice; and at the beginning of our careers when we’re first published, we think it will always be that way. We do all the right things–study craft, practice craft, and read other authors’ works. One day we realize the industry is changing, and it’s not just a trend. The reality is that both publishing and language is influx and will continue to be so in the future. But know this: It has always been true that we need to be original and unique in our vision for a story that has a thousand faces already. That’s where I am now, reinventing myself and my writing, going deeper, but still always writing from the heart. Embrace change and don’t be afraid. Keep reading and your vision will adjust.

Q. What is a common mistake you see when critiquing new writers?

CGC: Most new writers who are serious about the craft of writing have a pretty good grasp of story, because they’re readers. But often when we read, we zoom in on the action and read on to find out what’s going to happen next. We see the twists and turns, the pitfalls and setbacks, but seem to miss what’s really driving the cart over that cliff, which is emotion. Often aspiring writers skip right over the interior development of their protagonist and often tell instead of show their character’s emotion. Other things that are often problematic for new writers are deep point-of-view, verb tenses – especially if they’re writing in the present tense, and transitions.

Q. What are you most looking forward to about our upcoming Highlights Foundation Workshop, Novel Beginnings?

CGC: Meeting new writers, mentoring, but also experiencing that warm feeling of a kind of homecoming. That’s how I feel when I’m at the Foundation. I’m in a safe and nurturing environment with likeminded people who love to learn, love books, and want to be better writers. I’m looking forward to forging new friendships, but also seeing old friends who work there like Chef Amanda. What could be better than that?


Learn about our upcoming workshop by clicking on the link: Novel Beginnings: Building Strong Foundations for Your Novel and Your Career 2017


{December 31, 2008}   For all future blogs…

I now have a blog as part of my website, so to make things easy and to keep everything in one place, I will be posting all future blogs there. I hope you’ll check it out. I’ve made ultra strict resolutions to make 2009 the Year of the Blog!

{November 5, 2008}   Yes, we did!

Today feels like the day after Christmas. Never before in my lifetime have I felt so proud of my country and our political system. To be alive for this day, to see the expressions on people’s faces as Barak Obama gave his victory speech, to know this was happening live, right now, and I am a part of it… all I can say is wow. I know without a doubt that I will be telling my children and my children’s children about this day. I will tell them how my parents came to my house so we could all watch the election results together because we knew that history was about to be made. I’ll tell them how we stayed up until one in the morning watching TV, and how even when I went to bed I lay awake, my thoughts full to overflowing with gratitude and awe. I will tell them how I prayed, and will continue to pray every day for Barak Obama’s safety as he continues along this historic journey. I’ll tell them how my parents talked about their experiences living through assasinations of JFK, RFK, and Martin Luther King, but we didn’t talk about the horribleness of it, but the fact that, though it may have taken forty years, their visions have come to fruition. The forces at work in the world that sought to extinguish the good those men fought for, won only a temporary victory during those turbulent times.

Barak Obama has a tough road ahead of him — he will probably have to work harder than almost any other president to tackle the state of our nation, but historically minorities have always had to work twice as hard to succeed, so I believe he is well prepared. I believe he will surround himself with good, intelligent people who will offer their advice, and that he will make decisions not based on a desire to protect wealth, but a desire to protect people. I believe that not only the majority of Americans, but the majority of the world are desperate to see him succeed, because we all know that we’re in this together, and we’ve all seen over the last eight years that America has too much power for it to be taken lightly.

For those who do not share my glowing happiness today, I hope you will feel differently as the months and years progress. That your fears will gradually ebb into confidence. I hope you will embrace those oft quoted words of JFK “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” and think of ways to help this administration succeed. If there’s an issue you strongly disagree with, let your voice be heard, but then also find areas of commonality and let your voices be heard there as well. We are past the days when we can let our politics be ruled by single emotional issues. Hot button issues are important, but morality, justice, and prosperity are not defined by single issues but by many issues, and we must all challenge ourselves to broaden our perspectives.

