Archive for December, 2009

On edges being brinks…

Thursday, December 31st, 2009

I just wrote a big long post, and then took it down. I felt too scared. Too superstitious to write about all the things I’m grateful for, all the things this decade has brought me.  This wonderful wonderful decade. I’m sad to see her go.

Instead, I’ll talk about where I was ten years ago, for a minute.

On December 31, 1999 I was depressed.  Or confused. Something like it. Rabid. I was sadly rabid.  Too unhappy to see clearly. Too bewildered to think about other people. I couldn’t stop shaking and dancing and shaking. My life was at its messiest, most confusing point thus far.

I was living in Iowa, in a cold apartment, with a roommate I didn’t know very well. I was in the process of ending (and oh, what a process! Oh, what an ending!)  the hardest relationship of my life.  Which meant a great deal to me then. I was destroyed by it all. I was drinking a lot of whiskey (see above).

I was wanting kids, feeling that pull, but I knew that whiskeydrunk rabid dogs make poor mothers.  Which only made me feel worse. I was unsuitable for the things I thought I wanted most.

I was getting ready to finish my MFA, but I wasn’t writing much.  I was listening to a lot of Lucinda Williams and feeling like she made a ton of sense.

Ha!  When Lucinda Williams is making sense to you, find a therapist!

I was on the cusp, the brink…  but I could only feel that it was an edge. Funny that–the difference between an edge and a brink.

I didn’t know what I was tipping over into.  I had just met the man who would become my husband, but we probably hadn’t spoken 100 words to each other.  I had just begun to think about genres outside poetry, but hadn’t found my genre yet. I was waiting for something to change.  Grasping at straws.

Then, painfully, slowly, it all tipped, and I slid into what is now my life.  It was a bumpy ride, but it happened, which is all that matters now.

One year later, I was with Chris.  Three years later, I was writing Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains, Five years later I was in Atlanta. Then I was a mom! A mom again!  Publishing poetry!  Publishing books for kids! Finding a career, my footing. And so… and so…

Here I am, now, looking back, and wishing I could send a message to that sad girl I was.  At twenty five I was buying a pair of sturdy hiking boots and getting ready to disappear into the universe, because I felt like I had nothing. Really!  That’s what I did–bought boots. I figured as long as I had sturdy boots, I’d be okay.

I want to say to my old sad self that the answer is always around the corner. That change is inevitable.  That almost all edges…

…turn out to be brinks.

So I say goodbye, now, to this decade, the decade, my favorite decade.   So far.

And I will toast departure as I toasted her arrival.

With whiskey (see above)!

Pickle THIS!!!

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

No cover yet or anything, and the art I have isn’t official, so I can’t even post it here. But LOOK!  BAXTER, THE PIG WHO WANTED TO BE KOSHER is coming to a bookstore (or progressive/inclusive Jewish library) near you…

Things we don’t say online…

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009

Last night I went to see the amazing Neil Gaiman. I was prepared for him to be NOT WORTH IT, as huge events for celebrity-type-writers are often NOT WORTH IT. Celebrities can coast.

But this guy doesn’t. Really, he was gracious and honest and engaged with the audience. He’s a great great reader of his own work, and good on his feet. He seemed to be a truth-teller, fully reacting in the moment, and he played well to the hoards of clove-smoking college kids and the small children running around too.  He’s a pro, and  this was a performance for sure, but it wasn’t at all canned. Really, it was a stellar event.

Hurrah for Neil, and Hurrah for  the nice folks at Little Shop of Stories, who regularly work magic!

But the thing I took away from the event, more than anything, was a thought about these here interwebs of ours. See, in the Q&A portion of the evening, someone asked Neil about “the line.” They wanted to know how he draws a line between his public (social networking) persona and his personal life.

His response (I’m paraphrasing) was that he can’t tell us what the line is, but that he knows it when he sees it. However, he added, his girlfriend (Amanda Palmer) draws the line 2.5 miles after he does. He joked about that a little, and then moved on…

But this got me thinking.  What’s the line? For me, what’s the line?

