Posts Tagged ‘the process of writing’

Again Calls The Owl Sketch, Minneapolis, Minnesota, June 2009, photo © 2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


Margaret Craven worked as a journalist and didn’t publish her first novel until her late 60’s (something I find strangely hopeful). Born in Helena, Montana in 1901, she grew up in Puget Sound, Washington of meager means, worked hard to be one of the first women to attend Stanford, and graduated in 1924 with honors.

Craven’s novel I Heard the Owl Call My Name was first published in Canada in 1967. Picked up by an American publisher in 1973, the book was on the 1970’s bestseller list. It was made into a film in 1973 and shown as part of the CBS television network’s “GE Theater” series.

Near the end of her life, Craven wrote Again Calls the Owl, an autobiography in response to readers’ questions about how she came to write I Heard the Owl Call My Name. On a recent visit, Liz’s mother bought an old copy of Again Calls the Owl to read on her plane ride from Wyoming to Minnesota. She passed it on to me.

As opposed to memoir, the book is sparsely written in the autobiographical style of laying down significant chronological events that shaped the author’s life. A highpoint was Craven’s unexpected rendezvous with writer Gertrude Stein. A friend of Margaret’s had grown up in San Francisco with Alice B. Toklas and arranged a meeting when Stein came to town for a hospital visit at Mark Hopkins.

Alice B. Toklas walked Margaret into Gertrude’s room where she sat on her bed writing letters in a red velvet robe (an image not hard to imagine). Stein welcomed the young writer and they had a long chat about writing that ended with Stein’s sadness at her friend Ernest Hemingway and “the change that had come with The Sun Also Rises,” something she termed “the beginning of his egomania.” 

Again Calls the Owl is a short read, about 120 pages, and includes Craven’s pencil drawings interspersed throughout the book. I wanted to share Stein’s writing advice to Margaret during their three hour visit. She wrote down what Stein had told her on the cable car ride home:



“Every writer must have common sense. He must be sensitive and serious. But he must not grow solemn. He must not listen to himself. If he does, he might as well be under a tombstone. When he takes himself solemnly, he has no more to say. Yet he must despise nothing, not even solemn people. They are part of life and it’s his job to write about life.”


“Be direct. Indirectness ruins good writing. There is inner confusion in the world today and because of it people are turning back to old standards like children to their mothers. This makes indirect writing.”


“A writer must preserve a balance between sensitivity and vitality. Highbrow writers are sensitive but not vital. Commercial writers are vital but not sensitive. Trying to keep this balance is always hard. It is the whole job of living.”


“When one writes a thing — when you discover and then put it down, which is the essence of discovering it — one is done with it. What people get out of it is none of the writer’s business.”


“Every writer is self-conscious. It’s one reason he is a writer. And he is lonely. If you know three writers in a lifetime, that is a great many.”


“You do not have to write what the editors want. You can write what you want and if you develop sufficient craftsmanship, you can sell it, too. I want you to write for the Saturday Evening Post. It demands the best craftsmanship.”


  -Gertrude Stein from Again Calls the Owl by Margaret Craven, Dell Publishing, 1980



Though Gertrude asked Margaret to stay in touch, she never contacted Stein again. I recently learned from Bo’s blog Seeded Earth that there is a statue of Gertrude Stein in New York City’s Bryant Park. Much to my amazement, it was the first public statue of an American woman placed in the whole of New York City — it was installed in 1992. (Here’s the link to view Bo’s photograph of Gertrude at Seeded Earth and read more about the sculpture.)

I see Craven’s euphoria about her visit with Stein much the way I feel when I go and hear Nikki Giovanni, Ann Patchett, Patricia Smith, Steve Almond, or Mary Oliver talk about their work and have a chance to shake their hands when they sign my books. Or when our Poetry and Meditation Group receives a card from Billy Collins, Gary Soto, or Robert Bly.

It is the same joy I feel from the privilege of having studied with Natalie Goldberg. The things she has taught me about the practice of writing are immeasurable. There is much to be learned from the wisdom and knowledge of published writers who have already paid their dues.

At the end of Again Calls the Owl, Craven reflects on Walk Gently This Good Earth, her novel about growing up in the Cascades and her father’s life in Montana. One last quote from Craven urges writers to take heed:

A professional writer must be careful what he writes now about the past which could be used to hurt innocent people unmercifully.

I think it’s time my country does what the Indians of Kingcome are doing. We must return to our roots, our own safety and integrity, and I think this is beginning to occur. Our lives depend upon it.

-from Again Calls the Owl by Margaret Craven, Dell Publishing, 1980



-posted on red Ravine, Monday, August 10th, 2009 with gratitude to oliverowl

-related to post: Book Talk – Do You Let Yourself Read?

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By Linda Weissinger Lupowitz

For Noah, breech at 37 weeks

Lifted Up, photo © 2002-2008 by Kim Donald. All rights reserved.
Lifted Up, photo © 2002-2008 by Kim Donald.
All rights reserved.

“This could feel a little cold,”
the ultrasound technician warns,
warming the electrodes—or something
more benign—to place upon my daughter’s
swelling belly, bringing life to the idea
of her yet unborn child, at twelve weeks
now revealed—

A nimble gymnast, flexing, leaping, kicking
in a dark internal sea…sound waves coursing
tides within the muscular gymnasium,
and There,

Upon the screen, a face appears—
the Face You Wore Before You Were Born.

Cold waves, heavier than light, unveil
the secret sac in which you float and dance:
a private glimpse through some impossible

Your face swims into view—an upturned nose
and certain gaze, before your Soul has met
its match in union with such princely flesh;
a clay-vessel bobbing briefly in a red river,
soon to be caught in the rushes and rescued
to our world, this side of deliverance.

“…I’m not saying what you see,” she says,
“but if it looks like a turtle, it’s a boy;
a girl looks like a hamburger…”

Tiny turtle, cozy in the confines of your high-
flying mama, here you find a steady balance
in the sky, pushing with your heels toward earth,

gripping toes and sturdy soles, locked knees and elbows,
navel-numbing with your bony head, competing for her
breath—riding the ups and downs face forward
with the gravity of your purpose.

At thirty-seven weeks, frankly Noah,
you are breech, stubbornly maintaining
your position, firmly planted in the face
of sheer adversity, despite threat of a cesarean
—scheduled now for Tuesday. Doctors
with their knives are sharpening
their plans to take you out.

Ana tells me of a birth-emergency, wherein
a paramedic reached within to check the cervix
of a laboring mother, when a tiny hand
reached down to grip his finger….

Turn, turn, little turtle, nudges your father,
his strong hands circling your home;
airplanes crash into buildings, cities fall,
people leap and bombs are dropping, dropping.

Leaves flee the trees in a Mississippi breeze,
you’ve borne tornado warnings, still you
hold this space.