Finally, to everyone of every political persuasion, every race, every religion, every gender… celebrate. Even if you voted for McCain, celebrate this historic day when we have, as a nation, elected our first African American President of the United States. Celebrate the long road that has taken us from slavery to this moment. This has been a war as surely as Iraq and Afghanistan, but it’s a war that has taken a century and the lives lost begin with those slaves who died cruel deaths. Thousands of men, women, and children whose names we no longer remember. The war seeped quietly and not so quietly through history as black people were lynched and beaten and killed. As white people who fought for change were murdered and persecuted. Each death on that bloody road has moved us towards this day. So, no matter your political affiliation or your feelings about the future, take THIS day to offer thanks that good can not be defeated forever. Sometimes the world looks grim, but vicotry will emerge in time. We can change… yes, we can.

And yes, we did.

{October 29, 2008}   The Hero’s Journey

Perhaps you or someone you know might be interested in an upcoming workshop for which I will be a
guest faculty member…

What is it?

Well, a treat really. I know… in this economy who feels like they can treat themselves to a weekend away? But you know what… after this election is over and before the holidays hit full on, we all deserve a couple days relaxation. This is a time to study the craft of writing, to put your feet up in your personal cabin on a gorgeous property in rural Pennsylvania, and to enjoy three meals a day cooked by an award-winning

So, here are the details:

The workshop is titled The Hero’s Journey.

When: November 20-23, 2008 (begins Thursday afternoon at 3 PM with a tour
of Highlights and Boyds Mills Press)

Where: near Honesdale, PA

The subject: we’ll be discussing The Writer’s Journey by Christopher
Vogler — a book that shows how writers can use the mythological hero’s
journey to strengthen their stories. The Hero’s Journey workshop helps
writers at any stage focus in on the way stories work, and on what makes
some stories truly resonate.

More info:


There is scholarship money available, so be sure to contact Highlights Foundation if you have any questions.

{September 5, 2008}   Back to School

When I was a kid, I hated school with a passion. I hated it from day one — kindegarten. Most kids like kindegarten. I mean, what is there not to care for? There’s coloring, playtime, snacks, the little cardboard house you can crawl into, the delightful smell of paints and crayons. But no. I hated it. And it never got better from there. Every year was a sentence of boredom.

I remember the feeling I’d get every August when the air turned cooler and the days began to count down one by one until my fate was unavoidable. My stomach would churn and my mind would fill with dread until the feeling of unease worked its way into everything else I might do. I drove my parents crazy with my misery.

Even now, all these years later, I still feel grateful when this time of year arrives and I do not have to go back to school. I feel grateful in the mornings when I watch the yellow school bus pass my house without stopping and I see my neighbor kids lining up with the back packs and book bags. I feel grateful when I pick up my neice (who fortunately loves school) and think of all the things I chose to do while I wasn’t in school.

Of course, I realize that many kids feel like my neice, and for that I’m immensely grateful. If I ever have kids, I pray they’ll look at school the way she does because if they don’t I’ll have to home school them for sure. But I also realize there’s a good number of kids who feel like I used to, so for those kids I want to say that “this too shall pass”. School might feel like a prison sentence, a hoop society says you must jump through in order to obtain your freedom, but one day it will end and you will have learned all the basic things you must learn to get your diploma so that you can get a job, and you will find yourself free to spend your daytime hours as you choose.

So for those of you who dread the start of school each year, hang in there. Just think, pretty soon there will be snow days, holiday vacations, and spring break. And then you’ll find yourself that much closer to counting down the days to another summer vacation, and to an eventual life with more choices because you’ve paid your dues. Remember, if you’re already there, you might as well learn everything you can and save it up for later.

Here’s the thing… the older I get the more I am convinced that I know nothing. Absolutely nothing. Every single thing seems completely subjective and possibly irrelevent. I know, I know. That sounds harsh. Maybe it is. But that’s how I feel. What we believe passionately today may seem comically ridiculous tomorrow.

So when it comes to conventional wisdom, I’m not always good at following it even though I desperately want to. Why do I want to? Because, frankly, conventional wisdom takes away the agony of indecision. When conventional wisdom lays out the best course of action, the best attitude, the best reactions to life, we know exactly what we’re supposed to do. We have an easy measuring stick against which to regard our own actions and applaud ourselves when we fit in. We make others less uncomfortable. We are given the balm of belief.

