Friday, August 31, 2007

A glimpse

Yesterday I mentioned in the comments that I'd be spending the day tagging along with my friend who is looking for an apartment for her mentally ill, alcoholic, unemployed, impoverished brother-in-law who is being treated for cancer (of the tongue, just to make things worse!). Whew. That's a load o' trouble. Fortunately, as I also mentioned, my friend is experienced in dealing with social services, but even so she was flying blind to some extent, never having done this particular task for him before.

It was, as perhaps only a writer would so cold-bloodedly say, interesting.

We went into four apartment buildings, all of them low-income, subsidized housing. (His total income is about $500 per month; our understanding, possibly faulty, is that they'd take 30% of that, which is really good compared to what he had been paying for years in the building where he had insisted on living before he got cancer.) We drove past four other places, too, but looked over at each other, said, "No way," and kept driving. In those cases, we were turned off either by the disrepair of the building, the crime rate of the neighborhood, or the appearance of the clientele

The four we investigated were nice, to the extent that we could see them. We didn't see any of the actual apartments, but only the lobby areas, because either they were full with no units available to see, or they required an appointment, which my friend hadn't learned from her extensive research on the internet. (I held a lapful of her printouts for all the places she'd selected to check.) The public areas were, in all four cases, clean and neat, inside and out. If there was landscaping, it was attractive; if there was a big lobby area, it looked comfortable and appealing, too, if you don't mind protective vinyl coverings on furniture. At least one of the buildings has a grocery on the premises.

These buildings were all well-located on bus lines. One was a downtown high rise, two were big old converted apartments in mid-town (where he lived previously and was badly beaten up once), and one was a high rise on the edge of town.

We were impressed with the employees. Every one of them was friendly, helpful, and efficient. They were stymied a bit by a new HUD regulation that requires an applicant to fill out the forms on the premises, and won't let you take them away with you to fill out, but we all worked our way around that.

Three of them have waiting lists, one has available units (He won't be ready to leave the nursing home he's in for at least a month, though he *really* wants out now.) The waiting list in one was 3-6 months, but it was clear to us in at least one case that because we look respectable, that could help move him up the list faster. Huh. Wait until they meet him. They're going to be screaming "false advertising."

In other words, because there were two of us--intelligent, fairly well-informed, middle-class women driving around a large area in a nice car, armed with internet research--it went very well. We found places we think he could live. The employees in those places couldn't have been nicer to us, or more helpful.

What if he were on his own? Sick, crazy, smelly, unable to speak (which doesn't keep him from trying). I don't think he'd have had to do it on his own, even then. Because he's in a nursing home, a social worker would have done this legwork. Somehow, he'd have been found a place to live somewhere. But this whole process--starting with his hospitalization and surgery--started because he has a brother and sister who care about him. He's not easy to find when he's on his own. He doesn't communicate well, and doesn't much want to. But his brother managed to track him down, get him in a car, and take him to a doctor, and from there the rest of it has unfolded. On his own, even with a bleeding mouth, I doubt he'd ever have gone for treatment.

The point of all this is not to make judgements about the system, but merely to write an account of some of what it's like out there, in the place where probably most of us have, at one time or another, secretly worried that we'd end up. As my friend said, with a smile, "I used to wonder how I could get one of those shopping carts." And I've had moments when I wondered, "Okay, so how do you actually get to a soup kitchen?" Haven't you had times of financial insecurity when those were your fears, too? In this society, material security is an illusion. For some, the illusion holds; for this man--from an upper-middle-class family, it broke when he broke.

In many ways, for some people, the social service system works okay, all things considered, though it sure helps to still have family who don't give up. And this is no judgment on families who do give up. Nobody knows their particular circumstances. Nobody walks in their shoes. I might give up, too. Most of the time even this man's family has to just let him be. When they can help, they do.

All we did was view that life, in mere glimpses, from the lobby. Even that tiny glimpse was enough to remind me that the only real security any of us have lies in whatever degree of acceptance and peace we feel inside, and in the love of our friends and family, and the good will of strangers.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Sisters In Crime, Part 1

Note to readers: Every now and then I'll do posts, like this one, that may interest only mystery writers/readers. The comments will carry on, as usual, though. Thanks.

Years ago, Sharyn McCrumb, who was a mystery writer at the time, made the now-famous remark that the mystery world is like a village. "Tony Hillerman is the mayor," Sharyn quipped, much to the amused agreement of the rest of us, "Mary Higgins Clark is the rich, gracious lady in the big white house on the hill, and the rest of us live in the little shacks down on The Flats."

True dat, lol. It's a village where everybody knows everybody else, or nearly. We have our own conventions, our own awards, our own magazines, chat rooms, and blogs. And scattered throughout the Mystery Village are "lodges" where mystery writers, editors, publishers, librarians, book store owners, and our BELOVED readers can meet to laugh a lot and to get down to the business of discussing our common interests. Most of those "lodges" are strictly for professionals in the field. There's the big group, Mystery Writers of America, which is the umbrella organization for all of us. There's The Private Eye Writers of America. There's the Crime Writers League, and the new International Thriller Writers, Inc., and others.

