A few things I’ve learned about writing by teaching it

I’ve only taught a handful of classes about writing. I’m not a teacher by profession or proclivity. I’ll soon begin my twenty-eighth year as a project manager for a local government agency, full time except for a few months after my second daughter was born. So whenever I’ve accepted an invitation or responded to an opportunity to teach a class or give a lecture, it has meant a detour from the hour or two each evening I try to spend working on writing fiction in order to do my homework on a craft topic. My own education as a writer has been a series of extension classes, workshops, and conferences, as well as the writing group I’ve had the privilege to belong to for the last ten years. For more about my writing group, read Jennifer D. Munro’s recent blog post.

I remember in my early years of trying to write fiction, I attended workshops and conferences intent on finding the big secret to writing a story, convinced there was one and that everyone knew it but me. That it was there encrypted in the prepared lecture as well as the stray or impromptu remark. All I had to do was listen hard enough. And take lots of notes.

A few years ago, I gave a craft lecture on plot. It consisted of the accumulated notes I had scribbled whenever the word plot was uttered in any workshop I had ever taken. I stitched together a narrative of sorts about my search for how to write plot. It’s a popular topic and what I learned is I’m not the only one who has spent time searching for the secret, which turns out to be not one thing, but many. While there are plenty of things to keep in mind when writing a story, here are a couple from a class I took from Tom Jenks that I like to keep in mind:

  • Take the reader across a story in steps that are highly concentrated, focused and short, and in discrete movements of conflict-action-resolution.
  • Consider each character as the main character in his or her own story. Each character has its own arc.

A few months ago, I taught a class on increasing tension in your story. I assigned “The Great Beyond” by Alma Garcia. (Yes, she’s in my writing group and I get to benefit from her brilliance.) It’s not a suspenseful story. The tension is subtle, but definitely implicit in the vivid language, the characters bumping up against each other, the expertly woven symbolism, and the pulsating sense of place. The students were absolutely enamored of the story. What I learned is this:

  • If you assign a delicious piece of writing, your students will thank you effusively and you will feel so smart for having done so.

Earlier this month, I did a ten-minute lesson on titles at the Seattle 7 Writers annual community writing event Write Here Write Now. In my ten minutes I listed some examples of titles to illustrate what each captures in terms of delivering a particular aspect of the story, such as character, place, or theme. But the main message was another gem I took from one of Tim Jenks’s classes:

  • Determine the salient element of the story, that is, the most noticeable or striking element, and use it to name the story. A title works best if it comes out of the dramatic and lyric movement of the story.

I’ll be guest faculty this summer at the Whidbey Island MFA residency, offering craft lectures on story openings and the role of humor in dissolving or deepening tension in a story. I’ve written the class descriptions. Now I’m looking forward to seeing what I learn from preparing for and delivering these classes.

Posted in On Writing, People

Writing and Other Pleasures on Orcas in January

An artist residency is a great way to start off a new year. Even better is when that artist residency is at Artsmith on Orcas Island in the San Juan Islands. The islands, part of Washington state and located between the US mainland and Canada’s Vancouver Island, are famous for their resident pods of orca whales. Among the nonindigenous animals that once inhabited Orcas Island was Josie the Kangaroo, an orphaned joey adopted by a steamship captain on a trip to Australia in the years after the Depression. The captain’s home eventually became the Kangaroo Bed and Breakfast where the Artsmith residency takes place. It’s a comfortable and homey abode, about a mile from Eastsound, a little village of shops, restaurants, a yoga studio, and a charming, little bookstore.

The residency accommodates five artists at a time, though sadly one had to cancel at the last minute, so there were four of us—me and another fiction writer Stephanie Carpenter, poet Michelle Peñaloza, and photographer Bryan Aulick. It was a treat to spend a week with these artists. We were an amiable group with a shared appreciation for good food.

Resident artists are responsible for their own breakfasts and lunches, but dinner is prepared by the lovely and congenial hosts, Jill and Charles, who never failed to present a meal, including dessert, that was not spectacularly delicious. Jill, a poet and Artsmith director, joined us in the evenings for dinner and later around the fireplace where we gathered for conversation, reading, or sharing work.

I always go to a residency with an overly ambitious writing goal and this time was no exception. I was sure that the cool January weather with its daily mist and clouds would help keep me resolutely at my laptop indoors. But, of course, a writing day must have breaks, and an Artsmith writing day could be interspersed with a wander on the beach or a walk into town for bookstore browsing, a yoga class, a phone call to my husband, or a mid-day snack of beer-battered fish and chips at the tavern. There was also the hot tub on the residency grounds for a soothing sink into warm eddies amid a shroud of Pacific Northwest mist.

By the middle of the week, I was ready to adjust my goal to a more reasonable number of revised chapters. That was the morning the sun came out. I had just returned from a run and was eating breakfast when Michelle suggested a hike in Moran State Park and later a drive to the summit of Mt. Constitution for the view. Who could say no? We all got into her car.

