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Changing, One Word at a Time

        When I began to study writing, I entered a short story workshop where we critiqued each other’s work. One of my first teachers prefaced her remarks about my story by saying, “A story should be capable of changing the world or saving a life.” Changing the world? Saving a life? I was shocked. How could a story do that? How could MY story do that? I prepared myself for the worst, but then she added: “And this story is such a story.” I was relieved, flattered, thrilled—but I didn’t believe her. Not then. I do believe her now.

           Simply through the act of making story, I have seen my own world change and the life I’ve saved may have been my own. I cannot vouch for how the words have entered my readers and changed them or their worlds; I can only say how this study of writing, the act of writing and revising, and eventually the teaching of writing have all worked together to change my life. Because of this experience and my way of thinking about it, I talk all the time about the power of our words and the way our words can change us, how we, through the acts of imagining and revising, become the persons capable of writing the stories we are meant to write. Our writers’ journeys lead us to places, experiences, emotions, and to people we’ve never encountered before. This isn’t an easy journey and it’s good to have an understanding teacher with high expectations along with you.

           By the way, I just want to say that stories that change and save don’t have to be all intense and serious; humor, adventure, even silliness can make a difference in an individual young person’s life and, as a result, in the world of that individual; they just have to be true. Of course, by ‘true’ I don’t necessarily mean ‘factual’. No matter what age you write for or what genre you write, your choices change you and your world, and maybe, like me, they might save your life.


At Halloween, that time of year when tradition and legend tell of a slippage between the world of flesh and the world of spirit, I’m thinking about portals, those openings, doors, passageways between one sort of place and another. In magical fantasy we find keys to the passages, clocks that strike thirteen in the night, and womb-like wardrobes leading to an old-fashioned streetlamp in another world. In horror, we find zombies and ghouls walking the streets of our world. In paranormal romance, we find boyfriends who are vampires or guardian angels who want to be boyfriends. In time travel or sci fi, one era bleeds into another, one faraway galaxy wormholes into another, maybe our own.

Portals, scientists have found, cause us (here on earth) to reset our brains and prepare for the new environment. That’s why we walk through a door from the living room to the kitchen to get a pair of scissors to snip off a wayward thread on a throw pillow and stand there asking ourselves what we were going after and have to return to the living room to jog our memories. Once we see the thread again, we hold that image in our minds as we re-cross the threshold and reenter the kitchen, thus making the thought move through the portal with us. This happens to us all, whether aging or school aged; it’s a phenomenon of human existence.

I wonder if that is why the idea of magical crossing of portals originated and why the idea of passing from one world to another is so powerful in story. Of course, the original portal was birth into life and the final one, death out of earthly life. What more powerful, magical, frightening, and completely normal passages are there?

Recently, my husband and I were in New Mexico where we visited my cousin and sat on her adobe house’s portal (a long, covered porch-like patio that wrapped around the back and side of the house) where we enjoyed a cool morning’s breakfast and regaled each other with stories and memories from our lives. Something about that sense of being neither outside nor inside seemed to be conducive to storytelling, just as it had been on our old southern porches with porch swings and wicker rockers. Neither outside nor in, we slipped between the old days and nowadays, and time lingered with us.

What can we make of this for the writer? For me, walking from one part of my house to the new addition where I do my creative work, reminds me who I am and what I’m doing here, resets my day’s trajectory and opens up the magic mind for story. I have one place I sit to work on my student’s writing packets and another, a window-seat, where I sit to imagine into the worlds of my own stories. Just having the outside there, so close at hand, with me half-way between the inside and the outdoors, sets my mind free to wander about in that realm between things, between the real and the imagined, the ordinary and the magical, where I can travel to the nearest earth-like planet with its orbiting laboratories or skip along a sidewalk with a little girl who lives on a houseboat on the Seine, travel back to Mississippi at the beginning of the Civil Rights era, be silly as a cartoon-like prospector who loses his voice or a young woman in the early 1900’s who gets sent aloft by a tornado, run away and write graffiti, or even imagine what it would have been like to have imagined Frankenstein’s monster.

