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  • July 15th, 2011 | 5:11 PM
Session #5 Incarcerated Teens Poetry Class

Today was the fifth of twelve sessions teaching poetry to a group of incarcerated teenage girls.

It's killing me. Not just the work, which is emotionally draining, but it is killing my spirit. My confidence is melting.

We had a new student today and she loves to talk and loves to be the center of attention. Major extrovert. Good for her but hard to teach around, especially with little backup from the teacher. Because she was new, the rest of the girls in the class were more interested in hearing her stories than doing their work. I brought in chocolate as a treat for the end of the day and their comment to that, "Whatever. I don't care."

We did the word courage as a group poem. It took twice as long than usual. I read to them from Ruth Gendler's book, The Book of Qualities. It should have been a nice lead from the emotions we did with the group poem but when I asked them to write one of their own they all said, "I don't get it. Can we do something else?"

We watched Sarah Kay perform her wonderful poem HANDS and managed about a two minute discussion on hands before they wrote their own. Only one person wanted to share.

I gave up and moved to art, asking them to trace their hands and decorate them, telling them it would be some of the art we would use to decorate the poetry collection we were building. I brought in lovely zentangle hands and encouraged them to try some tangles. Nope. Not a one.

The entire day the new student was up and walking around, going over to read the other student's work, constantly in motion, constantly talking (but she did do the work.) No matter what I said, she couldn't keep still for long. The teacher finally said something.

Something happened with one girl. She was called out of the room and when she came back she just slumped in her chair and cried. I couldn't ask why but I offered her paper and encouraged her to write about it. I told her she could tear it up when she was done. She just nodded, clutched the pencil tightly in her fingers, and continued to cry.

I don't know what else to do to try and reach them. They won't talk, won't interact so the time just stretches on and on.

This is hitting every single one of my insecurities. 7 more sessions to go. I have no idea what I will use to fill the time.
There are so many stories only you can tell.Tell them, please.

  • July 13th, 2011 | 6:58 PM
Session #4 Incarcerated Teens Poetry Class

Today was the fourth of twelve sessions teaching poetry to a group of incarcerated teenage girls.

It was not a good day.

I confess, I like walking into a classroom of boys and being greeted with mostly positive energy. When I walk into the girl's class, I am mostly ignored. I know they are in lock up and have no choice about attending the class. I know they have a lot of issues. But some days, well, as any teacher knows some days are harder than others.

They picked a word for their group poem, worked on it for a while but without much energy. They used it more as an excuse to chatter about other things and call out put-downs to each other. Halfway through they begged for another word and said they would do better. Softie that I am, I agreed to switch. We changed from TRUTH to LIES but the group poem fizzled out when every other comment from a girl was a negative about someone's love life. There was no group poem today.

We moved on to haiku which they had requested to do. I handed out a sheet of paper with a dozen haiku on it. I asked them to read them then pick one they liked and tell me what they liked about it. I had barely turned around when they started with, "I don't get it. I don't know what to do." Which quickly spiraled downward to, "This is dumb."

But they did it. This much credit I'll give them. All but one girl contributed thoughts about the haiku they read.

Then we talked about the "season" words in haiku and I asked them to find the season words in the samples they had. They did okay with that. But that wasn't writing.

When I ask them to write their own haiku (after more discussion and brainstorming) it was just more chatter. I knew I didn't have control of the class but I didn't know what to do to get it back again. (That's if I ever had it in the first place.) This is one of those times that I really wish I was a formally trained teacher with more experience and training to handle situations like this. When the few that wrote shared their work it was a giant step backwards from what they had done before. GIANT step.

I don't think it was the haiku. I think they just decided that today was the day they weren't going to write, weren't going to work, weren't going to cooperate. The girl who had written the poem that made her (and me) cry on Friday had lost her privileges for the week so she opted out of everything saying it didn't matter what she did because she was already screwed. She kept mouthing out to everyone around her.

Midway we stopped to talk about what they did or didn't like about poetry. Most of them said they liked poetry fine as long as they could write it on their own time and not in a forced poetry class. I understand them not wanting to write and being half-assed about it all but still, they are in lock up and they have to follow the rules, get credits toward graduation, etc.

No matter what I asked them the answer was no or I don't care.

The two hours felt like 8 and I was completely drained when I was done.

I think this was one of the testing sessions that tends to happen each time I teach in lock-up situations. I need to come up with some really good and fun poetry lessons to share on Friday. I'm thinking of YouTube videos of poets performing their work. I also need to come in full of confidence to show them they haven't beaten me.

I think what is the hardest about days like this is that I know in my heart how poetry and writing can help them think about their lives differently, how it can help them begin to heal. I know how writing things down can make things better, even if it is just for a sliver of that particular moment. I know how writing has saved me until I was strong enough to save myself.

But I can't tell them that. I can only try to light a path.
There are so many stories only you can tell.Tell them, please.

  • July 11th, 2011 | 5:32 PM
Session #3 Incarcerated Teens Poetry Class

Today was the third of twelve sessions teaching poetry to a group of incarcerated teenage girls.

We had a full class but a substitute teacher. He seemed to really get into the spirit of poetry which I think made the session more fun for the girls. There were two girls absent on Friday. I had left them each a note with copies of the poems I had shared and the two poetry assignments for the day. I really didn't expect them to do the work but both turned in not one but two long poems. I was quite pleased.

Before we got started the girl who's poem caused such a reaction on Friday handed me a copy of her poem. She hadn't put it in her folder on Friday saying that she wanted to recopy it. I didn't expect to see it again. I thought that after she had written it and allowed it to be shared that she wanted to keep it to herself so I was surprised and pleased when she gave me the copy. But I was floored when a couple of the girls asked me read it again. I did and once more, just like on Friday, they clapped and cheered for the author. It was a great start to the day and, I think, a huge boost to the author.

The word they picked for today was "beauty."  Here's their group poem.


Beauty sounds like little birds chirping in the morning and an angel playing a harp. It sounds like a waterfall, like the ocean waves hitting the rocks at the crack of dawn.

It tastes like a sweet strawberry dipped in chocolate, honey on your morning toast, an orange, chocolate turtles, a caramel apple. Beauty can also be bitter as a lemon.

Beauty feels like a baby's bottom, gentle as rose petals, soft as silk.

It smells clean,like a fabric softener sheet, like a red rose, like Cherry Blossom perfume at Victoria's Secret, like fresh cut lawn after the rain.

Beauty is graceful like a princess dancing at the ball. It looks like the setting sun, stars twinkling near the moon, a swan floating on a sparkling lake, city light.

Beauty looks like me.

After the group poem they each did a short writing on the topic of beauty. Unlike the boys, there's no grumbling about not wanting to write (even though they know that's why I'm there.) There's one girl who wears a perpetual scowl and rarely writes more than two lines, no matter what the topic. She never feels good and is always in a bad mood. I can sense a world of hurting going on behind her eyes. I just keep opening poetry doors and hope that one of them will click for her.

There are two girls who have slightly unusual names and I continue to struggle with the pronunciation. It is frustrating to both of us when I mess one of them up.

Next we talked about how people judge them, brainstorming various ways of being judged on the board. Then they wrote about how they felt the world saw them. It might have been too soon for this prompt. I don't know. Two of the seven didn't write anything. The others all wrote about how they didn't care what other people thought about them. By the third poem being read I got the feeling they were spouting back something they thought I wanted to hear, something they had talked about it sessions with their counselor. There were original thoughts in the poems but a lot of stuff that I think came from the therapy process this system uses. I'll have to rethink how I introduce this to perhaps get a better response. One girl chose to write about her uncle instead of herself and did a great job. I think the two girls who chose not to write had a lot to say but weren't quite brave enough yet to put it down on paper.