We did a short, beautiful hike to Cascade Falls and then drove to the summit. As I rode to the top of the mountain in the car, I was amazed that I had once made this climb on a bicycle. Of course that was almost thirty-five years ago, when my husband and I biked San Juan and Orcas Islands the year after we got married. I really can’t remember agreeing to bike up Mt. Constitution and I’m not sure it was in the original plans. I think it was probably a sudden whim of my husband’s. Hey, let’s bike to the top of this mountain! After all, the alternative was to walk.

I had an inglorious moment when, exhausted from the previous night’s poor sleep outdoors without a tent and having burned the calories from that morning’s granola, I simply stopped pedaling, flopped over my handlebars, and wept. My husband waited patiently for me to recover before we resumed the ride to the top.

Even though we’re in our sixties now, I’m pretty sure we could do it again. My husband, who still puts in a lot of biking miles in addition to running miles, certainly could. Me? I still bike and run, but if I were to pedal up Mt. Constitution again, I might have to take a crying break for old time’s sake.

When my fellow residents and I arrived at the summit, we ascended a short rise from the parking lot and were greeted by that breathtaking view of Mt. Baker, visible above the sea of clouds. The kind of sight that knocks the breath from you. The kind of sight that brings tears to your eyes, so intense is the rush, so ridiculously brilliant the splendor.

Though there wasn’t another moment quite like that, later in the week we did a hike in the Turtleback Mountain Preserve on the other end of the island. Once owned by the chairman of Weyerhaeuser, it was purchased by a band of conservation groups to keep it from being subdivided for luxury homes. The mountain, now permanently protected from development, offers plenty of sweeping vistas, all of which were obscured by clouds and fog the day of our hike. Instead we enjoyed the quiet eeriness of tall trees disappearing in the mist.

Too soon the residency ended. It was only a week, but it was full of good work, delightful people, and spectacular beauty.

In 2016, the residency will expand to the full month of January, with residents having the option of a one-to-four-week stay. Get application information after February 1.

Posted in On Writing, People

Ghosts, Daughters, and Heartbreak: Some books to read in 2015

Here are some must-reads for me in 2015. Yes, they’re all books by Pacific Northwest women I know and admire. Lucky me. Lucky you if you decide to read these books, too.

The Ghosts Who Travel With Me, Ooligan Press, by Allison Green

Smitten as a young adolescent with Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America, Allison Green explores her fascination with the book, the author, and the Sixties as she take us on a literary pilgrimage to the Idaho towns Brautigan visited, the streams he fished, and the woods he camped in during the summer of 1967. It’s a pilgrimage that leads her to reflect on her family history, her own identity as a lesbian and a writer, and the meaning of place.

I’m lucky to be in a writing group with Allison and it’s been a pleasure to see this book develop. You can follow all the pre-publication updates on the Ooligan Press website. Get a preview of the beautiful prose in Allison’s book by reading her blog.

The Robot Scientist’s Daughter, Mayapple Press, by Jeannine Hall Gailey

I loved and wrote about Jeannine Hall Gailey’s previous book Unexplained Fevers in which the damsel in distress and the princess in peril shun the male rescuer to find their own path to escape, redemption, or solitude. Now I’m eager to read her fourth book of poetry The Robot Scientist’s Daughter. Here’s part of the tantalizing description on the Mayapple Press page:

“Mining her experience growing up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the writer allows the stories of the creation of the first atomic bomb, the unintended consequences of scientific discovery, and building nests for birds in the crooks of maple trees to weave together a reality at once terrifying and beautiful.”

Critic, Stephen Burt says these are “pellucid and memorable poems, in which Jeannine Hall Gailey becomes a storyteller, a creator, a rebel, an educator, and a heroine of her own.” Aside from noting that pellucid is one of my favorite words, I’ll add that Jeannine is a woman who is smart, funny, and brave in her poetry and her life.

Language Arts, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, by Stephanie Kallos

Stephanie Kallos, author of the highly praised and bestselling Broken for You, offers up her third novel Language Arts to her fans with this engaging storyline:

Despite his belief in the potential for language arts to expand one’s connection to the world, a high school teacher Charles Marlow is nevertheless disconnected from his own family. How he finds his way to re-engage with them—“with the help of an ambitious art student, an Italian-speaking nun, and the memory of a boy in a white suit”—promises an interesting read.

Maria Semple (Where’d You Go, Bernadette?) calls the book “deeply felt, utterly absorbing and full of wit.”

landscape / heartbreak, Two Sylvias Press, by Michelle Peñaloza

I met Michelle Peñaloza in the summer of 2012 on the Long Walk, a public art project that involved a group of fifty people, many of them artists and most of them strangers to each other, on a four-day walk from Golden Gardens in Ballard to Snoqualmie Falls. As one of the featured artists on the walk, Michelle led a poetry workshop and also started the walkers off each day by reading a poem.

