Category Archives: August 2012

How’s Tricks?

Dear Readers,

At least one of you know I haven’t had a thought, original or otherwise, in weeks.  Maybe it’s been obvious to everyone from previous entries although I have tried to pretend otherwise.  Point is, this blog’s due date found me in a state of semi-somnambulism, flatlining, poring over decorating magazines and cookbooks. …you know, I’m going to spare you all that and tell you what got my crank turning, albeit slowly, this past evening.

A friend sent me an email with the subject line “How’s Tricks?” I was reminded of  a commercial for a cereal named TRIX.  There was a cartoon rabbit involved and the tagline “TRIX are for kids!”  I don’t recall much else about the ad but something was triggered by the question and because I’ve been writhing around in my mind wondering what to talk about besides what’s really been occupying my time these past weeks I want to just go with that trigger and riff on what came along.

Trigger was Roy Roger’s late horse.  Rumour had it that he was stuffed – taxidermied – and displayed in the Rogers’ living room.  Could be true.

What came along?  Hopalong Cassidy, another fictional cowboy.  Hopalong came along and went…

“How’s tricks?” asked my friend and this is what happened:

Tricks are for turning.  Turning’s for into, for leaves, for wheels.  Turning’s the younger sister of tossing.  Tossing’s for salad, horse shoes, the extraneous.  Tossing’s for proud heads, ideas, remarks.  Remarks are for making, deciphering, interpreting, provoking.  Remarks are for responding to.   (Yes I ended that sentence with a preposition; isn’t there some rule against that?  Ah well, such is the way of the world these days).

Responding says Yes.  Yes, I acknowledge you, I hear you.  Yes I agree, Yes there’s more to this.  Responding says we’re all here, emitting sounds and scratching symbols, Yes there is meaning in these patterns.

Responding invites some form of convention.  How’s tricks?  Well, there’s the new baby.  And the new digs.  And daughter’s daddy’s not doing too well.  Finally got lights for my bike and a new dining table.  Got a bad haircut and looked like Abe Simpson; got a good haircut and look like Anderson Cooper.  Found a terrific place for fresh fish and seafood.  I miss my friends in Vancouver.

In an advice column recently I read about “first world problems” and was reminded once again of all I have to be grateful for and all the things I take for granted.  I am supremely blessed.  Health, good friends, family, enough money and education and the occasional flash of curiosity to allow me plenty of  choice.  Right now feels like a good time.

How’s tricks?  Ask Hoyle, that authority on card games.  He’d probably say tricks are for taking.  Tricks are for trumping.  And trumping … somebody take it from here, please!



The Real Alaska

I don’t have much to say today, other than we were gone nearly two months, and it wasn’t until the last weekend in Alaska that we spent time in the woods, in the Real Alaska.

My family were Pioneers. Not the Gold Rush pioneers, but my dad was still considered a “sourdough” to the locals. He moved to Alaska in 1949, when the Alcan Highway was barely more than a dirt track, and everyone hunted, fished, gardened and berry picked to “put up” enough food for the families for the winter.

The best part of every trip back to Alaska is spending a long weekend in the woods…but we’re more civilized now than when I was growing up and sleeping in tents.

The cabin was built by my brother and his wife on some property owned by her family up the Goodpasture River about 100 miles south of Fairbanks. Only way to reach the cabin is about a 45 minute boat ride from a landing on the Tanana River near Delta Junction. Theirs is the new cabin. I’m sorry to say I didn’t take any pictures of the “old” cabin, built in the early 70’s by my sister-in-law’s grandfather.

So, instead of tents, we spend our nights in cabins heated by fireplaces, but the days are spent outdoors fishing for grayling, chopping wood, having meals cooked over the campfire. The most relaxing weekend of our too-long summer vacation. I don’t think I could ever get tired of being there, and I can’t say how much it means that my lovely sister-in-law and her family shares this beautiful place with the rest of us.


Falling In

Image © Jar O’Marbles, used with permission.

A few nights ago, I dreamed I was eating a honeycrisp apple. It was perfectly ripe and tasted of early fall, the only time we can get them around here. When I woke, I realized it was nearing seven and the world was still twilight gray.

Ah, I thought, here comes fall.

It’s been a wonderful summer, full of good work and great adventures, but I can suddenly feel autumn’s inexorable pull.

My sons went back to school last week. Maybe it’s an ingrained association rooted in my childhood years, when school began after Labor Day, or maybe it’s the result of a ten-day triple digit heat wave that left me (and my garden) feeling wilted and suddenly ready to bid summer a fond farewell.

Autumn has always been my favorite season. I love everything about it: the new beginnings, the return to routine, the colors, the tastes and smells, the harvest celebrations at the beginning, Halloween and Thanksgiving at the end. Cozy sweaters and crunchy leaves and cinnamon sprinkled on almost everything.

