Posts Tagged ‘Boston’

Revision…and appetite…and bring on the chickens.

Revision time.

I am in Boston on the edge of my annual writing retreat…it’s shocking to think that this group has been getting together for something like seventeen years.  Our lives, our writing, our despairs, our soaring bits…they are woven together.  Nancy Werlin and I went to Dian Curtis Regan’s wedding in Colorado Springs this summer, for example.  And now we’re together as our writer selves.

We are ready to talk (or I am, anyway) about chickens and how they fit or don’t fit into our scenes.  We are ready (or I am, anyway) to revise.


I used to hate it.

Sometimes I still do.

But sometimes I love the process of cutting and chopping and mixing and tasting and sampling and tossing things out and moving things around.

Adding a shake of a spice here and a little crunch there.

One of my favorite books talks about revision in terms of appetite.  We have some vague understanding of our readers’ appetite for a bit of color here and a change of pace there and some tension or some laughter.  Ingredients.

We sample and taste and say, “Hmmm.  Needs something.”  We try something new.  We sample and taste again.

Sometimes we ask our skilled reader friends to take a taste.

The Vermont College MFA program where I teach understands the power of good readers who will talk about what’s happening to them as they read our words–the movies in their mind, as one writing guru puts it.

And now I get to be student…of my own writing–for at least a week.

It’s exciting.  When kids ask me, “Who’s your favorite author?” I talk about this group of writers.  Generous.  Warm.  Funny.  Tough.

When I was a kid growing up in Ethiopia and going to a small school, I never met any authors.  I never even thought about the authors of the books I loved.  And now I get to learn from authors.


Bring on the despair.  And the joy.  And the chickens.


Teenage witch??

Writing retreats…yum!

I’ve been getting together with a group of fellow children’s book authors for more than ten years.  At first, we took a long weekend from our crowded lives to write, write, write–and read our writing to each other and discuss delicious books we’d read and also talk about each other’s work.

Then we started taking a whole week and sharing the cooking, too.  This year, we cooked on this old stove.  I made bread when it was my turn.  It reminded me of my mom pulling crusty, steamy loaves of bread from the wood-burning fireplace in Maji, Ethiopia.  That was always quite a production–needing to push small sticks in and nudge them out until the temperature got right enough for bread.  Mom would mix in a little white flour that came from Addis Ababa but mostly use the flour ground down at the mill my dad installed at the foot of one of Maji’s magnificent waterfalls (using a book to figure out how to do it).

Walking always jogs new ideas loose when I’m stuck, stuck, stuck.  This time, I got to walk down these stairs to the beach.  Water loosens ideas, too.  Walking by the water in the beautiful Massachusetts air was satisfyingly wonderful for my work in progress.

Being on retreat was perfect this year.  I spend so much time thinking about Ethiopia Reads and (recently) about how to find the right pieces of furniture for the new house.  We want them to be lovely…inexpensive…and to fit neatly right in the small spaces we have available.

Can anyone say Craigslist?

Any artist has to find spaces–claimed from the roly poly tumble bumble routine of life–to do the work.  Doing it with friends is a sumptuous pleasure.  Doing it in the Boston area is extra pleasurable for me because that’s where Jim taught me how to pay attention to birds when I was working on Lanie’s story.

With all the agonizingly hard effort and disappointment and stretch of writing a novel or picture book, it’s sometimes frustrating to me that readers, who also have to take time from the roly poly tumble bumble routine of life to be good readers, sometimes get careless and distracted.

We felt immersed in the National Book Award mess because Franny Billingsley, who goes on our retreat, had just gotten flipped by the most unfortunate of human errors.  When her book title was read aloud to those making the public announcements about the National Book Award finalists, the title of another book was heard–and announced.  Before the sorting was done, the error had caused lots of hurt and lots of flap…not good for the serenity needed for writing and revising.

To my irritation, I later read a brief magazine article that summed things up this way:  “They belatedly nominated Franny Billingsley’s CHIME (about a teenage witch) instead.”


