Writers Who Lunch

There are many things I could fill this blog post with, my first one in 4 months. I could tell you about the marathon writing sessions I’ve had to finish a major draft of my memoir, GUTS. I could tell you that it looks like I’m a couple of months away from having it ready to send to agents. Maybe you’d like to hear about some of the essays I’ve had published since September, here, here, and here, and about the honorable mention I got in this award. Or I could go on at length about the book proposal I’ve started writing, a business plan/grant proposal-esque document meant to convince agents and editors that, of all the projects they could take on, mine is The One.

But what I really want to talk about is my lunch last week with Stewart O’Nan.

Okay, there were other people there, 2 dozen or so, and Stewart himself didn’t actually eat anything. Instead, he spoke about writing, and read from his new book, WEST OF SUNSET. I have been an O’Nan fan for awhile now, and I was excited a few months ago when I learned he would be featured at the author luncheon series at one of my favorite local bookstores, Third Place Books in Ravenna. WEST OF SUNSET is a novel about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s years living and writing in Hollywood. I recently re-read THE GREAT GATSBY for a writing class, so the novel’s subject intrigued me, but I would have gone regardless. Most any subject matter becomes engrossing in a good author’s hands.

One thing that O’Nan said that stuck with me was when he talked about doing research for his nonfiction book, CIRCUS FIRE, about the Barnum & Bailey Circus fire in Hartford in 1944, when a circus tent caught fire with 8,000 people trapped inside.

“When I interviewed survivors,” O’Nan told us, “they talked about their families, their friends. Those were the stories they told me.” He repeated this later in his talk, when someone asked him about where he gets his story ideas.

“Ever since I wrote Circus Fire,” he said, “I write stories where the characters’ main concerns are the people closest to them.”

It may sound like a small thing, maybe even an obvious thing, but sitting there in the audience, on a break from writing a dry document that tries to explain a story I’ve spent the last 5 years writing, I found it really inspiring. Right, I thought to myself. The people closest to us. They are who we write about when we write nonfiction. And when we write fiction, we write about who our characters care about too.

I feel fortunate to live in such a literary-rich community, where there are plenty of opportunities to get inspiration when I step away from my writing desk. Or hobble away, as the case in these days, since I just had foot surgery.

But that’s another story.

Parenting, Writing

Back to School

Back to School

The first words emerge slowly, like extracting the quarter-inch of honey that remains at the bottom of the jar. It’s only been a few weeks since I’ve put pen to paper, as it were, but that writing muscle of mine loses definition quickly. The days between my last writing session and this one have been full of profound and mundane activities – organizing the kids’ clothing drawers and back-to-school shopping, saying goodbye to the preschool community our family has been part of for the last five years. Today Helen started Kindergarten and Caleb started 2nd grade. It has taken time, but I bit by bit I’m beginning to feel like part of the school community. Oh, and we adopted 2 4-month-old kittens, a brother and sister, Hana and Hilo:



Transitions are hard for Caleb, so he was the one in tears, Helen the one smiling, as the school bus pulled away from our corner this morning. It is no wonder that I’m having difficulty getting started on my writing this morning, with the image of Caleb’s splotchy, tear-stained face at the bus window at the forefront of my mind. Before the bus arrived, I tried to reassure him that 2nd grade would be a lot like 1st grade, with his same friends and daily routines.
“But it will be harder,” he said. “There will be all these things I don’t know how to do.”
That is the trick about school, about childhood, isn’t it? A near constant process of taking in new information, (maybe) figuring out how to process it, and then more new stuff. I don’t have the heart to tell Caleb that this doesn’t disappear in adulthood. How much of my daily life is full of skills I have mastery over? Parenting? Hardly? Writing? I am constantly learning. Even at the gym, working with my trainer, each set of exercises she gives me is by design a physical challenge.
Maybe the difference, for me at least, is in the attitude. As a kid I was like Caleb, where new situations made me anxious. They still do, but alongside the anxiety is excitement. I love learning new things. True, I often get to choose what I take on as a learning experience, and everything isn’t new all at once, like it is when you are in elementary school. But I liked to be stretched. I like the surprise involved in learning, in taking on something new.
Earlier in the summer, Caleb and Helen and I were discussing school rules and routines, and what Helen could expect when she started Kindergarten.
“Don’t run in the hallways,” Caleb told Helen. “No tattle-telling.”
“Well,” Helen said, “If I’m doing something I’m not supposed to do, I’ll just say ‘I didn’t know. I’m new here.’”
Clearly Helen has already figured out a key skill when in a new situation: plead ignorance. I should try to remember to have that mindset.