This time of the year I sometimes visit schools and read the ghost story from Through the Tempests Dark and Wild:  A Story of Mary Shelley, Creator of Frankenstein and when I do, I find the entrance portal to the children’s imaginations is our popular culture’s depiction of the monster, green stitched up forehead, bolts holding head to neck, and large lumbering frame. Through that image, I get them to focus upon the young girl who heard such ghost stories and imagined Victor Frankenstein and his creature, who at only 18 wrote the novel that came out of her own sorrows, the death of her mother, her rejection by her father, and the death of her own firstborn child. Science was opening a portal to understanding of electricity and of anatomy and physiology. The French Revolution had loosed ideas of freedom and equality, the new century had begun, and nothing would ever be the same.

A portal, a place between here and there where magic resides. As writers, every night we go into the portal of sleep and wake on the other side into a new day where in our stories’ other worlds exist with our own, simultaneously real and imagined. Like a perennial All Hallow’s Eve, our writer’s minds allow flesh and spirit to work together as one to make story. For writers that is what life is all about, making the unreal real, the real magical, and bringing the outside and the inside together, just touching, where our minds meet that of our readers’, in the portal.

Happy Halloween! 

P.S. My trick or treat suggestion is for you to treat yourself to Frankenstein by Mary Shelley if you haven’t read it—or if you have, why not reread it?

Poetry: "A Messy Business"

In THE ART OF RECKLESSNESS, poet Dean Young says, "[The writing of a poem] needs to be a messy business, a devotion to unpredictability, the papers blowing around the room as the wind comes in."

            How can recklessness be an art? How can we develop a “devotion to unpredictability”? What would happen if the wind blew in and swooped up all our carefully ordered pages, tossed them to the ceiling, some even blowing away through the open window, and rearranged those left into a joyful chaos? How would we cope? What treasures might we find?

            Unpredictability is linked to joy and joy comes out of the unexpected pleasures of life, the sudden insights, metaphorical connections, surprising words in contexts that can elevate the ordinary to the extraordinary, the daily grind to unforgettable experience.

            One of the ways my teaching gets elevated from the ordinary for me is the way my students respond to their reading. One of them, Kristin Quisgard, after reading Stanley Kunitz and Genine Lentine’s The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden, wrote in an annotation:  “This poet is so adept at seeing things. The essays, the poems, the language are enough to fry the mind, and the images are enough to burn the retinas.”

            What is it that is so intriguing to Kristin? What is it that makes her feel like the language can fry the mind and the images burn the retinas? At least in part, it might be the unpredictability, the surprise, the joy of the unexpected, and the use of those means to allow the discoveries made by the poet to foster discovery in the reader. Poet Stephen Dobyns says, “It is always dangerous for the reader to think the poet is giving answers rather than seeking them. What we partly look for in a piece of writing is discovery. That discovery cannot be imparted, it must be enacted.”

            This discovery, not imparted or dictated through content, must be shown or enacted through poetic techniques, the music and shape of the poem, the sound and rhythm, the lines and stanzas, the white space on the page that takes the eye time to move across and thus provides the mental space between musical beats, the rests, pauses, crescendos, the echo of the last notes hanging in the silence.


            So, what can we do in our writing to get the most of it, to make our poems more than the sum of their parts? For me, the idea is to play with lines and line breaks, mixing them up, moving them around. You can take scissors to the poems and slice into lines, phrases, even words that you can move around and make of them new combinations that may lead to a more powerful juxtaposition of idea and image than a straightforward format can do.

            You can take a look at the two most important positions in each line and see what you’ve got there. In a workshop in Chicago some years ago, the poet and former TriQuarterly editor, Reginald Gibbons, in teaching about the integrity of the line, lineation and enjambment, said that the most important position in each line is the last word and the second most important is the first word. In reading down the right margin, we should see some very strong image-filled words with good sounds that contribute to the tone and richness of a poem, especially, as we all know, in rhyming poetry. However, reading down the left margin can be almost as strong an experience. We can make more interesting lines by making that first word as strong as possible and employing other means of lineation, using enjambment to create interest and to shore up or undercut the ostensible meaning of the sentence in which the lines fall. Enjambment is one of my favorite things to work with in revision as I try to avoid the auditory monotone that end-stopped lines can produce.

            Enjambment is the carrying over of the sentence from one line to the next so as not to end each line with a period or comma or some other visual or aural stoppage of the line in the way that simple breath phrases might do. Gibbons also suggested mixing up the stanzas to find more jump and surprise, more delight. Even mixing up the lines inside the stanzas is useful at times. Keep the poem’s syntax open as long as possible. You might find a treasure. If you haven’t ever printed out your work and actually cut it up with scissors, give it a try.

