Tin House 2016: Love & Kindness Edition

“Fill your pen with love or don’t bother picking it up.”

— Luis Alberto Urrea

How not to blog: about once a year, post overlong entries with way too much text and barely any photographs. With apologies to you, dear readers, here comes a download of my time last week at the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop. Though this was my 3rd time at Tin House, it was very different from my previous experiences. In fact, it wasn’t like any other gathering of writers I’ve ever attended. Wordy is the only method I have to begin to do it justice.

Tin House assembles an impressive set of faculty, and as a result has gotten more selective each year about the students they accept. While this might result in a more competitive vibe overall, I found the opposite to be true. None of the faculty needed to prove themselves as writers, and that characteristic radiated out to the entire group of 200-plus attendees.

For the workshop part of the week, we gathered each morning in pre-assigned groups of 12 to work with a member of the faculty. I decided to give fiction a try. My workshop leader was Jess Walter, a writer whose work I’ve admired for awhile. I met Jess the last time I attended Tin House, and based on our conversation and the excellent craft talk he gave about narrative time, I had a hunch he’d be a good teacher.

Remind me to always trust my hunches.

Jess was a stellar teacher, leading our group with warmth and generosity. He is hilarious, and we laughed a lot in workshop, but we also had deep discussions about each of our stories. He treated us as a writing peer, sharing craft and ideas for improving our stories and even giving us access to his awesome music collection while we spent 10 minutes each morning writing. (We WROTE at a writing conference! Believe it or not, this is unusual.)

And then there were my workshop-mates, an exceptional group of writers, critiquers, and humans. I feel like I won the workshop group lottery. It wasn’t just Jess who was generous and insightful. It was everyone. Our nametags said “Team Jess Walter.” We wore our badges proudly, and we quickly became besotted with one another. Someone quoted The Big Lebowski during my critique. Anytime there’s a Coen brothers reference related to my work, no matter how tenuous the connection, I consider that to be a successful workshop.


Team Jess (clockwise from L): TJ, Gabe, Jill, Marrie, Jess, Michele, Annabel, Robert, me, Colleen, Earl.

If every other moment of the conference had been terrible, I still would have been glad I went. But the workshop was just the beginning of the awesome. Every afternoon, the faculty take turns giving talks on the craft of writing. On Day 2 of the conference, we settled into our auditorium seats as Kiese Laymon took the stage, having no idea what was in store for us. He read a powerful piece (an adaptation of this one) about sexual violence. Then he posed a question to the audience: “What is the responsibility of the American literary worker in this age of terror?”

For the next 30 minutes, people began to answer his question: what do we read, what do we write, who gets to go to literary gatherings? On and on it went, the question rippling out to the rest of the conference, and still ringing loudly in my ears over a week later and a few hundred miles away.

As the week went on, I noticed 2 of the themes introduced during Kiese’s mind-blowing talk got repeated throughout the week in the talks, the readings, and of course in the workshop: love and kindness. Steve Almond talked about writing our emotions, and had us create work about our childhood crushes.

Sharon Olds and Jericho Brown, gorgeous people, gorgeous writers, gorgeous voices. When Terry Gross retires and I take over as Fresh Air host, Olds and Brown will be my first guests, appearing together. They’ll have a conversation, and I won’t have to say anything.

Olds read a series of unconventional odes, including “Ode to My Hymen” that were both funny and gorgeous. I noticed that all 12 of the Team Jess Walter stories were about love – romantic, familial, love gone stale and the love between friends. Luis Alberto Urrea delivered a talk to close out the conference, a love letter to us in which he said, among other beautiful phrases, the one quoted at the top of this post.

“Make great work its own reward,” Jess told us near the end of the week. He was telling his publishing story, which included 7 years of rejections before his first short story was accepted by a journal. He talked about being happy for our friends when they publish, about being gracious. “It’s much more important to be a kind person than a successful writer.” Look at all of the quotes I have to pin above my desk.

A few years ago, I attended a writing conference that didn’t go very well. I put my memoir away for 6 months and wrote very little during that time. On the last day at Tin House 2016, I was exhausted. I averaged 5-6 hours of sleep a night all week, my brain buzzing at each end of my slumber, and by Saturday afternoon I was toasted. In dire need of a nap, I headed toward my AirBnB. As I walked I looked to my right at the quad and the light slanting through the trees. My need for sleep was overpowered by a need to write. I veered right and spent the next 2 hours writing.