My new endeavors this fall include a writing class (as a student, not a teacher) at Hugo House in Seattle. I’ll be taking a class called “Narrative Time: Balancing Pace and Plot” taught by longtime Hugo House instructor Michael Shilling. I’ve been obsessed with narrative time ever since I heard a lecture on the subject by Jess Walter, which I blogged about here. In the class I’ll be working on something else new (or, haven’t done in 20 years, which counts as new): fiction writing. An inspiring talk by author Anthony Doerr last May and a kid-free cross-country flight for me shortly after planted some fiction seeds in my brain. Not much above-ground growth at this point, but it’s been a fun project to work on bit by bit alongside revisions to my memoir.

I’ve been trying to make a habit of reading some poetry at the beginning of each writing session, so I’ll include a September poem here. It can be seen as an old or a new poem, depending on the time context you set it in. I’ll leave the choice up to you.

September, 1918
This afternoon was the colour of water falling through sunlight;
The trees glittered with the tumbling of leaves;
The sidewalks shone like alleys of dropped maple leaves,
And the houses ran along them laughing out of square, open windows.
Under a tree in the park,
Two little boys, lying flat on their faces,
Were carefully gathering red berries
To put in a pasteboard box.
Some day there will be no war,
Then I shall take out this afternoon
And turn it in my fingers,
And remark the sweet taste of it upon my palate,
And note the crisp variety of its flights of leaves.
To-day I can only gather it
And put it into my lunch-box,
For I have time for nothing
But the endeavour to balance myself
Upon a broken world.


Guest Faculty Gig

This August, I will have the pleasure of teaching as a member of the guest faculty at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts’ MFA residency.  I’ll be teaching a seminar called “Writers Talking to People” alongside fellow NILA MFA alum and good friend Stephanie Barbe Hammer.  Stephanie and I had a fabulous time teaching this class last year, and I am really looking forward to teaching again.

I’ve been asked to answer the questions below.  To learn more about the residency, which is open to all writers, not just those enrolled in the MFA program, check out the NILA website.

  1. What’s your favorite thing about teaching writers?

I love the energy that writers bring to a class and the bravery they exhibit in their desire to tell their stories and hone their craft.

  1. How would you suggest students approach a writer, agent, or editor they admire?

Do what you need to do to get over your shyness and go talk to them.  Tell her how much you admire her, her work, etc.  Don’t approach with the intention of pitching or anything business-like, but do be prepared to talk about your own work (in a non-pitchy kind of way) if they ask.

  1. How about a sneak peek of what we can expect to learn from you in your sessions at Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA?

For the entire 3-hour session, my co-teacher Stephanie Barbe Hammer and I will take turns reading from our works in progress.

Kidding!  It will be a very interactive seminar about the public aspects of being a writer.

  1. Tell us what “literary community” means to you.

A group of people and/or organizations who love the written word, who support each other in their writing endeavors.  My literary community keeps me motivated and buoyed; I’m not sure I’d be able to survive as a writer without it.

5. When not teaching or working at your “day job,” you can be found…

Chasing my 5-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son around our Seattle neighborhood, reading, doing crosswords, or swimming in cold bodies of water.



The MFA residency includes a FREE POLAR BEAR PLUNGE in which we all jump into the lovely, refreshing waters of the Puget Sound. On a scale of 1-5, with 5 being the most likely, how likely are you to participate?

10 [see above]

This will be our 5th annual plunge.  We should do something special to mark the occasion, don’t you think?




The Writing Process Blog Tour

Many thanks to fellow Northwest Institute of Literary Arts (NILA) alum, friend, and fabulous writer Kaye Linden for including me in The Writing Process Blog Tour.  You can read her responses to the same questions I answer below here.

