Ragdale Delights

Among the pleasures of an artist residency are the artists you meet there. During my recent Ragdale residency, I landed among a most congenial and talented bunch. It was great learning about and from them. If you don’t already know these artists, let me introduce you to them.

Virginia Bell—Poet and author of From the Belly (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2012)

Articulate with a formidable breadth of knowledge, this is a woman whose intellect might scare me if I were still at an age when such things scared me. Now I’m just duly impressed. She’s writing a fascinating memoir that involves repression and pets. Okay, that’s a deliberately gross simplification that doesn’t do justice to the nuanced emotional complexity of the work. I just don’t want to give anything away. Know that it’s sure to be a stunner, judging by her poetry. Also that Bloomsbury sounding name of hers gives instant cred. And she looks good in a hat.

Lauren Levato Coyne—Visual artist and writer

This exuberant young woman had the best dinner time stories, one of which I have permission to use in some future fiction of mine so will not describe the story here lest you take it for yourself. Suffice it to say, the story has an entomological inspiration and great potential to exploit all five senses and possibly a sixth one as well. A writer and visual artist, Lauren delighted us with both talents. She also exhibited great balance on the Ragdale prairie where she performed handstands in full view of perplexed deer bystanders.

Christine Koubek—Writer and teacher

I vote her Most Radiant. Her face and personality beam with goodwill and generosity. She’s a travel writer who has recently also turned to fiction. She’s writing a novel based on a captivating personal experience. Again, not to give anything away, I’ll just throw it out there that there are nuns in parts of it. Jeff O’Neal at Book Riot says about his fascination for novels with nuns (and priests): I think it is the dual forces of constraint and passion that hook me. Same goes for me, and from the excerpts Christine read to us at Ragdale, its’ clear that she’s handling these forces with deft and grace.

Michael Remson—Composer whose next opera will premiere in June.

He attended his first opera and his first rock concert at age nine as nine-year-olds are wont to do. He also developed an early enthusiasm for old radio shows. He would lie under the dining room table listening to his father’s collection of recordings. This early grasp of words, story, music, and performance—how could they not culminate in a career as a composer and librettist? I like to picture this grown man even today lying on the floor, eyes closed, his whole being attuned to inspiration, then madly creating art, before taking a break to make a sandwich with a dollop of the Shur Good mustard that was a Ragdale kitchen staple.

Christine Rice—Writer whose story collection Swarm Theory is due out in 2016

Responsible for the term jackhammer being employed with frequency during dinner conversations, Chris also used her literary license to coin new words as in “he was brighting me.” I know. It makes you wonder whether our dinner talk was suitable for all ages. I assure you, it was. Only a deviant would think otherwise. Anyway, how could anyone attribute any but the most inoffensive to the innocently impish facial expressions that accompanied her word inventions? Invention serves Chris well in the dystopian novel she’s working on. I’m inspired to coin a new word to describe the story and characters: captismatic.

Annita Sawyer—Psychologist and award-winning memoirist

This remarkable woman published her first book this year at age 72. It’s called Smoking Cigarettes, Eating Glass: A Psychologist’s Memoir. In addition to this highly praised book, which won the Santa Fe Writer’s Project Grand Prize, she wrote a bewitching piece of fiction that she shared with us during residency. I often ate my oatmeal with sliced bananas while she ate her toast with peanut butter and honey in the Ragdale kitchen. Sometimes we talked. Sometimes we read—her a book of essays, me a book of fiction. Either way, it was a pleasure starting my day in the company of this woman.

Emily Tedrowe—Writer working on her third book

We only had Emily’s genial company for a week. At dinner one night she revealed her Jane Smiley crush. So here’s a Jane Smiley quote, and if you’re an artist other than a writer, just replace book with the art you produce and reader with your particular audience.

“…all you really need to have for your book: just one reader out there who loves it.”

Finally, many thanks to the Ragdale staff, several of whom are artists. A special shout-out to Resident Liaison Eddie Morfin for sharing his work-in-progress with us and for considering us “sort of interesting.”

