Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Looking forward from this winter solstice

The Solstice, the turning of the year. We just passed through the 2007 winter solstice. Even though we aren’t through with winter, the days will get longer from now until the summer solstice. Day length is a trend of cheer all though the period of quiet and cold. But the quiet season should be a time for reflection. The solstice happens at a time that feels frantic to me. But now, I feel like I have two weeks between semesters and after holiday antics, and now I hope to think over where I’ve been and where I’m going. I have decided to visualize where I’d like to be as a writer next year at this time. Perhaps you’d like to try that too!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Women in the Arctic

I’ve been asked to write an article about women working on global warming in the
Arctic and the lives of the three women I’ve interviewed have amazed me. I can’t imagine deciding on a solo trip around the world for a honeymoon (of course, beginning with the Arctic). Or leaving my two year old son for 2 and a half months to be stranded on an ice shelf counting the gullet contents of small birds. It seems impossible to me. But I suspect some of the things I’ve done would have seemed impossible to my parents and grandparents.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


I just finished teaching a first year seminar on Wellsprings of Courage. It was a fascinating class because of all the insights the students brought for discussion. One conclusion we reached is that it’s almost impossible to see one’s own courage. Another point was that the approachability of the courageous person has a big effect on whether or not we felt they could serve as an example to inspire our own courage. Whatever your definition of courage is, who do you know personally who you consider courageous? Do they inspire you or do you feel you could never be like them?

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Snow Effect

Have you ever been alone in a cocoon of snow? I read Verlyn Klinkenborg’s editorial in the NYT this morning on driving in snow. It reminded me of a day when I drove from Washington to Baltimore along the Parkway in a gentle, continuous snowstorm. I had finished reviewing graduate fellowship applications and was going to visit my daughter at Goucher College. The tall pines and shorter spruces and firs accepted inches of delicate snow capping the dark green branches with impossibly balanced superstructure. I turned off the radio and felt mesmerized by the soft flakes drifting down to light on top of the branches. I never saw one that completely toppled over. I kept expecting that soon one would have to drop its burden. A few times I saw a slide from one side of a branch, leaving the delicate stack on the other side untouched. I could barely drive for watching this dance. The suspence of not knowing if or when I’d see a whole branch shed its snow was delicious. Think about times when snow, rain, some form of weather became more visible than usual to you.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Silghtest Wisps of Hope

One of my students recently described patients who want to try stem cells now as “willing to invest in the slightest wisps of hope.” That volunteering scares those who love the risk-taking patients, as eloquently portrayed in His Brother’s Keeper: A Story from the Edge of Medicine by Jonathan Weiner. But in some sense, it’s the basis of ‘progress’ in medicine…the only way a new method can be established is by clinical trials, and without patients willing to risk them, none would occur.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Brain Damage Insights

Oliver Sachs’ new book about how music and the brain interact continues his usual mix of fascinating insights into medicine and graceful writing. At one point, he describes patients who suffer a stroke incapacitating their ‘left brain’ cognitive centers, only to suddenly become transcendent artists. The first thing I thought of was this: THE CRITIC, that brain obligato that insists nothing I write is any good, must be in the ‘left brain.’ How I wish she would shut up, and how beautifully I think I could write if she did. But I don’t really want to give up my ability to analyze either. I just want to be selective.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Moving your readers

I felt for some time that I could not really convey feelings. I left them out, and my readers were quick to aks, “and how did that make you feel?” Then I started saying how I had felt (or how my character had felt). But I made a new discovery recently. Deepest feeling can be conveyed with details. I just finished reading Three Dog Life, a memoir about a woman coming to terms with her husband’s severe brain damage from an accident. Evocative details of her life told the whole story and moved me to tears several times. Never did she say, “I was sad.” She must have decided to tell us how she felt, but not to say, ‘I felt sad.” She could tell us in what she did, how long she sat staring into her dog’s eyes, how many daytime naps she took.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Ways to Say "Go"

Being a writer makes you develop certain habits of mind. One that has been fun to develop is sensitivity to how saying the “same thing” with different words enriches the tone or feeling of a piece of writing. I started collecting ways to say “stop” recently and got up to ten while I was waiting for the optician , including “halt,” :freeze,” “cease,” ”stifle yourself,” “stow it,” “quit it,” and “enough, already.” Your Jewish mother will not say, “Halt!” while that LAPD officer will not say, “enough, already.” If you think about situations where a character would say stop in one of these ways, most of the time only that one choice would work. So making a list like this helps you to be ready with that perfect word choice when you write.