Your distant grandfather penetrates his healing
message through the ethers, through the density
of matter, to meet you in that space we share,
born and unborn, on higher ground.
“He’ll turn,” he says with certainty.

Ana anticipates a simpler birth, more antiseptic,
less messy than this rush of unpredicted fury…
as suddenly, surprising her, on Saturday

You flip, breaking the womb-waters,
wedging head and shoulders in the pink canal,
diving your unheralded descent towards light,
or from it.

Mamababe, photo © 2002-2008 by Kim Donald.
Mamababe, photo © 2002-2008 by Kim Donald.
All rights reserved.

Birthing the Poem

Poetry is a birth process, conceived in love – a glimmer in the eye, a spark, a word that won’t let go lodges deep inside the mind, takes form, gathers strength.

The geometric nucleus, nurtured in silence, swells until it shows, until it is a little embarrassing. It can get out of control, morph into something you might be ashamed of.

Then you must labor to deliver pen to paper, and push the poem out. This transition is exquisite, private, no epidural needed. There may be tears. Waters have broken.

Look at it now, wrinkly and raw. Count the words and listen, arrange and rearrange. Deep breath, let it down, now swaddle and share a newborn with the world, perfect or not.

Like human progeny, rarely do live poems manifest intact from the Source. As I age, few will endure. I don’t know how many might still be left in me, from seeds long dormant.

Mom Asleep, photo © 2002-2008 by Linda Weissinger Lupowitz. All rights reserved.
Mom Asleep, photo © 2002-2008 by Linda
Weissinger Lupowitz. All rights reserved.

Noah Charles Strong was born soon after 9/11 – and he made us grandparents, a great blessing. Twenty-three years before, Ariana Faith made me a mother, and we had become a family.

Born in a tumble-down farmhouse on a back road in South Carolina, she emerged in full voice and power three days after Christmas 1977, caught by her father. We were caught by surprise at the impact such a small being had upon our world. The birthing kit was fifteen dollars, for two midwives attending a then-illegal home birth.

It cost many thousands of dollars for Noah’s arrival in Mississippi, and he pulled off a surprise as well. He was breech and supposed to be c-section, but changed his mind.

My view of technological intervention in birthing is dim, so I was relieved by the choice he made. Robert does distant healing work, and he was confident that Noah would turn, as he turned him across time and space.

The conceptual spark that started a fire in my soul was an ultrasound image, a little black- and-white glossy print of what was inside my pregnant daughter. I was privileged to see within the mystery, to witness the secret face of my unborn grandson.

This stunning vision persisted through post-partum gestation, until one day I sat on the pebbly beach of the Rio Grande, and wrote this poem on the back of a folded shopping list.

Like Noah, it came to light in one sudden rush. Then, as we got to know each other, the features became as familiar as the face of one you have known since before you were born.

Mom Asleep Gold, photo © 2002-2008 by Linda Weissinger Lupowitz. All rights reserved.  Mom Asleep Gold, photo © 2002-2008 by Linda Weissinger Lupowitz. All rights reserved.

The Zen Koan

The Monk Mayo asked this question of the Sixth Patriarch: “What is Zen?”

The Patriarch replied that, “when your mind is not dwelling on the dualism of good and evil, what is your original face before you were born?”

This question seems nonsensical, but this is only so when measured against the linear logical requirements of society. The question is intended to open the initiated mind to possibilities beyond the rational. It is also designed so as to waken the student to the possibility that spiritual answers require a different mode of thought.

Zen master Dogen had a saying that is appropriate in the present context. He said that in order to perceive reality we must “drop mind and body.” In other words, it is essential to drop all habits of thought and preconceptions in order to understand the truth.

The Koan forces the student to face this type of thinking. The answer to the question What is your original face before you were born? cannot be answered on the level of rational logic. It points towards the possibility of knowing or understanding without the constructs of reason and habitual response.

The question suggests we have to approach spiritual reality as if we had knowledge of things before we were taught the ways of thinking of this world; in other words, ” before we were born.”

In trying to answer the Koan, the student will come to a mental “precipice,” as it were, where all the methods and procedures of accepted thinking no longer function. The purpose of the Koan is to shove the student over this precipice into an area of experience that is completely new. This is the spiritual reality that the Zen master is attempting to guide the student towards.

Mom Asleep Gold, photo © 2002-2008 by Linda Weissinger Lupowitz. All rights reserved.  Mom Asleep Gold, photo © 2002-2008 by Linda Weissinger Lupowitz. All rights reserved.

Linda Weissinger Lupowitz was born in Philadelphia, moved way out west with Robert to New Mexico, home-birthed and homeschooled three children. She runs a chiropractic practice and a virtual staffing agency, Connect2Pro. A graduate of Smith College, she has been Associate Editor of Taos Magazine, Rio Grande, and Mothering Magazine. The online journal of poetry and photography, C. Little, No Less, was started in March 2003, as a plea for peace.

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  Tales from the Teachers’ Lounge      Rob Wilder
  Images provided by Anna Crowe, Bantam Dell Publishing Group, Random
  House, Inc.; Cover Art © 2007 by Jose Luis Pelaez, Inc./Picturequest; Cover
  Design by Lynn Andreozzi. Photo of author Robert Wilder © 2007 by Jennifer
  Esperanza. All rights reserved.

On Thursday, September 13, QuoinMonkey and ybonesy interviewed Robert Wilder, author of the recently released Tales from the Teachers’ Lounge. Part 1 of that interview can be found here. Part 2 begins below. We’d like to thank Robert Wilder and Anna Crowe for helping make this happen.

Interview With Robert Wilder – Tales From The Teachers’ Lounge: An Irreverent View of What It Really Means to Be a Teacher Today

red Ravine: So, Rob, I want to talk a little bit about your voice. In your writing, it’s edgy, humorous … have you always written with that particular voice?

Robert: No. You know, I wrote fiction for 16 years before I started writing non-fiction, and when I wrote fiction I always wanted to be the smartest kid in the class. I wanted to be a luminary like all those writers I loved. So I would write, wanting to be something that I wasn’t. I’d put on a voice that wasn’t really authentic.

What I found in my teaching, talking to students as well as telling stories to people, was that those two voices were really different. And I really liked the voice I used telling stories and being in the classroom. But I didn’t give myself permission to use it in my writing.

I felt I had to be smarter than I was, and what I realize now is it hurt my writing. I didn’t trust my own voice and it made my writing really watered down. There wasn’t a lot of energy in my fiction, I see now. But once I started writing stories about my family, where I didn’t really think anything was going to happen with (the stories), I wrote them for the pure joy of writing them and because I thought they were funny and I was interested in some of the tensions and interesting complications in them. Because I didn’t really think they were going to go anywhere, I gave myself permission to use all the parts of my voice that I used during the day.