And there's Sisters In Crime, which also includes readers as members.

Devoted to promoting "women of mystery," it was the brainchild, twenty years ago, of Sara Paretsky. I was lucky enough to be one of the founding members, and I was the second president, after Sara. Two girls from Kansas, in a row. :) Over two decades, it has grown from the original 40 members to more than 3,600 members worldwide. We're not exclusive--anybody, including men, may join. (At the beginning, there was much merriment over the idea of "male members." We settled on "brothers.") The only thing we ask is that members and chapters remember that we're dedicated to supporting the work and careers of women in the mystery field. It's not just a reader's club, or a writer's group, therefore, but is aimed at a larger goal--helping women who write mysteries, which in turn keeps those books coming for the millions of people who love to read them.

But why even start such an organization devoted to women?

Because twenty years ago there was a revolution in our mystery village. What happened next was, I think, a microcosm of the women's movement in general. I'll talk about that revolution next Thursday in Part 2.

Photo: Ex-presidents of Sisters In Crime, looking silly in our 20th Anniversary Party caps. From left: Margaret Maron, me, Carolyn G. Hart, Joanna Carl (aka Eve Sandstrom).

Wednesday, August 29, 2007


This week I put up my very first hummingbird feeder, and they came almost immediately.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

If we ran the world

If I ran the world, of course it goes without saying that we'd have all the big stuff we want, like peace and health care and food and decent jobs and wages and housing for anybody who wants them. But after doing that in my first week in office, then I'd like to settle down to what really matters. . .

1. Garden nurseries wouldn't stop selling little plants by the end of June. They'd understand that we still want to be able to buy cheap little darlings and watch them grow, even in August. None of these $4.99 eight-inch pots for us, please; keep giving us those $1.99 six packs of babies.

2. We'd get paid for doing our hobbies. We'd get paid for planting our flowers and then watering them. I'd get paid for pursuing this new passion of making jewelry. If you love to cook, you'd get paid for that. Oh, and you'd get paid for reading. More for fiction. :)

3. Dogs could run free again.

4. There would be double-feature movies with news reels and cartoons again.

5. All tomatoes would taste like tomatoes.

6. There would be Cuban Coffee available in Kansas City. Close to my home.

7. If we got sick and tired of our jobs, even ones we once loved, even ones for which we went to 120 years of college, we could quit and do something else new and interesting, and everything would be fine.

8. Middle school wouldn't be hell and high school would be interesting.

9. Nobody would talk on cell phones in restaurants or on airplanes (except after they land). There wouldn't be a law, there would just be more thoughtful people. :)

10. If you were working on a book and having a hard time with it, you could toss the damned thing, and the publisher would say, "That's okay, sweetheart," and pay you anyway.

What if you ruled the world.?

Monday, August 27, 2007

The unexpected

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, or for Alberto Gonzales to resign today, or landscape like this in Kansas. This used to be an ancient ocean bed, and then later a river ran through it, but geologists say it was erosion from wind and rainfall that carved out these monument rocks. This is where the book I'm working on is set. It speaks to me of contrast, beauty, the unexpected, isolation, inspiration, danger, peace, time, and timelessness. Sometimes it feels as if my book is taking as long to write as it took for those rocks to erode into those shapes. Next time, I think I'll try to be inspired by a rushing river. :)

I wish us all a happy and inspired Monday.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Friends Don't Let Friends Write Alone

You know how, when very young children first start to play together, they do what's called "parallel play"? They play side-by-side, but not interacting. I've done that with writer friends for years. We sit in the same room, each of us writing, both of us agreeing on no interruptions until an hour or so has passed. Then we might stop for coffee or a snack, maybe some chitchat, maybe not, and only for a little while. Then we get back to writing. We never read our work to each other, or critique it, though we might brainstorm a little. We're there to write. The stereo sound of our tapping fingers spurs us on. It's a companionable, satisfying way to work sometimes, especially if we're tired of isolation, or we're stuck in our writing. Today I'll be over at my friend Sally's house, on a porch very like the one in the photo, and she'll be sitting on her wicker couch working on her novel, and I'll be nearby in a wicker chair working on my novel. We'll work like that off and on for hours, and then again tomorrow. If I'm lucky, I'll get to stay for supper. :)

I hope your Saturday has good friends and good work and good rest in it, too.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Recommend-A-Book Day

Because we talked about dreams yesterday, I want to list a few great books on the subject, just in case anybody wants to do a little study. But why stop with what interests me? Please consider this a day for recommending non-fiction books that have been really important to you, on ANY subject, from dreams to birdwatching, from computers to cooking.

All righty, then. To dream, perchance to read. . .

Memories, Dreams, Reflections--This is Carl Jung's autobiography, a really amazing and essential book, in my opinion.

Our Dreaming Mind by Robert L. Van de Castle

Lucid Dreaming by Stephen LaBerge

Creative Dreaming by Patricia Garfield

That's a start, at least. Several of those are "classics" in the field, at least for laypeople. The Van de Castle book, particularly, will help you determine what school of dream analysis/interpretation appeals to you. I just naturally gravitate to Jung's stuff. I've read a lot of his work, but I think he's hard to read directly. It's easier to read books that others have written that explain his ideas, theories, practices, and research.