No way does that parenthetical bit capture Franny’s book, which is about a girl who can hear the Old Ones who whisper in the swamps and are longing to not have their waters drained by the coming of modernity, a girl who has accepted terrible truths about herself and turned them into self-loathing, a girl who has started to courageously ask what’s true.  It doesn’t capture the delicious sentences and words of CHIME, the way Franny cares intensely about the musicality and craft of language.

On November 16, the National Book Award winners will be announced.  I will listen and remember sitting around this thick table, eating thick bread slices, having nourishing conversations, loving the community that keeps us going on this hard path.

Thank goodness for readers who care as much as writers about the satisfying thwuck of words on a page and for characters who seem so real–so having opened their fragile innards to you–that you close the book and imagine that when you step outside the door, you’ll see them.

A wonderful way to live; a terrible way to make a living

Must be brief!


I’m on a writing retreat with these author friends (and others) and I should be thinking about my fiction, NOT about Ethiopia Reads, NOT about my blog, NOT about all the other things that tug at authors including how am I going to pay the rent THIS month?

I often try to remind myself–when I get too whiny–that artists have never had an easy time of it in this world.  There’s a reason for the term starving artist.  Many artists these days are starved for time as much as money.

Yes, the chance to tell our stories–through black marks on a screen or white page, through painting, through sculpture, through the flex of muscles and the tighening of sinews as the body leaps or crouches or delivers a punch line–is precious and important.  My cowboy ancestors knew that one way to keep cold and chill and lonliness at arm’s length was to tell a story or pull out a guitar.

The arts are a wonderful way to live.

They’re just a terrible way (in most cases, for most people) to make a living.

I’m thankful this Monday morning for community…my author friends who gather with me every year to write together, talk about writing, talk about the brave new worlds of publishing, talk about what it’s like to make space for writing in often tough, usually busy lives…

…and the Vermont College MFA community–all the students and fellow faculty members and administrators and artists who keep it going and keep it strong.

This life in community is the sprinkly part of the cupcake, the thank-God-I-have-a-sleeping-bag in the howling wind brushing up against the side of the mountain where one happens to be barely stapled to a ledge.

In a world where many of our friends are virtual and rats nibble and lurk, well, YAY for retreat.

YAY for people to hold pinkies with.

YAY for families by choice and by default and by tenderness.

Onward we go.

Shaking and smooshing and clinging to stories

I know I’ve said it before but I simply have to say it again…I’m astonished and oh so pleased that my parents were willing to let go of their moorings, shake their foundations, and head to Ethiopia with three toddlers.  Okay.  My older sister would have been insulted to be called a toddler at five-years-old.



My mom had three babies in Ethiopia…and our family traveled, amoeba-like, in sometimes-jerky-sometimes-fluid motions, around Ethiopia and to the US and back until I was in my mid-twenties.

  Those years left me with a big dislike of being a tourist and following a guide around listening to a schpiel.  They left me with a big like of slurping up the air and food in interesting places, watching people laugh and talk and shop and read and tell stories in those new (to me) places.

So last week, I was pleased to interrupt the domestic business of settling into a new home and flit off to visit Amy Butler Greenfield and her husband in Oxford.

They met when they were both students there.  I met them while they were temporarily living in Boston.  A chance Facebook conversation led to an impulsive decision that this was the right thing to do with five of my days in August 2011.

The timing wouldn’t have suited everyone.  Then again, not everyone got zipped off to Ethiopia to live as a two-year-old.

One of the things I like doing when I’m in another place is talking with fellow readers there.  In the UK in August 2011, not only did I get to have fascinating conversations with Amy about writing and research, I got to have face-to-face conversations with Dana Roskey, founder of the Tesfa foundation.  Here are some of the graduates of an early childhood education program Tesfa initiated in Addis Ababa–and Tesfa also works with teenage runners and has started building schools in areas that don’t have one.  (

In my ten years of volunteering for Ethiopia Reads, I’ve gotten to see that there are hundreds of small grassroots NGOs spreading ideas and dreams and new skills for deep-root change to various communities in Ethiopia.  What’s missing?  Collaboration.  So it’s been thrilldom to be able to collaborate with Tesfa this year.  Dana and the Ethiopian staff have put hundreds and hundreds of hours, with great generosity and passion, into Ethiopia Reads projects, including a visit to this library planted by a Denver donor and supported by fundraising efforts of 4th grade girls in Ellis School in Pittsburgh.