I’m going to have a reading … and one of the things that’s interesting about writing is that, obviously, I use profanity and irreverence and things like that, and for me that’s sort of like a painter. I allow myself to use a lot of different colors and some of the colors that a lot of people would not use in their painting.

I’d like to use a wide range of language. I would like to be able to quote Shakespeare and make a potty joke if I think it’s funny or relevant. It’s the way I experience the world. During any given day, I hear very low humored, low language, and very high, and I like that juxtaposition. I don’t like the same note over and over.

I like complications of low notes, high notes, and all in-between. The voices in the book are closer to my voice in real life and the way I really think. And when I was writing before, that was the way I wanted to be rather than the way I was.

I had to get over that I’m not going to be Philip Roth or I’m not going to be Cormac McCarthy and I’m not going to be Toni Morrison. That I have to be who I am and be okay with that.

red Ravine: I was going to ask you — Are you that way in person? — but I actually just finished the Sub-Par chapter where you’re talking about taking your daughter, Poppy, out of the sleazy substitute guy’s class and it sounds like … you’re pretty funny in real life.

Robert: There are a lot of writers who write funny … like Augusten Burroughs … but if you met him, you wouldn’t think he’s funny at all. There are a lot of writers like that. Humor’s been part of my life ever since I was a kid, and it’s the way I deal with situations. It’s the way I put my daughter at ease and my son at ease. It’s the way I put my students at ease.

I think a lot of times, things for me are funny. A lot of people, maybe they get angry, but I think life is funny. I really do. I think there are a lot of things that we can stop and look at and say, “Isn’t that nuts?” But also that’s a celebration of how wonderful life is, you know.

I do joke around in class a lot. I use humor as a way to bridge the kids from their movie situations to books or a way that if there’s awkwardness in high school, which there is on a daily basis, I just say it’s funny, we’re all in it together, it’s okay. So it is more like who I am.

Some of the stuff, obviously, I don’t go that far in the class or with my children. I’ll think about how nuts or irreverent it is; obviously there’s a time and a place for all that. But in my writing, as you guys know through writing practice, I will allow myself to go where I need to go. And not to be editing or censoring myself as I go because that will kill any art.

What’s fun is I can go as far as I want and then … my editor and I eventually have a conversation about how far is it and, for a piece specifically, is this too far? Or do I need to push it a little bit? Those are great conversations to have.

red Ravine: When did you know, Rob, that you were a writer?

Robert: (laughs) That’s a hard question. It’s hard to answer that question. I still doubt it, you know. I think a lot of writers still doubt it. I still have to remind myself that I’m a writer. People meet me and ask me what I do, and I always say teacher first, just because it’s a more easy-to-understand profession.

That’s a really hard question. On some days you wonder whether you have more in you and other days you think you could write about something every day of your life. So I think I struggle with that identity, even with the books.

I think I’m slowly realizing that writing is my profession, it’s what I profess. But I can’t say I ever feel like one. I think a lot of writers feel this way, that the other guy is the writer (laughs). The other person has got 3 books or the other person is in the Times instead of this magazine.

But what I’ve done is give myself permission to say, “I’m going to write the rest of my life, no matter what the situation is.” I’d rather look again at writing as a practice that I like to do and that I want to keep doing for the rest of my life, no matter what happens, rather than earning the nameplate or the faceplate title “writer.” I’d rather say that I’m a “practitioner” and that I’m going to continue to practice no matter what happens.

That feels better to me because then I don’t feel like I have to live up to anything. Which I think if you say you’re a writer, sometimes, for a lot of people, they feel like they have to hit a homerun every time they step up to the plate.

red Ravine: Do you remember the first thing you wrote?

Robert: I wanted to do stuff like that as a kid, but we didn’t do those things. My dad was a banker and my mom was a stay-home mom. I remember trying to write stories as a kid and not being encouraged to do it. I took a cartooning class, I remember, when I was really little and it was fun. But I didn’t have talent in terms of drawing, so I was assigned to do the bricks in the back of the cartoon (laughs).

I was a pretty late bloomer. I wrote in high school; I had a creative writing class that allowed me to write. But you know there was no place for it, and I can say that honestly, it wasn’t until graduate school or when I moved to Santa Fe to write that I was ever really encouraged to write.

When you grow up in the suburbs of New York in the 80’s like I did, they didn’t want young boys to be writers. They wanted you to be a banker or a lawyer or a doctor, right? Or a soccer player. Or they weren’t looking at boys to be anything artistically inclined.

Even in college, I felt like I wasn’t included. A lot of these kids came from high powered boarding schools where there was great writing going on and they were starting these magazines and I wasn’t really included in that. I would be the kid with the soccer player hair cut in the back of the reading when Richard Wilbur came to Wesleyan. I’d be the kid in the back of the class. So I can’t say until I was almost in my 20’s and 30’s was I actually encouraged to pursue any art form at all.

Whereas my own children and friends’ children, especially living in Santa Fe, are. A friend of mine whose kid, they live in NYC, … came to visit us and we took (the son) to ride a horse and we said, “Wow, you’re going to be a cowboy.” He said, “No, I don’t want to be a cowboy! I want to be an artist.” I thought that was so cool that he thought at 3 years old that one of his professions might be an artist.

That never would have occurred to me at his age. My son and daughter both feel like they could be artists or writers or painters or musicians or whatever. I never thought that as a kid. I think it’s great now, but that wasn’t the truth for me.

red Ravine: Who were your writing mentors?

Robert: Natalie (Goldberg) is probably my main mentor, just because being with her and teaching with her has taught me so much about, not only writing, but also how to be a writer. In other words, how do you deal with all the “stuff” that comes with writing. She’s been an unbelievable ally and mentor and teacher. I can’t say enough about what she taught me and what she continues to teach me as a friend.

I have other writing mentors: Kevin McIlvoy in Las Cruces is a terrific writer but an unbelievable teacher. And Antonya Nelson and Robert Boswell who are a writing couple, which is unfathomable to me how they can get so many amazing things done and be married and have children. So those people are all great writing mentors for me.

And also I think it’s important, not only writing mentors teaching you to talk about books and syntax and all this stuff, but I think it’s important to have mentors who have a lifestyle that’s similar to your own. So in other words, if you’re a writer and you have children, it’s great to be around other writers who have children. Not to say if you don’t have children, you can’t be around them, but it’s nice to know.

A lot of people now come to me and say, “How do you get all this done?” I like sitting down with other writers. I met with a graduate student, (former student) of mine who’s about to go into elementary education and early childhood. She said, “I’m so concerned about not being able to write.” I like showing her how to do it, if I can do it, she absolutely can do it. And to give her permission to do that.

I think it’s important to have people who have similar lifestyles who can show you where they get their work done and that it’s possible to be a really good parent and a good husband and a good community member and a writer. That you can do all that and there’s someone there cheering you on.