Following the Long Walk, Michelle embarked on a personal project that literally explored landscape, movement, memory, and heartbreak. She invited people to take her on walks from Seattle’s Hugo House to specific places in the city where they’d had their hearts broken. She wrote poems in response to those walking conversations, which have been collected by Two Sylvias Press in a chapbook along with maps to create a “literary cartography of heartbreak.”

The Daughter’s Almanac, Backwaters Press, by Katharine Whitcomb

Katharine Whitcomb won the 2014 Backwaters Prize for The Daughter’s Almanac which came with a cash award of $1,000.00 and publication. Patricia Smith, the 2014 Backwaters Prize Judge, has this to say about The Daughter’s Almanac:

“With unflinching stanzas threaded through with grief’s relentless lyric, The Daughter’s Almanac is a masterwork, a deftly-crafted illustration of the myriad ways beauty collides with pain. Succinct and utterly memorable, these poems take hold of the heart and tug it toward an insistent light. We are washed alive in that light. We are changed by it.”

I heard Katharine read a few poems from this collection last May and wrote about their impact on me. I couldn’t agree more with Patricia Smith’s words.

I’ll be ordering these books directly from the publisher or from one of my local independent bookstores. I invite you to do the same. Happy reading!

Posted in On Writing, People

Welcome to Customs… and Bullying, Intimidation, and False Accusation

Some might consider a young woman traveling alone independent and adventurous. Some might consider her bilingualism an asset. Apparently, though, the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers consider both of these suspicious. And if the young woman fits the physical profile of a Latina, then that’s a problem, too.

My older daughter has her father’s fair skin. Her dark eyes and dark hair are my Filipino and Mexican contributions. She’s been assumed to be Italian, Russian, Greek, Persian, and Arab. But most often and especially where she lives in Los Angeles, people speak to her in Spanish assuming that it is her native language. It’s a language she’s acquired, having studied it in secondary school and gained fluency in during a college study abroad program in Spain.

When her sister bought her a round-trip plane ticket to Costa Rica as a birthday gift, Natalie decided to devote most of her nine-day vacation to learning how to surf in the small coastal resort town of Jacó. This was a generous gift born of empathy and compassion. Her sister knew how much Natalie needed a break, and Natalie gratefully took the opportunity to strive to embody the word tattooed between her shoulders: Volaré. Despite a trauma she has suffered and obstacles that complicated her recovery, Natalie’s goal is to soar above it, to find release and freedom through actions that affirm her strength. The exhilaration of riding a wave still buoyed her when her plane touched down in Ft. Lauderdale for a layover where she was to meet up with an old friend.

Natalie has crossed borders before. She has visited Spain, England, Ireland, Italy, Morocco, Canada and Mexico. There was no reason to believe that returning to the U.S. from Costa Rica wasn’t just another customs check.

To keep our borders secure, we must inspect everyone who arrives at a U.S. port of entry, says the CBP website. Perfectly reasonable.

Natalie entered the line for Americans in the immigration area. After scanning her passport and getting her picture taken she was directed by an officer to another line. When she asked for clarification, the officer informed her that everyone in that line was there for a reason—a reason he felt it unnecessary to disclose. She noticed that other people, mostly white couples, were being directed to a shorter line where they were being asked few questions and were quickly passed through to baggage claim and customs.

When she arrived at the window, she greeted the officer in English. He greeted her back in Spanish and asked her where she had been traveling. She responded in English. He continued to question her in Spanish. Realizing this was a conversation he was determined to conduct in Spanish, she accommodated his preference.

It was weird because we obviously both spoke English and I had a hard time understanding him at times because he spoke Cuban Spanish, which I’m not used to.Natalie

While travelers at the adjacent windows were being passed through quickly, Natalie was delayed as the officer scrutinized her passport and consulted his computer. Finally, the officer let her go and she proceeded to baggage claim. By that time, the baggage from her flight had been taken off the carousel. After locating her bag, she got in the long line for customs. Natalie did not suspect that the “Welcome to Customs” sign might as well have read “Beware of Bullying and Intimidation.”

As she waited, an officer and drug-sniffing dog walked past her without incident. When she reached the kiosk, she showed her bag of souvenirs—small items such as key chains, earrings, and a small jar of coconut oil skin moisturizer. The officer asked about food and she showed him some granola bars she had. While most people were being passed through to the rest of the airport, she was told to go to line B.

In the room where line B was located, there were about ten people in front of her—one white couple and the rest people of color.

It is illegal for law enforcement officers to perform any stops, searches, detentions or removals based solely on your race, national origin, religion, sex or ethnicity.ACLU

The line was slow because people were being questioned at length. When Natalie’s turn came, she handed the officer her passport and customs form. He asked her if she was traveling alone. She said yes, and he told her to come around to the other side and put all her things on the table. He asked her if she knew why she was there.

“No,” she said.

“You really don’t know.”