After that we talked about who they really were, who they would see when they looked in the mirror, who they wanted the world to see. The response was about the same. This was one of those exercises that didn't go over as well as I had hoped.

I'm finding that lessons that fell flat with the boys work well with the girls and vice versa.

We talked about list poems and did an example of one on the board then talked about how we could expand the list and enrich the poem.

They also did a group Acrostic on the word POEM

Power within
Overcoming struggles only I understand
Emotions come out
Memories last forever

I finished with reading some more from Hugging the Rock. They are all hoping the mother comes back and I think we'll have the potential for some interesting discussion by the time we get to the end of the book. Even though I had told them that I had written the book and talked about some of my experiences while writing the book, for some reason today it clicked with them, that it was my name on the cover. They appeared to be a wee bit impressed. (The substitute teachers was a lot impressed.)

Before I left, four girls asked if they could pick a prompt card to write an extra poem before Wednesday.

Write more poetry on your own time? Of course I said yes. :)

Read about session #1

Read about session #2
There are so many stories only you can tell.Tell them, please.

Today was the second of twelve sessions teaching poetry to a group of incarcerated teenage girls. We were missing two girls today so we were a small group of just seven.

When I got there they were just finishing PE and complaining about working out. Two of the girls chose to not get credit rather than do the actual work and I was afraid I would be dealing with the same thing in the class. There was no happy, "Hey Miss Susan!" or "What are we going to do today?" When I work with the boys, even from the first day, they are talking to me, asking questions. The boys are usually much less interested in poetry than they are in talking to me. The girls, while all of them may not be interested in poetry, they'd rather do that right now than connect to me. I understand. I'm new. One more person with power over them (they think) or the power to hurt them. It all takes time.

After doing these types of workshops for a while I've learned it usually takes 3-4 visits before I feel I've made a real connection. And I'm not naive enough to think I connect with each kid. There are always some I don't reach. I know I can't save the world. Not even this little corner of it. I can only plant seeds in what I hope is fertile ground.

We did another group poem to start the day. I let someone pick one of my word cards. (Someone always loves to "pick a card, any card.) And the word they picked was joy. Here's the group poem they did.


Joy smells like chocolate, apple pie, cookies, and pizza. It smells like baby lotion and fresh air after the rain.

Joy feels like butterflies in your stomach, that feeling you get on the roller coaster just before your stomach jumps. It makes you feel like smiling and your heart is racing. You feel like crying and giving hugs.

Joy tastes like Starbursts, Skittles, Jolly Ranchers, fresh-baked cookies for Santa. It tastes Thanksgiving dinner with all your loved ones.

Joy sounds like jingle-bells, oldies in a car downtown and applause from the audience after you just won your Grammy award. When you are climbing a mountain and you finally get to the top and you scream, that's joy.

Yellow is the color of joy. Joy looks like Santa and the Easter bunny. It looks monkeys jumping on the bed, no, it looks like someone dancing. Yeah, someone dancing for joy.

All but one of the girls offered up ideas for the poem which was pretty good. I shared a few poems that I liked and tried to get some discussion going but other than a couple of comments, the discussion fell flat. Part of that is they just don't feel comfortable with me yet and part of that (probably most of it) is that I'm not asking the right questions. I'll have to brainstorm more questions for the next set of poems I share. I think my insecurities really ramp up when I ask a question and there is silence. The four other adults in the room heard me but don't speak up. (In other classes the teacher, probation officer or aides have all spoken up. Not here.)

We moved on to what I was thinking of as another warm-up - "I remember poems." I had them brainstorm some things they remembered (recent past and more distant past) with no stipulations on happy or sad memories. I read them a few examples and then let them write. After ten minutes, everyone was done except for one girl. She was one of the ones not interested in poetry. A bit of a smart aleck. Last visit she was willing to miss getting her fine art credits if it meant she had to write poetry and share what she had written.

I went over to check on her. She said she was writing about a friend she made in elementary school. She paused and then said, "He died last year."

I asked her if writing it out was helping and she said yes.

We went around the room and everyone else shared their "I remember poems." They were good. Better than I think they thought they could be. A few of them surprised the teacher. (I love it when that happens.)

I looked over at the girl in the back of the room and asked her if she was done yet. She said no but promised she would finish it if I would just let her write. I nodded. At least she was writing. And she wasn't mouthing off to stir things up. She bent back over her paper.

I shared Maya Angelou's poem Life Doesn't Frighten Me. We talked about fears a little bit and I read some examples of variations of Life Doesn't Frighten Me that some other students had written. Then I turned them loose to write their own versions. When I checked in on the girl in the back of the room she was hunched even closer to her paper, her nose almost touching her desk. I leaned close and asked her if she was done and she shook her head no.

The rest of the class shared their new poems to much snapping and clapping. (Snapping is what they use instead of applause here and in many of the units but try as I might, I can't seem to get in the habit of snapping instead of clapping.)

I finished up by reading a few more pages of Hugging the Rock. I got a few responses to my questions but again, not much. I was getting ready to thank them for their participation in the day when a hand popped up in the back of the room.

"Done! I'm done."

The teacher was surprised but complimented the girl on finishing the assignment when she had a habit of blowing things off.

I asked her if she wanted to read it. She shook her head. I asked if she wanted me to read it for her and she said, in a voice barely above a whisper, "Please."

That girl, that sullen, I don't want to do anything and I'd rather have an F girl, she wrote THREE PAGES. Both sides.

As I read, she curled up into a ball on her chair, pulling her shirt up to cover her face, all but her eyes which stared at the desk.

I read about how she remembered her friend that she met when she was in the fourth grade.
I read about how she remembered him sticking up for her when things were tough, and how she remembered all the fun they had together.
I read about how she remembered when he was changing into a difficult teen and how she consoled him when he broke up with his girlfriend.
I read about how she remembered her own life turning upside down, about how her father kicked her in the stomach and how CPS took her away.
I read about how she remembered lashing out, running away, spiraling downward.
I read about how she remembered this friend, this special best friend, shaking her, telling her to get her crap together because she was better than this.
I read about how she remembered being sent from home to home to home until she landed where she is today.

And then I read. . .  I read about how she remembered getting a phone call from her cousin last year and how she remembered finding out that this friend, this special best friend that she always knew she could count on, was dead.

When I finished reading there was silence in the room. The author of this powerful piece was still hunched over her desk, tears streaming down her cheeks. I put my hand on her shoulder and she was shaking. I wanted to pull this young woman into my arms and hold her and let her cry as much as she wanted but of course, I couldn't do that.

I thanked her for the beautiful writing, thanked her for sharing her precious memory with us.

The room exploded in applause.

This is why I write poetry. This is why I teach poetry.

When we let it, poetry heals.
There are so many stories only you can tell.Tell them, please.

Yesterday was the first day of 12 sessions teaching poetry to a group of incarcerated teenage girls. This is my first time with an all girl group, usually I work with the boys. There were subtle differences, less posturing and more giggling. There were more things in common, one tough kid in the back of the room who carried the chip on her shoulder like a flag. One who was determined to not get involved but then couldn't help herself. Several that sent out "do not get too close to me" vibes one minute and the begged for attention the next. And one, that one that is always in every class, that just loves poetry, jumps right into everything and has a couple of poems already written that I just have to read (her words) before I go home.

This is also a new facility for me. Not too far of a drive but boy was it hot! When I left the temp outside was 99 degrees. There's no AC in room, just a fan and the door and windows open which mean we were swatting flies away the entire time. I was impressed that they were able to write with it being so hot.