I always tell my students, my adult students, to email me if they’re ever getting down … you know, I’m not getting the laundry done, whatever it is. I’m happy to give them a little pep talk and say, “Here’s what I did today. I’m totally with you but, maybe if you try to do this. Or it’s totally okay that you take an hour a week to go write. It’s fine.”

It’s great to have people in your corner who are like that. And I’m lucky to have them as well.

red Ravine: That’s great. And you’re publishing with one of the best major publishers, Random House. How did you break through with this particular publisher and not some small publisher?

Robert: I’m almost hesitant to tell the story. It seems unreal and it’s not typical. What happened was, as I said, I was writing 16 years as apprentice writing and then I started writing the Daddy Needs A Drink stuff and it got a lot of attention. My current agent saw this piece in “Salon” from Daddy Needs A Drink and basically convinced me there was a book in it. I didn’t believe him.

Ultimately, he found me. And convinced me that I had a voice that needed to be out there. That there was a book in this. … He saw in me, or in the work, that there was something going on and that I really should pursue that.

Once he showed me how you write a proposal and how you do all these things, he showed all these people and convinced them, too. We ended up going with Bantam Dell. … We signed on with them for two books because I did tell them about the idea for the teacher book which they liked even though I hadn’t written it yet.

It just happened that way. And you know, it’s hard because it sounds like the old Hollywood where you go out and you get discovered. But I want to remind everybody when I tell that story that I was working for 16 years before that. It wasn’t all of a sudden I thought one day, “Wow, I’d love to sell a book.” I had an apprenticeship for a long time before I actually even thought about putting together a book.

red Ravine: Well, I’m watching the clock. We have about three more questions and I think we can get to them.

Robert: No worries, I’ll tell you when I have to go.

red Ravine: Okay. We’d like to know what you’re working on next.

Robert: What I’m working on next, which is going to be a big hard project, is: I’m going to work on what it was like growing up with my dad and my brothers, you know, living the Wilder life. What it was like for me to lose my mom at a relatively young age and then move into the clan of men. You know, what is it like to live with a dad and three brothers without a female figure in the house.

I think it’s going to be a little, uh, obviously it will be funny, but funny in a more poignant way, I hope. So I’m mining a lot of the early stuff with my family. A lot of people love it when I write about my dad and my brothers, and there’s a lot there. So that’s my next project and I think it’s going to kick my ass to be honest. But, I’m sort of looking forward to it.

red Ravine: Has there been anything you’ve been afraid to write?

Robert: Yeah, there are some things you’re afraid to write … like some of the darker stuff from teaching. … I would love to write sometime what it’s like to be a teacher and have your students die. I’ve been thinking about that quite a bit over my years.

I’ve had a few students who’ve died in car accidents and so forth, and it’s a very interesting thing as a teacher. I know a few people have talked about it, how you’re not their friends and you’re not their parents, but you’re really close to them.

I read pages and pages of intimate things from these kids that their parents never get access to. I also spend a lot of time with them. I get to know them in ways a lot of people don’t. And then when they die or they leave or they get in trouble, you don’t know really where to place that in the emotional file cabinet.

I’d like to write about that. I haven’t figured out a way to do that yet. But it’s something I’ve been a little afraid of, and I haven’t figured out the right way to tell those stories. But I know a lot of teachers who have suffered like I’ve suffered with losing students.

You’re standing by yourself at the funeral. You’re not with the parents and family and you’re not with the buddies. You’re somewhere else. I’m interested in that. And I’m not sure how to do that yet but it’s something I would like to do.

Those are the kinds of things I need to write. As well as, I haven’t written a lot about my mother dying and what that was like being thrown into that. And I’m going to take my own advice and throw myself into the next project.

red Ravine: Do you struggle about revealing any personal information about your family or even students, sort of worrying that they might see themselves somewhere?

Robert: I do. I think about it quite a bit and my goal is, I’m never trying to hurt anybody’s feelings. If I think it’s going to be embarrassing to them, I’ll change a few details to protect their privacy. I think that’s fine. I don’t think that’s a James Frey thing.

If I think they’re going to be embarrassed, the other thing I’ll do is check with people. I’ll check with people and say, “Look, I’d really like to write about this and how do you feel about that?” Most of the time, they’re okay with it. In fact, I always think people are going to get upset. Nine times out of ten people ask me why they weren’t in the book (laughter).

Or I wrote something about a former headmaster who’s a teacher and a colleague of mine. I wrote a description of him and he loved it. It’s interesting; it wasn’t complimentary, but he thought it was right. Most of the time when people struggle a little bit, and then they read the book or they hear they might be in the book and they read it, everyone has said I’ve gotten it right. Even if they say it reminds them of something they didn’t want to remember, I don’t think anyone thinks I’m out to get them.

I don’t write tell-all books. And as for myself, I try to risk as much as I can without embarrassing my family. … The other thing is, I’m not trying to reveal stuff just to shock people. It has to fit in what you’re trying to write about. Is it organic to the piece? I think if it is organic to the piece, and you want to write about your sex life, write about your sex life. Great writers have done that.

We as readers can figure out when things are gratuitous and when they’re not. If they seem essential, even if they’re shocking, you say, “You know what, maybe I don’t want to read that kind of stuff but it’s part of the deal.” Versus “Wait, I don’t understand why this fits into this piece, I don’t get it.”

As a writer you always have to ask yourself, is this vital to the piece you’re writing? Where does this fit? How does it fit? If it fits, you’ve got to go with it. If it doesn’t, you can’t. You learn that over time. You learn that from writing, not from listening to other people.

red Ravine: We have two last questions. One is, for you, what does success as a writer look like and are you there yet?

Robert: I’ve been thinking about that quite a bit. For me, success means I would love to continue to get published and get paid a little bit. I don’t think I’m ever going to be a wealthy man from writing. So success for me is the ability to continue to write, to have time to write, where I feel like I can get away and write. That is success.

Most writers will say, when it really boils down to it, if they can continue to write for the rest of their lives, they’ll be happy. That is success for me and I think, as of now, I have it. Though I also have to fight for it.

So even though you have a book, you have to be careful not to get carried away. I mean look at Junot Diaz, who wrote Drown. It took him 10 years to write a novel … that’s a long time. And obviously he had a lot of fame and a lot of success, … a lot of speeches.

I would like to continue to be able to write for the rest of my life and have time to do that. I’d love to have more time than I have now, but I’m hoping eventually to get there. As of today, I feel like my life is pretty good. I’ve got a healthy family, we’re not in great debt, we enjoy a beautiful blue sky in New Mexico, I’m making a difference with my students…that for me is pretty successful.

I think if you start wanting all the things that you can’t have, that’s a really bad thing to do as a writer. But if you get some work done every day or every couple days, I think that, for me, is success.

red Ravine: What advice do you have for new and emerging writers?

