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On Staying the Course

Back in the 1980’s when I first met my future husband, he taught me to sail. I’d never set foot on a sailboat before then, but I loved it from the very start. The rocking of the waves against the hull, the pressure of the wind filling the sail, the flapping of telltales. Being on a sailboat is a delight for the senses. But it is also a universe with its own rules, language, and skills.

Navigation is a great example of this. There is something odd and counter-intuitive about navigating on a sailing vessel. For one thing, you can almost never go precisely in the direction you want. And you can never ever sail directly into the wind. Then, you have to understand that turning the wheel might mean little if the wind and current aren’t with you. Even if you do everything right, sometimes the wind dies and you end up drifting.

What I learned from sailing, I’ve been able to apply to my writing as well. There are elements of my writing career that are under my control. I can study my craft, practice, seek and apply feedback, but just as it’s impossible to force a boat to head directly into the wind, I cannot control the direction of the publishing industry.

Right now, it seems like every book on the young adult shelves is either a dystopian narrative or a paranormal love triangle (or sometimes a combination of the two). If I want to see my books in the marketplace, I have a number of choices to make. Assuming that my writing is good enough for publication, I can either write what I already see on the shelves or I can write the stories that have resonance for me. If I chose the former path, then I’m sailing using yesterday’s weather report or forcing my vessel to go against my personal tide. Either way, I’m not going to get where I wish.

If I choose the latter, then I pick a course that may not take me directly to my destination, but it may be the best course wind and weather will allow. It may take a zig zag path, but if I trust in my navigation abilities, staying the course may be the only way through the doldrums.

For all of my fellow travelers on this writing journey, may you find your smooth sailing, fair winds, and following seas.

–LJ Cohen

(Photo by pwcrockett, used with attribution, cc license)



Artists are often the tiniest bit obsessive (I say it like that – the tiniest bit) so I don’t offend those of you who read this blog. I try not to think about myself this way and then I look at the notebooks on my desk, or the directories on my computer, and find that I may be slightly more than the tiniest bit obsessive.

Not all the time, but definitely some of the time.

One of the times was the year 2003. This was before I published my first novel and was a time I think I was trying to avoid my obsession by working very hard, trying to learn to play the cello, and going out a whole lot. But I couldn’t – though I’m pretty sure I tried – avoid it completely. In fact, from the looks of it, I only managed to avoid it for approximately 8 days.

On that day I went out and bought a very expensive leather notebook and began a project that would occupy me for… well, almost of the year. 313 days of it to be exact.

I decided that I would write a poem every single day – and I did. Up to and including November 27.

A lot of them were haiku – especially at the beginning. The very beginning:

Tonight it begins
riding the Skytrain home. Dark

And a lot of them were about my frustrations trying to learn to play the cello. But reading that notebook now, almost ten years later, I’m proud of many of those poems.

Beloved ones.
I miss you
now you’re gone
the wood shavings still
and silent since you’re gone
the chain saw’s buzz
missing, the air clean
without it.


The moon is an egg in the pale blue sky,
floating low between glass-bonded buildings
A thousand-year egg,
cracked and marked with
special, expensive, rotten.

Put it on the menu anyway.

Obsession worked for me that year, kept me writing, kept me watching the world, observing and creating. Something different, something new, something worthwhile.


Crazy Jewelry

Okay men, this post will probably be of little interest to you. Just sayin’ before you read it and wonder why you wasted your time.

Now, for the ladies.

I’m not a jewelry whore. As with the color of the clothes I wear (black), I’m a minimalist, so you’ll never see me wearing a matching set of earrings, necklace, and bracelet. I actually really dislike that look on a woman—makes me think she’s adorned herself like a Christmas tree. Just my opinion.

Don’t worry. Not even my friends agree with me. They think I’m boring, monochromatic, and should take more risks with my wardrobe.

So, I decided to buy this crazy necklace, only I didn’t know it was crazy when I bought it. It fit my subtle taste. With numerous grey strands made of microscopic glass beads, I imagined it would go perfectly with all my black dresses.

A NYC architect who became an industrial and jewelry designer made it. Unique pieces intrigue me, so it was all the more reason I liked it. I wore it to my first book club meeting with the fabulous women of S.W.E.E.T. They all commented on the unusual piece, how it had a crepe-like feel to it, how it reflected the light so oddly.

I suppose I’d forgotten the necklace was made of glass because it certainly didn’t feel like it. That was, until we took a picture with me wearing it. See for yourself.

Kind of creepy, isn’t it? Happy Halloween, all.


The Heart Path

Follow your bliss.

It sounds so easy

until you try it and you realize

the path is dark

littered with doubts and discouragement

so you pick your way carefully

ignoring the choir of crickets

chanting you cannot

or you should not

calling you a fool

for taking the risk

for throwing yourself into the river

and daring not to sink.

It isn’t easy

to take this road;

you know, the one less travelled.