With everything there is to do and all the new opportunities for libraries, literacy projects, early childhood education in Ethiopia, there’s never enough time for uninterrupted conversation about smart strategy and choices.

Enter Oxford.

Tesfa has a UK board.  Dana happens to be connecting with friends and supporters in the UK right now.



Two days of long, intense talks about what can be done to support young readers in Ethiopia AND a chance to see what Oxford students can do with some English biscuits and a statue.

 Could anything be better than talking about books–about the ideas and images that nestle and rustle in the pages of books–than in Oxford?

Hogwarts is partly rooted in Oxford, after all…

…and every day, the bus trundled us past the Eagle and Child pub, where Tolkein and C.S. Lewis and the other Inklings stewed their stories…

…and I’d like to think that some of the magic of the place will now always sprinkle around Ethiopia Reads and all the volunteers doing what they can to share their love of reading with kids in Ethiopia.

On the second day, we traveled to Bath by train.  In the US, trains make stops at various spots.  In England, they call at various spots.  One reason travel shakes our foundations is that even little changes in language, though fun, can also be disconcerting and confusing.

Bath is another place of stories.

Angels climb Jacob’s Ladder on the face of Bath Abbey, marking Bishop Oliver King’s dream that the church should be restored.  I wonder if they’re the same angels that are said to have helped carve the huge stone churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia?

As Dana and I walked along the streets of Bath, talking about Ethiopia Reads, we passed a reminder of one of Bath’s most famous story-makers.

Jane Austen set two of her six published novels in this city, where she lived from 1801-1806.

Think the city isn’t proud?

Think again.

The places we settle seep into our bones and into our stories.

The characters writers invent and describe move through worlds that–in one of the pleasures of reading–can come to feel as close, as vivid, as intense for readers as for the people who live there.

Thus reading, as wise people have noted, can offer both roots and windows.  Books can help us look more carefully at the worlds right around and inside us.

Books can help us imagine ourselves into the skin of another human being, sometimes someone not even slightly like us, and can toss us into the soup of the wide world.  I wish all of us many mirrors, many windows, whether life is sending us mooring or shaking our foundations and sweeping us away.


This reader brought a book with him to the Boston coffee shop where he was planning to have a cup of hot chocolate with me while his mom and I talked.  I’d just done an author visit in his school.  I’d talked about the power of words.  Reading them.  Writing them.  Listening to them.

I’d talked about growing up in Ethiopia and now getting to see kids reading in Ethiopia, thanks to my volunteer work with Ethiopia Reads (  His school, Haggerty, had raised $502.00 to donate to Ethiopia Reads as part of their “peace begins with me” assembly.

“I brought my favorite book,” he said.  “Could you give it to kids in Ethiopia?”

He speaks for hundreds of us who love our books and National Geographic magazines and who long to share them with young readers in Ethiopia who are fiercely hungry for reading material.

But easier said–as the saying goes–than done.

Getting those books to Ethiopia involves pallets and tractors and forks lifts and storage units.

Moving day may land on a Kansas afternoon when the temperatures are in the 90s.

It takes getting bids and juggling possibilities and finding organizations that are willing to let someone else use their equipment–because they’ve (amazingly) caught a tiny bit of the dream.

It takes (no exaggeration) years of time and hours and hours given by volunteers, mailing and sorting and sifting and hauling and lugging and packing books into boxes.

Once those boxes reach Stan and LeAnn Clark, they have to go into storage in Kansas until all the other





pieces of the puzzle are moved into place…every bit of moving and shoving and manipulating done by volunteers and a few over-worked, idealistic staff people in places like Denver and Atlanta and Minneapolis.

It takes a driver like Craig.

He pulled up with his semi and viewed all the pallets with a certain amount of skepticism.