Robert: Learning about writing practice is one of the keys. My idea for a new writer is to get your work done. I know it sounds really simplistic … and a lot of writers have said this, if you can get 500 or 1000 words done a day, that is a great thing.

Be careful if you think publishing a piece in a magazine or book will make you a happy person. Or will save your life. It won’t. It really won’t. What may help you as an artist is actually producing and writing every day. Or every couple days when you can. I think that’s the best advice people can give you.

Don’t listen to that Monkey Mind. Don’t listen to everybody telling you you can’t do it. Or you’ve got to produce something too quickly. If you can find time to do your art, then that will actually lead you and take you where you need to go. Be careful not to put the cart before the horse. I think there’s no other way to write but to write.

red Ravine: This is an excellent interview and it’s very inspiring, Rob, thanks so much for your time.

Robert: Oh, no it’s my pleasure. There are a lot of harder things to do in the world than to have people ask me questions. I appreciate you doing it.

Related Links

About the Author: Robert Wilder currently teaches high school in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he is inspired daily. He has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition and has a monthly column for the Santa Fe Reporter called “Daddy Needs A Drink.” He has been published in Salon, The Greensboro Review, The Colorado Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review and regional magazines and newspapers. He is a Frank Waters fiction prizewinner and two of his stories were nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He lives with his family in New Mexico. Visit him online at www.robertwilder.com.

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                   TALES cover
                   Image provided by Anna Crowe, Bantam Dell
                   Publishing Group, Random House, Inc.; Cover Art
                   © 2007 by Jose Luis Pelaez, Inc./Picturequest;
                   Cover Design by Lynn Andreozzi. All rights reserved.

On Thursday, September 13, QuoinMonkey and ybonesy interviewed Robert Wilder, author of the recently released Tales from the Teachers’ Lounge.

The interview was so rich, so chock full of good information for writers, that we decided to publish it in its entirety.

Robert took a break between classes to talk to red Ravine for about an hour. What follows is the first half of our interview with him, where he talks about his latest book and how he wrote it. 

Interview With Robert Wilder – Tales From The Teachers’ Lounge: An Irreverent View of What It Really Means to Be a Teacher Today

red Ravine: As we recall, this book came out pretty quickly on the tails of Daddy Needs A Drink. The question we have is, had it been percolating? Had you been thinking about writing it even before Daddy Needs A Drink?

Robert: I actually thought about writing it around the same time. When I was writing Daddy Needs A Drink, I thought, yeah, there are a lot of parallels between being a parent and being a teacher. Every day I do my parenting thing — and I also do my teaching thing, and I see connections. I also see some of the same complications and humor that I find with kids.

It’s funny when you’re a teacher, colleagues will ask, “How are your kids?” and sometimes you don’t know whether they’re talking about your own biological children or your students. So I’d had files and done some writing on the teaching before and during Daddy Needs A Drink. I also handed in Daddy Needs A Drink almost 2 years before it came out. When I handed it in, I started working on the teaching book.

red Ravine: That makes sense. How long did it take you to write Tales From The Teachers’ Lounge?

Robert: Well, you know it’s hard because I had been working on it, all in all, I’d say a couple of years because I had been working on pieces of writing for different teaching magazines. And I had been journaling and keeping notes. I still do, even though Tales is out. I took notes this morning and I take notes when I teach.

Yesterday I was handing out note cards; I do a writing exercise where I ask students to describe their face. And then I read them and we try to guess who is who. It’s a description exercise, it’s a voice exercise, it’s a lot of different things, it’s a memoir exercise. And so, I’m handing out the note cards and one of my students, this kind of jockey boy who I really like, he’s like, “Dude, I hate note cards.”

I mean that, for me, is hysterical. So I have my little planner and in the back I make a note about the idea of being a teenager where your initial impulse is resistance, even if it’s something as mundane as a note card. I even take notes as I’m teaching and I’ll always stop and write things down, like if the kids introduce a new word I’ve never heard of or a new sense of fashion. They all come in wearing this new thing and I’ll say, “What is that?” or “Where does that come from?” because I’m fascinated by them.

red Ravine: What surprised you most about Tales From the Teachers’ Lounge?

Robert: About writing it?

red Ravine: Yeah, or after it was done and you looked back on it, was there something in particular that you thought, “Wow I didn’t realize that was going to happen!”

Robert: Well, you don’t know when you’re writing it. When I’m in it, it all seems totally full and real to me. I try to get it as real as I can make it. So I never understand what I’m doing as I’m doing it. But now that I look at it, I realize it’s more complicated than I thought it was.

I wanted it to be, I hoped it to be, sort of smart/funny. But now that I’m stepping back and hearing people talk about it, I realize that there’s more edginess. You know, someone said to me, “Wow, this is a really edgy essay.” And I didn’t see it that way because that’s sort of the way it is, you know.

A lot of teachers have been responding just great, saying, “God, this is exactly what I feel like when I’m in the classroom, and this is what I’m thinking and I never get to say it.” So, for me, I didn’t realize how dangerous it is to tell the truth about being a teacher in this time.

It’s a little dangerous to know that a teacher has human feelings and a range of emotion and teachers can get mad and sad and be funny and be irreverent…and so it’s a little more risky than I thought it would be when I was writing it because when I was writing it I was just writing about what it’s like for me to be a teacher. And I don’t consider myself an especially edgy or risky person.

I’m a dad, you know, I like my health insurance, I don’t bungee jump, I don’t have any major addictions, so I just think of myself as a dad and a teacher and a husband and just sort of a person. And then when people respond to it, they respond to the work in ways that maybe I hadn’t really considered when I was writing it because when I was writing it I was just trying to keep my head down and tell the truth.

red Ravine: Yeah, as you talk about that, I’m in the second section, Chapter 5, and that’s exactly what I’m thinking, “Wow, this is edgy, this is bold. He’s revealing who he was as a student…” and, you know, your students are going to be reading that, and so, I had that same reaction about how courageous you are to really just tell the truth about who *you* are, who the real you is.

Robert: Yeah, I guess I don’t feel it’s courageous when I’m doing it at all. A lot of my students have already read the book, they were dying to read it much more than, obviously, the parenting book. I think, as a teacher … when you see a kid sitting alone in the cafeteria, you recall those moments in your own life. That’s the great blessing and curse of being a teacher … it’s sort of like Groundhog Day. Every year you see the kids make the same mistakes and go through the same awkward moments, and you can’t save them. That’s part of who they are.

And I think it’s really good to remember what it was like for you as a kid to be in the classroom when things were really boring. Or no one was listening to you, or people were making fun of you. Or you were having a great day and you wanted someone to acknowledge that. I think it’s important for the teacher not to lose touch with that. Because that’s in a sense who you’re dealing with. You’re dealing with past versions of yourself in a sense. And …I think for a lot of teachers, well, I’ll just speak for me, (we became) teachers because maybe there wasn’t something we got. Or maybe someone inspired us. But the other side of that is maybe there was something we needed as students that we never got.