I call those people who are able to accept conventional wisdom — whether it comes in the form of religion or just those truths generally regarded as well, truths — believers. I envy believers. I totally and wholeheartedly wish I were a believer, even though conventional wisdom might offer up some cliche about being “true to yourself” and “going against the flow”. But really, will my life be better off for my incessant questioning? Will it? I imagine it must feel wonderful to be able to believe. To accept the happiness that is almost always the goal of conventional wisdom.

Two weeks ago today my grandfather died. He was 81 and lived a great life. Conventional wisdom says this should make things easier. I wish it did. I envy those family members for which this does, in fact, make things easier. People say we should celebrate his life and not mourn him. And on the surface I think, yes, that makes sense and it’s what he wanted, but sometimes I wish I lived in one of those cultures where people shout and holler and beat against the coffin. Why can we not take the time to be miserable? Sure, conventional wisdom offers us, tentatively, the right to be sad. If it’s kept to a minimum and balanced out by our positive attitude and our willingness to immediately go on with our lives. But the important thing is to be happy in the end. And don’t take too long. Those people who achieve happiness despite the most difficult circumstances are the ones we offer up for admiration.

I remember this operating big time after 9/11. We’d had a major tragedy which was devastating on a vast scale, but immediately afterwards there was an unrelenting push to move on. That same day people were calling my office in Manhattan about work related concerns. There was huge indecision about whether to close down our office the next day even though the city had blocked off everything below 14th street, which included us! One co-worker went in anyway. She was admired for her stoicism. And then there were the speeches about going shopping and not letting this get us down, and all I could think was, WTF?! You’ve got to be kidding me? When do we get to scream?

I have never been the same since 9/11. I can say that unequivacally. I knew on that very day that I would never erase the image of a huge plume of smoke rising up from the Manhattan skyline, or the long lines to give blood, or the flood of bodies pushing toward the subways.

I will not be the same without my grandfather in my life either. I don’t care that he was 81… no one should have to die from pancreatic cancer and spend agonzining hours fighting for every single breath before they die. And now there is the push to move on, to celebrate, to make every attempt to return to that lauded state of happiness. But what about the cultures who wear black for a year to mark the time of mourning? What if I wanted to do that? I’d be regarded as practically insane. I know people who have remarried before their spouse was a year in the grave.

Happiness. It’s very, very important to western American culture. I’m convinced that we’re terrified of anything else.

And who doesn’t want to be happy? Right?


Maybe… me.

Does anyone else have a “life list”? It can be either a mental list or one you actually write down, but it’s filled with things you want to do before you die. I am a firm believer in life lists. I’m also a firm believer in keeping them unique to each person and not going in for the cliches. For example, skydiving is something many people might feel compelled to put on their life list simply because, that’s what you’re supposed to do right? It’s even in a country western song about living fully before you die. But personally, I have no interest in skydiving whatsoever. I can happily live and die without ever having experienced that.

Travel though, that’s HUGE on my life list. And although the Grand Canyon might seem like a travel cliche, it was definitely high on my list. I’ve been out west, even lived out in Oregon for a while, but I’d never been to the Southwest and really wanted to go. In addition to the Canyon, I really wanted to see the meteor crater, cliff dwellings, the petrified forest, Hoover Dam, Lowell Observatory, and a volcano. So my husband and I embarked on the Nerd’s Paradise vacation and booked a trip to Arizona.

What an amazing trip! We got to see all of these things and each one was amazing in a whole new way. The scope of things out west is so HUGE. So much larger than pictures can ever capture. And the terrain is beautiful. It changes completely as you drive, from jagged rocks to low lying shrubs to snow capped mountains. We went from ninety degree weather to snow and back again.

Oh, and did I mention we went to Vegas? Ha. That totally didn’t fit into the rest of the trip, but it was worth it to spend time with my niece and her main man, Paul. I am not the gambling type, and mostly played the penny slot machines, but it was still wild to see this place that you hear so much about, especially at night when everything is lit up and the strip is packed with people dressed to the nines. Crazy, crazy place.