This is my first time trying out a two hour session. Two hours is a long time when the girls don't talk a lot but things usually open up after a few sessions. What two hours means is more poetry prompts which yields more poems for them. But I have to break it up so they aren't writing for two hours straight. This is the part about teaching that is always the hardest for me, trying to figure out how much and exactly what to say to them before giving out a prompt. One friend told me she found that her sessions went better with less talking and more writing. I can see that but I also feel an obligation to teach more. That could also be a pressure I put on myself. I'll be checking in with myself after each session and see how that evolves.

I started off with telling them a little about me and my writing but it was easy to see that didn't interest them so we went right to work on a group exercise. I have cards with various emotions on them and let one student pick a card. She picked WORRY so we brainstormed the five senses and how worry would look, taste, sound, smell and feel. This is the group poem they came up with when they were done.

Worry tastes sour like lemons, salty like sweat and tears.
It smells like a wet dog, a dirty diaper, gym socks left in the locker.
Worry feels like sandpaper, snakeskin and it makes your heart ache like you've just been stabbed.
Worry sounds like shattering glass, a dripping faucet and all those crazy thoughts debating in my head.
Worry is unrecognizable, like a shadow in an abandoned house.

After that they went on to write more about worry on their own.

Then I read them a few poems without much reaction or interest in participating in the discussion. Hope to do better with that tomorrow.

When I had absolutely no idea what to do next, I pulled out my magazine poetry. I gave each girl a stack of words and phrases cut from magazines and they arranged them into poems. Then they glued them onto paper so they could keep them. I need to find more simple, easy to do in a short amount of time art projects to keep on hand for fillers when needed.

I finished the session with reading them the beginning of Hugging the Rock. I figure I'll read a bit each session and we should be able to finish the book by the last day.

Not a bad start. The heat complicates everything. (Never done a summer session before.) Now I'm scrambling to put together ideas for tomorrow.

Go here if you're interested in reading about more of my experiences teaching poetry to incarcerated teens.
There are so many stories only you can tell.Tell them, please.

  • July 4th, 2011 | 5:09 PM

For the last couple of days I've been playing around on Google's new social networking site, Google+ and I have to say, I'm liking it a lot. Right now my favorite features are the instant photo upload from my Android phone and the way you organize everyone into circles. Some people might be in multiple circles, say, friends, family, writers, poets. Some might be in one all their own, like techies. You can choose to send your post out to everyone at once or just select circles. Another plus is that you can also post something and include someone via email.

Hangouts are a cool integrated video chat that worked great for me.

The UI is clean and intuitive. I think you have more privacy controls than on Facebook.

Right now it's a small population but I think it will keep on growing, especially when Google formally opens the doors. For now, if you have a Google profile set up and you want to come play, send me your Google email address and I can open a door.

Oh, and they also have a vanity url. I grabbed mine right away.
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There are so many stories only you can tell.Tell them, please.

  • July 1st, 2011 | 5:44 PM
Friday Five - the office edition

1. I've been cleaning my office this week and have succeeded, at last, (probably for the first time in YEARS) in having no miscellaneous paper pile. But I don't think it will last for long unless I can figure out better homes for things I touch a lot in the office area. I tossed a multitude of PR material for books that are no longer in print. That felt odd.

2. Like my current WIP folders. I have, in no particular order, Plant Kid, the sisters book, Max the dog book, the dog essay book, another MG verse novel and a whole bunch of loose poems. I do a lot of my writing by hand and all my editing off the paper so I need to keep lots of papery things around. I have three baskets on a shelf behind my desk but paper has to go in it vertically. That's okay for file folders but I have little snippets of paper or pictures and things that fall out. There's no room on my desk for the folders.

3. I have two empty drawers in the file cabinet in my office so yes, I could put the folders in there but there's something weird about me (okay more than just one something weird about me but here's ONE weird thing) I like to have all my stuff out where I can touch it, see it, not hidden away.

4. I have three drawers of nothing but potential books and articles. Some started and then abandoned. Some just filled with ramblings and research. These go back 15 years at least. I'm thinking I should go through them and if the idea no longer appeals to me, I should toss them. But that feels really weird to do.

5. I also have giant stacks of papers from books that have gone through various versions and have editorial marks on them. I'm not famous enough to think they should be donated somewhere. I'm about ready to toss them but it feels weird to think about doing that too.

*** Okay, this is not office related but LiveJournal related. Why can I no longer choose html formatting??? Also my tags no longer auto fill??? And when I look at this in the preview, it shows no date at all.
There are so many stories only you can tell.Tell them, please.

  • June 29th, 2011 | 9:39 AM
Write After Reading: Coming to a Close

Write After Reading: Writing the Life Poetic has been a weekly online book club with poetry participation. It has alternated between my blog and Laura Salas's blog.

For a couple of months now Laura and I have worked our way through reading and writing poetry together. The exercises have been both fun and enlightening. It seems the more I struggled against the exercises the more I got out of it once I actually did the work. Having a buddy to read and discuss the book with made it more fun and, of course, made me accountable to actually doing what I said I was going to do.

We've reached the end of our journey with this particular book. It feels like the right time. And now that we're in the midst of summer, many readers have summer activities on their plate. I want to thank those of you who read along with us, whether or not you posted, and those who joined us in sharing our exercise here on the blogs. Poetry really can be a universal conversation.

The book we used, Writing the Life Poetic, by Sage Cohen, is so accessible. The chapters are short and the exercises are full of variety. Even if you didn't get the chance to read along with us this time, I highly recommend the book.

But wait, there's more! Sage Cohen has volunteered to answer questions for us. It doesn't matter if you posted during our reading adventure or not. If you have any questions about poetry, the book (we didn't cover all the chapters) some of the exercises, etc, please leave your question in a comment and we'll forward them all to Sage for a final wrap-up on our poetic adventure!

Thank you again, to all who participated and cheered us on. Stay tuned for further adventures in Write After Reading. If you have a book you'd like us to consider for the club, please let us know.
There are so many stories only you can tell.Tell them, please.

  • June 27th, 2011 | 11:55 AM
Letters to Characters

Last week when my characters wrote back to me I could finally hear a couple of distinct voices calling out to me. This is proving to be a great plotting exercise for me. Here are this week's letters to my characters.

Dear Plant Kid,
First off, some sympathy that Nan and your grandmother seem to be making you feel bad all the time. Sometimes grownups can be mean without even trying. I'm sure they both love you very much.

I want to hear more about how your dad died but I understand if you don't feel like talking about it right now. Maybe you could just tell me about that thing you found that used to belong to your dad. I don't want to fall into cliche territory here and it seems highly possible, considering your situation and all.

And what about Mr. Mac? You haven't talked about him in a while.

Dear Frankie,
Thank you for sharing that special memory of your sister with me. I know it wasn't easy. I'm glad you had Mrs. Winslow there to help you. I seem to be focused a lot on dead dads today so maybe, since you aren't ready to tell me about how your sister died, maybe you could tell me what happened with your dad?

And what about that gypsy lady? Is she still around?

Dear Sisters,
I might as well get all the dead dad questions out of the way at the same time. I want to know what you felt like when you found out your father was dead.

Signed, Me
There are so many stories only you can tell.Tell them, please.

  • June 24th, 2011 | 10:51 AM
Poetry Friday - An original Poem

For the past few months laurasalas and I have been working our way through the wonderful  book, Writing the Life Life Poetic, by Sage Cohen. We alternate hosting the discussion on our blogs on Wednesdays.

Sage's book has a lot of juicy bits of knowledge for us and many fun exercises. This one was one of my favorites, an offshoot of Mad Libs. Another favorite was song lyrics as poems. And this one where we used titles as jumping off points for a poem.

Today I wanted to share an original poem I wrote by this week's exercise using word lists

My words were: pilgrim, universe, kneel, fly

Once trapped
in a carbohydrate prison
I am now a pilgrim in a new world,
a universe of edible wonders.