For instance, for me, in high school, I was a soccer player, so my teachers and a lot of people, all they cared about was what I did out on the field. And not that much about what I was doing in the classroom. And so, for me now, when I’m dealing with athletes, I want to be equally interested in both. I want to show them that you can be very smart and a good basketball player and they’re not mutually exclusive. Or if a person is only … known for their performance in the classroom, to show them that you went to their athletic game and you noticed that side. Or you went to their music concert. For me, it’s important to remember what it felt like to be a student, because then I can respond to the kids in a more authentic way.

red Ravine: So, so far, you said one kid read the book?

Robert: Oh, more than one. A bunch of them got a hold of it and there’s been stuff in the local paper. The reporter printed the first essay, which is pretty edgy, I guess (laughs).

red Ravine: uh huh (laughs)

Robert: So the kids are excited … because the other thing is, they want to know that teachers are human beings. I don’t know if you feel this way but I remember in classrooms when my teachers would tell stories about their lives, I was just fascinated. And those moments were very few and far between. So for them to hear that I’m a human and I have flaws and that I struggle, and, you know, on 9/11 I felt really sad because I lost friends in the Trade Center, or whatever it is.

I think sometimes as teachers we think we should shield all that, that it’s unprofessional to be human. I think that’s a ridiculous concept. And I know for students, they love it when you tell stories about your life because they want to know who you are, not just what you have to say about Faulkner. They want to know that there’s a real, full human being standing in front of them for a lot of days in a year.

red Ravine: Okay, before I switch gears and just talk a little bit more about your writing practice, I do want to share with you, when I went to first get this book, I went to Borders and the book was indexed in the Education section. And I was just curious what you would think about it when you found out it was indexed there. Is that where you’d expect it to be found?

Robert: Well, you know what, it drives me a little crazy. I think it drives most writers crazy, especially writers of non-fiction. It’s hard, because Daddy Needs A Drink is indexed in the parenting section next to Dr. Spock. And I’m not in love with that. But I can’t do anything about it except move it when I go to the local Borders (laughs).

I’d love for it to be in humor or memoir, but, you know what, I can’t control that. I had a feeling they were going to put it in education but as a writer, once your book comes out, in terms of controlling that, you have no control. You’ve got to concentrate on things you can actually deal with. Otherwise, you’ll drive yourself crazy.

What you hope is that people like the book, and they talk about it, and they make people go find it. And once in a while, actually, I’ve seen bookstores respond. If a lot of people ask for the book and it’s sold in the back section in education and parenting, they’ll bring it up front if people ask for it. So that’s what you can do but it’s a hard thing. A lot of writers have written about where you’re shelved and there’s not a lot of control you have over that apparently.

red Ravine: Okay. I’m going to switch gears, Rob, and we want our readers to know about your writing process. We want to know about, for example, how you get your writing done while maintaining your job as a teacher full-time.

Robert: Well for writing both of the books, a couple things have happened. One is that my regular writing practice for both the books is to get up very early. There are a lot of reasons for that. First of all, I’m better in the morning. I think morning is the best time of day. But also in the morning, as a parent and somewhat with a job, it’s a time when the phone doesn’t ring. And the time where you really don’t have to check your email.

And being a teacher, I think it’s even more difficult because once I step foot in the school, I’m pretty much available to everyone at all times. Like right now I’m talking from Natalie’s house because there’s no privacy from school. I can not have privacy, even if I go in the bathroom, there’s no privacy (laughs).

There were times when I was working on Tales and I had done all my prep and everything and I had an hour. And I put loose leaf paper taped up against the window and the door of my English office, which is very small and I share with a bunch of people, and I’d just be writing away, and, literally, people would knock and I wouldn’t answer it. And the students would come around to the window, and they’d knock. They would not accept that I had a right to privacy.

Plus if I was on the phone, like if I was on the phone with you right now, there would be people coming in and out and, literally, students stop and talk to you, even though you’re on the phone, because they think you’re at school and you’re accessible to them. So there’s absolutely no way for me, unless I’m just in the zone, to get anything done at school. So I found that getting up very early worked and during both books, I’d get up around 4 or 4:30.

In the beginning, I’d usually start at 5 but then I’d realize I didn’t have enough time because I’d start shaving off moments from my alarm clock. So I’d get up at 4 and I’d go to school when there was no one. I couldn’t do it at home because if my kids heard me up, they would get up. So I’d go to school around 4, 4:30, and I’d work until around 7 and then I’d start prepping for classes. And I did that every day and I’d do the same thing on the weekends. I’d get up very early because that’s the time when I can be alone and also my kids don’t need me. I did that pretty much all the time writing through the book.

And you know … I find that once you start doing that, just realizing that’s your job and that’s what you do, it’s okay. And I think the hard part about it for a lot of people is trying to carve out time and during the day, it’s more difficult.

The other thing I’d do, which I think is important, is I’d take weekends where I’d go up to Taos or go to Albuquerque and, a lot of writers do this, hole up in a hotel and just write non-stop for the weekend and get a lot of writing done, away. My wife is very understanding about this and a lot of times I’d hire babysitters to help her.

I think there are a lot of times where you do need those long stretches of days, like where you’re trying to structure a book, figure out how you want to structure all these pages you have, and you need to lay them out and really look at them. So I’d take weekends away and get little retreats and that was really helpful for me to do.

red Ravine: Rob, has this method of getting up early and taking your long retreats every now and then, is that now what you consider your regular writing schedule where you maintain it now that you aren’t necessarily writing a book?

Robert: Well, I should tell you, this year I have gone to part-time, which for me is three classes. So I’ve allowed myself a little more time. I’m not going to get up as early because I teach three classes in the afternoon now. It took me a long time to feel like I could actually do that, you know, move to part-time, to consider myself a writer *and* a teacher. So I’ve gone to ¾, and instead of getting up at 4, I’ll get up at 6. And what I’ll do is I will go to the St. John’s library, or something like that, and write and then just come in later to school.

But the thing about teaching high school, which is different than college, is that there’s something every day. So even though I teach from noon to 3 or noon to 3:30, at 9:45 I’ll have to go to the assembly where people will talk about the upcoming soccer games. That’s required of my job. So then I’ll go do that and I’ll go back to writing. Or every 10 days I have lunch duty, which is probably the worst (laughs) duty you can have.

The thing about being a writer while you have a job is you have to be really good at your job. I tell writers, and especially teachers who write, I’ll say, “Look, you can write, you can take those days, but it means you have to be a really good teacher when you’re in the class room. And you have to fill your obligations to your job. That’s fair. So if someone says, ‘Look, what are you doing?’, you can say, look my job, I’m a 100% solid here and I think it’s okay that I go.”

red Ravine: So you’re very familiar, obviously, with writing practice and we’re curious about whether you use writing practice to write your books.