See, in my own life I’m the Amanda Palmer (minus the sexy lingerie and hoards of fans). I only mean to say that I’m the one who draws the line 2.5 miles down he road. My first blog (back in 2001) was called Autobiography of Lost Loves, OR The Particular Boots I’ve Knocked (cringeworthy, I know…)    It led to a lot of uncomfortable situations, and taught me a lot about what I wanted to reveal/conceal.  In the radio commentaries I’ve done and the poems I’ve published, I’ve made these same missteps from time to time.  But I try to learn from them. Because while I don’t seem to have any qualms about embarrassing myself, I do feel bad when I reveal secrets and stories about the people I love. Or even the people I loathe.

Plus, my husband is an especially private person.  Which is why you don’t hear much about him here.

So I thought that I’d share with you the three things I consider before I reveal something online, through this blog, or on Twitter or Facebook:

1. Is it MY story? Obviously, people’s lives intersect, and we do share stories, but if I feel a story belongs more to someone else than to me, I tend to leave it out.  Like, a story about how MY pants came off on the subway is MINE. But a story about how YOUR pants came off while I was standing next to you is YOUR story. If I use it, I’ll probably change names and places. I’ll obscure the details.  (Which is hard with a husband or a sister.  I can’t say, “One of my many husbands… but I won’t tell you which…”)  If the tramp stamp above is MY new tattoo, I can tweet it. If it belongs to my best-friend-with-a-minister-daddy, I’d probably better not.

2. Is it a story I’d share with my pediatrician? With social networking, I tend to have a specific reader in mind.  Jenny is pretty much  my smartest, funniest, best online friend, and when I’m trying to be funny or clever, she’s who I have in mind as a reader.  But she‘s not who I have to worry about, is she?  She’s much less offendable than, say, my Grandmother’s neighbor, or my stodgy English lit professor from college.  AND THEY ARE ALL READING BLOGS!  Whoever it is that you least want to read your Twitter feed will be the person who does. So I find it’s helpful to think of someone I’m careful in front of, someone I hope thinks well of me, and ask if I want them reading my posts… (Hi, Dr. Herrmann!)

3. Is it funny or smart? This is a very basic rule of writing, but it REEEEEEALLY extends to blogland.  If you are planning to offend someone by writing something dirty or naughty or secret, for God’s sake, do it well!  It is one thing to tell the world about your mother’s underpants in your dark, brilliant novel, and quite another to get tipsy on Hot Damn and text all your friends about those same leather panties.  If you win a Pulitzer, your mother will probably find a way to understand.  If the text gets forwarded to her boss, who points out that you don’t know how to spell the word LETTHER or the word UNDERPANTZ, she is less likely to forgive you anytime soon.

Well, that’s it. Thats what I got.  Be brilliant, be careful and be respectful of the line between your life and the lives of other people, who might not like to tell the word all their secrets.

But also, I’ll add that people do get easily offended, and if you’re doing your best to respect them, you can’t beat yourself up for every offense. As private as my husband is, when I get worried about whether I might have upset someone with something I’ve written, he reminds me, “Are they mad because you said it, or mad because it’s true?”

By this he means, I think, that if I’m respectfully  telling the truth as I see it, I should stand behind what I’ve said.

This helps a lot when I’ve said something generally irritating to many people, and I’m getting floods of hatemail.  It does!

Anyone have rules to add?

Getting real…

Saturday, December 12th, 2009

Today, in the comment boxes at Heavy Medal, someone brought up the inconsistent quality of Kate DiCamillo’s books.

Which is funny, because it’s not like Kate’s THAT inconsistent. I mean,  she hasn’t written anything bad. I myself like Winn Dixie better than Edward Tulane, but she certainly hasn’t had any major failures.

Some author are REALLY inconsistent. Try reading Owen Meany, followed by the Fourth Hand.

But I want to use the comment as a jumping off point, to talk about how we set our expectations for authors.