Posted in Uncategorized

Who’s Who in (My) Fiction

As I anticipate the publication of my next book Hola and Goodbye from Carolina Wren Press a year from now, I also anticipate the assumptions that the readers among my family will surely make about the characters in the book—that this or that character resembles this or that family member.

Let’s test those assumptions. My book is a collection of short stories about three generations of a family, the first of which emigrates from Mexico.

I have a mother and aunts. There are mothers and aunts in my stories. Coincidence? You decide.

I have sisters. There are lots of sisters in my stories. Again, coincidence?

I have a brother. There are no brothers in this story collection. What?

There’s a grandmother in these stories. I had a grandmother or two. One came from Mexico. Yes, the grandmother in my stories came from Mexico. Okay, busted. I took a few details from her life—that she worked in a fish cannery, that she never learned English, that she made her tortillas by hand. All of which fit the description of thousands of Mexican immigrants.

This is my cousin Johnny. He was called Johnny Boy when we were growing up. My family produced mostly girls. The few males in the family were tagged with a celebratory emphasis on their gender—Boy! Also, there was the affectionate mijo.

I will admit that I did steal something from Johnny’s life for a story in the collection. Who could resist the nickname Señor Wonderful, my cousin’s moniker when he tended bar and emceed karaoke sessions back in the day? But really, that’s where the similarities between my cousin Johnny and my character Tony Camacho end. The rest is fiction, folks.


Posted in Uncategorized

How I’m Learning to Teach Things I Didn’t Know I Knew

There’s an expectation that when you’ve had a book published you know enough to teach someone else how to do the same—not just the part about actually getting the thing into print, but the craft part too. Since my novel came out in 2011, I’ve been invited on occasion to teach a class or give a lecture—just a 60 to 90 minute stint, nothing terribly taxing or overwhelming. Except that I’d never before done such a thing. Though years ago I received a master’s degree in education, taught ESL classes for a short period of time, and have for over two decades managed an environmental education program, my time in front of a classroom has been limited and none of that time was spent discussing the elements of fiction. I don’t have an MFA so my education in writing has been an assortment of classes, workshops, and conferences. The idea of teaching others something about writing was more than a little scary. What exactly did I know and how could I articulate and convey it to others? Luckily, I have had some talented and skillful teachers and workshop leaders, not to mention a talented and skillful writing group. Both have shown me ways to consider whether a story is working. Mostly, it boils down to these few questions: What is the story doing, what is it trying to do, and what’s missing?

Reading is another teacher. Most of the time I rush along in my reading, eager for the story and then upon finishing, immediately launch into the next one. The more I read, the more enlightened I think I’ll become about story and character and plot. No matter that I don’t stop to fully digest the work, because surely I’ll absorb it at some subconscious level and the secrets will somehow find their way out of the deep autonomic fibers of my brain onto the screen in front of me, my fingers tapping the words on the keyboard practically of their own accord as I write my own stories.

Even if it were to happen that way, which it doesn’t for me, that’s still just the first draft. Then there’s revision. That’s where the things we are taught in workshop or in the pages of a craft book or in the feedback from our writing group come into play. This is also the time to review the stories we’ve read that resonate with us, to take a closer look at the finished, polished work and analyze it, name its parts, and articulate their functions. Reviewing stories I admire is where I start when I prepare a craft lecture or presentation.

I recently taught a class on story openings and used examples from favorite stories for the class to examine and identify the elements of fiction in the first paragraph. One of the examples I used was from “This is So Not Me” by Natalie Serber from her collection Shout Her Lovely Name. The opening line is rich with character and story. The voice is captivating. We are immediately in the story with this acerbic, anxious, vulnerable woman.

I was climbing the stairs to Walter’s brownstone, Ezekiel swaddled up tight like they showed me three times before I left the maternity ward. You know, how they’re supposed to feel better if their arms and legs are wadded in close like the Baby Jesus lying in the manger. Seems it would make me want to scream, but whatever. So I’m holding him next to my chest when all of the sudden I got this urge, what if I just dropped him right over the side of the bannister. Kerplunk, like a chestnut. I could almost see my arms reaching over the edge and letting go and that baby blue blanket careening to the ground and me just turning on my heel. I don’t have to tell you that it scared the crap out of me and I pressed my ass against the brick wall the rest of the way up.

