Archive for July, 2012

Why write?

At some level, writing can be play.

As Sarah Ellis pointed out in her faculty Vermont College MFA lecture, play is the thing humans do with no pay-off in mind–the thing where the pleasure is in doing the thing itself…which doesn’t mean that play = easy.

Some of us work enormously hard at our play.

After the residency ended, I went to Maine for the wedding of a dear friend’s son.  Toni has a powerful energy and skill for making things, and the crafting of that wedding, one homemade bit at a time, took a whole lot of hard playing for months.  Ken coaxed exquisite flowers and plants out of the ground to help celebrate, which made me eager to see what had happened with my garden while I was in Vermont.

Well, weeds had happened.

I like weeds.  The day after the wedding, Nancy and Jim and Franny and I went to the salt lands to look for birds–and I psent a lot of time looking at one of my favorite weeds: Queen Anne’s lace.  But these weeds were pushing and pummelling my chosen plants.

My muscles are now super sore from all the bending and crouching and pulling of weeds.  But the week’s hard work has also felt like play.

Can hard things be fun? I sometimes ask kids on school visits. We talk about musical instruments and reading a book that makes your brain hurt and also what it’s like to ache and sweat on a field.  Thanks to the Olympics, many of us are thinking these days about bodies with their pinging muscles and burning lungs, with lactic acid delivering a whallop of pain.  But humans choose to run and leap and dive and swim and pit their bodies against time and miles.

Humans choose to create art, putting in thousands of hours to capture the shapes and textures and effects that please them.

Humans choose to garden.  Sometimes for food.  Often for play–for the joy of the tendrils reaching out and all that life force under our hands.

Alas, the dry weather had shriveled a few of my plants to crisps.  This woolly thyme was one of the first things I tried planting in Portland and when I left, the basket was bursting with life force.

When I got back?


I have to start completely over.

Of course I’m sad.

But playing–writing–gardening…such things take the ability to sink in and let the moments speak for themselves, doing something over and over until astonishing things come to life, things that surprise even us, their creators and planters.


Vermont College MFA in writing for young readers: brave days


An MFA is a terminal degree (which sounds ominous but just means as high as a person can go academically) in the arts. So of course it’s tough. This low residency one has only 10 days for students and faculty to meet in person on campus and look at writing together, listen to faculty lectures, listen to graduate lectures, listen to graduate readings, sink deeply into the intricacies of our complicated craft.

So the schedule is packed. This time, with the biggest graduating class ever, it was extra packed.

The class named itself The Secret Gardeners. Perfect–given that my friends were teasing me and insisting that of course I would be working garden metaphors into my lecture.  I did that…and I admired the gardens of Montpelier as I walked around.

Mostly, though, I wanted to talk about fear.

Fear that we aren’t good enough.

Fear that there isn’t enough love to go around.

Fear that someone whose life-thead is tied to ours will be disappointed or disapproving.

Fear that leads to shame and pain and misery and sadness…and writing. Fear that also makes the writing life a vulnerable one. And VCMFA residencies will bring out any vulnerability and insecurity you’ve successfully hidden up until then.

But when we are willing to look at our own insecurities, when we can create characters who struggle with their insecurities, we speak to the whole world about courage, about not giving in to shame.

One of my students made me a memento after we worked together. I’d told her that my author friends and I name the terrible fear that leaps upon us as we write. We called it Fearnando.

We say, “Back, back Fearnando” sometimes as we sit down to write or think about our novels and creative works of nonfiction.

So she made me a pin that says, “Back, back, Fearnando.”

May we all battle our fears…and name our fears…and face down our fears…and sometimes win.

VCMFA traditions

The naming of the classes gets more and more elaborate.  This time we were reminded that writing is like leaping off a cliff–and growing our wings on the way down.  I can’t wait to see Mr. Noble with wings.

The things we leave behind…VCMFA

Every teacher hopes to leave things behind in the hearts and brains or his or her students.  This Vermont College teacher did…and they honored him with an art piece so now he sits and welcomes us all as we wander around the college.

I dream that we will leave things behind, too.

Lizard brain and the writing life

Someone who reads this blog will probably recognize where I took this picture of a lizard.

It was one of many lizard pictures I showed during my lecture because I talked about lizard brain and the writing life.  The amygdala–the deep and ancient part of our brains–hobbles our logic and reasoning circuits.  Neurobiologist Michael Fanselow of the University of California says that makes fear “far, far more powerful than reason.”  A frightening stimulus can trigger emotions and fears without our even realizing it.

No wonder VCMFA, which forces us to let go of what we thought we knew and thought we were good at–forces us to dangle from the cliff as we learn new craft and as we muddle our way through a story without knowing where we’re going–is terrifying.