See, here’s the thing…  when you cook dinner, sometimes it’s good, and sometimes it’s less good. Right?  But if you stick to recipes you know by heart and eat the same casserole each week, you’re likely to turn out a similar product nightly. You’ll become a “solid” cook.  People will know what to expect from your crock pot.

So, what happens when you experiment a lot? If you buy an Eritrean Cookbook, or decide to do some gluten free baking?  If you add cinnamon to your chili or hot peppers to your pie? Likely, you’ll end up broadening everyone’s palate, but you’ll also end up with some disasters…  if you’re VERY lucky you’ll strike gold once in a while.

Writing is like that. The further an author strays from their memorized recipes,  the likelier they are to grow and learn, AND the likelier they are to make a big damn mess.

I’ve always been a writer who would rather make 99 messes to discover or learn one new thing.  I can prove this, easily, by showing you the 40 unpublished picture books I’ve written, the novel I didn’t finish, or the two full-length poetry collections that will never see  light of day.  Maybe it’s because I’m a poet, and poets do that, start a lot of things they won’t finish.  Dabble. Play. But that’s how I work. I don’t think about the end result very much when I attempt something. That’s why they’re attempts.

But here’s the catch:  novelists get paid to finish books, not start them. Often they contract to write a book before they’ve finished a draft.  And when you’ve already been paid for something, and you’ve hammered away at it for a year or more, it’s much harder to shove it in a drawer.  A DiCamillo or Creech book, even an “inconsistent” one, is worth buckets of money.   Buckets! How often do you toss buckets of money away?

The Fourth Hand was worth a bucket of money to a lot of people.  I have to assume John Irving knew it was no Garp, and no Owen Meany. He’s no dummy.  But it’s hard to imagine him saying to his editor, “Yeah this one kind of blows. Can I get a do-over?”  I mean, it’s a looooong book.  So it is that (I assume) the less-than-awesome book gets published. Because he’d been paid for it. Because it was worth money. Because Irving was tired. And he needed to clean his desk and start the NEXT book.

It’s always about the next book.

Now, I have no idea what any other writer might say about their work, but I will tell you that I have personally had some moments of great fear while writing my novels– fear that each one isn’t better than the last. Fear that I’ll be compared to myself, and found wanting.  That upsets me. I can live with the idea that I’m no Roald Dahl.  But I quake at the thought of people reading Penny Dreadful and saying, “Wow. I really liked Any Which Wall, but this sucks. I wonder what happened…”

If people feel that way, I’ll tell you exactly how such a thing might happen…  an author leaves the recipe they know. They try something new.

In the case of Penny Dreadful, I’ve abandoned my intrusive narrator. I’ve abandoned the drama of magic.  I’ve left certain tricks behind, in hopes of learning something new.  In hopes of writing more real. I’m trying to pull a Velveteen Rabbit Not because there was anything wrong with what I did last time. Just because it’s WHAT I DID LAST TIME!

And in the next book, the one I’m working on now, I’m writing in first person, and attempting to address a very painful experience in my own life–divorce– which isn’t something I’ve ever done before. This next book, Bigger Than a Breadbox, is something that feels totally different, and weird and hard.  It’s a difficult lessons, and it may bomb completely.  I’m terribly afraid I can’t pull it off.

But that’s what I think I’m supposed to do, as a writer. Risk stuff. Learn stuff.  Maybe bomb.

I hope. I pray. I really do.  That each book will be better than the last. That each book will please my readers.  But the more I push myself, the likelier I am to disappoint people…

And that’s, I think, my job.

There are miracles…

Friday, December 11th, 2009


Happy Hanukkah!


Tuesday, December 8th, 2009


Over at Bookslut, Colleen Mondor  says, “the go-to book for every middle school reader this winter should be Laurel Snyder’s Any Which Wall…. With or without a debt owed to Mr. Eager, Ms. Snyder proudly stands on her own here, and has created a truly blissful read. It might just help a kid survive the winter – and plot their own summertime fun.”