That made me think of a new challenge for you wordsmiths out there: how many words meaning “go” can you find? A prize will be awarded to the winner with the most different words!

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Place as a Person

In some writing, the action wouldn’t change if the location changed. In other writing, for example Grapes of Wrath or Cannery Row by Steinbeck, place acts as a character. If a place is a character, it has good and bad traits just like a human character. I am thinking about a grocery story I visit often. Good qualities are the lovely smell of fresh tomatoes, strawberries, and peaches in the produce section, the smell of fresh bread in the bakery area, the many kinds of cheese they offer. To me the bad includes women who push free samples of packaged foods I don’t buy, the fact that most of the store is full of products that don’t interest me, the blockage of the aisles where the things I want are located by projecting product-stands displaying things I don’t want, and the fish section always stinking of long-dead seafood.

Mike Foley (UCR, Writers’ Review) gave me the idea that the same place can be a positive or a negative character, depending on what you describe and how you describe it. If I want to show the store as a welcoming setting to someone returning from California from New York, I can emphasize the lights, the produce’s attractive smells, and the baking bread. If I want to show how it antagonizes an ecological activist, I’d emphasize the excess profit emphasis, the aisles of processed foods, and the stinking fish. It would be the same raw material, either way. I could use different views of it if I was writing about the viewpoints of two human characters who felt differently about the market.

Do you have ideas about how to use a familiar scene as a positive or negative character?

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

I know I’m in California because…

I see green leaves on September 26, green even though it’s been a little cold and rainy. There are geraniums blooming in my yard and doves cooing in the eaves. I catch the eye of the driver across from me at a traffic light, she looks agitated and I beckon to let her precede me. She smiles and waves, then goes ahead.
This morning the doorbell rang at 7 AM. It was the NY Times delivery guy. He was concerned because he had delivered the paper earlier and didn’t see it when he drove by, but we usually aren’t out to get it that early. Did we need another one? No, it’s okay, we just got up early.
I go out barefooted to check on the dog’s water. The lawn chairs are still out and full of books from my husband’s last bout of studying. He must have left them after the rain, I think.
I make myself a cup of chamomile tea and watch a hummingbird on the one tall red rose outside the back window. Suddenly, my chair and I rock to the left and roll to the right. Oops, it’s an earthquake. Not a big one. My husband didn’t even notice it, probably because his chair was differently aligned towards the fault.

To me, the details in this description make it a California description. What kinds of details would say “California” or “Oregon” or wherever you are?

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Nerds and Geeks and Nobodies that Count

Benjamin Nugent wrote an article for the July 29, 2007 issue of the New York Times Magazine called, “Who’s a Nerd, Anyway?” The answer is, a white guy. He cites Mary Bucholtz’s analysis suggesting he is hyperwhite. He writes poems to computers and speaks in ultra-precise English. Bucholtz finds that nerds choose Greek or Latin deviative words over Germanic ones, substituting “It is my observation that…” for “I think….” Of course, the scientific sound of the passive verb is part of the shtick also. Makes the nerd sound like an impartial observer.

By the time you finish reading that article, you begin to think the nerd/geek is some kind of a hero. He takes the white language to the maximum, refusing to steal and reuse any of the colorful slang ripped off from black culture. The author points out that TV writers have had fun tweaking the concept of nerd, applying nerdishness to black characters. But he implies that’s very rare in real life. Instead, the nerd tries to critique the mainstream white culture by exaggerating it, according to Nugent. You could see them as rebels, rejecting the tendency of the cool white kids to use ghetto slang. “You might say they know that a culture based on theft is a culture not worth having,” he tells us.

Is there a 'white' culture? One of my students once asked me that and I thought about folk dancing and all the differences that make Ireland and England fight, Serbia and Croatia fight, and said, 'No, there are many." So this nerd/geek deconstruction sounds too simplistic to me. It's very hard to classify people who are sorted into a category because they aren't something else (cool, sophisticated). Doesn't work for me. What do you think?

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Spying on Words Where They Work and Play

Erin McKean wrote “Corpus,” which appeared in the NYT Magazine on Sunday, July 29, 2007. An editor for the New Oxford American Dictionary and blogger at, she cares about words passionately.

The Corpus she describes is a context collection for words, an FBI prĂ©cis of what that word has actually been doing. This collection is officially named The Oxford English Corpus (go to for information about access; go to SketchEngine and take a one month free trial to play around with sorting your own words). She tells us selected insights from this spying on words where they work. “Fake,” for example, is illustrated by the dictionary as “fake painting.” What it really does most of the time is detect the “fake smile” or the “fake tan.” It is actually working in the description of your appearance, your identity, not in the description of mere things. Fake paintings don’t even occur in the top 50 uses of fake.