I arrived at Tin House as a nonfiction writer, and a week later I left brimming with ideas for how to turn my story into a novel.

How about that?


Twice Sold Tales

Six years ago today my dear friend Beth died. Every year since, I have approached this day with a sense of dread, the last week of her life in the forefront of my mind and a huge weight on my chest. The day itself is usually not as bad as the lead-up. I usually do something in honor of Beth, a little ritual or a special activity.

This year, though, I thought little about the date or what it marked until today. Maybe it’s because the time that has passed – 6 years, almost my daughter Helen’s entire life. Maybe it’s just other thoughts crowding my brain this week, a deadline for a writing workshop, a summer camp snafu for Caleb, an upcoming family vacation. For whatever reason, I barely thought about it until this morning, while I was out on a bike ride.

I have my first triathlon in over 2 years coming up in a couple of months, and this marked my first training ride in that long. (For the record, training rides for me mean that I ride a little harder and/or longer than I normally would, and reward myself with lunch after). I was smiling for most of the ride, when I thought about Beth, when I thought about my upcoming race. I thought about how I’m still not that fast on the bike and probably never will be, but look how far I’ve come since my surgery recovery when I was barely able to walk to the end of the block and back.

The sun was out and I could see glimpses of Mount Baker on my way up the Boulevard and Mount Rainier on my way back. Beth’s ashes were scattered at Rainier, and she was in my thoughts especially much as I gazed at The Mountain.


(Photo by Orin Blomberg courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons)

Now it’s overcast and some melancholy has set in as I sit at a café. If Beth would tolerate any memorializing of her today, she would insist that we steer our thoughts away from her last moments, and instead share happy stories. Here is mine. I miss you, Beth.

On my 26th birthday, I received a card from Beth. Though she wasn’t a material person, she was fond of gift-giving, usually a small decorative item she bought from a local artist or fair-trade store. She wrapped her gifts in plain brown paper and made her cards by hand. This card, two years into our friendship, was a note written on the back side of a form letter she fished out of the recycling bin at work. A run-on sentence written diagonally in her loopy script takes up the entire back side of the letter. Onto the bottom she rubber-stamped a zebra, her favorite animal.

Beth talked constantly, an animated monologue with long tangents.

“But, I digress,” she’d say, then circle back to her original point.

The birthday card represents a Beth monologue in miniature, a verbal declaration recorded on paper. Ok, she began, here’s the thing. She went on to tell me that she’d planned to give me a birthday present even though I told her I didn’t want one. The card was a story of her attempt to get me the gift. She alluded to an argument with a city bus driver, among other obstacles she faced. Finally, near the bottom of the page, she explained the present: a gift certificate to Twice Sold Tales, a used bookstore near our office. Only the store didn’t sell gift certificates, so she wanted to take me book shopping. She concluded the letter, It’ll be more fun together anyway.

I don’t know which title I chose, but I remember the trip to the bookstore. After work, we drove the half-mile to the commercial district of the Fremont neighborhood. We parked by the Baptist church and walked down the hill.

It was April, early evening, warm enough for Twice Sold Tales’ door to be propped open. Jazz from speakers in the adjacent vinyl record shop filtered into the bookstore. The lone employee, a man our age, mumbled hello when we stepped inside. Incense burned in a glass vase next to the register, covering whatever musty smell emanated from the books.

I took my time. Upstairs, downstairs, back up again. Beth and I were the only customers in the store. We scanned the shelves separately, then together, searching for the perfect book. The narrow room and sloped ceilings made the upstairs feel like an attic. It grew dark as we shopped, and the employee walked to the corners of each room, flicking on lamps.

“Get something I like,” she said. “I’m planning to borrow it when you’re done.”

Did I choose a novel? Short stories? Classic? Contemporary? I don’t recall. I only remember the creak of the stairs as we climbed to the attic. Kneeling next to Beth on the dingy carpet, peering at the shelves like we were much younger versions of ourselves digging in grandmother’s trunk. Standing at the register next to Beth as she handed money to the man, then the book to me.