For a class I taught on “7 Ways to Increase Tension in Your Story,” I assigned a story called “The Great Beyond” by Alma Garcia, first published in Narrative in 2005 and now part of her novel-in-progress, which I predict to be a hit. I wanted to assign a story that wasn’t so obviously fraught with tension, but where tension was certainly at work in the story, inherent in the rising action. We also looked at how Garcia created tension through dialogue not only by open confrontation but by what’s left unsaid. We saw how she used flashback and exposition to vary pacing to heighten tension and how her deft sentences, vivid and precise words, and her juxtaposition of opposing ideas (past/present, borders/the great beyond) further deepened that tension.

Another recent lecture I gave was on humor, which is for me such an essential part of any story. It dissolves or amplifies tension. It deepens character. It pulls us further into the story. In the class I taught, we studied a scene from Antonya Nelson’s story “Three Wishes” in her most recent collection Funny Once. I apologized to the class because after our reading and discussion of the scene they would never have the experience of happening upon it for the first time within the story, which for me was such a delectable moment. Humor and pathos are so beautifully woven, flaws and needs so nuanced, images so richly drawn in this scene. Nelson’s characters feel real and multi-dimensional. They may be nothing like us. Yet they are us. We are them. That’s the power of humor.

One of the pleasures of presenting a lecture or craft class is the opportunity to share stories that have moved or touched me in some way. How gratifying it is to say, here, read this. Laugh, cry. See you. See me.

Posted in On Writing

Ghosts, Pie, and Magic (and Writing)

It might be an addiction—the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference. For six of the last seven years I’ve gone.

Before I started the run at the PT conference, I’d been to others and enjoyed them all—Squaw Valley, Napa Valley, VONA, Bread Loaf. Two summers ago I attended the Taos Summer Writers Conference. I loved that one, too.

But there’s magic at Fort Worden where the PT conference is held. And ghosts. And pie.

Here are the magic parts:

  • The scenery—There are water and woods, views of Mt. Baker and Mt. Rainier, the stately madrone trees, and the deer, ubiquitous as squirrels, mostly ambling the grounds but once in a while performing exquisite little jetés
  • The weather—It was a beach week this year, but even the clouds and wind in a more typical Northwest summer can dazzle
  • The community of writers—I’m not the only one who has made a habit of this conference. Many participants and some faculty make return visits. While the familiar faces make me feel at home, the newcomers keep it new.

This year the magic was boosted beyond normal by Luis Urrea. You could tell who his workshop students were by the look of awe they wore in the dining hall at lunchtime. The rest of us had a chance to be awed during his reading one evening and later in the week at his craft lecture. The man enchants, and I’m proud to be called his homie, sharing as we do a connection to National City, CA.

The fiction workshop I was in had its own brand of magic. Pam Houston—great storyteller, astute reader of student work, compassionate and generous conveyor of feedback—led our workshop of all women. That’s right, no men in the class. In my experience at writing conferences, women far outnumber the men, just as they outnumber them as readers and buyers of books. Funny, though (by which I mean not funny at all), that men far outnumber women in being published, reviewed, and lauded.

Not that it solves the problem, but good thing there’s pie—gorgeous, delicious fruit pies. Pie and Whiskey Night is made possible by the pie-making skills of poet/pie maven Kate Lebo and fiction faculty and incoming conference artistic director Sam Ligon. This year I took a beautiful slice of blueberry pie and sat next to Pam Houston (because, you know, Pam Houston!!!). When I saw her leave part of her pie crust on her plate, I blurted, “You gonna eat that?”

“Go for it,” she said.

So I did. I ate Pam Houston’s pie crust.

I felt no shame. That pie will make you say and do anything. Or blame it on the ghosts. The buzz is that they wander the dorms, the monastic, functional cells once occupied by soldiers when the fort was an active military base and later by wayward youths when it became a detention facility for juveniles. Ghosts are also said to occupy the schoolhouse where the writing workshops are held and even drift with the morning fog along the beaches and bluffs, and in the treetops in the woods. They’re integral to the spirit of the place, so to speak.