At this point, the officer’s demeanor changed. He got more aggressive, more authoritative. “This isn’t normal to be here,” he said. “Most passengers don’t end up here.” Her being there was not an accident, he told her.

We do not assume that you have done anything wrong—because very few travelers actually violate the law.CBP

Yet, he wouldn’t tell Natalie why she was there. He alluded to her rights, but warned they would change after a certain point. Something was definitely wrong, Natalie knew. Someone was definitely wrong. The fact that it wasn’t her didn’t curb her unease.

“Why are you nervous if you haven’t done anything wrong?” the officer taunted.

“Because you just said this wasn’t normal—being here,” she told him, trying to control her anxiety about being detained for no apparent reason. “And you won’t tell me why I’m being treated this way.”

He asked her if she had a medical condition. She told him she took Zoloft for anxiety, and he asked to see her meds.

“If it’s Zoloft why does the bottle say Sertaline?”

Natalie explained that Sertaline was the generic name for Zoloft. “It’s written on the label,” she told him.

He told her to go ahead and take her meds right then. She told him she wasn’t supposed to. He took the Zoloft bottle to the computer to look it up. When he returned, he asked her why she was traveling alone, whether she had been alone the entire time, and where she had traveled. When she tried to answer each question, he cut her off and demanded that she let him finish, even though she hadn’t interrupted him.

We pledge to treat you courteously and professionally.CBP

He told her he had been doing this work long enough to know when someone had drugs. If he couldn’t find them in her bag, she would be taken away. They would strip search her and look inside of her.

A strip search at the border is not a routine search and must be supported by “reasonable suspicion,” and must be done in a private area.ACLU

She was terrified now. She told him again she hadn’t done anything wrong and didn’t understand why this was happening. He started going through her things and told her that this was the time to come clean about drugs and just say she made a mistake. He said that when people do that they walk out the exit door. He said it happened the day before with a girl coming from Costa Rica.

We do not assume that you have done anything wrong—because very few travelers actually violate the law.CPB

He told her she was being detained and would be there at least a few hours. She told him her friend was waiting for her and she had a flight to catch and a job to return to the next day. Drugs were the issue of concern, he told her, not her friend or her flight.

I told him I don’t do drugs. He said he wasn’t accusing me of doing drugs. That’s different than trafficking drugs, he said.Natalie

He picked up her journal and began reading it. She asked him not to. “You really need to learn your rights,” he told her. He asked if she wrote in her journal daily and what she wrote about. She didn’t answer.

I told him this wasn’t normal what he was doing. “Well, most people don’t traffic drugs,” he responded.Natalie

He told her to put everything back in her backpack. He then opened her suitcase. He asked what her highest level of education was and what she did for a living. When she told him, he wondered why, if she had a university education, she was working as a waitress.

People who had been behind her in line were being passed through quickly while the officer emptied Natalie’s suitcase and unzipped the lining. Then he told her to pack her suitcase and pointed her toward the exit and walked away without saying a word.

Integrity is our cornerstone. We are guided by the highest ethical and moral principles. Our actions bring honor to ourselves and our agency.CBP

It was only then, feeling totally alone, bullied, and humiliated as she packed up her things, that she allowed herself to cry.

Other passengers and officers just stared as I cried.Natalie

Natalie’s trip to Costa Rica, her first vacation in a long time, was a gift from her sister. It ended with bullying and intimidation, including racial profiling, accusations of drug trafficking, and threats of detention and a body search, when she returned to her own county. Natalie was raped in college so the threat of a body search had terrified her. She’s being treated for PTSD as a result of the assault and is recovering from an eating disorder. This is why she keeps a journal, why she’s not on a career path at the moment, and why she’s on meds for anxiety. It’s why she and others like her are especially vulnerable to harsh and questionable CBP tactics.

How many others have been subjected to a bullying, smug CBP officer who leveled false accusations and tried to induce a false confession? How many of them have been sexual assault victims who are pushed to the brink of reliving their trauma when threatened with a body search? CBP officers play a dangerous game with the health and well-being of innocent travelers.

Unfortunately, there seems to be little accountability within this agency. A complaint filed with the CBP returned a nicely bureaucratic response that it would take action against anyone accused of wrongdoing.

In fact, CBP has a poor record when it comes to responding to complaints of abuse, even those far more egregious, so there’s little expectation that this case will receive the action it is due. Complaints have also been filed for the record with the ALCU SoCal and Miami, and selected lawmakers, including Barbara Boxer of California and Jim McDermott of Washington.

So, safe travels out there. But more importantly, safe passage through Immigration and Customs on your return.

Posted in Events, People

Visit the Real National City, Unfiltered

There’s a new promo video about National City, California, the place where I grew up and about which I wrote an essay titled “Home is Where the Wart Is.” As you might imagine, my essay is at odds with a Visit National City tourism campaign. All soft focus with bouncy music and a honeyed voiceover, the video features presumed locals teeing off at the (nine-hole) golf course, strolling a grassy knoll in a park, and enjoying a romantic afternoon on the bike trail. It ends with an attractive blond couple raising glasses of champagne against the blue bay. Wait, there’s a bay in National City?