LeAnn and Stan assured him everything had been weighed, but he still was sure they had too many books.

He was pretty sure that after he left the storage area, he’d be back.

LeAnn was equally sure she had it right.

She’s managed these shipments before.

She knows what it’s like to manage a classroom full of squirmy third graders…

…what it’s like to be the president of an organization like Kansas Reading Association…

and she wasn’t letting anything tangle-up this day so long in the making.

She’d be the first to say she can’t do her volunteer work without the help of lots of other people.

This student from Ethiopia, studying at Hesston College, represents a long


long line of people who touched these books and pallets and boxes to get them to this point.  She represents the faith of Kansas Reading Association who listened to LeAnn’s dream and helped with the very first container she shipped.

LeAnn would be the first to say







getting books to Ethiopia

without Stan.  He’s the one who understands the equipment.  He’s the one whose co-worker showed up to help lift and lug and haul in the 90+ heat.

Was it exhausting?






Did Craig have to come back and unload some of the books?


And this month, LeAnn and a bunch of other volunteers will be traveling to Ethiopia.  They probably won’t get to see this particular container get unpacked on the other side…

But they will get to see the children whose lives will be changed by the chance to read a book.

And they’ll get to talk with and listen to the educators who will be in charge of putting those books into the hands of the children.

And they’ll get to think, with the Ethiopia Reads staff, about how to keep going.

How to work harder and smarter on this project.

How we can do our humble best to be good teammates in the big push to make literacy a posibility everywhere in the world–where families want the very best for their kids and where countries are going to need thoughtful, resourceful problem-solvers for the coming years.

Good, deep education will give those kids a lot of power to figure out how to solve problems.

One thing I love to see in my travels is the way kids in this country–who also need to be thoughtful, resourceful problem-solvers–come to recognize their power, too, through the Ethiopia Reads projects they do.

Every container seems to represent an impossible task.

Setback after setback.

And then?

Triumph.  New libraries.  New stories sent whirling on their way.




Are you Ethiopian or American?

Every time I spend a few days at home in Lawrence, I miss Jonathan and Hiwot and Ellemae and Noh.  Last month, I got to see them (and Lanie) in their new home.  It was sweet to roast marshmallows on the deck and watch Ellemae and a friend build a house for butterflies on the bush where butterflies hover–and watch Noh valiantly run so Ellemae could get to kindergarten on time.

They’ve gotten a lot from the move.  A house where they can have space for their creative games vs. a cramped apartment in married student housing.  A job for Jonathan (and in photojournalism, yet).  YAY.  A NEW Ethiopia adoption community we got to meet at a picnic in one of the parks.  Better winter weather, I think.  But with every move comes loss and confusion–like the question over which football team…when all we really know about is the Jayhawks!

It made me think about those strange, awkward occasional years when we would leave Ethiopia and visit in the U.S.  I was seven when my dad sat us down and explained that we’d be going “home” for the year.  For my mom and dad, it was home: returning to their families and the sounds and smells of America, and the sweet taste of a Brown Cow, which Dad rhapsodized about.  We, their kids, felt more sense of home around real brown cows.  When an elevator operator in NYC asked the four of us girls where we were from, we had to whisper together about what we should say.  Finally, one of us said, “We’re from America.”

But it didn’t feel like we were from America.

And kids in America didn’t know how to ask us about Ethiopia, so those two homes had a chasm between them that I often dangled in–uncomfortably–and never managed to build any bridge across until I started to find ways to write about Ethiopia.

Characters in kids’ books are always endlessly trying to get home.  Maybe that’s why I love those books.  Maybe that’s why I love the monarch butterflies and their heroic 3000-mile journey.  I was always trying to find the right updraft as I fluttered along.  Always trying to figure out what to say when kids asked, “Are you Ethiopian or American?” and I didn’t think I was probably really either one.

Last week, I was back in North Dakota, where my kids went to school, where I once wrote a book about a community cleaning up after flood–how the machines had names like Cat and Deere.  I’ve been in Kansas for eight years, now, but North Dakota still feels awfully much like home.  It’s also where people first started raising money for Ethiopia Reads, writing by-laws, dreaming about sharing books with kids in Ethiopia.  No wonder a big chunk of my heart is there.