Stomach growling anticipation
I fly to the farmer's market
and kneel before the Produce King.
"Please sir, may I have some more?"

Susan Taylor Brown, all rights reserved

Poetry Friday is hosted today by Carol, at Carol's Corner.

There are so many stories only you can tell.Tell them, please.

  • June 22nd, 2011 | 2:29 PM
Characters Write Back

Yesterday I wrote these letters to my characters. Today they wrote back and boy did they surprise me!

Dear Curious Author
Here's the important stuff you need to know about my dad.

#1 He died before I was born. Do I even have to tell you how much that stinks?

#2 According to Nan he was a cross between some kind of super hero and a movie star. "A perfect male specimen." That's just the way she says it. Right after she tells me how wimpy and skinny and pathetic I am. She says she can't even believe he could be my father because we're nothing alike. Do I even have to tell you how crappy that makes me feel?

#3 According to my grandmother, he did everything perfectly right the first time. Never made any mistakes. Do I even have to tall you what kind of pressure that puts on me?

#4 It was an accident, the way he died. I'm not going into all the details right now but here's the thing, he died right here, in the very house we still live in. Every time I walk past the place where it happened, I shiver. Not the kind of shiver because I feel like there's a ghost nearby (boy wouldn't that be cool?) But the creepy kind of shiver of not believing that there's something broken that my grandmother doesn't want to fix because it was the last thing my father touched. Do I even have to tell you weird that is?

#5 This last one is a secret so you can't tell my grandmother or Nan. But I found something that belonged to my dad. It was out in the garage and hidden behind a bunch of junk my grandmother won't touch. I knew it was his even before I saw his name on the inside cover. I never told anyone I found it before. Never. It's all mine. Do I even have to tell you how great that feels?

Plant Kid

Dear Author,
Every day I had with my sister was a happy memory. The problem is there weren't enough of them. But here's my favorite.

The day my mom came home from the hospital with my baby sister it was raining. Pouring buckets. Mrs. Winslow from next door was taking care of me. Mom pushed open the front door, cursing about the rain and being all wet and stuff. She put the baby carrier down as soon as she walked in the door and said she needed a hot shower and dry clothes. She didn't even care that  my new sister was absolutely soaked. Just left her sitting there, crying, and walked away.

So me and Mrs. Winslow took her over to the sink and gave her a warm bath. Mrs. Winslow showed me how to use towels in the sink with a rolled up one for behind her neck. She showed me how to wash her, real gentle like, so it wouldn't hurt. And then she showed me how dry her and put a diaper back on until she was all clean and warm and pink and dry.

Later, after Mrs. Winslow went home, I sat on the couch, holding my baby sister and watching her sleep. Every once in a while she would do a little hiccup in her breathing and then let out a sigh. I held her for a long time, even after I could feel my arm falling asleep, and I promised her I would always keep her safe.

Frankie, the kid who broke his promise

Dear Author,
Sister #1 is like you in that she's a goody-two-shoes, (well except for that one medical incident). At least  that's what she wants you to think. And she has hole in her heart that she thinks is going to be filled when she finds her dad. And she's going to be disappointed.

Sister #2 is like you in that she is afraid for people to see who she really is. And so she's pretty much an expert in the "fake it til you make it" way of thinking. And she really loves dogs. Great, big dogs.

The Sisters
There are so many stories only you can tell.Tell them, please.

Laura is leading this week's installment of Write After Reading: Living the Life Poetic, a weekly online book club with poetry participation. It alternates between my blog and Laura Salas's blog. Last week, right here, we talked about poetic forms and chapter 63.

This week, on Laura's blog, we'll be talking about Chapter 71 and lists as triggers

Come on over and join us!

There are so many stories only you can tell.Tell them, please.

  • June 21st, 2011 | 3:13 PM
Letters to Characters

Dear Plant Kid,
Tell me about what happened to your dad. How did he die? How was your life different before he died?

One curious author

Dear Frankie,
Were you trying to shock me with that comment about how you killed your sister? Because it's didn't work.

I'm not shocked and you didn't kill your sister. Forget what your mother and her loser boyfriend of the week are telling you. It's not your fault. You didn't pull out a gun and shoot her or sit on her in the bathtub until she drowned. It was an accident. Really.

Can you tell me one happy memory about you and your sister? Just one?

Author who wants to be sure she gets your story straight

Dear Sisters,
Okay, so I get your point about the medical procedure one you had to have. And I get that it's a great big secret. I'm even pretty sure I know which one of you had to have it.

But so what? What does that have to do with the story we're trying to tell here?

Author who is trying to see what parts of each of you are inside of me
There are so many stories only you can tell.Tell them, please.

  • June 20th, 2011 | 11:26 AM
Writing life update

I haven't written a lot about what I'm doing writing-wise lately. I've immersed myself in art because it is soothing my soul which has been troubled by not writing. I have finished some fun art projects like my quote art journal and the art journal for my 15 words or less poems  and begun my work on the Sketchbook project where I hope to combine words and art.

But writing. I've jumped around a lot lately, which is my normal process. For now my focus is a book of essays about the 14 dogs I've had in my life. I have no contract, not even a publisher in mind. I've been told by a couple of agents and a couple of publishers that it is going to be a hard to impossible sell. I've been told writing books that aren't teaching an aspect of craft don't sell unless you're famous. I've been told collections of essays by not-yet-famous people don't sell.

I've been told a lot of things that should discourage me from spending time on this project.

But here's the thing. Working on this book makes me happy. Seems like a good enough reason to work on it for me.
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There are so many stories only you can tell.Tell them, please.

Welcome to another installment of Write After Reading: Writing the Life Poetic, a  weekly online book club with poetry participation. It alternates between my blog and Laura's blog. Last week, over at Laura's blog, we talked about chapter 58 and writing the Zeitgist. Today I picked chapter 63, Taking Shape, Experimenting with Poetic Forms.

This chapter talks briefly about how the constraints of a form can actually improve your poetry or at least lead you down some interesting paths. Though I haven't yet devoted the time to mastering some of the longer forms I do agree that having that structure often helps me focus my poetic attention in much the same way that we found when we did the Mad Libs.

Here's an online source with easy explanations of the forms of verse - Poetry Handbook.

I opted to go for haiku since I'm writing this late at night after a crazy-making day but I hope to come back tomorrow and try some other forms as well.

sleeping dog whimpers
chases squirrel shadows, barks
hunter triumphant

one week, no flour, sugar
bad habits need undoing
how will I survive?

There are so many stories only you can tell.Tell them, please.

I've been working steadily on my 15 Words or Less art journal and think I can mark it pretty much D for Done. It was a great learning experience for me on how to use various paints and inks, how to make textures, and how to add layers. I don't love every page but I like them all and love a lot of them. The handwriting bugs me the most but not enough to paint over it and start again. :) It's a learning journal, not a piece of museum art. A lot like an early draft of novel.

I've posted a few of my favorites here. You can click on the picture to see the larger versions or go here to see the entire album on Flickr.








There are so many stories only you can tell.Tell them, please.

  • June 8th, 2011 | 5:22 PM
Recent artsy things/ sharing your work

Last week I shared some backgrounds I was working on for my 15 Words or less art journal.  I have some of the pages finished or close to finished. Art, like writing, is a constant learning process. There are some things I really like about each of these pages and some things I don't. There are sections I look at and feel, mostly in my gut, that something isn't working but I don't know what. Like I said, it's all a learning process. If you're interested in more detail you can click on the picture to see it larger.