But what I’ve really come to love – and to anticipate even more than pumpkin bread and those honeycrisp apples – is the return of my dedicated writing hours. I’m so lucky to have them and believe me, I make good use of them. I guard them like a tiger protecting her young, hoard them like Golem and his precious ring.

I’m in a holding pattern at the moment, since I just finished an intense writing/editing marathon. I’m catching up on life, spending time with my family and friends, and giving my brain a much needed breather. But my hiatus ends on September 4, and I will begin whatever comes next (I still have a few days left to decide!), jumping into it with the joyful abandon of a kid cut loose in a pile of leaves.

Are you ready for fall, or still savoring summer? Anything wonderful planned for the new month just ahead?


Summer’s almost over

So we thought we might celebrate the movies and books that are our summer favorites. It’s not easy to pick one of each but here goes.

Kate: The books (I count them as only one, although there are six of them) I read every summer are Jane Austen’s. I read them in a very precise order – from the ones I like the least (Northanger Abbey and Emma) to the ones I absolutely love, always ending up with Persuasion – one of my favorite books of all times.

As for movies – summer is a time for blockbusters and I’ve noticed that the blockbuster I often watch in the summer is Independence Day. Gee, I wonder why? But I love Jeff Goldblum and Judd Hirsch, they’re smart and they’ve got that great father/son vibe going.

Lisa: I read a number of great books this summer, but my absolute favorite was Lauren Groff’s Arcadia. I stumbled across it on a list of editors’ top picks from small presses and the reviewer’s comment that “Groff’s sentences are so beautiful they make you want to weep” had me rushing to the bookstore. One page in, and I was hooked. Reading Arcadia is like falling into a dream; it’s mesmerizing and subtle and so, so evocative. The only thing I would change about Arcadia is the time of year I read it. It’s the perfect rainy Sunday with a blanket and a pot of tea kind of book.

Between our getaways and my son’s adventurees in summertime musical theater, we didn’t hit the theater very often, but the movies we saw were great. The Avengers was pre-Memorial Day but it kicked off the blockbuster season with…dare I say…a vengeance? The Amazing Spiderman was so much better than I expected it to be; I absolutely loved it. And ParaNorman might be the coolest animated film I’ve seen since Monster House. Trippy, strange, funny and heartwarming, with some seriously cool artistic touches.

What about you?

Kate and Lisa

On Fear of Finishing (the Book)

So I’d been working on this book, a memoir of my fifteen years as a carpenter, for a long, long time – twenty-five years to be exact – and finally it was finished.  I sent it off to the publisher, who liked it, and who passed it on to an editor, who also liked it, and who worked with me on a substantive edit, to polish and cut.  So far, so good.  Then it sat for a while with a copy editor and proofer, and that’s when I panicked.

I mean terrified.  I’d always thought writing memoir would be a snap.  You write what happened, you check with your journals if you have any doubts about timing or need a little more detail, then you write it down.  What could be easier? 

It turns out that everything I’ve ever written – eleven books and chapbooks of poetry and biography – has been easier than this.  It turns out that to write an honest memoir (key word, “honest”) takes more gut-wrenching, heart-searching and even trips to the counsellor, than any poem or book of poems or biography ever did.  Besides, everyone knows that poems are fictional and biography is someone else’s life.  None of it is “you.”

But memoir is all yours.  It’s also all the key people you ever knew and loved (and didn’t).  Suddenly I felt like I’d smeared my life all over the page (quite a few pages, actually) and laid them out on a glaringly bare screen for everyone to judge.   Suddenly all the things I wasn’t proud of, all the mistakes, were blatant.  And what would those people say when they saw themselves on the page with me, so unexpected?  I’d changed a few names, I’d sent out excerpts to ask others if they wanted their real name or a pseudonym, and had been deeply relieved that not a single person wanted any changes except for one or two corrections of fact.  I even consulted a lawyer friend, just in case.  All fine, he reassured me.  Still….  It’s the bareness that’s hard.  I phoned other memoir writers.  Yes, yes, they knew the feeling.  One wise friend said to me, “Send this book out, like all the others, with love and trust.”  So that’s what I’m hanging on to.  Love and trust – in my readers, and in the hard work I did to make this book as honest, as true, as I possibly could.

I’d thought courage for a writer was in the living, and then in the writing.  Now I find that the need for courage doesn’t stop.  And the places we need it, keep surprising me.

Kate B.

(Note:  Journeywoman will be published by Caitlin Press this fall.)



God Bless the Word Processor!

Granted, it is the curse that convinced most of the world, literate and semi-literate alike, they could write, flooding literary agencies with the flotsam that makes it so hard for neophyte authors to get noticed. Yet, what a wonderful tool it also is.