What great books have instructed you in subjects that fascinate you?

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Dream Lover

My dad, now deceased, used to say that he never dreamed. Scientists could have disproved that with REM readings of his brain, but that wouldn't have altered the fact that my gentle father never remembered any dreams, and therefore it seemed to him that he didn't dream. Because he apparently didn't know what a dream was, I'm not sure he ever believed the rest of us who claimed we did dream. In fact, he tended to poo-poo any talk of any possibility of consciousness beyond the strictly ordinary--beyond, that is, what he experienced, himself. But a strange thing happened toward the end of his life, and sometimes I wonder if it had anything to do with all those dreams he never was aware of having.

He was sliding into Alzheimer's--or something like it--and he was also extremely deaf. He wore two hearing aids and even then could barely hear anything. He took off those aids when he slept. One Saturday morning, after months of being in a deep Alzheimer's fog, he awoke early, lying next to my mother who also woke up.

They began to chat about this and that as long-married couples do.

Suddenly, my mom exclaimed, "Clinton, you're hearing me!"

And he was. Without either of his hearing aids, he was hearing her perfectly. Not only that, but he was lucid. That weekend was an astonishment of a blessing, because for two days we had him back almost the way he used to be. He was rational, and he could talk to us. He wasn't totally without confusion, and he was fragile, but it was a miraculous turnaround, nonetheless.

There was one strong holdover from the Alzheimer's, however, which was that he continued to have hallucinations. This time, however, he could tell us about them as an observer would, instead of living them in fear and confusion. He told me there was "a man" who followed him everywhere, dogging his footsteps, and who drove him crazy. (!) My dad called that hallucination, "that fellow." At one point when I was sitting on the fireplace hearth, my dad said there was a middle-aged woman on either side of me.

He had also always poo-pooed even the idea of psychological therapy, but something was different about him that weekend--beyond the obvious miracle of his "recovery"--and so I asked him, "Daddy, have you thought about turning around and asking that fellow why he's following you?"

Instead of laughing at that suggestion, my dad looked interested. "You could ask him what he wants," I followed-up. "That might be a good idea," my father said, and my heart leaped, because it was the first hint of interest in introspection and consciousness that I had ever heard from him.

I should have pursued it right then, should have asked him about the middle-aged women and the other people he saw, but I didn't, and by Monday, he was deaf, and mentally gone again, never to return. That strange and blessed weekend had given us our chance to say goodbye, though we didn't know it, during a brief opening when he could understand us and we could understand him. When he died about a year later, of acute leukemia, he had completely disappeared into delusion.

I've wondered a lot about his hallucinations, those products of something gone awry in his brain. It seemed at the time as if the contents of his denied dreams came surging out, standing behind him and in front of him, as if to say, "Look at us. Now you have to look at us!" Possibly this is a crazy idea, but I can't shake it, because I know there's truth to the quote from the Gnostic Gospel of St. Thomas, which avers that, "Whatever you bring forth from within you will save you; whatever you don't bring forth from within you will destroy you."

I've been paying close attention to my dreams for thirty years. That close attention--that belief in them, if you will--started with a dream that told the future in a way so undeniable that I couldn't do anything but accept the mystery of it and know that in that sleeping consciousness lay knowledge. There have been times when it has literally saved me--once from a murderer, and once from crooks. I'll tell those tales another time. The subject of dreams is far too big to cover in one little blogger post. I just want to introduce it this first time, and start a conversation that may continue over time--daytime and nighttime.

Thanks for reading this.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

New fangled

WEDNESDAY UPDATE: Hi, Guys. When I tried to log on this morning, blogger wouldn't let me, and now it's a little late in the day. I'll post something new tomorrow. It's going to be about dreams and dreaming, I think. Meanwhile, these comments will stay open. xxoo NP

Yesterday evening, I did something out of character. I called East Aurora, New York and talked by speaker phone to a book club there. They were at the home of one of the members. I was sitting in my rocking chair in my living room. What a world. What a century. But the thing of it is, I hate the telephone.

I've always hated it, dagnabbed newfangled contraption!

My first memory of the phone is of it ringing for me when I was twelve, and my mother whispering it was a friend calling, and me whispering back to please tell her I was in the bathtub. I loved my friends, but just did not want to take that phone from my mother's hand. I think I would have more readily taken a snake from her. Or a Snickers or Almond Joy, which I also loathed.

You want to know how to piss me off? Be with me somewhere and talk on the phone to somebody and then say brightly to them, "Here's Nancy! I'll put her on!" And then hold out the phone while I do that dance where you wave your arms in front of you all the while mouthing NO NO.

What is it with us phone-phobes anyway? There are a lot of us. Email was heaven-sent to us, believe me. It's so wonderful. We interrupt nobody. Nobody interrupts us. They answer if and when they want to, and ditto for us.

The book club chat, by the way, was nice. They were lovely. I was pretty comfortable talking to them, but I think that is because I was talking "at" them, answering questions, and such.

How are you with the phone? Like it? Hate it? Don't give it a thought?

Tell me in the comments. DON'T call me!