“Happy Birthday,” she said, putting her arm around my shoulder. We wedged ourselves through the doorway arm in arm, and climbed the hill to Beth’s car in the dark.


The Return of the Tri-Ostolete

It turns out that, even if you run slowly, you can mess up your foot. And even if you stop running, and cut down on other on-your-feet activities, and go to physical therapy, and acupuncture, and change your diet, and have your own plasma injected into your foot, it can continue to stay messed up. For 3 years. If your main source of exercise motivation has stemmed from racing in triathlons, what do you do?

Step 1: go for your free consultation with a personal trainer at your gym. Choose to meet with Paige. Paige is awesome, will clearly become a champion of yours even though she’s not the rah-rah type. Don’t exchange high-fives with Paige after a difficult set. That’s not her thing, and it’s certainly not yours. Instead, sign up for more sessions. Paige will get you hooked on strength training. Paige will tailor your workouts so they don’t aggravate your injured foot. Paige will show you that, despite your 3 abdominal surgeries and your colostomy, you can make your core strong again. She will teach you the word proprioception, your body’s sense of its position and movement in space.  In her patient, gentle way will tell you yours is poor. You can still learn the moves, though, despite this flaw. Another obstacle overcome.

Step 2: learn of a new surgical technique that might help your foot. Fork over more money. Undergo the procedure, which involves sucking the badness out of your heel: calcified bone, damaged tendon. Keep going to the gym with the boot on your foot. Feel badass.

Step 3: Receive a letter from your ostomy nurse, Laura, another champion. A group of people with ostomies are getting together to do a triathlon in August. Team Ostomy United. Would you like to join? Even though your doctor told you you could start running again, you’re not ready yet. But you can walk. There’s a sprint-distance option. 5 kilometers. You can walk that. Visit Ostomy United’s Facebook page. Learn another new word: tri-ostolete. Think: that’s me.  Read stories of cancer survivors who just signed up for their first endurance race. Cry. Register.

Step 4: Tell Paige about your race plans. In response, Paige declares on the spot that she will sign up too. Even though she’s a runner, a trainer, a badass, she’ll walk the run course with you. It will be her first triathlon. Argue about who will be slower, who will have to wait for whom. Up your exercise routine. You’ve got a race to train for again. Finally.

2013-05-27 14.49.03

You, Lavaman Triathlon, 3/24/13


B in the World

I am pleased to host my blog’s first-ever guest, children’s author Sharon Mentyka. It feels entirely fitting to have Sharon as my first guest. In addition to being a terrific children’s author, she is a designer at Partners in Design, and put together my website (looks fab, no?). I really admire Sharon’s recently published children’s chapter book, “B in the World.”


Here is the book’s description:

B and his friends Rudy and Grace are super excited to be starting second grade. But when they find out that Ms. Hitchings will be their new teacher, everything changes. Then, to make things worse, Mia, the meanest, bossiest girl that New Horizons School has ever known, arrives. When B and Mia both decide they want to try out for the leading part in the spring play, B wonders how he’ll ever survive the year.

A chapter book for children ages 5 and up and the people who love them, “B in the World” takes an open-hearted, kids-eyed view of what it means to be “different” and celebrates children for who they are meant to be, not how others want to label them.

I’ve read it to my 7-year-old son, shared it with our school librarian, and now I want to share it with you!  Below, Sharon answers my questions about this powerful and important story:

  1. Why did you decide to write this story?

It was kind of a happy convergence of a number of different things. I had been wanting to write a story for early elementary students when a classmate in my MFA program at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts mentioned that the son of a friend was going through a lot of pain being bullied at school because he didn’t dress or behave like most of the other boys. I realized that hiding who we really are from others at a young age can only lead to pain and grief later in life—not only for ourselves but for those who love us. The whole idea clicked when I remembered how one of my daughter’s teachers (who became the model for Mr. J in the book) taught his students empathy for each other in those early years when friends can help or hurt us so much.