I would have liked to do make the pictures move more to the back of the page, like with an image transfer, but I don't have the energy to do 50 image transfers for this book. So I'm concentrating one trying to blend them in effectively. It works better on some than on others. I wish I had paid more attention to the sizes of the photos before I printed them out but it was another good learning process for me.

I like sharing this in various stages and even if they are less than "finished" because it helps me feel better overall about putting myself out. Not everything I write or make is going to be terrific or appeal to everyone and that's okay. I started with a watercolor book, painted the pages with various Golden Fluid acrylics. Collaged the pictures and various papers, added more color with my Neocolor II, Portfolio Oil Pastels and walnut inks. I love using the walnut inks but they take DAYS to dry. Grrr. Even with using a blow dryer on the page. I use the Sharpie Poster Paint water-based pens to write on all the pages.

Right now with art I think I am stronger in colors that I believe I am. I think my weak point is composition. I hate my handwriting (doesn't everyone?) but I wanted the handwritten connection to the words here since this are all poetry warm-up exercises. Nothing to be written in gold or carved in stone or worried about. laurasalas posts a picture on Thursdays and those who want to play along, write a poem of 15 words or less. It's a nice way to warm up the writing muscles for the day. I printed out the photos she posted on the days I've participated (so far). I may take some of these "warm-ups" and work on them more. Or not. I may take some of the pages and work on them more. Or not. :)






Such is the creative process.

Working on these pages is such good thinking time for my writing.

What kind of art making is feeding your soul these days?
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There are so many stories only you can tell.Tell them, please.

Laura is leading this week's installment of Write After Reading: Living the Life Poetic,
a weekly online book club with poetry participation. It alternates between my blog and Laura Salas's blog. Last week, right here, we talked about titles and chapter 48.

This week, on Laura's blog, we'll be talking about Chapter 58 and channeling our inner
zeitgeist And if you don't know what that means, you're not alone. See you over there.

There are so many stories only you can tell.Tell them, please.

  • June 7th, 2011 | 3:02 PM
What does hope mean to you?

I just got my sketchbook for The Sketchbook Project. It's both exciting and intimidating at the same time. But mostly exciting.

I chose the theme of HOPE and am starting to play around with ideas of how to utilize it in the sketchbook. I may combine poetry and art. Or maybe not. But I'm curious, when you hear the word hope, what do you think? See? Feel?
There are so many stories only you can tell.Tell them, please.

  • June 6th, 2011 | 10:45 AM
characters write back

Last week I wrote some letters to my characters. Today they wrote back.

Dear Author,
I'm not that complex. I'm a kid who wants what ever other kid wants, a normal family that doesn't hassle me all the time. A best friend to do things with. Less homework and more pizza.

If you want to tell my story, maybe you need to go back farther than what you thought was the beginning. Mr. Mac says that there are some seeds that sleep for years just waiting for some kind of explosion in their life to wake them up and start them to growing. Like a fire. One day they're just a bunch of seeds in a bunch of dirt and then suddenly, a month or two or three after a fire, when everything else is black and dead looking, those sleepy seeds wake up and punch through the ashes toward the sun.

Of course not all of those seeds wake up. Some of them just go right on sleeping forever.

Maybe my family is just like those seeds, sleeping in the dirt, waiting for the explosion to wake them up. Or maybe that explosion happened a while ago, like when my dad died, and now they've forgotten how to do anything else.

Plant Kid

Dear Author Who Will Figure Out the Balancing Act When She Needs To,

You asked me to surprise you and I'm sure how to do that. I was going to tell you that me, Frankie, and that other guy you were writing about, Cooper, were probably the same guy but it looks like you figured that one out for yourself already. You already know I used to have a baby sister but now I don't.

Did you know that it's my fault that she's dead?


Dear Authory Person,
Before you give up on us you might want to know the story about how one of us, and probably not the one you were thinking of, had to make a visit to that grey building over on Galindo Street. You know, the one that has the people carrying signs out front and screaming at the people going inside? The one where you practically have to have a guard or a boyfriend with really big muscles walk you from the car to the inside? Yeah, that one.

And she wasn't going there to pick up some more pills.

The Sisters

There are so many stories only you can tell.Tell them, please.

  • June 3rd, 2011 | 10:08 AM
Friday Five - The Gary Schmidt edition

1. I'm reading Gary Schmidt's new book, OKAY FOR NOW. In three pages I was completely sucked into the story, rooting for the main character. I would have read it in one sitting except that it was nearly 1am and I knew I should get some sleep.

2. Reading Gary Schmidt's books makes me excited about writing middle grade and motivates me to get back to work on my two. Of course the flip side to that is if I play the compare game (hey, I know I shouldn't do it but that doesn't make it easy to stop.) and I realize how utter brilliant he is which makes me feel utterly ordinary.

3. Reading OKAY FOR NOW, I got a sinking feeling in my stomach very early in the book. That feeling you get when you realize another author has done something kinda sorta not exactly but somewhat similar to something you were going to do in your own book. It's not like it was a super odd-ball character or unusual happening, the sort of thing that you could peg from book to book. No one else will give it a second thought. But I will at times. Sigh. And then I will remember the teeter totter of brilliance versus ordinary. And then I will just have to knuckle down and find my own brilliance.

4. In 2010 Gary Schmidt spoke at our local SCBWI conference at Asilomar. I was memorized. His talk about working with incarcerated students reminded me of my own work in similar situations. He made me laugh. He made me cry. I wanted him to adopt me. Okay, maybe not adopt me but I wanted to be one of his students. I know he teaches in some distance education programs but I can't afford to sign on for a long term program. But I could afford some one-on-one time. I wish he would consider taking on a private student. Namely, me. (I have a similar writer crush on Beth Kephart and the same desire to somehow be a student in one of her classes some day.)

5. The first Gary Schmidt book I ever read was The Sin Eater, maybe 10 year ago. I remember being somewhat in awe, that you could write this kind of story, with this kind of emotion and so many layers for middle grade. I felt like it handed me a get-out-of-writing-jail free card and encouraged me to write my kind of books, the not-so-funny, probably going to hurt your heart kind of books.

If you haven't read any of Gary's books yet, you owe it to yourself to pick one up. Thanks Gary, for lighting the path.

There are so many stories only you can tell.Tell them, please.

I decided to make an art journal of all the poems I wrote for laurasalas 's 15 Words or Less poetry exercise she does every Thursday. I downloaded all the pictures for any of the photo prompts I wrote a poem for. They're all printed out and waiting to go on the pages. Today I finally finished all the backgrounds in the journal. These are a few of my favorites.

Now it's time to start phase 2, collaging the photos and adding the poems.

A few more in my album over on Flickr.
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There are so many stories only you can tell.Tell them, please.

  • June 2nd, 2011 | 11:46 AM
letters to characters

Dear Plant Kid,
You ought to know I'm rethinking the beginning of your story. Not the part with the bird but the part where you meet the old man for the first time. I'm not buying the story which makes selling it to the reader a bit tough. I'm also thinking about that thing that happened to your arm in one of the other versions. It might be making a comeback. Just thought you should know.

Author who is confused but intrigued by the complex relationships in your life

Dear Max,
Ask your boy to tell me something that would surprise me.

Author wondering how she is going to balance all the horrible stuff that is going to happen to you with something good

Dear Sisters,
To be honest, neither one of you is all that interesting to me right now.

Author who may be backburnering you for a while unless you can do something to change my mind
There are so many stories only you can tell.Tell them, please.

Welcome to another installment of Write After Reading: Writing the Life Poetic, a  weekly online book club with poetry participation. It alternates between my blog and Laura's blog. Last week, over at Laura's blog, we talked about chapter 43 and played with another Mad Lib sort of exercise. Today I picked chapter 48, Writing Poems From Titles.