Monday, August 20, 2007

Writer Heaven

It's quiet around our blog village, so I think I'll take the opportunity this week to get in a few plugs for good things, starting today with The Writers Retreat Workshop.

I've taught there twice, as has T.J. MacGregor who stopped by to say hi when I opened this blog. My co-writer on Seven Steps on the Writer's Path, psychologist and self-help writer Lynn Lott, taught there with me one year. I'll be teaching there again next spring. Our blog friends Conda, Beth, and Kimberly have all attended as students. My agent, Meredith Bernstein, has been there, as has Donald Maass whom I quote a lot. Jason Sitzes (jscs), who stops by here now and then, is the director of it. For the full story of its founding and programs, please go to this link.

That link can give you the facts, but I want to give you a picture of what it's like to get to leave your regular life and go do--finally, at last--what you've been longing to do, possibly for years, maybe for a lifetime. In this case, it's writing, but it could be anything you're longing to be able to do without interruption, if you could only find the place to do it. Maybe this will inspire somebody out there to do the same for himself or herself.

Here's what WRW was like the last time I was there. . .

They were doctors, physicists, teachers, computer technicians. They were two pilots, a clergyman, and at least one housewife. They worked in insurance and in law. Some could easily afford the considerable expense of the retreat; others had saved or worked harder, or gone into debt to pay for it. They were black and they were white. They were old enough to be retired and young enough to stay up all night. The important things they almost all had in common were that they had felt how unhappy it made them if they didn't write, and then they had let their desire grow until it gave them the courage they needed to make this grand commitment to their writing. They took the risk and gambled big on what they wanted. For ten glorious, hard, demanding days, they laid down their money and their time on the table where their wants were.

They had little rooms to themselves, they had their computers, they had classes to attend, agents to meet, editors to whom to show their work. The communal areas chattered with talk and bubbled with laughter, but the long corridors remained thoughtfully quiet as the writers tiptoed past one another's work. Books were born, or torn up, and begun again, or nearly finished. Careers started or were revived or rethought that week. They had POS buttons to wear anytime they fell into a funk and thought their writing was a piece of shit. The buttons signaled that they needed pats on the back, hugs, and encouraging words. They were served food, somebody else washed their sheets, but they did their own heavy lifting where the writing was concerned. They wrote. For those ten amazing days away from their "regular" lives, they became the full-time writers they longed to be.

For people who desperately wanted to write, it was heaven on earth.

Tomorrow: My little piece of heaven, Kansas, has its own mystery convention.

(Excerptrom Seven Steps on the Writer's Path by Nancy Pickard and Lynn Lott, Ballantine Books, 2003.)

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Sunday Bulletin Board

A weekly spot
to share your news,
show some views (photo links),
or just say howdy.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Ten Mysteries Game

Remember that party game where you picked ten people from history to invite to a dinner? Whenever I played it it I always ended up inviting people like Amelia Earhart so I could ask her what really happened to her. Always a mystery writer, lol. So. . . for our Saturday night breakfast/lunch/dinner party, what if you could wave a magic wand and solve ten real-life mysteries? Which ones what would you pick? They could be personal or public, from your life or somebody else's, historical or current, big or little, your choice. And you don't have to pick ten if you don't want to. Take all day to figure it out, if you want to. And, here, have some more champagne.

Friday, August 17, 2007

It's all in the details

Last night, one of our new blog buddies, Kimberly Frost, shared the wonderful news that she has sold her first book. Books, actually, since it's a two-book deal to a major publisher. It reminded me of this wonderful story from the best-selling author Nora Roberts of her first sale.

"I honestly don't think anything can top it," Nora says, "I remember mine came in midsummer of 1980. My kids were fighting, as usual. It was murderously hot, and I'd just stepped, barefoot, onto a hugely fat tick one of the dogs had scratched off onto the kitchen floor. When the phone rang the last thing I expected was a voice from New York telling me Silhouette was buying my book. I paced back and forth, leaving bloody footprints on the kitchen floor, trying to take it in while my kids murdered each other. It was one of the most beautiful moments of my life."

I love that story. But what makes it great is not just the good news. It's her detail. When did it happen? "Midsummer." Which midsummer? "of 1980." What was the weather like that day? "Murderously hot." Was anybody else around when she got the news? "My kids. . ." What were they doing? "Fighting, as usual." How, exactly did she get the news? By phone. What did she do then? "I paced back and forth." And what is the most wonderful detail of all, the one that "grounds" us in her kitchen with her? The tick, of course. The one she stepped on, at the most exciting moment of her life, so that this future best-selling author left bloody footprints on her kitchen floor.

It is so damned human, real, and believable.

Kimberly, if you're reading this. . .what are the details of when you got your news?

When I got the news that I had sold a book for the first time, I got in my car and drove to my favorite cafe for an omelet with a croissant and a cafe au lait. What I remember most concretely is a single moment: It's spring of 1983. A perfectly beautiful day, 10 a.m., with a blue sky and a few clouds and temperatures in the 70's. I'm driving on Ward Parkway, over a little bridge over Bush Creek, at the point where the road curves onto the south side of the creek. I'm in the middle lane of traffic. Cars surround me. I'm so joyful I could burst, and I say to myself, "Always remember this. You may never feel like this again."