So next year sign up for some ghosts and pie and magic at the Port Townsend Writers Conference.

Posted in Events, On Writing, People


I couldn’t write. My desk was a mess. Books and papers and really all kinds of crap were smeared across, under, and around it. It’s taking a month of weekends to pull everything from the shelves, off and underneath the desk, and out of sloppily stacked boxes to sort and file, recycle and toss. And preserve.

Amid the forgotten photos, baggies of baby teeth, and political pins (U.S. Out of El Salvador, I Am Salman Rushdie, Mondale/Ferrarro) I came across, there were also these bits of writing—little charms infused with pangs of love and guilt and loss. And life.

My younger daughter Ana was forming letters at three and writing notes to me at four. Sometimes they were informative:

Dear Mom

Im running away undr the tabl

Sometimes they were chastising:

To Mom From Ana
Im sore that you got mad but you ned to kin trol your tempur
Love Ana

Out of the mouths, or rather, crayons of babes.


My mother who isn’t much for letter-writing sent me a note dated April 16, 1993, a week after my father’s funeral.

I am sending the certificate of Death to you. Hope everything is well with you. Rose and I have been eating out because John has been working on the kitchen.

Death amid the mundane.


When my older daughter Natalie was in college, she would sometimes send me her drafts of papers for feedback. Here’s the last line of a book review she wrote for her history class on a book titled Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy by Judith C. Brown.

In Brown’s recreation of the life of Benedetta Carlini, she reminds readers that despite the passing of several centuries, issues such as overcoming constraints set by society, filling voids of love, and dealing with identity still face people today.

Life lessons.

Posted in Events, People

Blame Me, Seattle

When we’re wishing hard for something, we feel that the universe can grant only so many wishes, that one must prioritize, perhaps weigh the greater good against the personal gain. During Super Bowl Week earlier this year my family, like so many others in Seattle, was caught up in Seahawks Fever. Who doesn’t like a winner? Who doesn’t want to be a winner?

It was that same week that I learned I was a semi-finalist for the Doris Bakwin Award for Writing by a Woman. Winning meant having your book-length manuscript chosen by contest judge Randall Kenan and published by Carolina Wren Press. I was thrilled, hopeful, and wishing hard to be the eventual winner.

My husband teasingly asked, “Would you rather that the Seahawks win the Super Bowl or that you win this publication prize?” Not exactly a Sophie’s Choice dilemma, but still a situation to test one’s grace and goodwill. Did I wish for the outcome that would please thousands or the one that would please primarily me, me, and me?

We play such games often, as if life is a game of binaries, only one of which is possible. Would you rather be Shakira or Joyce Carol Oates? Would you rather be rich or smart? Would you rather be legless or armless?

My answer to such questions is often both or neither, depending on the stakes. Why should I have to choose? But maybe that’s not how the universe works. We only have so much luck, so much karma. So even if you wish for more than your share of goodies, you’re bound to be denied something. Maybe everything.

So when the Seahawks lost the Super Bowl, what else could I believe but that the book publication prize had to happen for me? On March 13, I found out I had made it to the finalist round and that the winner would be announced sometime in April. Even though April was a busy month for me, every day I asked myself, Is this the day? And every day, it wasn’t.

At the end of that month, I read the feature in the latest Poets and Writers on writing contests, hoping to find a sign, a tiny hidden hint of how I might fare in the contest in which I was currently a finalist. Judges described their strategy for narrowing down manuscripts to arrive at a winner. They also offered advice to writers on entering contests.

Entering contests is not always just about winning. (Yes, thank you, I knew that. More often, they’re about losing.)

Literary careers are built in steps. (Yes, again, thank you. I started writing just over twenty years ago. I turn 62 next month. I don’t have a lot of steps left.)

Then I read the “Winners on Winning” story, in which winners of contests provide their perspective on winning and losing.

…I always go on the assumption that I won’t win…
To which I say, but you must harbor at least a bit of hope that you will win. Or why bother to submit.