There's not a lot to read here because the fun is all in the writing. :) The chapter talks about how titles for poems can come before the poem is written, after it is written, or changed somewhere in-between. But for this exercise she gives what she calls a book of matches with a list of titles of poems by mostly contemporary poets. The idea is to write a poem based just on the title (hopefully a poem you don't know) and then go find the original and see how it compares. She gives a list of 33 poems. For those of you who don't have a copy of the book, I'll post a few of the titles for you.

But before that, I'd like to talk a bit more about titles for poems and how you perhaps come up with your titles. I almost always title my poems after they are written when I am pretty sure I have reached the point I was trying to make with the poem. Though there have been a few where I got the title and it just spoke to me and I had to write a poem to live up to the title. I'm not sure how I feel about poems where the title is actually the first line in the poem. Quite often it confuses me. I read the title and I set it apart in my mind. Then I read the first line and I'm confused and my brain has to process that method the poet is using and I have to go back and start over. It all happens very fast but sometimes it can be distracting to me. The exception (for me) is usually when it is a verse novel and the author is using the same pattern throughout the book. My brain gets used to it and it seems less distracting.

So what about you?  When do you title your poems? Do you use a line from the poem? How do you know when you have the right title for a poem? (For me it's all about going with my gut.)

I'll post some of titles for folks now and will be back later to add my poem in the comments.

The Zero at the Bone (Karen Holmberg)
The Partial Explanation (Charles Simic)
Good People (WS Merwin)
What the Angels Left (Marie Howe)
Give the Drummer Some (Christopher Luna)
Key to the Highway (Mark Halliday)
Ladies and Gentlement in Outer Space (Ron Padgett)
The Blue Bowl (Jane Kenyon)

Added my poem to the comments. I have to say that this one surprised me in a way that a poem hadn't surprised me in a long time.
There are so many stories only you can tell.Tell them, please.

  • May 31st, 2011 | 10:50 AM
Climbing mountains

The mattress on our bed has a mountain running right down the middle of it. I think it's fairly common when two people share the same mattress for years. You each sink into comfort on your own side of the bed and then, over time, this mountain forms in the middle. We turn the bed on a regular basis but still, there it is. When we bought the bed the salesguy told us it would form a hump in the middle and that was not considered a flaw in the mattress. It just was what it was. Accept that the mountain would one day appear and there wasn't a darn thing I would be able to do about it.

Most of the time I don't think much about the mountain unless I'm trying to roll over and it suddenly feels like I am trying to roll myself uphill. A few times I've gotten frustrated with it and piled all sorts of heavy objects on top of it, hoping by bedtime that it would have miraculously flattened back down again. Of course that never worked.

This morning I woke up sleeping on an angle, half on the mountain and half rolling down the hill, and I smiled. I'm sure the smile was influenced by my before-bed reading of Patti Digh's book Creative is a Verb. I thank her for that.

There are always going to be mountains in our lives. I usually throw myself at them with equal parts of anger that I have to climb yet another dang mountain and blind energy to just hurry up and get it over with. Forget about other plans or enjoying the view. There's a mountain in my way and I need to get past it.

Or do I? As Patti said In my reading last night, "You are always in choice."

Not every mountain needs climbing. Lots of the time you can walk around it. Take another route. Or maybe, just sit at the foot of the mountain and contemplate its place in your life. Embrace the mountain and sometimes they vanish right before your eyes. Gather supplies, make a plan, and go ahead and climb.

But the important thing to remember is you don't have to climb every mountain. You are always in choice.
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There are so many stories only you can tell.Tell them, please.

1. I opened a file in my working folder that was called one thing but had something else in it instead. It had a rough summary of my story about Max the dog and his boy. Some of it I remembered and some of it took me by surprise. I liked it. I wanted more. I wanted to write more.

2. I got lucky with the newspaper again. Went to put it in the recycling and right on the only page I could see there was another story that tied to the story about Max. This one wasn't about a dog but about a boy and when I read the entire article I got a couple of plot ideas. I love it when the Universe brings me some serendipitous ideas.

3. I've been crunching numbers on and off for a couple of days. I hate it but I love it because with the knowledge of the numbers there is power. I like having power.

4. I've always had a big, fat idea file of stories I wanted to write. Now I'm finding that the artsy ideas are piling up so fast that I need a file for them too. I love being surrounded by so many creative ideas.

5. I look around my house and think of all the hard work we put into it last year and it makes me happy, all of it, the colors of the paint, the wood floor, the room swapping, it just feels like "us" like we've finally, after fours years, claimed out home. I can sit in my library and write, surrounded by books. I can sit in my office and work on art. Right now all the blinds area all open, the yard is a beautiful green, and so many birds are singing.

Life is good. I'm a lucky girl.

Happy weekend, everyone.

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There are so many stories only you can tell.Tell them, please.

  • May 25th, 2011 | 5:22 PM
My first crane

firstcrane, originally uploaded by susanwrites.

This is the first crane I made without my teacher, Debbi Michiko Florence, in the same room with me. I need to work on those creases but what fun. I envision many of them hanging from the beams in my office, flying in the breeze.

There are so many stories only you can tell.Tell them, please.

  • May 25th, 2011 | 3:12 PM
Recent artsy things

I made these yesterday, playing around with ATCs (Artist Trading Cards) and some larger cards, trying to get a feel for what size I like best. The first one is slightly larger than ATC. The next two are standard ATCs (2.5 x 3.5 inches) and the last two (the largest) are magazine subscription cards that were built up with paint and collage. The wordy backgrounds were from when I ripped up old Horn Book magazines a few weeks ago. I glued them onto to some cards to have some bases ready and just reached for them when I started to play. I didn't plan the collage elements around the words but it is funny to see that the barking dog points to the word "violence".

Even more fun than making them, was seeing the look on d_michiko_f 's face when I gave them to her today. She's been playing with some artsy stuff of her own and I was hoping to inspire her to continue to do so.

You can click through see the larger versions in the Flickr album.




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There are so many stories only you can tell.Tell them, please.

Laura is leading this week's installment of Write After Reading: Living the Life Poetic,
a weekly online book club with poetry participation. It alternates between my blog and Laura Salas's blog. Last week, right here, we talked about chapters 30 & 38,  which included a really cool Mad Lib exercise.

This week, on Laura's blog, we'll be talking about Chapter 43: I’m So Adjective, I Verb Nouns: On Word Choice.

See you over there.
There are so many stories only you can tell.Tell them, please.

As long as I can remember I have turned to books to learn how to do something new. Eventually I would have to dig in and get my hands dirty with whatever it was but I always, always started with reading a book about it first. So it should come as no surprise that when I came to writing, I did the same thing. Long before I bought my first Writer's Market I was a member of the Writer's Digest book club. I didn't have a lot of money back then but I would scour the flyer for the best combo deal so I could build my writing bookshelf.

When the books came in I would devour them, cover to cover, in no time at all then go back through them again, a second time, mining for nuggets. I was sure that the secret to writing success was in those books. Over the years I added many books to those shelves. When I moved cross-country (and back again) I weeded out lots of other books but not the writing ones. I kept them all. Until now.

Lately I've been rereading all the books on my shelves, making sure that they still speak to me and therefore deserve some shelf space. While we have a lot of room for books, it's not unlimited, most especially the shelves in my office. There are some favorites I know will never grow old for me, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland, Take Joy by Jane Yolen and Writing Alone and With Others by Pat Schneider. A few craft books that I return to again and again, but as I go through the shelves, rereading one book a night, I find I am ready to let go of a great many of the books I have carted back and forth across the country.