What if you want to make your fictional (or non-fictional) scenes as real as Nora's bloody tick? Writing guru and literary agent Donald Maass advises:

Recall an incident in your own experience that mirrors the feeling you want (e.g., the time you felt most betrayed). Record every detail you can remember. What was the exact moment in time? (No, precisely, to the calendar minute.) Who was there? Standing/sitting where in relation to you? What was quality of the light? Object in the vicinity you remember best? What was said/done that made you feel [betrayed]? What made it extra bad…it would have been bad enough, except that--? In other words, what twisted the knife?

Now, give those details to your character in the scene. If it means changing location, time of day, objects around…do it. Make it personal but with details.

The idea here is that if I tell you, the moment I felt most betrayed as when my girlfriend dumped me without warning…well, that’s fine. But when I say, it was a snowy March 31st in New York, I was walking home from a poker game, crunching through the snow, the city quiet, talking on my cell, breath visible, when I could tell something was wrong, finally my girlfriend told me it was over, I stood in my room in my coat and dripping boots, unable to believe it, hearing the words in the earpiece but not believing them, talked for twenty minutes without moving, still dressed for the blizzard…

…okay, what makes that story? Not “dumped” but the details around it, right?

Right. So very right.

Everybody here is a writer. I know you are--I see your own blogs everyday, or your comments, or I read your books. Can you--would you care to--share the details of a great, or less than great, moment? Or, how about this moment?

And a great good morning to you. Happy weekend, everybody.

(Nora's story is told in Seven Steps on the Writer's Path. For more of Donald's great advice see his Writing the Breakout Novel and Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook.)

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Pull up a chair?

Update: Hey, look what I've been doing to avoid writing today. Check out the new calendar link in the upper right hand corner of this blog.

Good afternoon! This is, as the Big Boy Bloggers say, an Open Thread. I'll see you in the comments, where we also have tea for Kelly and free WiFi for all. Pass the croissants, please.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

When *not* to tell your story

Back to writing for a moment. . .*

The most common piece of advice given to new writers--aside from WRITE--is, "write what you know." I spent almost all of l6 books ignoring that advice. Although I've spent my entire life on one side or the other of the Missouri/Kansas state line, I never set a book entirely in either of those states until my most recent novel, the 17th. Oh, I had one book that took place mostly in Kansas, and another where a character spent a couple of scenes here, but they were Kansas as seen through the eyes of outsiders, not Kansas as seen through insider eyes. I tried that only in a handful of short stories--which was safer since so many fewer people would ever read them. :)

One reason I wrote about other places is that I wanted to live in them, and even fictionally would do. So I moved my heroines to New England. South Florida. Colorado. New York City. That was the "positive" reason for doing what I did. The "negative" one was because I was nervous about "doing" the place where I live. I was afraid of not getting it right, but what did "right" mean? I suppose it meant getting it down so that it felt familiar and true to other people who live here. Looking back, I realize that I also didn't have the skill yet to be able to write my "local" stories. Plus, I was afraid of offending. I didn't want to become one of those writers who becomes unwelcome in her own home. As my (then) 2-year-old son said one day when he was wearing only diapers and cowboy boots, and he had an "accident". . ."Never pee in your boots, Mom."

I didn't want to pee in my boots.

But a funny thing happened to that fear. It turned into something closer to love of the very people I was afraid of offending. And with affection came the confidence to write about them, and since I was writing from a place of love, there was nothing to worry about any more. Weird how that works.

Personally, I don't think it's a good idea to try to force stories that make you feel terribly nervous to tell them. I would trust those inner feelings, which may just mean that you don't yet have the skill to tell that story, or that you aren't ready to deal with the responses you get when you tell it. You may not yet be at the crossroads of Desire + Ability + Confidence. When your story is ready--and you have the skill to tell it, and you're also ready to cope with the consequences--it will burst out of you, and you won't be able to stop it from coming. Seems to me that might be true of novelists, journalists, whistleblowers, bloggers, and family members with secrets.

If to everything there is a season, then to every story there is a time for telling it. So, if you have to, wait. Keep waiting. And then wait some more. Don't let anybody pressure you into writing what it is not yet time for you to write, or telling what you don't yet want to tell. Don't let anybody pick your audiences for you. Maybe you never will want to tell that particular story; maybe you'll always want to keep it to yourself, or you'll change your mind about it, or the need to tell it will melt away. So much of writing (and life) is about trusting your own inner wisdom. As that trust (in yourself) builds, so will the confidence to tell your deepest and most heartfelt stories in your own best way.

Or so it seems to me. And in the meantime, while you're waiting? Write all that other stuff that will prepare you for being the writer you want to be.

*This post inspired by something Katiebird said

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

We made it!

I couldn't resist doing this.

If I have this figured out right, everybody who comes to this blog has automatically found their way to within the requisite six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon.

Check this out. . .