Kaye has an MFA in fiction from the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, is past short fiction editor and editor with the Bacopa Literary Review, teacher of short fiction at Santa Fe College, current assistant editor for Soundings Review and medical editor for “epresent learning lecture reviews.”  Kaye’s first short story collection  TALES FROM MA’S WATERING HOLE is available where all books are sold.  Kaye is completing her second short story collection SHE WEARS HOT PINK JEANS and is currently writing the second sci fi novel in the Prasanga series. Visit her at her website and her blog.

What am I working on?

I’m writing a book-length memoir about friendship, illness, parenthood, loss, and triathlons.  It’s called GUTS.  I also write short personal essays.  I like to use the essays as a chance to explore topics not covered in the book, as well as taking the opportunity to try out different forms and types of essays.  I just wrote my first nature essay, a fun challenge for me.  It was a finalist for Oregon Quarterly’s Northwest Perspectives contest, which served as a good lesson that it’s important to take breaks from a long project to work on shorter pieces.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

This is a hard question to answer, since memoir is such a diverse genre.  One thing that distinguishes my work is that I often write about more than one topic, both in short and long form.  Another aspect of my writing that readers often comment on is how I write about illness with a sense of humor and in a way that makes my experiences accessible.

Why do I write what I do?

I write nonfiction as a way of making sense of my experiences.  I write to connect with others.  I heard David Sedaris say something at a reading once that has really stuck with me.  I am sure I am botching it in the paraphrasing, but he talked about how we are as readers.  When we are kids, he said, we need our books to be mirrors, identifying only with characters whose lives are a close imitation of our own.  As adults, though, we find those mirrors in all kinds of characters and all types of stories.  That is my aspiration as a writer: to provide that mirror to a reader, the comfort and catharsis that I get from writing.

How does my writing process work?

Thanks to a very supportive husband, I have a pretty luxurious writing life for an unemployed person with 2 young kids.  I write on the 4 days of the week that both of my kids are in school/preschool.  I am unable to write in my house, so most of my writing is done in an office space I rent above a store that sells local art, much of it made on site.  I love my tiny office with its view of trees through the doorway, a bookshelf crammed with poetry and writing craft books, and no dirty dishes or laundry.  I am slowly converting myself to a morning writer out of necessity, and I do my best to keep my mornings free of appointments and stay offline until after I’ve finished writing for the day.  I create the occasional writing retreat for myself, sometimes even setting aside “retreat” days in town when it’s all my schedule allows.










My writing progresses by carrying over some of the practices started in graduate school.  I exchange work with other writer friends and revise after getting their feedback.  I also continue to set deadlines for myself.  I read a lot in all different genres, and continue to take classes and attend conferences.  Finally, I continue to be active in my writing communities, and NILA, here in Seattle, and by connecting with writers around the country.  Solitude is something I may seek as a writer when I have been at it longer.  For now, my community of writers and non-writers is an essential part of my writing process.


The Writing Process Blog Tour continues next week with 2 more fabulous NILA writer friends.

 Iris Graville’s profiles and personal essays have been published in national and regional journals and magazines, She is the publisher for Shark Reef literary magazine, and the nonfiction editor for Soundings ReviewShe’s a student in the MFA program at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts.   She’s the author of the award-winning Hands at Work—Portraits and Profiles of People Who Work with Their Hands.  She is writing a memoir, Hiking Naked—A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance, a personal narrative about what she learned while living in the remote mountain village of Stehekin, WA.  You can read her thoughts on writing and spiritual matters on her blog.

Sandra Sarr has an MFA in creative writing from the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts.  She has 20 years of experience as a national magazine editor, writer, book publisher, and college communications director and has won numerous awards from national and regional organizations for her articles, magazines, and publications. Founder of the Story Catching Program with Franciscan Hospice in Tacoma, Washington, Sandy has found great satisfaction in writing the core life stories of people who are dying.You can read about the making of her first novel THE ROAD TO INDIGO, on her blog.