I used to think those books contained the secret to creating my writing life. That I would read them, learn things, absorb things and then, miraculously, be living the writing life of my dreams. Now, as I reread many of them I find my stack to trade in at Powell's growing and the number of books staying on my shelves shrinking. Some I've outgrown. I'm no longer a brand-new writer with questions about manuscript format and query letters. Some have been displaced by the Internet (which we didn't have when I first started writing.) And some just don't speak to me anymore.

Now, don't get me wrong, I have learned a TON of stuff from reading those writing books and I will continue to buy new ones to read and learn from going forward. But all this rereading I've been doing has reminded me that reading the book is only part of the solution to building a writing life.

You still have to do the work.

Get the words down on the page. Show up every day and write a lot of crap and then come back and revise a lot of crap and then keep on doing that until the crap turns into a decent story and then, then you let it go. You don't hold on to it for fear it's not perfect yet. You do the work. You do your best with the writer you are at that moment in time. And then you send it out to the publishing world and move on to the next project.

It's easy (at least for me) to get caught up in the stories of other writers on the pages of all these books on my shelves. And I start to second guess and third guess and forth guess my process, my ideas, my every little thing about MY writing life that doesn't match up to someone else's writing life. And that's so wrong.

When we read a book we love or a poem that moves us, we don't say, well, the author used a process I don't approve of therefore I can't allow myself to enjoy the book or the poem. That would be crazy, right?
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There are so many stories only you can tell.Tell them, please.

  • May 23rd, 2011 | 11:53 AM
The Writing-Art connection

I wanted to come up with some wonderful title about the interesection of writing and art in my life so I could write more posts using the same wonderful title about the interesection of writing and art in my life but, you see where this is going right? I spent fifteen minutes brainstorming titles and got nothing. I seriously, I mean SERIOUSLY, considering not writing the post until I came up with the perfect title which would have meant, of course, that the post would never get written.

Luckily I caught myself in the middle of that vicious cycle and I stopped. I told myself it was just a blog post. Just get the darn thing written. (Ah, if only that worked on me for novels.)

I spent some time this weekend printing out some photographs to use in some art journals for my poetry. I printed out all the inspiration photos from any of the 15 Words or Less photopoetry exercises I've done over the years on laurasalas 's blog. I printed out all the in inspiration photos to go with the Native Plant haiku I wrote for National Poetry Month a few years ago. This meant a lot of fighting with the color printer, some good prints made and some so-so prints made. And eventually I pulled out some matte photos of the same stuff I had printed at the drug store thinking I'd use some of them too. My idea was to collage the photos into some of the lovely blank journals I have painted recently and then print the short poems in the journal along with the inspiration photo. I had lots of journals prepped because my go-to thing when doing art is to do a color-wash on a page of a blank journal.

In my head I had this picture of a journal full of watercolor pages with these pictures and my poems and then I'd do some collage with my beautiful papers and then some of the doodling I love. I didn't want a scrapbook. I wanted art. And in my head, it was a masterpiece.

In reality, at the moment, none of the project is making me happy. The thin paper has photos that don't look very sharp and the drugstore photos look like, well, modern photographs which don't match up with the watercolor backgrounds. I'm two steps away from tossing it all in a box and putting in the laundry room so I can forget about it for a while. I'd much rather just grab a blank journal and start covering the pages with color. It's easy. It's fun. And I already know how to do it.

And I realized that's what happens with my writing too. When the going gets tough, I go write something else. Beginnings? No problem. I'm great at first chapters, first pages. Poems that will never be published? Sure thing, I'll get right on that. Novels that are broken or unwritten or finished but need to be tossed and started over? Stories that exist as a perfect vision in my head that never make it onto the page? Got lots of those too.

Now I'm not beating myself up (much) about my habits of starting and my failures in the follow-through department. I'm just noticing the pattern. And I'm thinking that maybe what I have been worrying about so much of the time, the not finishing, the starting way too many things and then discarding them, maybe it's not always a bad thing. Maybe it's just "my" thing. My process. Like working a puzzle. Some people might put the outside edges together and then look for matching colors and work within that group of colors, putting things together. Other people might just start in one corner and pick up piece after piece after piece to try against the same spot. They'll eventually make the connection, it's just going to take them longer.

I don't always work that way but when I do I have allowed myself to feel "less than."  And by that I mean even while I'm doing it, I know I'm taking the longest, hardest way possible and I know other people would do it differently and get there faster and the fact that I'm not doing it the same way as other people has often made me feel less than them. Less than right. Less than the creative person I know I am.

And that's wrong.

Now I can see that my long meandering way is just that, my long meandering way to the same end, just with a different view as I journey.

This morning I took another look at the photographs printed on paper and printed like photographs. And I looked at the colored journal pages. I gazed at the blank white pages of another journal, still tempted to just grab my watercolor crayons and do something easy.

But I thought about Max, the dog in one of my novels-in-progress. I thought about how I found that newspaper clipping last week that confirmed the crazy painful plot idea I had was valid. I knew from the start that Max was going to be a hard book to write but that it was also going to teach me a lot about writing. And I got that tingle. That little tingle we get when we know we're on the right path even if it looks like we're going to fall off the edge of the cliff with just one more step. I love that feeling. It confirms that I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing, even if I'm marching to an off-beat drummer.

I took another look at my piles of poems and photographs. I torn some photos into pieces. I grabbed some paint and glue.  And I started to think about how I could create a different sort of art, a different masterpiece than the original vision. I don't know how long it will take. I'll only know that when I am done, I will have told another story my way, the only way I know how to do it.
There are so many stories only you can tell.Tell them, please.

  • May 20th, 2011 | 2:34 PM
Friday Five - the Bliss edition

Bliss #1
I've embarked on a journey of looking back at high school, pulling back as many memories as I can. I'm trying to remember more of that conflicted teen that I was so I can carry that into one of the current WIP novels. What I find in my memories is a mix of bittersweet. The bliss is in being able to notice this and move on.

Bliss #2
I've had so much fun working on this little art project. It's made me happy to paint and glue and doodle. Here's just one page.

If you haven't seen them on FB you can click over to Flickr to see some more. I decided this small size will be perfect for a new journal of my favorite positive words. For someone who never did art as a child, someone who never even liked to color, this new art adventure feels like I woke up in the morning learning how to talk to animals. It is so wonderfully strangely perfectly me.

Bliss #3
Having so many books in my home library that I can choose to read and reread again and again. Each night I grab a couple to take upstairs, devour them, fill them with little Post-it flags and think how lucky I am to have them at my disposal for any time day or night. I can choose from writing books or art books or history or fiction or so much more. Lucky, blissful me.

Bliss #4
I rarely read the newspaper except for things that catch my eye as I pick it up to put in the recycling. Today I actually turned a page and right there was an article that totally fits into the major plot point of another WIP (Max's story.) I had had a feeling I was on the right track and boom, there was the anger-making, very sad, proof. Bliss!

Bliss #5
When we yanked out the lawns a few years ago and put in the native garden I saw an immediate increase in bugs and bees and birds. But what I didn't see were butterflies. Today there has been a pair of Swallowtails flitting around the yard, from verbena to verbena. The blossoms aren't the typical landing pads that butterflies prefer but it doesn't seem to slow these two down. Sitting at my art desk, painting pages in a new journal, Cassie at my feet, birds playing in water at the bubbling rock, and Swallowtails dancing across the yard. Pure and utter bliss for me.

Here's to a blissful weekend all around.
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There are so many stories only you can tell.Tell them, please.

  • May 19th, 2011 | 2:12 PM
characters write back

A few days ago I wrote some letters to characters. Today they write back.