Today, I leave for Portland, where I was born and where my brain cells first took in information about what the world was like–a world of rain, a world of berries, a world of two sisters, a world of stories told and read.  This summer, I plan to move there and cozy up to some of those sisters (and my mom and brother).  For me, it will be one more time of losing home.  Gaining home.

I have another home.  Later this month, I’ll be in the Boston area, where Lanie’s home is.  Every year, I get together with writer friends and we write and read and talk and dream together for a week.  The writing community–no matter where I find them–from Vermont to international schools to the Boston retreat–gives me a sense of belonging that I don’t find anywhere else. 

While I was in Alabama, I got to see the sweetest sight: my granddaughter sounding out words in a book.  Whew!  Words gave me something strong to hang onto when I was dangling over the chasm feeling empty and sad.

Just like me, she’ll always be split between Ethiopia and America.  I hope words and sentences and stories will be the rope when she needs to hang on.

Thrills of travel to Ethiopia, Abu Dhabi, our back yards

I come from a family of travelers. 

Oh, they didn’t start out that way.  My dad, who grew up a skinny boy picking vegetables on the neighbors’ farms, thought he might live in eastern Oregon his whole life and never see the capital city of Oregon.

But World War II took the five Kurtz boys out of Oregon, and my dad was the one in the family who came home from war wondering what he could do with his life that would make a difference out in the wide world.

My mom–until she met my dad at Monmouth College–had traveled only between small Iowa towns, as her dad tried desperately to find work.  Her new sweetie took her traveling…on the back of a motorcycle to visit his family out in Oregon.  Later, when I was two years old, he got the idea that they belonged in Ethiopia, helping with the new effort to build schools and hospitals after the war.

When I look at pictures like this, I’m amazed that my mom and dad thought they could pack up three little kids (that’s me on the right) and move to Ethiopia.  But they did.  And they planted traveling in my blood.  “What were we like on that trip to Ethiopia?” I asked my mom.   She said that we were “troopers”–and added, “you had to be.”

The thing about traveling is that it has such power to open our eyes and open our hearts.  We meet people just like us…and people who are fascinatingly different.  It’s great for our writing–because we get startled and gripped by things when we see them for the first time.  When I met my granddaughter in Ethiopia, several years ago, I knew she’d be a traveler, too, and I hoped for all those strengths in her life.

In Lanie, I created the girl I never was…the girl who feels stuck in her own back yard, looking with longing at Aunt Hannah’s camper and thinking with longing about her friend Dakota off having orangutan adventures.

Speaking of Lanie, the monarch butterflies are traveling, too, on their annual migration to Mexico.  They graced us and entertained us and thrilled us for another season.  May we always pay them back in the ways we can:

At a recent writing workshop, one of the young writers hearing my story of becoming an author said, “Oh!  I know where you got the name Dakota.”  She was right.  My children were like Lanie, growing up in Grand Forks, North Dakota, never traveling outside the U.S. even though they heard story after story of my chidhood.  I’m proud that they’ve chosen to travel.  I’m proud of their courage and fortitude…

…because the truth is that even though traveling opens us up and gives us adventures and dreams and curiosities and understandings we rarely get any other way, that newness comes at a cost.  It’s like living through a flood.  We rarely welcome the sweeping away of the old life to make room for the new.  We feel dizzy and disoriented and uncomfortable and sad and frustrated and scared through many of the adventures most of the time.

I was reminded of HOW hard it all can be as we said goodbye to my nephew and his wife in Portland, recently.  They packed up their comfy teacher lives in Bend, Oregon, and headed out to teach in an international school in Abu Dhabi.  It took a lot of courage.  Most of us have very few pictures in our heads about places like Abu Dhabi…I was embarrasingly surprised about what I found when I did author visits to schools in the Persian Gulf, myself…and was delighted by those camels in the middle of the road.



But…then?  Wow. 

The world is a cool and thrilling place after all.