Guest Blogger

A first for me, a guest blog post: !  The fine folks at Brevity Magazine invited people to guest blog about the event that consumed 13,000 writers last week: the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference.  The blog posts are a great summary of many (all?) of the creative nonfiction-related panels that took place at AWP.  Here is the link to mine, about a great panel I attended on writing about your kids:


This year the conference was held in Seattle, the same weekend as the annual Can Do MS ski fundraiser that Wiley does every year.  Thanks to the generous help of my in-laws, Sylvia and Manuel, as well as Wiley and a babysitter, I was able to attend a lot of the conference and some great readings in the evenings, too.  It was wonderful to connect with writing friends and get that nice jolt of writing energy that these events always provide.  Nice to return to my writing desk this week with a bunch of new tools in my toolkit, and a long list of authors whose work I now want to read.  An inspiring week!


Good Writing Material

My writer friends and I have a phrase we often say to each other while in the midst of a consuming experience, be it a positive or negative one. “Good writing material,” a friend will say after I’ve described a challenging interaction with one of my kids (not that I ever have those), or a hike I took where I got lost.  Life is brimming with good writing material, and we need never worry about running out of topics.

As anyone who has been within earshot of me this fall knows, I am involved in a volunteer role that has both been keeping me from writing and is a great source of stories.  I am the Arts & Enrichment Chair for the PTA at Caleb’s school, a job that sounded like it would be fun and fulfilling when it was described to me last Spring, but instead has turned out to be extremely time- and energy-consuming.  Among other duties, I coordinate the after-school activities.  Without going into details (you’re welcome), I’ll just say that some of my interactions with my fellow parents have caused me a lot of stress and frustration.  It has spawned some interesting conversations with Aki, the Japanese Intern we are hosting, about privilege, and probably will eventually help me learn how to set better boundaries.  Someday I will write The PTA Chronicles, which sounds like fun.  Mostly, though, the experience has made me miss Ahmed.

Ahmed was a patron at the Rainier Beach Library in South Seattle, where I worked as a student intern while getting my library science degree.  A recent Somali immigrant, Ahmed was always warm in our interactions.  One afternoon a few months before my internship ended, I taught a class on how to use databases and the internet.  Ahmed worked as a volunteer for me during the class, translating and providing one-on-one assistance to students.


After the class was over, I handed Ahmed a small box.

“Thanks so much for all of your help,” I said.  He looked down at the box, and back up at me in surprise.

“For me?” he asked.  I nodded, and he opened the box.  Inside was a plain white coffee mug with Seattle Public Library printed on it in black letters.  Ahmed sucked in his breath, stunned, and lifted it out gingerly. “Wow,” he whispered, reverent as he turned it over in his hands.  It was, a co-worker said later, as though I’d handed him the Hope Diamond.  He lifted it above his head with both hands, World Cup trophy-style.

“Thank you Seattle Public Library!” he said.

Thank you, Ahmed, for delighting in such a small thing, and for always appreciating the large and small ways the library staff helped you.  I hope you are well, wherever you are.

I’m about to embark on a journey that should be a great source of writing material – a two-week family trip to New Zealand!  Our dear friends Penny and Dan and their daughters are living on the North Island for the year, so we decided to seize the opportunity to make the trek.


[Photo by Penny Brandt]. Our lodging for the entire trip will be a campervan, and we are leaving all of our electronic devices at home, including our cell phones.  We are looking forward to spending lots of time outside, spending time with our friends, having new adventures, and detoxing from technology.   We are hoping that sharing a small, undistracted space will not make the 4 of us want to strangle each other, though I’m sure we will have our moments of desire for escape.

Despite an over-busy fall in my non-writing life, I managed to generate a couple of essays, one of which will be published in an upcoming issue of Literary Mama.  This will be my first publication experience with something focused on that endless source of writing material: Parenting.  I also took the time this fall to submit some pieces, something I often claim I don’t have time to do, even though it doesn’t actually take very much time and is a hugely important part of the writing process.  I decided to give an essay I’d written a few years ago (and had rejected everywhere) another round of submissions.  Last week it was accepted by Potomac Review.  I’m very excited to add both of these publications to my author bio, and it’s a nice shot in the arm to have some publication successes after a long dry spell.