One more thing before I stop gushing about our vacation… there were definitely moments before hand where we might have decided not to go. My husband’s job has been shaky, gas prices are skyrocketing, we spent lots of money on things like car repairs we didn’t expect… but in the end we decided to (finally) say to hell with them all and just go, and if I can advocate for this decision in anyone else’s life, I totally will. Experiences are priceless. Money will always be tight. Schedules will always be over crowded, but experiencing something new and beautiful in this world is not something you’ll regret. In fact, at the very end of our trip we got into a bad car accident (smashed up the rental car to smithereens!) and one of my first thoughts as I got out of the car, before I even had time to comprehend that my husband and I were okay, was “thank God I saw the Grand Canyon.” If that had been the end of things for me, I would have hated to miss that spectacular part of life. 

Have you heard about the woman who wrote a memoir that recounted her experiences growing up in foster care, as a half white, half native American, raised by a black mother and caught up in gang warfare? It turns out that none of it was true and she is, in fact, all white and was raised in a typical middle/upper class family. In fact, it was her sister that blew the whistle on her.

There is so much in this story that is absolutely fascinating and appalling all at once. First, there is the fact that this is not by any means the first memoir to have been faked and then outed. We all heard about the Oprah to-do with James Frey’s book. And there was at least one other high profile case after that one… It leads me to wonder what in the world is happening in our society that this has become a trend. What does it say about us? Is the driving force greed because memoirs sell better than fiction, or is there something deeper? Some sort of national self-esteem problem? Total greed? Have memoirs in other countries been turning out to be fakes or is this unique to the United States?

Then there’s the racial dynamics which are so appalling I can barely stand to write this. The fact that a white woman would claim connections to both Native American heritage and a uniquely black family experience seems like a horrible exploitation of two groups of people that whites have traditionally oppressed. The fact that she stood to make a lot of money off of this makes it even worse. She claims to have done it out of altruism, to give voice to people who could not articulate for themselves, but that’s just downright insulting. Does she know how many talented authors there are of every race and every level of wealth who fight for the very limited spots on a publisher’s list? Obviously not. Instead, she employed a horrible racist world view that allowed her to assume not a single person from the environment she writes about would be smart and articulate enough to write their own story, therefore she would have to do it for them. As a favor. I wonder how many of them are thanking her.

Someone please buy that woman any of the many books written by people who have overcome great adversity to share their stories in prose that is uniquely their own.

Lastly, there is a sensational element to this story that makes you absolutely want to know more about what was happening behind the scenes. The fact that her own sister turned her in conjures up images of family drama that probably would be worthy of a memoir. In fact, it’s so fascinating I think I will write a book about it. And then maybe I will say that it is my story, not hers. I will be doing her a favor because now that she’s discredited she won’t be able to write her own memoir. I’ll tell everything from my point of view and I’m sure she’ll be very grateful.

I wish I truly knew what was going on in this woman’s mind. I feel so terrible for her editor who is also getting trashed in the media, but having worked with an editor myself, I can’t say I think this is fair. It’s such a personal relationship, and the editor would have had no reason to assume that this woman was lying. As far as I know, my editor has never done an identity check on me, just to be sure I am who I say I am. We all make certain assumptions when dealing with others, and one of the most basic ones is that they’re telling us the truth. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately for the state of memoirs in this country, editors probably won’t make these assumptions much longer.

{February 14, 2008}   How Important is Romance?

When I was in college I was a sociology major — not to be confused with a social work major, because these are entirely different things. A sociolgist studies people and trends, analyzing the world we live in scientifically. Most facets of human nature can’t be measured in a scientific way… still, the sociologist tries to stand outside his or her culture and look back at it objectively, almost in a detatched way. This can be a blessing and a curse.

It’s a blessing because of what you can discover, but it’s a curse because it’s hard to stop looking at the world this way. I always want to know what people actually think and experience and sometimes it can be hard to find out.

Today being Valentine’s Day, I am curious about romance. It’s no secret that romance is extremely important to some people and hardly important to others. Where do you find yourself along that spectrum?

And more importantly, what do you consider romantic?

I have a wonderful husband and he’s done some pretty darn romantic things for me during our time together. Once he got about forty scratch-offs (those tickets where you can win money) and he hung them on red string all over my attic (which I used as a loft at the time) so when I went upstairs, there were all these cards hanging from the ceiling. Each one that I took down I got to scratch the ticket and see if I won anything. It was really fun and really creative.