  1. How long did it take to write it?

Quite a few years, actually! The idea for B was born in 2009 but I knew I needed to do a lot of research first—reading about child development and talking to parents and teachers. And I needed to decide how openly I was going to be presenting B’s gender fluid nature because I knew I would be tackling a sensitive topic. That meant more connecting and talking to folks in the gender diversity community to be sure I was representing concepts accurately. And even though the book’s message of empathy and acceptance needed to appeal to parents, it couldn’t be preachy. The story needed to be an entertaining one for kids. And that took time.

  1. What do you hope readers come away with the book thinking about or talking about?

Many children, especially once they start school, struggle with being somehow perceived as “different”—either because of how they like to dress, or how they look, or simply because of what they like to do. Some of the challenges B faces in this story are gender-connected; some are just kid-related. I would love it if the book can open up conversations about situations like these. Why do we sometimes fear differences? What does it mean to be true to yourself and why you should be proud of it? Why is our first reaction to sometimes to laugh at someone else when we feel nervous? Talking about these kinds of feelings and situations can really help children—and adults—grow more empathy.

  1. Are there other books (for children or adults) written on this topic?

There are quite a few good picture books out there, which I think feel safer to some folks. My Princess Boy by Cheryl Kilodavis and Roland Humphrey is Wearing a WHAT? by Eileen Kiernan-Johnson come to mind. Then the topic picks up again in middle-grade and YA books where gender fluidity becomes more common. And for adults, there might not be anything better than the books and essays by Jennifer Finney Boylan (www.jenniferboylan.net)

But I identified a real gap in the early elementary years, where fitting in and bullying can be critical issues. That’s one of the reasons I decided to write B’s story as a chapter book—those years span a critical time period when parents read to their children and then the children pick up those same books when they begin to read themselves. So there can be a lot of impact there. I have a fiction and nonfiction reading list that folks can download from the Resources section of B’s website if they’re interested.

  1. Where can people (parents and kids) go for more information or support around issues of bullying and/or gender fluidity?

There are so many good resources out there. Gender Spectrum (www.genderspectrum.org) and Gender Diversity (www.genderdiversity.org) are both great, comprehensive support sites that offer a lot of information for families with young children who are exploring gender roles. For teaching empathy and acceptance, Welcoming Schools, which is a program run by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation (www.welcomingschools.org) is where I would send folks. They have some wonderful resources on how to be sensitive and also offer simple answers parents can give to young children’s questions about gender.

  1. Why did you decide to self-publish?

That decision really came about because I ran into a few dead-ends going the traditional publishing route. Children’s chapter books follow a bit of a formula and diverging from that model is difficult if you’re not an established author. But I knew from my research there was an audience out there for a book like this, I just knew it, so I decided to tap into that energy. And it’s been a great learning experience as well as very rewarding for me. I’ve received nothing but supportive emails from parents and librarians all over the county, telling me how much a book like this is needed.

  1. In your acknowledgements you mention 2nd graders as beta-readers. Great idea! Any feedback they gave you that was especially helpful?

The kids are really a reality check for me. For B, I read early drafts to several groups of second- and third-graders at a Seattle elementary school and also at a tutoring center where I volunteer. Kids this age have no problem telling you whether they like or dislike characters, or if situations in the story ring true. Are the characters like kids they might know or want to know? Does the language and voice feel right? When I finish reading a chapter, if the kids ask me to read more, then I know I’m on the right track.

  1. What is your next project?

I have two stories currently in progress: one is a graphic novel that centers around a boy who uses art to heal a crisis in his family, and the other is a early middle grade historical novel set in the Pennsylvania coal mines of the 1940s. I’m also looking for a home for two completed middle-grade novels.

  1. Anything else you want to tell us?

Gender identity may feel like the next frontier, but it really is a chance for all of us to practice empathy and acceptance. Given all the global, environmental and political challenges our children will likely be facing, it may be one of the few things where parents can truly make a difference by giving their children the skills and mindset to be who they were truly meant to be, and to know that those choices will be okay.

Thank you, Sharon, for sharing your thoughts about “B in the World.”

This Friday, March 13th is the book launch party for “B in the World” at Secret Garden Books in Seattle.  If you live in the area I encourage you to attend and bring your favorite kiddos!  And everyone, here is information about where you can get a copy of “B in the World.”


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!