We learned yesterday that one of our blog friends used to live in Bloomington, IN. where the Dalai Lama's brother lives. One night, our friend had the DL's brother and his wife over for dinner. Okay, so that puts the rest of us at two degrees of separation from the Dalai Lama's brother, which puts us three degrees away from the Dalai Lama, himself. Which puts us four degrees away from Richard Gere. :)Which puts us, I'm guessing, five or at most six degrees away from Kevin Bacon, because surely either Gere knows him or Gere knows people who know him.

We made it, and with possibly even a degree to spare!

Now we can relax and go on about our lives. ;p

Did I do that right?

Writing is like. . .

"It's like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." E.L. Doctorow

That famous piece of advice about writing sees me through many a tough place when I panic because I don't know where my story is going. At those moments, I put myself behind the wheel of an imaginary car on a road at night--just like the one above--and I think, "Okay, I can't see very far ahead, but I *can* see this far." Then I advise myself, "Write to the end of the headlights." Sometimes the car and the headlights keep moving on down the road, revealing more of the story bit by bit. That's a great relief. I can keep writing like that. Sometimes a deer bounds across the road, figuratively speaking, startling me. Sometimes the car keeps moving but the headlights mysteriously go out. That's scary! Sometimes, everything breaks down. And my cell phone won't work. And here come a rough-looking pair of guys in an old pickup truck. But now and then Doctorow's advice works really well for me in a straightforward and simple fashion. So I pass it along today in case there are any writers reading this who need it as much as I do today.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Karl and Kuan-Yin

Goodness, big political news to wake up to!

Seems like a good day for a visit to Buddhism. :)

I'm not a Buddhist, I just play one on teevee. No, seriously, I'm not, even though I did spend a year attending services at the local Tibetan Buddhist temple. I just love that form of that religion, even if it does make my Zen friends gag. I love the gaudy colors, the orange robes, the red prayer flags, the "gold" statues, the red and black meditation mats, the incense, the bells, the funny bald lama who tells great jokes, the visiting high mucky-mucks. I loved chanting in Sanskrit without understanding a word of it. I love the mysticism of the Tibetans, and I grieve for their tragedy. The only bumper sticker I ever had--until Howard Dean--was a little square one in support of Tibet. When my son saw it the first time, he laughed and said, "Mom, that is so you." But then, I was greatly influenced by James Hilton's novel, Lost Horizon, at an early age, lol. No, seriously, I was. And I love Buddhist stories. Their parables. They tend to have endings that make people laugh when they "get it," and which instantly make me think of times I could apply them to my own life.

So on a day when a certain politician is getting down off our backs, I think I'll tell one of my very favorite Buddhist stories, about the two monks and the woman at the river.

One day two monks were walking somewhere and they arrived at a river where there was a young woman who was very upset. "I need to get to the other side!" she exclaimed, "but the current is too strong for me to walk across by myself! What will I do, what will I do?"

Whereupon, the elder of the monks volunteered to carry her across on his back, even though as monks they were strictly forbidden to touch females. She climbed on board, and off they all went through the lively water.

On the other side, he put her down, she expressed her gratitude, and she and the monks went their ways. The monks walked for several more miles. Finally, the younger monk could stand it no longer and he burst out with, "You shouldn't have picked her up! You know we are not supposed to do anything like that!"

The older monk looked at him in amused surprise and said, "Are you still carrying that woman? I put her down two hours ago."

I love that story. It cracks me up every time I hear it.

(The photo is of a bigger-than-lifesize, painted, wood statue of Kuan-Yin, or Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of Mercy and Compassion. The statue lives in a reconstructed Chinese temple in the Nelson-Atkins museum here in K.C. It is my favorite room in the museum and "she" is my favorite work of art there.)

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Why, hello there, Saturday

And when we put down the book at last,
lean back, close our eyes,
stinging with print,
and slip in the bookmark of sleep. . .

from a poem by Billy Collins

Friday, August 10, 2007

Ghost Post

I'm going to let a dead poet write my post for me today. He is--or was--Richard Hugo. These quotes are taken from his little book of lectures and essays, The Triggering Town.

"I hope you learn to write like you."

"At all times, keep your crap detector on."

"Don't start arguments. They are futile and take us away from our purpose. If you don't agree with me, don't listen. Think about something else."

"In a sense, the next thing always belongs. In the world of imagination, all things belong. If you take that on faith, you may be foolish, but foolish like a trout."

"Never worry about the reader. When you are writing, look over your shoulder and you'll find there is no reader. Just you and the page."

"If you feel pressure to say what you know others want to hear and you don't have enough devil in you to surprise them, shut up."

"Finish the poem first, then worry about being right or sane."

"Don't worry about morality. Most people who worry about morality ought to."

"To write a poem you must have a streak of arrogance--not in real life, I hope. In real life try to be nice. It will save you a hell of a lot of trouble and give you more time to write."

(Following one of his early poems) "I don't even understand that one anymore."

"I believe that it is only in periods when you can transcend your competitive instincts that you can write."

"What endures is your feelings about your work. You wouldn't trade your poems for anybody else's. To do that you would also have to trade your life for his, which means living a whole new complex of pain and joy. One of those per lifetime is enough."

"I've come to believe that one learns to write only by writing. Years ago in the comic strip 'Pogo,' a bear appeared, a creature who could write, but couldn't read. Granted the joke, I'm not sure anymore that the concept is that farfetched."