Finally, I’m changing the “10 Books that had the most influence on you” list that’s been going around Facebook to “10 great books I’ve read recently that you should go to your local independent bookstore and buy for yourself or your loved ones.”   My list crosses genres and ages and leans mostly (though not entirely) to the left coast.  All are authors I admire, and should be on your radar if they aren’t already:


– My favorite book I read this year

POTLUCK by Ana Maria Spagna

– beautiful essay collection about tiny-town life

THE DIRTY LIFE: a memoir of farming, food & love by Kristin Kimball

– the title says it all

WHEN YOU REACH ME by Rebecca Stead

– middle-grade novel set in 1970s NYC.  Suspenseful and awesome

WE LIVE IN WATER by Jess Walter

– a varied & wonderful short story collection


– fascinating history of avalanches in Colorado and the Pacific Northwest

THE TENDER LAND by Kathleen Finneran

– exquisite memoir that centers around a family tragedy

EVERY DRESS A DECISION by Elizabeth Austen

–       collection by one of Seattle’s finest poets

LOVE, WATER, MEMORY by Jennie Shortridge

– a captivating novel of amnesia and its aftermath

ME, JANE by Patrick McDonnell

– awesome picture book about Jane Goodall

Happy Holidays & Happy Reading!

Learning, Teaching

Tiger Pride

My new, improved website is finished! Huge thanks to fellow Whidbey Writers Workshop alum Sharon Mentyka and her firm, Partners In Design, for all of the hard work to put this together. I’m very happy with the end-product. It looks great, doesn’t it? Thanks also to Scobie Puchtler, our dear friend and next-door neighbor, for the photo session that produced my author photo. The content is a work-in-progress, as I add links, edit pages, and learn about things like tagging. I’m planning to write a new blog post once a month, which doesn’t sound very often when I write it here, but, given the way hours bleed into days and weeks, feels ambitious enough.

I’ve just returned from a weekend in Colorado Springs, where Wiley and I attended our 20-year reunion at Colorado College. We rented a house a few blocks from campus with a group of friends, all of us opting to leave our kids back at home with spouses or grandparents. This seemed to be the choice of most of our classmates, as the only kids I saw at the Class of 1993 gatherings were very young babies. Everyone, apparently, needed to relive their college days in a child-free, stay-up-too-late, drink-too-much atmosphere. Fair enough.

The weekend had many highlights. There was, of course, the eating: takeout from La Casita, our favorite Mexican restaurant, breakfast at the Over Easy, a post-1993 downtown eatery. Before the homecoming dance, Wiley and I had a late-night sandwich at a new organic deli on campus, a few hundred feet from the dorms we lived in the year we began dating. We picnicked on the quad, then spent the afternoon walking around campus, admiring the upgrades — a gorgeous art building, a just-renovated athletic center where students have a view of Pike’s Peak through a plate-glass window while they run on the treadmills:


I felt reassured by the same-ness of much of campus: the beer-soaked carpets in the dorm hallways, the fresh-faced students we passed on the paths. It wasn’t a stretch to remember when I was one of them, barely noticing the people twice my age and older who came to campus on Homecoming Weekend. Back then, I was unable to imagine myself in their shoes, people with careers and children, mortgages and marriage counseling, experiences they would not have been able to predict or prepare for back when they were college students.

I loved reconnecting with friends, both those I still see regularly and those I hadn’t seen in years. Tyler, my only classmate who I’ve known since we were babies, was there, so we got to double our reminiscing. We’ve gone to 4 schools together, starting with nursery school at Temple Beth-El in Belmont, Massachusetts.


I had my first-ever conversations with classmates at the reunion, telling Jason that a cajon drum would be a great addition to his family’s instrument collection, and talking with Dylan about writing being a muscle you need to use regularly. At our class reception, I tapped on Jennifer’s shoulder, one of the only people there who lived on my freshman dorm wing. We weren’t friends in college, but I remembered our interactions as warm and friendly. Our small talk at the reception quickly gave way to deeper conversation as we learned that we had experienced many parallels in our post-CC lives, including multiple abdominal surgeries and parenting two adopted kids. I feel like I have a new/old friend in Jennifer, even if we don’t see each other until the next reunion.