As the authors of Art and Fear point out, “You make good work by (among other things) making lots of work that isn’t very good.”

At VCMFA, we sit bravely around tables and stand at podiums and share some of that not very good work–and thus give ourselves the chance to create something wonderful.

Goodbye garden, hello secret gardeners

The golden zucchini was starting to bear fruit.  I was on a hunt for pale plants that would set off the kind of dill that invited itself into the garden this spring, and that hunt was making me pay more attention to the weeds around my neighborhood.  The tomatoes were still small and green but looking promising.

And then I had to leave.


But it was a great year for me to be at the Vermont College MFA in children’s literature residency…among other reasons because this graduating class named itself after one of the books I most loved reading to my daughter, The Secret Garden.

Honestly, although I said a few weeks ago I felt like one of the girls from the Little House books when I was gardening this spring, I should have said I had entered the world of the secret garden.  Overgrown.  Rocky.  Bare patches of dirt.  A whole lot of ugliness.

But like Mary and the other kids who poke and pull and dig and coax the plants in that book, I found the gloriousness of watching the green flourish against the dirt.  Sometimes it bursts and explodes everywhere if it only has a chance.  Sometimes it creeps.

Moss creeps.

I like this patch I found in one part of the dirt, though, and I’ve been trying to figure out how to encourage it.  I also planted Scotch Moss and Irish Moss.  Just before I left for Vermont I got nervous because I started to read about mosses and thought, at first, I’d put those two plants in a way too sunny place.  Then I discovered they aren’t true moss.

Some of us have a damp, shady garden and some have sun to work with.  Some of us have deep, rich soil.  Some have rocks.  Clay.  Choking weeds.

As I was gathering the seeds for my lecture, I read this:  “I remember hearing an interview on NPR with some pianist, who played some little bit of some piano solo, and the interviewer commented, ‘I’d give anything to play like that!’  In response, the pianist asked, ‘Would you practice for 10 hours a day for 20 years?'”

Secret gardeners do the work.


How is Ethiopia Reads like my garden?

I’ve been working on my lecture for the Vermont College MFA residency and one of my author/illustrator friends asked if it was going to have any gardening metaphors in it.


I wonder where she got that idea.

Sometimes creating books makes a body feel all glorified like the top of this sunflower getting ready, as I said in my last post, to wear its tiara.  Sometimes we feel impossibly tall and bursting with energy and new beginnings.

When I started volunteering for Ethiopia Reads about fifteen years ago, I was startled and amazed by how many people wanted to give their time and their money and their energy to help.  Beginnings are so exciting.  A lot of people–like this adoptive family–love books and wanted to share.  They’ve planted a BUNCH of seeds.  In fact, we’re working with more than sixty seedling libraries now.

This week in the garden, I was reminded that just as my lettuce came charging back this spring, a lot of unwelcome plants keep relentlessly charging into my space, too.

I like the relaxed and even unkempt look of a lot of Portland gardens.  But some weeds are just way aggressive.  I’m trying to learn to identify things by their leaves.  Clover is easy and I guess it brings nitrogen into the soil, so fine.  I have been known to transplant a bit of clover on purpose this week.  But is that stuff in the back yard wild geranium or Shiningstar Geranium, which my GardenSmart Oregon book says is invasive?

So I’m spending a lot of time out there.  Yesterday we yanked and spaded and wrestled weeds.  Do you know roots make a lovely slurping sound sometimes when they let go?

The planting was not easy.  Not one bit.

But without the tending, the beauty wouldn’t be able to keep shining through.

And so it is with Ethiopia Reads.

Turns out it’s not enough to just put books on furniture in Ethiopian public schools, important as that is.  It’s not enough even to hook up a donkey to a cart and invite readers to gather round.   Lots of careful, respectful listening and sharing has to continue for our literacy efforts to put down deep roots.

Sometimes, that’s not the fun work.

We’re kind of addicted to beginnings and plantings and saying, “Wow!  I put that there where it didn’t exist before.”  We aren’t so good with patience and endurance and all the work of keeping something going.

I’m proud of Ethiopia Reads for crafting each project–not doing mass work–and for being stubborn about asking good questions and figuring out how to make ideas bloom.

It’s hard, though.

Like with the weeding, it’s enough to make my muscles and mind ache.

But people talk these days about “human capital”…the parents and teachers and donors and communicators and kids who can join hands in figuring out how to make things work.  When things are done well, you see the beauty…like the pride that bursts through this picture, a first graduation in the school that Mike built and where I hope we’ll soon plant a new library.

Yay for those who plant and also for those who keep things going.  Shine on!