Dear Writer Person,
I always knew the snake was in my bedroom. And it would have stayed there if Gran hadn't gone all gran-splosive and chased it with the broom. And she wouldn't have even known it was there if she hadn't gone in my bedroom looking for the dirty laundry. Besides. I got the snake to do her a favor and she didn't even bother saying thank you. She'd have rapped my knuckles good if I forgot to say thank you. Grownups don't make a whole lot of sense to me at all.

Plant Kid

Dear Author in hiding,
First off, you need to remember that the thing with my sister and the thing with Max are not the same thing. What happened with Max WASN'T my fault. What happened with my sister was.

Second off, if that person thinks they are keeping Max or keeping me from Max, they're in for a big surprise.

Third off, I know I told you I didn't want to talk about it but I think if I'm going to fix things with Max, you're going to have to tell about what happened with my sister.
Max's boy

Hey you there, yeah, the one writing this story. One thing you have to remember about me is that I might let J think it's all his idea but we never, ever do anything I didn't decide I wanted to do first. There's no way some guy is pulling all of my strings and leading me around. I never asked you to like me. I don't need you or anyone else to like me. J likes me. Hell, he probably loves me with a big, fat capital L. He loves what I do and how I make him feel and I love how he makes me forget.

Sister #1

So you decided to pop into my life, with no invitation, and start writing my story, huh? Got that much extra time on your hands? Can't think of something better to do? Don't go kissing up to me with compliments because they don't count for crap in the real world. Sweet-talking might work on my mom but not on me. And stay the hell away from my journals. Just because they have pictures in them doesn't make them public. They're private. Just like my life. So stay the frack away.

Sister #2
There are so many stories only you can tell.Tell them, please.

  • May 19th, 2011 | 12:30 PM
At work or at play?

desk May 19, 2011, originally uploaded by susanwrites.

On my art desk today. It makes me happy just to look at it.

There are so many stories only you can tell.Tell them, please.

Welcome to another installment of Write After Reading: Writing the Life Poetic, a  weekly online book club with poetry participation. It alternates between my blog and Laura's blog. Last week, over at Laura's blog, we talked about song lyrics as poems.

This week I wanted to touch on two chapters.  Don't sweat it too much. :) They're short. Chapter 30 really hit home with me as Sage discusses the idea of redefining "real work". It took me back to March, when I took a month off to just play with no pressure to produce any writing at all. I did write, some, but it was writing for fun, for me and I enjoyed it a lot. I wrote snippets of poems that may grow longer or may linger in a journal. I wrote pages that don't belong in any book I'm working on, at least not yet. But I admit that I still felt guilty for not working on a work-in-progress. I felt like I was cheating on myself.

In this chapter Sage says, "For the most part, the writing I do for love exists in the very small margin of the writing I do for money."  This is the way it is for most of the writers I know, especially the poets, because there's not a lot of money in writing poetry so you ought to be doing it for love too. Or as Sage puts it, "Because it is rare to be paid for poetry, especially early in one's journey, you do not owe anything to anyone but yourself"

What this chapter helped me to remember is that I came to writing by way of poetry back in the 7th grade, with no idea that I would ever publish poetry. Sometimes I pull my verse novel (Hugging the Rock) off the shelf and still feel that surprise that it was published. Because when I was writing it, I wasn't thinking about the publishing, I was working out my life the way I best knew how to do it, with words and poems. My real work was in the writing of the book, the answering of internal questions and the putting many things to rest. This is what poetry does for me, it helps me sort out who I am at a particular point in my life and how I feel about that moment in time. I think that's my real work when it comes to poetry.

Okay, on to chapter 38 which brings me back to junior high in a different way, Mad Libs. Remember them? Those goofy fill-in-the-blank word games? Sage doesn't talk a lot in this chapter, it's all about the exercises. The idea is to take the structure of one poem, remove some of the words, and following that structure, fill in the holes like you would have with a Mad Lib. Having much of the poem in place already makes this a quick exercise yet one with a lot of impact, especially if you keep playing with it. Somehow the idea that you only have to come up with one word here or another word there gives you a bit more confidence to push yourself outside the comfort zone you might normally write in. She shared three poems turned into Mad Libs. I chose one to play with.

Here is the original poem.

From Inside Great Distances
By Walid Bitar

From inside great distances (don’t call them dreams)
midnight is smaller than usual,
as are the ponies. Inside great distances,
unlike airplanes, are not seats
and the people far away enough
to shout to (at least the talk isn’t small)
have no laps or throats when they sit beside
their donkeys and Don Quixotes, pretending
to be mirages in a cold climate. The scenery
sharpens like a pencil in my ear.
It sketches itself, and I hear of this
a bird you can color with the whites
and marbles of villas back home, bird otherwise
invisible as the price of land.
An hour, too, is invisible; why are
you feeding it at your breast, growing
it into days, months, years?
Leave it alone; visit me a little to
the North; people shave their heads
into mirrors here; I
remain (on the outside) myself.



Here is the template for the revision. My poem is below. Give it a try. Don't think too much.

From Inside Great _______________

From inside great ______________ (don’t call them _____________)
________________ is smaller than usual,
as are the ______________. Inside great ______________,
unlike ______________, are not ______________
and the people ______________enough
to ______________ to (at least the ______________ isn’t small)
have no ______________ or ______________ when they sit beside
their ______________ and don ______________, pretending
to be ______________ in a cold climate. The scenery
sharpens like a ______________ in my ear.
It ______________ itself, and I hear of this
a ______________you can color with the whites
and marbles of ______________ back home, ______________ otherwise
invisible as the price of ______________.
An ______________, too, is invisible; why are
you feeding it at your ______________, growing
it into ______________?
Leave it alone; ______________ me a little to
the ______________; people shave their heads
into ______________ here; I
remain (on the outside) ______________.

* * * * *

Okay, here's my version:

From inside great families  (don’t call them ancestors)
the sun is smaller than usual,
as are the stars. Inside great families,
unlike friendships, are not individuals
and the people don't care enough
to save you  (at least the memory isn’t small)
have no hope or dreams when they sit beside
their sons and daughters, pretending
to be happy in a cold climate. The scenery
sharpens like an icicle in my ear.
it melts, and I hear of this
a tragedy you can color with the whites
and marbles of grandmother's parlor back home, tragedy otherwise
invisible as the price of love
a stray dog, too, is invisible; why are
you feeding it at your back door, growing
it into something you will love, something that will still die?
Leave it alone; remember me a little to
the future; people shave their heads
into crystal balls here; I
remain (on the outside) alone.
There are so many stories only you can tell.Tell them, please.


Who am I?I was born on the Cancer/Leo cusp and share a birthday with Ernest Hemingway and Robin Williams. The similarities don't stop there as I can go from depressed to ecstatic without ever passing go. I feel scared most of the time though my friends call me brave and I find it easier to believe in my friends than to believe in my own abilities to make what I want out of my life.

Who am I? A wife, a mother, a daughter, and even, gulp, a grandmother.

Who am I? A writer who never gets tired of playing with words, even when the words are hard to find. A writer of books for children and articles for grown-ups and many things in-between.

Who am I? A motivational speaker, writing instructor, workshop leader and full-time follower of dreams.

Who am I? Read and find out.

Susan Taylor Brown

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"Successful writers are not the ones who write the best sentences. They are the ones who keep writing. They are the ones who discover what is most important and strangest and most pleasurable in themselves, and keep believing in the value of their work, despite the difficulties."
--Bonnie Friedman

"As writers, we must be willing to feel our sadness, our anger, our terror, so we can reach in and find our sweet vulnerability that is just sitting there waiting for us to come back home."
--Nancy Slonim Aronie

"Writers write about what obsesses them. You draw those cards. I lost my mother when I was 14. My daughter died at the age of 6. I lost my faith as a Catholic. When I'm writing, the darkness is always there. I go where the pain is."
--Anne Rice


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