            Now, I’m going to show you some of my revisions into poetry of a prose journal entry I wrote one bright rain-washed Vermont morning. Maybe some of what I do could work for you. Unless I have already chosen a specific form to work within, I’ll start with regular prose sentences or quickly written lines that are somewhat more like breath phrases and then move to other lines that work on more than one level. Next, I’ll break the lines into stanzas that seem to have some integral interest of their own (as opposed to a kind of paragraph look and downward drive from top to bottom), and then decide placement on the page and whether to keep a left margin. In my poems, I keep playing, keep pushing for more electricity in the positions of the words and lines, and continue to experiment with the order of stanzas and/or lines as I try to get the feeling of the piece onto the page visually as well as in the words and juxtapositions.

            Here’s an example of my process.

1. Prose sentences:

Look at this morning, my love, this blue, blue sky, this sun. Oh, to dive deep into life, just like this, one moment taken to its very depths. Look at that—one drop of rain on a leaf, making rainbows.


2. Prose sentences broken into lines with a little revision:

Look at this morning, my love,

this blue sky, this sun.

Oh, to dive deep into life

like this, one tiny moment

taken to its depths,

one raindrop on one leaf,

rainbow colors prisming.


You can see that I removed one “blue,” “just,” “very,” and “look at that,” (all extra words), repeated “one” and added “tiny.” I made the last two lines more rhythmic and graceful and found a word I fell in love with: “prisming.”


3. Lines refined into free verse breath phrases:

Love, look at this morning,

this blue sky, this sun.

To dive into life like this,

one tiny moment

taken to its depths

one raindrop on one leaf,

colors prisming.


Here, in reading aloud I decided “Love, look” was more musical and a little less sentimental than “my love,” which is also why I got rid of the “Oh,” in the third line along with “deep,” which was redundant with “depths” later on in the stanza and I had to choose between them. The same goes for “rainbow” and “prisming.” And, as you can see, I was still loving that word, “prisming,” even though I’d begun to realize it was a bit awkward to read aloud.


4. Enjambment adds resonance and subtle undertones of meaning to each line so that the sentence can still be read and its apparent meaning apprehended, but a subliminal expression can also exist, shoring up or, perhaps, even undercutting the surface meaning.

Attention to enjambment:

Love, look at this morning, this blue

sky, this sun. To dive into

life, like this, one tiny moment

taken to its depths, one raindrop

on one leaf, prisming.


Here, I made conscious choices about the little “packets” of information each line

would deliver and how they might stand both inside and outside the sentence to build resonance of meaning. I also realized colors and prisming were pretty much the same image.


5. Now, I began to assess the stanza and didn’t like how square it looked. I saw more could be done and broke the first two and last two lines into lines I liked better and produced a more organic rounded look, emphasizing that word I’d fallen in love with and thinking if it were on its own line, it might work better, be easier to say:

Love, look at this

morning, this blue

sky, this sun. To dive into

life, like this, one tiny moment

taken to its depths,

one raindrop on one leaf,



Continuing to refine lines, cut extra words, juggle around line breaks, making it look even more raindroppy, playing around:


Love, look at this

morning, blue sky,

this sun. To dive into

life, one tiny moment

taken to its depths,

one raindrop on one

leaf, prisming.



6. Positioning on the page:  The stanza still looked too tight, so I decided to try a form I use a lot and open the poem up across the page, as well as give it a title and stanzas.



                                                love, look:


                        morning-blue sky

                                    sun                         to dive into



                                                                         one                 tiny             moment

                                                            taken to its depths




                                    one leaf                        one raindrop

                                                               a prism



I deleted ‘life’, which had begun to seem heavy handed to me and too obvious, and ‘-ing’ on ‘prisming’, a word that when I first found it seemed fresh and fun, but by this time had begun to appear too cute and called attention to itself rather than to the image I wanted to convey, and I had ‘leaf’ and ‘raindrop’ trade places so that the reader would see the leaf first then the raindrop upon it, then the prisming colors.