Her article is full of amazing snippets from the Corpus. One of my favorites is about the verb “migrate.” Turns out, it’s directionality is almost exclusively paired with “south,” not with “north.” You’d think no bird, no insect, no skier ever seeks the north, but of course they do. They just don’t do it with “migrate.” Try saying it yourself, “migrate north” sounds funny. What verb would you use for a crane that had spent the winter on the Texas coast and wanted to go to Canada for the summer as usual? Not “migrate” north, probably not “go,” but maybe “return?” But that implies he/she LIVES in Canada and just migrates south to Texas for vacation. What does that say about our innate assumptions about where to live?

You can go to the web site, enter ‘corpus’ and search, and then sign up for a month’s free trial of the Sketch Engine software that you need to run searches in the Corpus. They email you a password and the web address to use. Once you are on the web site, select a corpus (for example, select British National Corpus) and try the options that come up. My favorite is “Word Sketch.” I also like the “sketch-diff” selection that allows you to enter two words and see how their contexts differ, such as “embrace” and “kiss.” I started expecting similar lists, but they are quite different. Guess which one is used with ‘concept” and which with “goodbye?”

Here are some fun things to look up on Corpus:

If you like to play with words, give this a try! Let me know if you find something interesting.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Have you seen the moon lately?

My friend Aleta recently posted a prompt where she cited this quotation: "The moon develops creativity as chemicals develop photographic images."--Norma Jean Harris. I started thinking about how rarely I see the moon any more. When dating, I used to see it because I was out at night. Even if I walk from car to house in the dark, I don't seem to notice the moon now. But the moon is beautiful, well worth noticing. I looked for moon images on the web and found a site at with some exciting and other somnolent images of the moon. Great food for writing thoughts, almost as good as smelling fresh strawberries (recommended by Gayle Brandeis in Fruitflesh).

Moonlight lends a mysterious quality to what would be mundane transactions during the day, and can make us want to know more, dig deeper into the motivations of our characters. Sensory input by smell, a very important writing tool, becomes easier to call up and incorporate when you're imagining a moonlit scene. Lots of flowers open or release extra perfume at night (not just night-blooming Cereus, with its ethereal beauty, but stock, jasmine, and many other flowers).

I was very taken with a great collection of pictures of the moon phases I found on Their names are worth refreshing in your mind: waxing crescent, waning you really know how a waning gibbous moon looks? And how it's different from a waxing gibbous? Very nice pictures, and good images to write into your poems or prose.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Why sports? For me, it's not the records broken...

Edward Wyatt profiled the 24-year-old winner of the grueling cycling race, the Tour de France, in the July 29, 2007 New York Times. I was very impressed with what I learned about this young man.

Alberto Contador won the Tour de France bicycle race at the end of July, 2007. In 2004, in the first stage of the Tour of Asturias, his brain hemorrhaged. He had the clot removed and remained in hospital during his recovery. He had to have a titanium plate inserted in his skull to close the wound from the brain surgery. No one knew if he would ever talk and walk, let alone get on a bicycle again. Looking back on that time, he said, “I felt like my whole life and career was going to take a different direction. It taught me to value other things a lot more.”

In 2005, when he had finished 21st in the Tour de France, his Liberty Seguros team was excluded from the 2006 tour because of numerous riders on that team whose names were associated with the Puerto drug scandal. Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes had batches of many cyclists’ blood, potentially usable for self-transfusions. Contador’s name first appeared on that list, but he fought and finally got an apology; it had been included by mistake.

He wrote an open letter to his fans, from which these words were taken:
“Life has shown me that experiences that at first sight seem harmful and unpleasant to us can always result in highly positive lessons for us.

“I will continue working, possibly with even more devotion—if that’s possible—to make you experience this beautiful sport and to hear you say once again that you believe in it and in me. And because I believe in a clean sport, as I have practiced it, we will collect the result of our efforts in a few years.”

It was hard to put up with all of the drug scandals affecting Vinokurov and Rasmussen, other cyclists who had excelled in the race before their expulsion. But seeing this young man succeed in spite of all of the adversity in his life was thrilling. That, rather than seeing a new home run record set by Barry Bonds, is the kind of inspiration I seek from sports.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Painting with Paint Words

Recently I heard the word "cerulean" and it made me think about oil paints and the wonderful names some of those colors have. Cerulean is a beautiful blue, although artists often mix it with other blues, or with white or green, making their own un-named colors. I thought about how I usually describe blue (bright, royal, navy) and realized that cerulean was more exciting. Then I did a search for oil paint and visited sites where you can buy it over the internet, reveling in all the names I found. And I thought, maybe people who visit West Coast Writers would like to try this themselves. Or, maybe they'd just like to think of great descriptors for colors, whether or not they come from oil paints.