But the farther you go

the smoother the path becomes

the surer your footing

and soon you’re running, sprinting

through patches of sunlight

singing yes to the sky.

I want to tell you it stays like this

but all roads have potholes

unexpected turns

moments of uncertainty;

there will still be shadows

you will stumble, trip, fall

skin knees, bruise ego

lose heart

lose faith

lose courage

…and find them again.

Because although it isn’t easy

this chasing of bliss

once you have captured it, tasted it

once you have danced

the path of the heart

once you have soared

there is no turning back.

© Lisa DiDio, do not reprint

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.


The moon, the dried weeds/ and the Pleiades

I’ve been burning the midnight writing oil, cranking out over 3K/day for the last week, bringing the WIP to a dramatic finale. As a result, my brain is mushy, and you get a little something from my archives. It’s one of my favorite pieces, and something I still mightily believe. Enjoy!

The moon, the dried weeds/ and the Pleiades
Or, How Reading Poetry Improves Your Writing

My day began out on the patio with a cup of coffee and William Carlos Williams. So many great poems, so many great lines, but this one really struck.* Why? I don’t know for sure, but I was right there. With eight short words, Williams pulled me from my warm, madly blooming garden and transported me to the dark edge of a winter-struck field beneath a vast sky.

Poets are masters at capturing a moment, a feeling, an image, and bringing it to life on the page. They have all sorts of tricks up their sleeves – the so-called poetic devices – like syntax, meter, alliteration, symbolism, rhythm and metapors (extended or not). As novelists, we can tap these too, using them (wisely) to enrich our prose and strengthen our voice without (hopefully/ideally) overwhelming the narrative.

But the poets I love most have a certain genius with imagery. They’re the ones who can, with often the most spartan and simple language, trigger a visceral response – a physical or cosmic Ah-hah! – in me. With a few swift, sure strokes, they can paint a mental picture so vivid and pure it nearly knocks me breathless. When I come across a line like this *points up*, I pause. Re-read. Think about it. Read it again. If I can’t figure out why it hit me exactly the way it did, I still come away from it with a newfound respect for the power of words, and for those who wield them like masters.

I try to hold onto that sensibility when I’m setting a scene. Thanks to my poetry habit, I know how powerful even the simplest and cleanest of words can be when they’re put in the right contex. I believe the ones you choose can and should convey tone, sense of place and the emotional state of the protagonist, not just describe the room or the street or whatever – in as few words as possible. Sure, I could take three pages to describe a wagon passing by on a dirt road ala Faulkner in Light in August, but since I’m writing genre YA, I’m likely to lose my audience by the third paragraph. So I challenge myself to keep my imagery tight and sharp, with just enough sensory input to tow the reader completely into the scene. I try to pull this off in two sentences or less, somewhere in the first paragraph of a chapter. I can sprinkle more imagery in as the action rolls forward, but if I’ve done my job, I’ve snagged you right there at the beginning. I’ve pulled you out of your reality and into mine, and you find yourself standing at the dark edge of a winter-struck field beneath a vast sky…

Poetry. Read it, people. It’s good for your soul, great for your writing, and nothing on earth goes better with that first, steaming cup of coffee. 😀

*From “The Descent of Winter, 11/1”

Friday Five!

We’re mixing it up today, going for a little community participation. It’s been a while since we posted a Friday Five, so here’s how it works. We tell you about five of our favorite whatevers, and you chime in with yours.

Since we’re in the Dog Days of Summer, we thought it appropriate to go with


Lisa’s List

1. Beach time
2. Heirloom tomatoes & sweet basil*
3. Cool, quiet mornings – and evenings – in the garden
4. Perfectly ripe peaches (and figs, berries, plums, apricots, and melons…)**
5. Fields of sunflowers drowsing in the heat

*Okay, technically two things, but they were obviously made for each other.
**Clearly I’m too much of a hedonist to stick to five. 🙂

Kate’s List

Summers are always short in Vancouver, and this year it seems to be shorter than ever. It’s July 27 and we’ve had 10 days of real summer weather – and then we sprang back to wet, cool spring. So my summer five begins with the simplest of things:

1. Sunshine. Pretty please.
2. Early mornings and late nights – even when it’s raining, all that light is fabulous.
3. Not having to carry my umbrella. Not having to buy an umbrella because – yet again – I’ve got caught in the rain.
4. All those gorgeous bodies – male and female – walking the Seawall, playing volleyball or football on the beach, windsurfing, jogging.
5. Sitting outside at my favorite restaurant, with one of my favorite people, drinking vinho verde and watching the world go by.

Your turn! What are your favorite things about summer?

North to Alaska

Anna Leigh is driving from Vancouver to Alaska this week, which is approximately 2,000 miles. She’ll be back next time with photos from her trip, but there’s not much access to the internet while you’re deep, deep, deep in the wilderness.

Anna Leigh