Yes, as a matter of fact. But until the marina was constructed in 2006 on the Sweetwater Channel, was there public access to the bay? If there was, I never knew about it while growing up in National City. I always thought you had to go south to Imperial Beach or north to San Diego to find the water.

But back to the promo video. Is National City really a tourist destination? Does the video reflect the real National City? If many of the comments on Facebook are any indication, the answers are no and no.

Let’s start with demographics, which have changed somewhat since my growing-up years in the ‘60s. Today the city is 63 percent Latino, 20 percent Asian, each ten percentage points higher than when I lived there, and it shows.

Now there are names like Rios and Natividad and Sotelo-Solís on the city council. There’s a taquería every few blocks. There’s a carnicería and a panadería in the grocery stores. The workers are bilingual. Mexican radio stations play over the store speakers.

Filipino restaurants and markets with names like Villa Manila, Pinoy Ranch and Tita’s Kitchenette throng the strip malls on both sides of Plaza Boulevard to serve the highest concentration of Filipino-Americans in the San Diego area. Take a tour with this video and sample vicariously lechon, turon, chicken feet, and balut. Really, you need to watch this.

There’s a particular vibe and flavor to the city that isn’t quite captured in the slick Visit National City video. Here’s an opinion from the Facebook page that more directly addresses this bit of marketing:

Lemme put it this way: If I were from another state, wanting to visit the San Diego area for the first time, and chose to stay in a hotel in National City based on this tourism video…I’d be really pissed once I got there.

As I mentioned, the video opens with an attractive Latina mother and her young daughter dressed angelically in white sharing a moment of sun-kissed bliss at Olivewood Garden (which by the way is a wonderful place). Other Latino-looking folks engage in smile-inducing National City activities before the video closes with the sexy blonde couple kissing over the click of their champagne glasses, a sailboat gliding gracefully behind them.

Like in the telenovelas, the Latinos in the video are all light-skinned. What’s wrong with showing the really brown people that you see in the grocery stores, schools, and parks, and just walking down the street? Or would that scare the tourists away? I’m reminded of when I was in high school and the word on the street was that kids from other schools were afraid to come to our field for football games because they were afraid of our Mexicans.

Oh, and given the estimated median income of $37,000 in National City, you wonder who owns those boats in the marina.

So is National City a tourist destination? I don’t think so. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth stopping by. Go to Napoleone Pizza House, famous for its pizza but also for employing a young Tom Waits who has been quoted as saying, “I thought high school was a joke, I went to school at Napoleone’s.”

And don’t forget all the Filipino and Mexican comida. If you happen to be in town while I’m visiting, let’s meet for breakfast at Aunt Emma’s for huevos rancheros.

And aside from Tom Waits, here’s another notable from National City. Rosalie “Rosie” Méndez Hamlin and her 1960s group Rosie and the Originals were best known for their single, “Angel Baby.” Have a listen.

Posted in Miscellaneous Musings, Places

Connor—A Dancer

For a couple of hours one warm September afternoon in 2011, I had the sublime pleasure of watching a quartet of lithe and polished dancers perform a bolero, which was expertly captured by a filmmaker to create the book trailer for my novel.

Now three Septembers later, a memorial will take place this week to mark the one-year anniversary of the death of one of the dancers. Connor Zion was a teenager when I met him that afternoon in the community center space I had rented for the video shoot.

I arrived early but the dancers were already there, looking beautiful the way dancers do, not in a conscious, overt way, but in an easy, effortless knowledge of their physical selves.

Young as he was, Connor was professional in his demeanor and, as I would soon witness, in his performance. He and the other dancers were wholly attuned to direction from the filmmaker, to the mood and pulse of the music, and to each other. It was a charmed afternoon.

At the end of the shoot, I thanked the dancers for their performance and their professionalism. I even thanked them for their beauty. Who can resist youth, beauty, and talent?

I knew I wasn’t likely to see them again. I assumed they would all continue dancing, continue being beautiful, continue making people marvel and chill at their seductive, impassioned moves. Because they enchanted on the dance floor, it was easy to assume they led enchanted lives. But none of us lives in a fairy tale.

What I have learned since receiving news of his death is that, since childhood, Connor suffered from anxiety and later developed epilepsy for which he took medication. For some reason, he went off his medication, which affected his behavior. One day, physically aggressive and clearly not himself, Connor threatened and attacked loved ones, and police were called to contain the situation. An officer emptied his revolver of 18 rounds, hitting Connor multiple times. For good measure, he kicked the downed young man three times in the head. It goes without saying how much is wrong with this picture.