See you in the comments. Maybe something Richard Hugo said will trigger some conversation in our town today. :)

Thursday, August 9, 2007

How to Bake a Book

If you had asked me an hour ago--me, the author of 17 novels--"What's a subplot?" I'd have told you and I'd have been sure of my answer. And I'd have been wrong, as I just learned 59 minutes ago. According to one of my favorite writing gurus, Donald Maass, "Subplots are plot lines given to different characters; layers are plot lines given to the same character."

Layer cakes and cupcakes, in other words.

This makes so much sense! Why haven't I ever known this before?

Well, who cares why, or even that I didn't, because now I do, and it makes marbles tumble into slots for me, if you'll pardon the mixed metaphors. A Marble Cake? lol. I'm excited about how I'm going to spend my morning thinking about layers and subplots.

Today is a day for what the Buddhists (bless them for their useful terminology!) call "Beginner's Mind," a state I'd like to maintain forever.

May you, too, be surprised and blessed today by learning something that you thought you already knew.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Hump Day

Why a camel?

* It's the middle of the week for people with M-F jobs.
* This is what trying to write the middle of a book feels like.
* Camels are notoriously bad-tempered, which is what writers are like in the middle of a book. (Bite me.)
* It's hot out there.
* To remind me to go to the chiropractor today.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007


I may write this in installments throughout the day, 'cause I'm imitating a slug this morning. Keep me away from salt and beer, please.

You can't hang out for years with fiction writers without certain topics coming up over and over: what's a "story," what's a hero, and what makes a character likable? These are big topics, debatable topics, topics that are metaphors for Real Life, so maybe we should take them one at a time.

Let's talk about heroes. What is one?

In my opinion, simply being on the scene of a terrible event does not make a person a hero. If I'm in a building when it catches fire and I make my way safely outside, that may make me smart, or simply capable of following directions, but it does not automatically make me a hero. Even being brave during that event doesn't do it. I could be terrified of fire and have to force myself through it, but that still doesn't make me heroic. People can be brave without being heroes. For me, heroism must have an element in it of conscious self-sacrifice. The person has got to make a choice--maybe in a split second, but a choice nonetheless-between her own life and somebody else's, and choose to help that person at the risk of hurting herself. In that fire, I've got to have a moment when I see that I'm five feet from the door and if I run for it, I'm probably going to live, but there's somebody behind me with a broken ankle and she can't make it on her own, but if I go back for her, I may die, too. If I choose to go back for her, I'm a hero, by my own definition, whether either of us lives or dies.

I think I'll stop here for now and go water the flowers. It's going to be very hot out there. If I don't go out, I'll stay cool, but the flowers may die. If I do go out, the flowers will live, but I may die of heat stroke. I'm such a hero. :)

Do you have different ideas about who is a hero? Have you ever had a moment when you had to make a choice between your own safety and somebody else's? Have you ever seen a hero in action?

UPDATE: I told you, my brain is operating in fits and spurts today. Watch out, here comes a spurt. Or possibly a fit?

Maybe I need to ask first, even before I ask about heroes. . .what is courage? I have a friend who is absolutely emphatic in her opinion that you don't have to be afraid in order to be brave. She thinks some acts are inherently brave. Going into a burning building to save somebody, for instance. I disagree. I think there has to be fear before there can be bravery.

Can a person who does something dangerous, but who isn't afraid at the time, be said to be brave?

UPDATE 2: Wanna see something startling? Go here! (Scroll up to the YouTube video.) BE SURE TO LISTEN TO THE SOUND ALL THE WAY THROUGH, EVEN THOUGH IT'S ANNOYING AT FIRST.

UPDATE 3: I love the tv series "Heroes."

Monday, August 6, 2007

Hot tamale

When I was young and younger, I hated any fireworks louder than a sparkler. Couldn't stand spicy food. Hid from horror novels. Scorned violent movies and the people who loved them. Now I'm the one who adores BOOMS that make my ribs vibrate, pours Tabasco sauce on everything from grits to gravy, watches spooky stuff with a grin and a pleasurable shiver. And I saw The Bourne Ultimatum yesterday and loved it. (If you've been reading along in this blog, you already know that I think there are few movies than cannot be improved by a velociraptor, or two.)

Maybe all my senses have dulled, and that accounts for the dramatic change? Maybe it just takes more to get me to hear it, taste it, feel it? That might actually be true when it comes to taste. But my hearing's fine. I can still hear whispers and I still love a good sweet love story. No, there's just something in me that actually enjoys some kinds of intensity more than it used to. I don't know why.

I was thinking, yesterday, while I watched car chases and gunfights, how wonderfully cathartic those kinds of movies can be. And how happy I feel when I leave one that I've really enjoyed--like all three of the Bourne movies. It sure doesn't make me want to go out and shoot somebody, or even argue with people.

If there's a larger point to this little post, I have no idea what it is yet. I guess I'm interested in learning how this strikes you according to your personal experiences.