7. Even at this late stage, I might still be looking at word, stanza, and line order, maybe even trying for more logic and clarity using a title that states the circumstances or occasion for the poem. In the next revision, I added a title stating that this is after a rainy night. I even tried reversing the order of the stanzas and arranged the words in a kind of leaning forward shape, as if the poem were about to dive off the page:


after night rain


                                    one leaf                        one raindrop

                                                                    a prism


            one                 tiny                         moment

                                          taken                         to its depths           


            love           look:

                          morning-blue sky

                      sun            life                       to dive into


I’ve heard it said that joy is the “pleasurable disruption of expectation” and for me that isn’t just the expectation of the reader, but of my own expectations as the writer. I need to do something to disrupt my usual way of writing, my usual way of thinking and patterning. Doing something as seemingly strange and counterintuitive as reversing the stanzas surprises me and actually reveals the true feeling and meaning of this poem—at last. Also, as a side note—I strive to find strong words for the ends and beginnings of lines, but especially at the end of lines, and I mentally resisted the “to dive into” line ending throughout the whole process, sort of hoping to hide it if I couldn’t figure out another way of getting rid of it. However, it finally showed itself to be the true pivot of the poem, not at the middle, but at the end, a dive into the white space of thought after the poem’s end, I suppose. And, somehow, the word “life” came back and seemed to fit in a more practical and realistic way instead of what had become a kind of sappy, almost melodramatic way in the earlier revisions.


            From the paragraph to the sentence, from the line to the word, the most elegant arrangement will allow your stories and poems to become more than simply the sum of their parts. Sometimes the most elegant is not the first discovered or the easiest or even the most regimented. Sometimes the most elegant arrangement of words on the page is the reckless one, the one abandoned to wind and intuition, where play and chance enter and rules become notions and we each find our own best solutions in the joy of the “pleasurable disruption of expectation,” in which the whole becomes not just a sum of its parts but a multiple of its parts, its form and content, exponential music.



Norma Fox Mazer

Norma Fox Mazer, acclaimed and trail-blazing author of Young Adult Literature passed away on Saturday, October 17, 2009 at 3:05 a.m. at her home in Montpelier, Vermont. For many years, she and her husband Harry Mazer divided their time between New York City and Jamesville, NY where she wrote over 30 novels, contributed to short story collections, edited volumes of stories and poetry, and collaborated on several books with Harry. She taught in the National Book Foundation’s Writing Camp and in the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program of Vermont College of Fine Arts, as well as spoke to thousands of young people and writers in schools and conferences around the nation.

She served as Faculty Chair of the program and it still bears the marks of her dedication and personality. Her books, hard-hitting and true to the life and hearts of teenagers, touched a deep cord in her readers. She received honors and awards of every kind, notably among them the Newbery Honor, National Book Award Finalist, Edgar Award for Best Juvenile Mystery, and Christopher Medal. She was for her students and fellow faculty a shining light of encouragement and high standards in the craft of writing and in the art of living. She said, “Get into the habit of writing, get easy with it, and you will come at last to that part of yourself where you don't write what's expected, but what's true and you….” Few writers have lived that out so well as she, always surprising us with the unexpected and always speaking what was true and most herself. She loved her students, her stories, her family and friends, and her beautiful garden. She lived lightly and carefully on the earth and gave so much back, bringing flowers and beautiful stories into our lives.

Norma told us, “Don’t worry about being ‘creative’. The more you write, the more ideas will come to you. Don't tie yourself into knots with the thought of writing. Just write.” She also told us about how she wore an old misshapen fedora over her eyes while she wrote. I can see her now, that old hat hiding her eyes, her braids brushing her shoulders as she speaks aloud the dialogue she is writing—and her brilliant smile—but I know that fedora is where I saw it last, hanging on the chair back in her office, waiting, like me, for more Norma stories. I’m so sad that there are no more.

(Photo from Norma's website)

New Year's Resolutions

My resolutions:
1. Write in my blog more often.
2. Finish the two books I am writing currently; research another.
3. Visit my daughters and families as much as possible.
4. Give internet dating a try.
5. Sing and dance every day. La, la, la, la, la. 1-2-3-cha, cha, cha.
6. Bring more poetry into my life (in every form).
7. Make lots of new friends.
8. Smile when I go to sleep and when I wake up.
9. Volunteer and give more.
10. Stay healthy.

Happy New Year!

Here's wishing you a Happy New Year!

I've taken a long break from my blog and much has happened in the interim: a first grandchild born; a trip to NYC on Sept. 11; an amazing autumn in Vermont; a speaking trip to Chicago where I saw so many wonderful old friends and made new ones; a visit to my daughters, sister, and mother at Thanksgiving; home again to watch at least two feet of snow fall and collect in my yard; DC for Xmas; then home again to watch in the New Year.