For much of my career, I have written in a linear mode, crafting one chapter after another. How glorious it was to find I could lift an entire chapter and insert it elsewhere. Of course, in olden times, all one needed to do to accomplish that was removed the desired pages and insert them elsewhere in the manuscript. But then, it became the paragraph and suddenly one could edit wholesale on the spot, cutting and pasting, altering words and phrases to one’s heart’s content. Recently, however, I discovered another use, though I won’t be surprised if most of you already employ it.

I was recently introduced to a wonderful writing team: Douglas Preston and Lincoln Childs. The thrillers they write are layered with subplots and levels of tension beyond what most authors achieve—at least in my experience.

I was recently reading <i>Thunderhead</i>, a powerful paranormal-turns-out-not-to-be-paranormal thriller set in the Southwest. One of the things that delighted me about the story was how elements introduced into the plot frequently elicited “ah ha!”s when I recognized that the seed for each new turn had often been sown much earlier.

Now, a plotter can sometimes arrange for this, glancing ahead in her notes, but Preston is an admitted pantser—don’t know about Childs. For this sort of complexity, I am sure when he introduces a twist, he must ask himself where earlier in the work he could plant a seed. Then, I suspect, he returns to that point and carefully, to avoid heavy-handedness, works it in. Barring another strategy to accomplish this feat, that is how I would do it, and because I enjoy the elegant, I am now looking at my work with a new eye to how I might layer my stories. And I now have a new appreciation for how my word processor can assist me!


Dinner with George

I get invited to many cool events, but when an invitation to the Clarion West dinner with George R.R. Martin arrived in my inbox a couple of months ago, there was nearly no pause to my quick R.S.V.P.

This is the man who wrote the books behind the “Game of Thrones” on HBO. The series that brings my house to a stop, with chairs circled around the big screen as we wait to see what will happen next to the good, the bad and the really strange characters.

And I love the books, with complex plotting, a nearly endless cast of characters, (over a thousand now, George tells us at the dinner). How does he keep track of them all? “Mostly in my head,” he says. As a writer, it took all my self-control not to jump up and scream, “How do you do that?”

George is pretty low key guy. He was interviewed by Connie Willis, who is a long-time friend. She knew George before he was famous, and apparently knows where a lot of the skeletons are buried. She teased him about his suspenders. “What’s with the suspenders”? Connie asked.

“They hold up my pants,” he responded deadpan. “I used to wear a belt, but when security started making me remove it at the airport, I switched to suspenders.” Recently he discovered with the new machines, he needs to remove his suspenders too. His solution, suspenders made with plastic grips.

It takes George a pretty long time to write a book. Well, have you seen these books? The paperbacks are over 1000 pages. So his publisher decided to create a book of maps for his created lands. It wasn’t supposed to involve any of George’s time. He’d just review the mapa, approve them and get back to writing the next book in the series.

Then the editor asked “What’s beyond the border to the east?” George replied, “It doesn’t matter, no one goes there.”

His editor wasn’t satisfied with this answer, and George then had to create lands in the east. Lands that he still insists…”No one goes to. Ever.”

I discovered things about one of my favorite authors that evening. Not only is he funny, in a no nonsense, tell it like it is way. He’s also still fascinated with the process of writing and creating imaginary worlds. He writes because people interest him, and putting his characters in unique situations teaches him, and us as readers, about the complexity of human nature.

I think that’s what drives us as storytellers. We want to explore inner worlds just as much as the places where we set our books. Westeros, the surface of Mars or Victorian England, we put our characters there to test their wills and watch them survive.

And we cheer for them, cry for them and sometimes, our hearts even break for them. For me, that’s the true magic of telling their stories.


Library ladies hanging out with George R.R. Martin

Traditions, Rituals and Returning Home

“Peaches come from a can,” photo by bcostin, used with permission under a creative commons license.

Tomorrow I’m headed to our local farmers market to pick up a box of peaches. About 25 pounds worth. With any luck, all those peaches will get blanched, cooled, the skins slipped off, the pits removed, the fruit sliced, and put up in glass jars in a light sugar syrup.

I didn’t grow up preserving food or eating locally. I remember wonder-bread and Captain Crunch. Cans meant aluminum cans of terribly mushy green beans, cooked into submission. I’m not exactly sure how and when it happened (and it perplexes my family), but in my adult life, I’ve moved to eating next to no processed foods, having farm shares for vegetables, meat, and winter roots, and putting up for winter eating.

When I started canning, our friend, Gabrielle, gave us the canning jars her grandmother had used for decades. We moved those jars from the apartment in Philadelphia we rented when we first got married to Chicago where we only lived for one year, to Massachusetts where we’ve lived for the past 21. Some years, we would only end up using a handful of those canning jars, other years, we’d fill shelves with tomatoes, peaches, apple sauce, jellies and jams.