Connor’s lifelong friend Maria told me he left diaries in which he described his desire to help other young people, especially those at risk due to low income, special needs, or other circumstances, to find themselves through dance. Connor’s family and friends have formed the CBZ Foundation to help realize that dream.

If you would like to help fulfill Connor’s dream, you can donate to the foundation. You can also visit the Connor Bishop Zion Memorial page to find out more about Connor and what he accomplished in his too-brief life.

I’ve always loved my book trailer. Even though it was meant as a vehicle to promote my novel, it stands on its own as a piece of artistry, thanks to the filmmakers, but thanks also to the dancers who are its essence.

Watch the video, even if you’ve seen it before. Watch it not as a book promo, but simply as a performance of a beautiful bolero—the dance of love. Lose yourself in its slow, dreamy tempo. Be transfixed by the smooth, liquid grace of the dancers. Watch Connor Zion doing what he loved.

Posted in Events, People

Other Talents

“Why didn’t you tell me… to bring along my harmonica?” the Baroness says to Max when Maria leads the Von Trapp children in song in The Sound of Music.

The Baroness is being sardonic. We know she has no musical talent.

I felt for the Baroness back then when I saw the movie in 1965 when I was in the seventh grade. Each time I’ve seen the movie, I have felt for her. I have no musical talent. I get the Baroness and her sense of being an observer, not quite of the party, left to sit on the couch and tap her foot hoping it coincides with the tempo of the music.

I have long reconciled myself to my non-musicality. There are other things I can do. I can write, I tell myself and hold up my published novel and stories as evidence.

But guess what? There are people out there who can not only write, they can play a musical instrument and sing! There were a number of such people at the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference earlier this month. Faculty Sam Ligon, Robert Lopez, and Gary Lilley played their guitars and sang some bluesy rock tunes one evening. Kim Addonizio added her harmonica to a blues poetry performance by her and Gary’s students at the end of the week.

I know other musically talented writers—Jennie Shortridge is lead singer for The Rejections and the Trailing Spouses, which also features Stephanie Kallos and Garth Stein.

The members of my writing group are quite musical, most notably, Alma Garcia, who in addition to being the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award and a Narrative Prize, also until recently played and sang in a rock band.

It makes me wish for a talent.

“You run,” my husband says, a super dad and himself a perennial speedster. Generous man.

Once upon a time I was an above average runner, hitting seven-and-a-half minute miles in easy 5K races. But at sixty-one years old, I’m a plodder now. The speed, such as it was, is history. Anyway, it’s not as if you can entertain someone with your running.

I can’t cook or quilt or build things. I don’t skateboard, ski, or turn cartwheels. I’m a self-conscious dancer with a stunted repertoire. I can do the basic salsa step unpartnered, but if someone tries to lead me in a turn, I stumble out of rhythm.

But there is this thing I can do. It’s not a talent or a skill, but I can claim (a not-quite freakish) flexibility. Not of attitude—that would indeed be a talent.

No, I’m talking limberness of the limbs. You see, at sixty-one, I can still do this:

Posted in Miscellaneous Musings, People

My Writing Process—Blog Tour

I was invited to participate in this Writing Process Blog Tour by Kelcey Ervin Parker, whose first book For Sale by Owner (Kore Press) won the 2011 Next Generation Indie Book Award in Short Fiction. I highly recommend these stories. They’re smart, funny and insightful. Her latest book is the highly praised Liliane’s Balcony (Rose Metal Press), a novella set at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. Read her post from last week.

Here are my answers to the four blog tour questions.

What are you working on?

I’m completing a draft of a novel called The Education of Angie Rubio. Each of the chapters deals with a lesson or set of lessons about life, race, and identity that Angie learns in and out of school and against the backdrop of the social and political events of the ‘60s and ‘70s. These are lessons of winning and losing, belonging and not belonging, and overcoming the divisions caused by race and gender. These chapters started out as stories, but taken together there seemed to be a natural shape to them, which made me want to see if I could create a compelling arc of character and action.

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

I suppose Angie Rubio could be considered a coming-of-age novel, which comes in many flavors. Jane Eyre, Catcher in the Rye, Goodbye, Columbus, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit—all different. A book that comes to mind when I think of an inspiration for my project is The Diary of Adrian Mole by the late Sue Townsend. It’s a hilarious, sharp, intelligent book, so I have much to strive for. Unlike Townsend’s, my novel is not in diary form and my story is not satirical; my protagonist does not suffer from pretensions, which is where much of the hilarity of the book is rooted. But Townsend’s work is a model for me in the way she so precisely captures not only the adolescent angst of Adrian, but also how that angst plays against the social and political issues of the time—something I’m hoping to achieve with Angie.

My character Angie is earnest, a bit too self-reflective, and anxious to find her place in the world. While Angie doesn’t look like the subject of this painting by Lupita Shahbazi, she does match the mood of the piece in many ways. Lupita Shahbazi is a California artist. We graduated from the same high school in National City, though she was several years behind me and we didn’t know each other back then. I’m a fan of her art. Take a look at Lupita Estudio Azul Solamente. Give her Facebook page a like.