Now I'm thinking about resolutions for this coming year. What should I change, maintain, ditch, or acquire? I'll be thinking about it. What are you going to resolve this year?

Lang Lang

On my drive yesterday through the mountains of southeastern Vermont on my way to visit my oldest daughter in D.C. and greet my youngest daughter just flying in from Kiev, I listened to an NPR interview of Lang Lang, the nearly 30-year-old Chinese pianist/superstar who played in the Olympics opening night extravaganza. I loved several things I heard from him and from others speaking about him and about the growth and development of the artist. But my favorite bit was when he was asked how he had been able to sustain 8 to 10 hours of daily practice throughout this childhood and teen years. He said that he "closed his eyes and imagined scenes and paintings and stories" to go with the music that would help him access the deeper emotions needed to translate the music from the page through him into the air. He said he hadn't then had much life experience so all he had to go on was his imagination. I was so intrigued by this crediting of the imagination; in fact, honoring of it. I hope no one ever tried to tell him something was "just his imagination."

I always had my imagination running away with me (sounds kind of fun huh?) or that I had a big imagination, which was not always a compliment, but I took it as one. What would school have been like without using your imagination to get you out of there? I remember making up stories about the numbers I was adding or subtracting during math class. I even imagined what 6 felt when 2 was taken away (sad) or what 5 and 3 felt when they were added together and transformed from odd to even as an 8 (not too happy, though 8, himself, was rather pleased). But 6 added to 6 made for two quite nice numbers and, well, they all felt nice about it, too. I also liked coloring them whatever color they felt like at the moment. No wonder I'm a writer and one who insists on going deeply into character. I knew even when I was 6 that motivation and action/reaction was everywhere--if I could let my imagination run that far away with me. It's time to play. Come on, let's run.

Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi & The Flow State

I was just now emailing with Tami Lewis Brown about tapping into the unconscious as writers and realized that this is the very kind of thing I could blog about--see, it's taking me a while to get up to speed on this.

In fact, it takes me a good while to "get up to speed" on just about anything I do. Is that because I'm a truly well-practiced procrastinator? Maybe. But it also might be because I'm learning to wait, to listen, to become open to the creative experience, giving my mind and body time and space to prepare for the activity, to enter it slowly, and to find connection with it, to "go with the flow" of the moment. I've learned that it takes us as organisms time to adjust our brain waves from one activity to another. Thinking we can rush here and there, be bombarded by outside and extraneous information, then zip into our writing spaces and immediately tap into the deepest parts of ourselves for our poems and stories is wrong. We put so much pressure on ourselves to do just that and we really need to stop. We need to make space in our lives, take time with our musings, and tone and relax our bodies in order to be the best we can be as writers, and, I believe, as people.

If you haven't done so already, take a look at Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi's work on creativity and the flow state. Among his books is FLOW: THE PSYCHOLOGY OF OPTIMAL EXPERIENCE, a favorite of mine. It's been long enough since I read it, I think I will revisit it. I need to find the flow myself.

New VCFA semester

In Paris

After a summer of rain in Vermont, travels to visit childhood friends on the Texas Gulf coast and daughters as far away as Paris and St. Louis, I've settled in at home today to begin reading and commenting on the first packets of the Fall 2008 semester of Vermont College. This moment is one filled with excitement and hope. I'm always thrilled to be one of the first readers of a book that eventually many readers will own and enjoy, writing that will be well received and loved by young people and that will have allowed a great deal of growth and self-understanding in the author. I'm all about going deeper in characterization and allowing the characters to lead the way into a plot that only they could have experienced. I believe this process takes a fair amount of exploration and acceptance of oneself and is as valuable as anything else this hard work earns.

is as

easy as
falling off

a log;
it's climbing

back on
that's hard.

New Blog (new moment)

Hello and Welcome!

I've been wanting to start a blog for a while and now here it is. I have so many ideas about what I could possibly do with it and may try them all. But today, I just want to get started, get it up and running and see what y'all think. I hope that all of my friends will stop by from time to time to say hello, announce their new books, and add their wisdom to discussions of the art and craft of writing.

Here's my poem for today:

Love, look at this morning, this blue
sky, this sun. To dive into
life, like this, one tiny moment
taken to its depths,
one raindrop on one leaf, prisming.