There was something magical about the connection with food, with nurturing, with the earth, and across the generations in using Gab’s grandmother’s jars.

The summer of 2010 gave us an especially bountiful harvest. Every week, I’d walk out of the farmers market with another box full of seconds peaches and spend the next few days swearing over the sticky mess, swearing I’d never do it again. Until the next week. I must have canned 30 quarts of peaches that year.

A few months later, we lost much of our house to a terrible fire that started in the basement. Firefighters had to get behind our storage shelves to reach the source of the fire, smashing our canning jars. Later, in the cleanup, we discovered intact jars of peaches in another shelf in the back corner of the basement. They had survived, but we couldn’t risk eating them. Because of the extreme temperature changes they underwent in the fire, there was a chance that the seals had popped and reset, giving bacteria a chance to grow undetected in the food.

Of all the things we lost, I think the peaches hit me hardest.

We weren’t able to move back into our home until the middle of August last year, almost exactly a year ago, today. While peach season was in full swing, we hadn’t yet had a chance to replace our canning jars and equipment. By the time we were ready, peaches had come and gone.

This year, we’re ready. In a few days, we will have a pantry shelf stacked with jars full of sliced peaches. To me, that means we’ve really come home.

LJ Cohen

Matisse and the vermilion goldfish

You never know what it is that will inspire you – not only as an artist, but as a human being.

I’ve spent the past 16 days being inspired by the bravery of the many Olympians who struggled with injury, with bad calls, with just bad luck, and did so with incredible grace and good will. I will always remember Leonardo Chacun, the Costa Rican cyclist who was knocked out of contention at the beginning of the cyling part of the triathlon by another cyclist falling and bringing him down as well. That cyclist wrote an open letter of gratitude for having run into one of his heroes. He didn’t complain about being knocked out of contention, simply told Simon Whitfield that he was one of his heroes and that he hoped to meet him again at the next Olympics. Now that’s grace.

And I’ve spent the last few days being inspired by Matisse – not Matisse the painter (though I’m often inspired by him), but by Matisse the writer. Like many of the French, he’s a master of the bon mot. The good word, the great quip, the perfect phrase.

I was first, and still am, tempted by this When I started to paint, I was transported into a kind of paradise. This is true for all who aspire to something – whether it be art or sport or life. When we begin what we come to with passion, it is a kind of paradise. We feel as if the world around us is finally right, that the sky lights up for us, that our eyes see, our hearts feel, our bodies strengthen.

It might be that we are meant to be a musician or a painter or a runner. It might be that we are meant to create a great business, or a beautiful home, or simply a wonderful life. Passion is what turns a job into a paradise.

But today I was tempted by I wouldn’t mind turning into a vermilion goldfish. Why? I don’t know how this sentence would sound in French, but in English it’s the rhthym that first drew me in – when I write, the rhythm is always a huge part of the work for me. I fell in love with the word vermilion and know that I’ll use it sometime soon. And then there’s the idea of turning into not just any goldfish, but a vermilion one. A painter wrote that sentence, no question about it.

I’ve put this phrase away. If you keep your eyes open for a while – it might be a week, though it’s much more likely to be a year or two – you’ll see me using part of this as a title. I know I won’t be able to resist.


Anti Social Networking

Twitter, Facebook, and personal blogs seem to be all the rage in the literary world. From what I’ve seen and heard from other writers, most agents and editors would prefer their authors have an online presence in order to interact with their fans and promote their books.

As a reader, I love this. I love being able to interact with authors and see into their minds as they’re creating their works. I love being able to chat with them about books or the writing process or even just our shared love of movies or TV shows or gardening.

However, as a writer, this trend is troublesome for me. I’m not a naturally gregarious person and I never know what to say. Especially to a group of random strangers. Who really cares that I spent all day several weeks ago excavating a beautiful brick pathway in my yard? Or that I had a disturbing dream the other night which left me completely shaken the next day? Or that I’m a complete Project Runway fanatic and am in platonic love with Tim Gunn? It’s incredibly difficult for me to come up with things to say that I think people will be interested in. Especially with the 140 character limit on Twitter.

And yet, on the flip side, keeping up with my blog is even worse. What do you mean I have to come up with a substantial, informative yet still entertaining post? Who am I to be sounding off about anything? Surely there are other more intelligent/verbose/better informed people out there who’ve already said what I want to say with more class and wit. Why would anyone want to read my disjointed ramblings? Even coming up with the previously bi-weekly and now monthly posts for here is occasionally a chore because the other posters seem to have lived and are living such amazing and inspiring lives and mine seems tame and boring by comparison.

I guess the answer to my dilemma is to pretend like I think I’m interesting and insightful until I start to believe it and become more comfortable putting myself out there. Even when I don’t think anyone is listening or caring. As my best friend is fond of saying – Wear the Mask until the Mask becomes Truth.