Wiley and I arrived on Friday afternoon in time to catch the tail-end end of the faculty reception. I saw Dan Tynan, who taught one of my favorite classes, “Spiritual Quests in Poetry,” which featured my first visit to a monastery during a stint at CC’s retreat center in Southwestern Colorado. “I know you,” he said brightly. I’m always surprised that professors I had once so many years ago remember me, especially since I didn’t talk much inside the walls of my college classrooms, a fact that will surprise my grad school peers. I saw Barry Sarchett, my very first college professor, who greeted me like an old friend. Barry is a teacher I’ve gotten to know better in the years since I was his student, as I’ve visited campus in various alumni roles, and seen him at CC-related gatherings in Washington, his childhood home and my adult one. We still have a teacher-student dynamic, where I listen as he dispenses advice. “Being a parent is a really important job,” he says when I tell him my Mom-role leaves little time for writing. “You don’t want to fuck it up.”

I left the weekend, not so much nostalgic for my undergrad days, but missing academia, though it’s only been a year since I completed my MFA. I have been taking a break from teaching for a little while because of the toll it takes on my writing schedule, but a visit to the CC campus made me itchy to get back into the classroom.

The reunion also left me full of gratitude for the privilege of my education, from Temple Beth-El Nursery School with Tyler all the way through the Whidbey Writers Workshop. Those four years of college were pretty darn awesome. CC is not where I honed the creative nonfiction skills that mark my current, hopefully lasting, career. My college professors are responsible, though, for teaching me how to think. CC is where I found my voice, quiet at first, becoming louder over time. Now you can’t shut me up.


Radio Debut

Capital-P Proud of the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program, and specifically the students who read on WhidbeyAIR radio as part of our “Writers Talking to People” class.

Here is the link to the show.

Please take a listen as Alex Clark-McGlenn, Jackie Haskins, Mureall HebertChels Knorr, Nancy Norton, Roz Ray, Martha Schoemaker, and Samantha Updegrave read their work on the air. (Note: As the show’s host says, there’s some adult content in some of these pieces.)

I am at the very end, giving some closing words.  I didn’t think it was possible for me to speak more slowly than I do in real life, but apparently, if I’m speaking on the radio off the top of my head, it’s possible.

Big thanks to co-teacher Stephanie Barbe Hammer for arranging this gig and Gwen Samelson for being such a warm and instructive radio engineer.

Teaching, Writing

Writers Talking to People

Last January, at an Italian restaurant on Whidbey Island, my friend Stephanie and I hatched a plan.

“I have an idea for a class,” she said, “about the public aspects of being a writer.  Do you want to teach it with me?”

“Writers talking to people,” I said.  “I’m in.”

The class would be for students of the Whidbey Writer’s Workshop, the low-residency MFA program we had both completed the previous August.  At the nine-day residencies, held every January and August in Coupeville, students attend morning classes and afternoon seminars.  The seminars are taught by guest faculty, and we proposed this as a pilot class involving the alumni.  We received an enthusiastic response from our director, Wayne Ude, and assistant director Ana Maria Spagna, also a nonfiction faculty member and my former thesis advisor.  Our discussions back in January felt a little like the conversations I had with my surgeons before my first operation – this is an experiment, we aren’t sure what we will discover.  Like my doctors, Stephanie and I forged ahead enthusiastically, hoping at the very least to get a paper in a medical journal out of the deal.  Continue reading


The View from Tin House

It’s 7 a.m. on Sunday, the day I return home from my week at the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop.  This is the transition day, though of course the transition from a week at a writer’s workshop back to my regular life will take much longer.

It’s been an amazing week.  The aesthetic of the workshop can best be exemplified in two of the concurrent lectures that took place on the first day.  In the main hall they had a panel called “The Agent Game” featuring a discussion of the publishing side of things from the 3 agents here with us at the beginning of the week.  Across the circular drive in the chapel, Matthew Dickman, one of the poetry faculty, led a talk called “We Don’t Need No Stinking Agents,” about other non-agenty ways to get your work out into the world.  As the Summer Workshop director Lance Cleland said, “we take our writing seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously.”  Throughout the week there was a lot of laughter and a lot of hard-working writers sharing their ideas with one another.  Each day concluded with faculty readings in the beautiful outdoor amphitheater at the edge of Reed Lake, where ducks landed and took off mid-reading, punctuating the writers’ sentences as they skimmed across the water.

The critique workshop itself was great, especially the supportive and intelligent group of writers who assembled every morning in Vollum Hall, Room 134 to give opinions on how to make our work better.  I’m glad to be able to add some new writer friends to my wonderfully supportive writing community.  Continue reading