Robert: See this is the thing, and I’ve talked to Natalie about this, everything is writing practice to me. So when I sit down to write every morning – that’s writing practice. Right? See, I think it’s interesting that people separate them. But when I was writing the book, sometimes I’d just write what’s going on, or what I need to do, or how I’m feeling. But then some days I’d say, okay, if there’s a chapter on “Substitute Teacher,” (there’s one in the book called Sub-Par) I’d write everything I know about substitutes, right? And then, that becomes the early draft of that chapter. And then I’ll write it again the next day.

So, for me, writing practice is when I sit down to write, I still write in longhand in the mornings… and writing practice has helped me immensely because it doesn’t allow my monkey mind to freak myself out. Everyday I could say, “God, you’ve got to write a really good chapter for a book.” But then I tell myself to shut up and just start writing. You know? Don’t listen to that pressure. Just start writing everything you know about substitutes and trust that will eventually lead me to where I want to go in the chapter.

So I literally sit down and do writing practice every day and some days are great. Some days I’ll get a lot of stuff that I’ll use eventually in something that will see an audience. But … there will be days and days and days where I’ll just write and write and write and it’s just for me, finding my way. And figuring out a way to land before I get to that. Does that make sense?

red Ravine: It does. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.

Robert: Because a lot of people do separate it, writing practice and then book writing. Well, writing does writing. So if you’re writing a book, you have to write. So you sit down and do writing practice. And what I’ll do is, I’ll take that and transcribe it and then I’ll start shaping it. I’ll take that rough writing and I’ll find the stuff that I need and I’ll start revising and revising and revising. But it all comes from writing practice for me. Without writing practice, I never would have written these books. Or anything else. It saved me in a million ways. You know, I could talk on and on about how much it has saved me, also from going nuts.

red Ravine: (laughs) yeah.

Robert: People think having a book will make you happy – it can also make you desperately miserable. And jealous. And petty. And mean and insecure.

Stay tuned for “Interview With Author And Teacher Robert Wilder -Part 2,” where Rob expands on finding his voice, what he’s working on next, what success looks like, and advice for new and emerging writers.

About the Author: Robert Wilder currently teaches high school in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he is inspired daily. He has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition and has a monthly column for the Santa Fe Reporter called “Daddy Needs A Drink.” He has been published in Salon, The Greensboro Review, The Colorado Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review and regional magazines and newspapers. He is a Frank Waters fiction prizewinner and two of his stories were nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He lives with his family in New Mexico. Visit him online at www.robertwilder.com.

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By Elizabeth Statmore

Here’s how a recent radio commentary emerged from writing practice to final recording.

This piece started life being written by hand as a 10-minute writing practice. Typed up, it came out to 595 words. Here’s the original, unedited writing practice:

I need to babble a bit and probably ramble on about things unrelated to my chapter. God, I really want this chapter to be over. Get it over with already. I am going to have to turn it over to my Higher Power.

But right now what occurs to me is how I felt when I heard the news that Grace Paley had died. I played ping-pong with her one summer at a women’s writing workshop at a Benedictine retreat center in the forests of central Oregon. She was the writer-in-residence that week — no students for her, no obligations except to be present with that wide green ping-pong table in the great hall that looked out over the bend in the wild McKenzie River.

She was always ready for a game or just a rally, and she seemed to be almost lurking by the table, waiting for her next victim or partner to come by and play with her.

She was not a particularly gifted ping-pong player, but she played with great gusto and delight and with an enthusiasm that was infectious.

She was already older, a round, frumpy looking woman with a careless halo of white curls and luminous blue eyes that glowed with a fierce sense of fun. She would hang out there by the reference books, the communal dictionary and other resources, waiting for someone to come along and play ping-pong. She was like the troll by the bridge or other mythical helper figures in fairy tales that the protagonist has to get by. It was as if a few rounds of ping-pong with her were just the thing to get you over that hump in your chapter or to work out the kinks in your sonnet.

I had read some of her stories and I grew up in the world that was the sequel to the one she depicted.

When she played she had a way of rocking from one foot to the other in victory. She also had a good-natured paddle slam through the air when she flubbed a shot.

She came to all the student readings, not just the faculty ones, and she took us seriously. I danced over the moon the night she told me she loved a piece I read aloud that evening. You might have heard me joining in the coyote madrigals in the forest after midnight later that night.

It was only in hindsight that I recognized how much greater was the gift she gave me through her stories. Growing up in that sequel world to Philip Roth and Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud, it was eye-opening to read the shadow side, the lives of the Jewish women of that era dealing with love and loss and heartbreak and belief.

She didn’t just hang out with the other teachers — all noted authors in their own right — but she at whole-grain hippie pizza with us students on the deck and seduced us into senseless ping-pong marathons / tournaments that lasted late into the night and talked politics with us and what it meant to work as a writer.

She decided early on in her career that it was too overwhelming to try and write a novel, too big a project for her. She dedicated herself to her work as a miniaturist.

In the end what remains is her generosity, both in her work and in her living. She shared her mind with us and her enormous human heart, and we are all the richer for it. She will be missed.

I realized this could be the basis of a successful NPR commentary. Why? Three main reasons:

  1. it had a good “news peg” (relationship to a current news event)
  2. it offered a unique and personal connection to the subject (ping pong, rather than writing)
  3. it included a lot of fresh and interesting details

But to make it work, I would have to pare this first draft way down.

Through experience, I’ve learned that the text of my commentaries can only be about 350 words long — including the sign-off — in order to fit into the strict two-minute time slot in the Morning Edition clock that KQED uses (see examples of the major NPR clocks that affiliate stations have to adhere to at this link).

In radio, the time limit is the law. You will be edited or discarded if you can’t stay within the time count. So I am religious about rehearsing and knowing my time count.

For a two-minute commentary slot, my ideal is to come in between 1:48 and 1:52. At my normal speaking speed, that gives me about 350 words. In essence, this piece needed to be almost cut by half. This is where it comes in handy to know how to separate the creator from the editor.

STEP 1 – Say each thing only once.

In most of my writing practices I tend to cycle around ideas, topics, and memories, taking as many swings at the ball as I want to. It’s writing practice. Who cares if I repeat myself or babble witlessly?

Tracking Edits Function on WordBut for publication or broadcast, few things merit that much repetition. I took out my scalpel and cut out everything extra. I use Word’s “Track Changes” feature (pictured here) to make my first round of slash-and-burn cuts. Once you turn on this feature, Word will puts each deletion or change into a colored bubble on the side so you can make decisions about each one later.

It’s also true that you need to come right to the point in a short piece. “I played ping-pong with Grace Paley one summer…” is the hook in this write. I used that as my lead.

STEP 2 – Reassess.