Why do you write what you do?

I’m interested in answering the question, “What would happen if _?” In a given a set of circumstances, what decisions and actions would a person make and what consequences would ensue? In my novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced, I was interested in what it was like for someone to leave a country to make a life in a new one. In my as yet unpublished collection of stories, some of which can be found online, I follow three generations of a family as each faces particular barriers and complications in search of a sense of place and belonging. I think this search is reflective of my own experience. Maybe that’s true for all of us.

How does your writing process work?

I think about a character and a situation for a while until I come upon an entry point to the story, a scene that gets me started in the life of this person, which is not necessarily the first scene of the story, but a place to figure out where to go from there in developing the narrative. Sometimes, I’ll just summarize in a short series of statements the trajectory of the character. Sometimes, I’ll just jump in and write scenes that may or may not be sequential. Often, I start with exposition and get carried away with that. I’m the queen of exposition. Thank goodness for my writing group which always reminds me to use scene. So, yeah, the writing group—an important aspect of my process.

Here are the three writers I have tagged for next week. Look for their posts on August 13!

Deborah H. Anderson is a mom, a writer, and a teacher who sings, reads and swims for fun. And she is ordained. She considers herself a social contemplative—a person who has spent a lot of time reflecting on a very busy life with diverse experiences that have yielded a lot of wisdom she wishes to pass on to others. She blogs at Meals and Moments: Real Encouragement in a Virtual World and Under the Rock: Encouraging Faith Based Leadership.

Esther Altshul Helfgott is a nonfiction writer and poet with a Ph.D. in history from the University of Washington. She is the author of Listening to Mozart: Poems of Alzheimer’s (Cave Moon Press, 2014) and Dear Alzheimer’s: A Caregiver’s Diary & Poems (Cave Moon Press, 2013; Two Sylvia’s Press, e-book, 2013). Her writing appears in Dementia Arts: Celebrating Creativity in Elder Care by Gary Glazner (Health Professionals Press, 2014) and is forthcoming in Eric Pfeiffer, M.D.’s Mastering Caregiving in Alzheimer’s Disease and other Dementias (Yale University Press, 2015). Esther is a longtime literary activist, a 2010 Jack Straw poet, and founder of Seattle’s “It’s About Time Writer’s Reading Series,” now in its 24th year. Her blogs are Witnessing Alzheimer’s: A Caregiver’s View and Esther’s Writing Works: for Memory, Healing & Art’s Sake.

Tamara Sellman is a published writer who has worn many literary hats in the last 30 years: food blogger, poet, writing coach, developmental editor, magical realist storyteller. She is currently wearing the science writer and essayist hats, depending on her mood and deadlines. Her blog is Rhymes With Camera.

Posted in On Writing, People

Me, Angie Rubio, and Magic in Port Townsend

This summer I’m going to the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference—again. I’ve been to others, all wonderful places, each offering its unique atmosphere and particular added attraction—a mountain to hike at Squaw Valley, readings held at wineries at Napa Valley, fierce bonding at VONA, a sense of history and celebrity at Bread Loaf, the D.H. Lawrence ranch near Taos.

But there’s a reason I keep going back to Port Townsend. Really, several reasons.

Port Townsend is practically in my backyard, if my backyard were to stretch from my little house in North Seattle across Puget Sound to the northeastern tip of the Olympic Peninsula. Getting there is one of the best parts. There’s a ferry ride, a little bit of highway, and then stretches of country road. I always look for The Egg and I Road sign. The road passes the farm site once owned by Betty MacDonald who wrote the 1945 best-selling book The Egg And I about the calamities of running a chicken farm. My sister and I read that book over and over when we were kids, not to mention the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books. There’s something almost bewitching about encountering traces of an author whose works delighted you as a child.

The conference is held at Fort Worden atop a bluff overlooking Admiralty Inlet which is traversed by maritime traffic to and from ports in Seattle and Tacoma. The fort was an active army base from 1902 to 1953; when decommissioned, it housed delinquent juveniles. Now it’s an arts center. The dorm rooms are tiny and monastic. Fitting for an army recruit or a reforming youth. Fitting as well for a writer.

The rooms have a desk and a chair and a little bed. What more does one need to write and sleep? Well, ear plugs. Program director Jordan Hartt advises packing ear plugs as the walls are “thin as masking tape.” Otherwise, the digs really are quite sufficient. And if you’re lucky, you might get a view of the inlet, though a view of the parade grounds and the officers’ quarters isn’t bad. A view of the parking lot may be useful for keeping your eyes and brain focused on your computer screen. When you need to get outside, there are places to run, bike, or hike nearby.

The place is damn picturesque and a bit charmed—maybe even magical.