At the same time though, the part of our life I consider the most romantic is the time we spend doing nothing. Yes, nothing. (This is what inspired my choice of song, by the way.) I simply love laying on the couch, listening to music, sometimes hearing his heartbeat… I think I’d choose this over almost any other romantic gesture no matter how grand it was.

So, what’s your idea of romance? How important is it in your life? Does it hardly make a blip on your radar or is it so important that you’d sacrifice almost anything in order to get it?

{February 7, 2008}   Michael Jasper

This weekend I was privileged to attend the dedication ceremony for Michael Jasper. Michael is not yet one year old, but in his short life he has already gone through three surgical procedures, including open heart surgery. He’s been poked and prodded and weaned before he wanted to be (and trust me, he let people know it!). He’s been hooked up to tubes and IVs and seen life filtered through the plastic walls of an incubator.

It would be easy to make this blog into a big cliché, writing about how despite it all Michael still smiles, still laughs, still reached out with a huge grin on his face to touch the woman who stood at the podium to close the ceremony. Because all of that is true, but it belies the fact that this has also been tremendously difficult for Michael, his parents, his big brother Jacob… How do you watch a child go through an experience like this and not find yourself totally outside of the realm of the cliché, immersed instead in the world of complication where good and bad intermingle until they’re almost unrecognizable?

I would not presume to speak for Michael’s parents who spoke so eloquently for themselves at the dedication ceremony, reading a long letter they’d written to Michael about how the world already has and will continue to attempt to define him as “broken” or “different”, someone who needs to be fixed, but their love sees him as perfect just as he is. I can, however, relate my own experience of Michael’s dedication, and how much it moved me to be a part of it.

For those of you unfamiliar with a dedication ceremony, it’s similar to a traditional christening where a baby (occasionally an adult or older child) is welcomed into the church family and the church pledges to support the life journey of this individual. In this case, the family involved is Mennonite, and they added their own unique touches to the event. In addition to the long letter Michael’s parents had written him, which they read out loud, there was also a wonderful time when Michael’s uncle wrapped him in a prayer shawl that had been made for him and carried him around the room for all to see, talking as he went about the people Michael will know as he grows older. People who already love him and support him unconditionally. Regardless of all future test results, it was understood that those of us present will love this little boy and do all we can to pave the way ahead of him.

This was the part of the event that most moved me. It made me think about the fact that good can come from suffering — not because suffering is good but because we can act in good ways in spite of it.

When I look at the church today, it’s easy to see its brokenness. In a day and age when the priesthood is synonymous in many people’s minds with child sexual abuse and religious texts are used to support mass murder, it would be safe to say that the church wears its faults on its sleeve. Where is the good in it?

I have struggled greatly with my faith and spirituality over the years. It’s been easier to pursue the latter than to have the former. Spirituality is a word that’s still safe, while religion has acquired a definite taint, don’t you think? Yet, I keep returning to religion – yes religion – even when I find myself wondering why. Attending Michael’s dedication was a huge piece in that puzzle.

I realized that I return out of hope. Hope that good can still triumph despite suffering, and a belief that this good will come about through communities of love… through people who decide to support one another through the tough times and celebrate with one another in the good times. Hope that when I am the one who is broken I will find love that is as unconditional as the love that this community offers to Michael.

Michael’s christening was a shining moment. A gathering of people pledging to do everything in their power to let love conquer suffering. It’s not that this kind of gathering can’t happen outside of religion, but it’s been my experience that it’s hard to access it elsewhere. We live in a fragmented world and even when I have purposefully sought out a connection with a larger group of people, it’s been rare and elusive and often doesn’t last. The church offers something we are in desperate need of these days – community. And though it is flawed and there is suffering involved, there is good too. Every now and again, we get to remember that.

More than remember it, we get to feel it, wrapped around us like a prayer shawl. What a privilege to stand with other people who also believe that good should triumph and to pledge to do everything in our power to see that it does so for this life in particular. This beautiful perfect baby boy who enters into our midst. Michael, we welcome you into our flawed world, our imperfect church, our hurting families, but we do so with the greatest love we can find, hoping beyond hope that together we will find our way to goodness.

et cetera