You swing and sometimes you miss but, hopefully, you hit every once in a while.
I like baseball (or softball) metaphors, but this one doesn’t quite fit. Back in the day, I swung a bat with a pretty good eye and connected plenty of times. My acceptance/rejection percentage doesn’t come anywhere close to my batting average.

Then there was this advice:

There’s a lot of excellent work out there, and publishers aren’t able to bring it all into the world.Therefore, it helps to be persistent. Lucky, too.

This was something I understood well. My work was competing with a lot of great stuff, which was why even in my persistence in submitting to contests and querying small presses and once in a while an agent, I wanted that other element on my side—luck.

So when the Seahawks lost due to a poor call or the bad luck of an interception, I wanted to believe that I was destined to win the contest. Wasn’t that how it was supposed to work? Except the waiting for the contest decision was agonizing and seemingly interminable. And I began to think that it would be another close-but-no-cigar kind of outcome. I had been a finalist for the Grace Paley, Flannery O’Connor, and Brighthorse prizes. This time I more than ever needed and craved the cigar.

When the call finally came on May 6 from Robin Muira at Carolina Wren Press, I was not just flooded with joy, I was swamped with relief. The search was over. The rejections were history. The universe had delivered! So, go ahead, Seattle, blame me for the Super Bowl loss. But you’re all invited to my book launch in 2016.

Posted in Events, On Writing

Uncommon Women

At Hedgebrook’s recent annual fundraiser called Equivox—equal voice—to support women’s stories as vehicles for change, I was again much moved by the sheer energy, goodwill, and, yes, love that this very special writing retreat inspires among alumnae and community supporters. This year I got to meet Hollis Wong-Wear, alumna of the Hedgebrook Songwriter’s Retreat, and hear her perform her poetry and songs. She’s dynamite on stage and off. Deborah Harkness, alumna as well as a master class teacher, recounted with warmth and humor how her stay at Hedgebrook helped her break out a period of self-doubt and low productivity. It was a story that many of us lived ourselves.

Meeting uncommon women (a favorite Wendy Wasserstein phrase) is part of the Hedgebrook experience. In fact, meeting other writers is one of the best aspects of a residency anywhere. Here are a few whose work you might want to get your eyes or hands on.

I met Angie Chuang at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts the spring of 2011. The residency hosts about twenty-five artists—writers, visual artists, and composers—at a time. Angie was a magnet with her energy and her smile. Adventurous, curious, and an engaging conversationalist, everyone seemed to gravitate toward her. Her book The Four Words for Home, based on her travels to Afghanistan, won the Willow Books prize and was published last year. She’s on the journalism faculty of the American University School of Communication. Her academic work focuses on American Otherness, constructions of immigrant and minority identity in the news media. Angie is also a Hedgebrook alumna.

I met visual artist Tamara Cedre at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in 2009. There were eight writers, eight visual artists, and eight composers, each group working with a master artist. On one of the first nights, we all gathered to introduce ourselves and our work. Once I saw Tammy’s photography I was an immediate fan. The colors and composition starkly evoke something deeply human even when people are absent from the photo. Tammy is funny, smart, and compassionate, attributes she’s applied to Critical Eyes: Navigating the Politics of Image, a blogging collective that reflects on media culture. I was honored to have been invited to submit one of the first articles.

I met well-traveled and well-read Stacy Perman during a return stay at Hedgebrook in 2005. Though I haven’t seen her since, I recall quite vividly the breadth of her knowledge on a multitude of topics. She’s the author of three books, each of which has earned acclaim. One is about the ultra-secret high-tech intelligence unit of the Israeli military and the groundbreaking information technologies that resulted from it. Her second book told the story of In-N-Out Burgers, the renegade burger chain and its unique fervent following. Her most recent concerns the passion, money, and obsession around a famous watch, considered the Mona Lisa of timepieces that contained twenty-four “complications,” including a celestial chart over Manhattan. How’s that for range?

Go. Read and view the work of these talented women.

Posted in Hedgebrook, On Writing, People, Places

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