I first went to the Port Townsend conference in 2003. At the time I was three chapters in to rewriting my first novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced, which was eventually published in 2011 by Signal 8 Press. Bret Lott was my workshop leader. He was kind, funny, and smart. Our workshop group enjoyed him and each other. We were a highly companionable group, and I made some forever friends.

Six years later I was back, this time for a workshop led by the charismatic Chris Abani who generously gave his time and talent to his students. The story I brought to workshop was published soon after in Connecticut Review.

It was hard to stay away and I returned to the conference for three consecutive years. One of those years I took a non-fiction workshop with another brilliant teacher, Paisley Rekdal. The essay I worked on that summer was later published in Kartika Review and then anthologized in New California Writing.

The other two years at the conference I signed up for the residency option, an alternative to enrolling in a morning workshop. As a resident, I was provided with a room in which to write, a meal plan, and access to the faculty craft lectures and readings. Each time, I spent the week working on my second novel The Education of Angie Rubio. After many interruptions and delays over the intervening years, I have a full draft that needs layering and polishing.

This summer it’s me and Angie Rubio getting it done in Port Townsend. And maybe, if the work has absorbed any of the Port Townsend magic, it, too, will be published.

Posted in People, Places

How Katharine Whitcomb’s Sad Poems Lifted Me from the Blues

A few weeks ago I was blue. I can’t say exactly what caused my melancholy as I rode the bus to work that day amid passengers whose ears were occluded with ear buds and whose thumbs busily scrolled the smudged surfaces of their smart phones; or as I sat in my cubicle attending to my projects that promote the conservation of the earth’s resources amid the latest news reports of climate change deniers and coal-train advocates; or at the end of my workday when I made my way in a gray drizzle from my downtown office up to Capitol Hill where I stopped in at the Rancho Bravo taquería. By that time I had blinked back tears several times that day.

After I sat down with my enchiladas, and as I ate (because low spirits have seldom affected my appetite), I thought back to when I was younger, in my late thirties through my late forties, when I experienced these blue days more often and for extended periods of time. Every year when I visited my doctor, she would ask, “How are you doing?” There in the sanitized examining room, my face would crumble and tears would make a slow crawl over its scrunched topography. I knew the cause: not enough hours in the day to deal with job and family, trying to find the ground below my feet as my life both spun in a vortex and sagged to a standstill. And now it seems as if that period has evaporated.

I’m in my sixties now. Most of life is behind me. Maybe this fact is what occasionally pulls me down into the dumps. Or thinking of how quickly my children went from helpless, swaddled infants to grown women finding their way in the world. Or how much time I devote outside of my day job to writing stories that may be read by only a handful of people. But bigger things also weigh me down—the degradation of the planet, the denigration of women and the steady erosion of their reproductive rights, the proliferation of guns in our communities, racial and social inequities, and on and on. Sometimes it all hits you at once.

I was starting to text my husband about the little black hole into which I had sunk, knowing that he would do his best to coach me out of it, when I sensed someone at my shoulder. I turned to find a man whose face was bloated and reddened from addiction. He pointed to my paper plate. “If you don’t plan to eat the rest of that, I can finish it for you.” I looked at the remains of my enchiladas, bits of tortilla and spicy pork strewn with slivers of rice and specks of beans—surely an unappetizing sight to anyone but me who had already forked the best of it into my mouth.

I reached into my backpack for my wallet and fished out some ones, enough to cover a plate of tacos. He became effusive with thanks, but I waved him off rather rudely. “Go,” I said. “Buy some dinner,” I added a little more civilly.

So my sadness increased at the thought of this man and others like him, reduced, for whatever reasons, to asking for the uneaten food on other people’s plates. I took my deflated and depressed self to Hugo House for an evening of poetry readings. All day I had debated whether or not to go, feeling like a good mope at home would have been a more suitable way to spend my time. But the line-up was a stellar one, headlined by Mark Wunderlich and including local poets and University of Washington faculty Andrew Feld and Pimone Triplett, as well as Katharine Whitcomb from over the mountains in Ellensburg where she teaches at Central Washington University.

Triplett read first, followed by Feld, both giving good, strong readings. Mark Wunderlich dazzled. But before him was Katharine. When she took the stage, she warned us that the first few poems she would read were sad poems. I thought, go ahead, make me sadder. I leaned forward, ready for the blow. But I didn’t get sadder.

Katharine did make me catch my breath, particularly with two of her poems—one about a father and daughter in a boat on a lake and a moment of deliberate separation; another about a woman isolated on a retreat, not a visitor in sight, who encounters a dead bird on her porch and is confounded about what to do with this dead companion.

It wasn’t so much the sadness of the poems—reminders of aloneness or loss of connection—that got to me. It was the beauty of Katharine’s expression of that sadness, both the words she wrote and how she physically voiced them with her delivery that was a natural, down-to-earth, truth-telling. Words. Images. Art. They’re what lifted me up and out of the blues.

Posted in Miscellaneous Musings