This is always the horrifying step for me. I do a word count on what’s left after I think I’ve sliced out all my little darlings. The draft is now down to 515 words. On the one hand, this is good news: I’ve cut out 80 words with no pain. On the other hand, I still have to cut out another 165 words.

STEP 3 – Boil it down.

This is where the editing process gets interesting for me. The process shifts from surgical to chemical. I need to find ways to distill down the sense of what I’m saying in fewer words. Phrases need to be boiled down. For example: “but she played with gusto and an enthusiasm that was infectious” gets shorted to “but she played with gusto and with an infectious enthusiasm.”

Every single word must be considered.

Toward the end, I find two sentences that each encapsulate my elation at her positive feedback. I have to get rid of one, no matter how much I love it. Much denial and gnashing of teeth. I take the dog for a walk. In the end, I decided to drop my address to the listener, “You may have heard me later that night, when I joined in the coyote madrigals across the forest.”

It’s cute, but cutting it retains the sense and gives back 18 words. I’ll use the idea somewhere else another time.

Cutting out “depicting them with unflinching honesty” gives back another 5 words.

I add in the tag line (“With a Perspective, I’m Elizabeth Statmore”) which adds a non-negotiable 6 words, unless I change my name to a one-word moniker like Prince or Madonna (unlikely).

Eventually I trim the whole thing down to a workable 358 words and submit it to my editor for consideration. Every commentary is a completely new submission.

STEP 4 – Rewrite.

After 4,000 years (or three days, I can’t remember) the editor writes back and tells me he likes it a lot but worries that many listeners won’t know who she is and the intro can’t provide much context. He asks if I can take a stab at finding a way to establish who she is early on.

This means finding more words to cut but even worse, finding a way to sum up who Grace Paley was in a few words.

I did some writing practice and came up with an allegorical analogy (that Ph.D. in Comparative Literature comes in handy again!) comparing her to a present-day equivalent that most Bay Area readers would recognize, at least by name.

Here’s what I came up with:

That may not mean much to some of you, but for many of us she was a literary rock star, an award-winning author and activist who could be funny and political and profoundly compassionate all at once. Basically, the Anne Lamott of her time.

I cut a few more extra words and boiled it down to 366 words, which is fine if I rehearse properly.

By now there wasn’t much time left to get it recorded while it was still current! I chase down the supervising recording engineer and book the first studio appointment available the next day.

Here is the final version, which was broadcast on KQED on Tuesday, 4-Sep-07:

I played ping-pong with Grace Paley one summer at a women’s writing workshop in the forests of central Oregon.

That may not mean much to some of you, but for many of us she was a literary rock star, an award-winning author and activist who could be funny and political and profoundly compassionate all at once. Basically, the Anne Lamott of her time.

She was the writer-in-residence that week — no students, no obligations except to be present with that wide green table in the great hall that looked out over a bend in the wild McKenzie River.

Grace was not a particularly gifted ping-pong player, but she played with gusto and with an infectious enthusiasm.

She was already older, a tiny round woman with a careless halo of white curls and luminous blue eyes. She would hang out by the reference books, lying in wait for some new ping-pong partner, like some mythical helper figure in a fairy tale that the protagonist has to get past. As if a few rounds of ping-pong with her were just the thing to get you over that hump in your chapter.

When she won, she rocked gleefully from one foot to the other. When she flubbed a shot, she slashed her paddle through the air in frustration and spun around.

She didn’t just hang out with the other luminaries. She ate whole-grain hippie pizza with us students on the deck and lured us into endless ping-pong marathons. We talked politics and she asked us what it meant to work as writers.

She came to all the student readings and took us seriously. I danced over the moon the night she told me she loved a piece I read aloud that evening.

I understand now some of the gifts she left behind. She dedicated herself to the life of the miniaturist, caressing the shadow side of that world claimed by Philip Roth, the unnoticed lives of the women as they dealt with love and loss.

In the end what remains is her generosity. She shared her mind and her enormous human heart, and we are the richer for it. She will be missed.

With a Perspective, I’m Elizabeth Statmore.

I think this version retains all the spirit of the original, but in a form that enables it to find publication. Ultimately that’s all editing really is — helping your piece to find a foot hold.

You can hear Elizabeth’s piece Remembering Grace Paley on KQED Radio at this link. It aired yesterday, Tuesday, September 4, 2007.  Elizabeth is a frequent contributor to KQED-FM’s Perspective series. To read more about Elizabeth, visit her website, Elizabeth Statmore.


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by Elizabeth Statmore

Writing this book is the loneliest journey I have ever been on.
Nothing even compares — not divorce, not mental illness, not
abandonment, not the murder of my best friend from high school. Not
therapy. Not meditation.

The other day I told Natalie how hard I am finding this last stretch.
She agreed sympathetically and compared it to giving birth. “At the
end, you really have to push.”

A thought occurred to me. “So is there an epidural when you get to
this part?”

She laughed. “No painkillers. Just screaming.”

Some days I wonder if this is how the deeply delusional feel in
psychiatric hospitals. I shuffle around the house in my socks and a
dark blue sweatshirt, muttering to myself. Just me and my characters.
I hear their voices. They argue and negotiate on the pages of my
spiral notebook. I plug cartridge after cartridge into my Waterman
fountain pen. Black ink only. I can’t bear to see colors these days.

The other night my dharma teacher said, “Intention precedes action.”
I wrote this on a small yellow Post-It and placed it next to the
altar on the far left corner of my desk. On the wall just above it is
a companion Post-It with a recovery saying on it. The saying was
given to me by a fellow writing practice writer. It says, “Motivation
follows action.”

This captures how I am feeling these days. Intention precedes action
and motivation follows it. And I am suspended in the action in the
middle, groundless and beyond grasping, hovering over the edge of the
cliff like the great dharma teacher Wile E. Coyote. I blink into the
camera and feel myself gulp before the fall.

Abandoned Is… is a writing practice written from the Topic post, WRITING TOPIC – “ABANDONED.”

About writing, Elizabeth says:  I love the way writing practice lets me crawl through the window of a dream into the spirit world, where wild time is woven together with ordinary time to bind our souls to joy. I began writing practice in 1988, when I discovered Writing Down The Bones at my favorite bookstore, and I began formal study with Natalie Goldberg soon thereafter. Day by day, this practice has taught me to accept my whole mind and to work my way through life one word at a time.

Revisiting my old spiral notebooks reminds me how hard I worked in the learning but more importantly, how hard I had to try. They remind me how I learned to step forward with my own voice and declare, “The only one who limits me is me.” Year in, year out, they remind me how this practice has given me who I am.


In addition to the novel she is writing, Elizabeth is a frequent contributor to KQED-FM’s Perspectives series. If you would like to read more about Elizabeth, visit her website, Elizabeth Statmore. To listen to her work on Perspectives, click on the link, radio.



-posted on red Ravine, Monday, August 13th, 2007

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