And if there's nothing really here to talk about? Ha. With this crowd, there's ALWAYS something to talk about, "praise the lord and pass the mashed potatoes," as my ol' grandpappy used to say. But put a little Tabasco on them first, please.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Sunday Bulletin Board

A weekly spot
to share your news,

link to photos,

flog your blog,

or say howdy.

Friday, August 3, 2007

This crazy thing called blog

Happy traveling, Beth! (She's off to Florida to live, by way of Seattle.) We'll look forward to your check-ins, en route!

Boran2 is starting a new painting today, over at his blog.

Saturday update: I'll be gone all day, so I'll just leave this post up.

Sunday Bulletin Board will be posted tomorrow for news, photos, etc.

(Friday) I'm watching the Ellen Degeneres show and she just gave every audience member two round-trip tickets to Cancun, and I'm feeling really bad that I can't do that for you guys. Could you be happy with some really really nice pictures of the Gulf of Mexico? :)

So I guess you're here 'cause you want to be, and not because of the free food, right? Me, too. I started this blog in a funny way a few weeks ago when I thought I was clicking on a button that would let me see what "my" blog might look like if I had one. It turned out to be the button that actually *made* the blog. Oops. "Well," I thought, "I guess I'll just plunge in. . ."

And then you crazy kids showed up!

But who are you, that's what some lurkers might like to know. And why do some of us already seem to know each other pretty well? Without giving away anything private, I thought I'd explain a little of that. . .

There are several of us who met a few years ago through a political blog, and especially at a "cafe" at that blog. The cafe was a place where nobody argued and everybody was kind and nice to each other. It was a relief, a refuge from the contention that sometimes was going on in the main rooms. I think nobody from that group will mind if I state categorically that we grew fond of one another, and now we follow each other around the blogsphere.

So that's one bunch, the "politicos," you might say.

Then there are some people who happened over here from other blogs. I think I first knew of farfetched from katiebird's blog, for instance.

We might call that group the "other blog friends."

And then we have writers and other creative types who have found us and popped in to say hi, and some of them have stayed on.

And that's it so far, I think. Have I left out anybody?

What's *your* blogging history, if you'd care to say?

(If you'd like to comment, but you're having problems with it, let me know. You can find my email address in My Profile or on my website.)

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Life in the kingdom

Night before last I saw five deer, one fox, and a bat. One of the deer was a 14-point buck. This spring, we've had in our yard a family of marmots (aka groundhogs or woodchucks), a rat snake, a garter snake, countless rabbits, squirrels, birds, and chipmunks, two raccoons. . .and those are just the ones I've seen.

This totally knocks me out. I feel so privileged to have this ringside seat to the Kingdom.

My neighbor and I joke that we spend half our time just running to our windows to look outside to see what might appear next. Last fall we heard coyotes, including pups yipping. Neighbors on both sides swear we have bobcats. (Want to see, want to see!) Oh, and did I mention Bertha the wild turkey who hung out here all spring? (My mother named her the day she flew up onto our second floor deck railing and paraded back and forth there.) I cannot tell you how funny it is to be typing away and have a turkey walk past your window in your peripheral vision. A couple of weeks ago there were three turkey buzzards, (a different bird) feasting on dead something in the street. You go, guys. It's all yours.

Some neighbors love all this wildlife. Others think of them as pests, and fret over their roses and tomato leaves. I met one neighbor who says she likes the deer, except when they won't let her in her driveway.

They say black bears are coming back bigtime to our next-door state of Missouri. Okay, that makes me glad to live in Kansas.

Got any animal stories to tell? Close encounters of the animal kind?

Once upon a time, there was a turkey named Bertha. . .

Wednesday, August 1, 2007


Yesterday I got my once-a-year email from the sisterhood of Miss Grimshank, complaining about the bad language in my books. (It's ALWAYS a woman.) She informs me that using such words makes me a bad writer, that such foul words are not necessary, that I should write books that don't use such words, and that she will not ever read any more of my books.

Oh, the temptation! I sooo want to write back, "Well, shit! I'm gonna miss the hell out of you!" But I sit on my hands and don't reply at all, because I can't do it without at least some tinge of pissyness, and I don't need to make things worse for whomever she encounters next in the grocery store. At some point, it dawns on me that I'm itching to be just as bossy as she is. She wants to dictate to me what words I may use and how I may write my own books? Well, I want to dictate what may or may not offend her and what she may or may not say to me. Miss Grimshank, meet Miss Pissypants.

It gets pretty amusing in my own head sometimes. The cast of characters, you wouldn't believe!

So the Miss Grimshanks won't read books with cussing in them. Other readers are offended by sex. Some refuse to read prologues. Others don't like epilogues. Some detest novels written in the present tense. Others hate it when a book slips back and forth between different time periods, or has too many points of view, or. . .

In my 17 novels, I have managed to offend all of those readers at least some of the time. I've used all that stuff--cussing, sex, prologues, epilogues, prologues with sex, epilogues with cussing, present tense, different time periods, multiple points of view. . .

I've stopped worrying about it, mostly. That's all you can do, right?

I figure, the next time Miss Grimshanks writes one of my books, she can use darn and drat and shoot, if she wants to. But since I'm still the author of them, I'll continue to write them however I damn well please, dammit.

So, how the hell are you this morning? :)