I created a poem with blanks. This time, I'm not giving you any words to choose from, but asking you to suggest 16 words to fill in the blanks. I will award your choice of two books to a 'winner,' picked purely by my response meter. You can choose either Heather King's Parched or Susan Straight's Highwire Moon. I ended up with two copies of each book, and I think they are both wonderful, but I'd be willing to give the winner the second (unused) copy of either one.

Here is the poem:
Painter’s Garden

The cannas stood tall, matching the cardinal in their 1.___________________ blossoms
But taller still the delphiniums, rivaling the sea with their 2. ____________spikes.
And poking over their heads, the hollyhocks, blushing 3. _____________
Are dwarfed themselves by the giant sunflowers bright in 4. ____________

Here and there a buttercup peeks out with its 5._______________petals,
A late California poppy’s screaming bright in 6.________________,
Next to Mexican sage blooming in magenta from 7._________ leaves,
Each fuzzy flower rich with 8.______________.

The daisies look fresh and clean in 9.______________,
While Lilies of the Nile remember the river with their 10.____________.
The geraniums shine like a clown’s nose in 11. ______________
And the columbines hold up sunny 12.______________ blooms.

I feel for sad Bleeding Hearts, white tears from the 13.______heart,
Laugh at snapping snapdragons, flaming in 14.__________
Play with clovers, making chains of knotted 15. ___________ heads,
Make a crown of stock like 16._______angel wings, and dance.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

One of the top ten towns....

Claremont, CA where I live, has been picked as number five on Money magazine's list of the top ten towns in the US. Is that good? I doubt it. If a lot of people decide to move here, the small town flavor that I like will be lost. We won't have tricycles full of toddlers in our Fourth of July parade; we won't have a politically correct "Egg Hunt" instead of an Easter Egg Hunt: we won't have Monday night oldie rock concerts in the band shell in Memorial Park. We'll become a city.

I think cities are fine in their place, but I don't want to live in one if I can help it. The problem, as Verlyn Klinkenborg pointed out in a recent editorial in NYT, is that California keeps on growing, projecting a doubling of population soon. Why not plan NOT to keep on growing? But that seems to violate all of our laid back principles, our laissez faire, our "whatever" approach to life. The problem is, planning to have a quality life without growing is HARD, and it's not fun to do hard things. But if we don't make any plans, then we'll be caroming off each other everywhere we turn. So couldn't we try to do some projections for limiting growth instead of encouraging it? Maybe Al Gore could help, he's taking on the giants these days. We will surely waste far too many resources and cause far too much pollution if we go on this way. It's time to wake up and think about these issues.

Do you agree? Or do you think it's just sort of a NIMBY response I'm having, saying I have mine but if I can, I'll keep you from having yours too? It's difficult to sort out motives here, for me too.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Let's Play a Little....

I just read Arthur Plotnik's article in the August, 2007 issue of The Writer magazine, "Making it rill," and it made me think of the fun of seeing and learning new words. His article was about landscape words, so here is a poem I made up using some of his words. See if you can match the numbered words in the poem with the lettered definitions below. Beware, there are more definitions than there are words, so you have to select, not just match them. If you post your answer, I will tell you if you got them all right.

Limning Landscapes--A Game of Landscape Words
Exploring again, I climbed and scrambled, scanning the ground
The rill_1 tried its best to distract me with its riffle_2,
Instead, I searched the arroyo_3 for a kiss tank_4,
Quiet and tranquil beside the scarp_5,
Hidden and silent, as different from
Yesterday's secret guzzle_6 and last month's pingo_7
As the freeway differs from a thank-you-ma'am_8!

a. waterfall b. rapids in a tiny brook c. divided stream d. dirt road e. low place in the dunes where water drains f. gentle ridge g. river bed h. collection of noisy birds i. sharply rising cliff j. upthrust of permafrost k. valley, often dry l. bump or hollow place that jounces the car driving over it m. pool of rain water in a natural rock basin n. small brook o. deep, quiet pool

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Sensing Space

I wrote earlier about my artist roommate’s comments about time. A couple of days later, it was about space. I think she had given up thinking I’d ask, so she made a demonstration about taking space for granted. Our apartment was in a converted old house; its door opened on the second floor and the apartment itself was on the third floor. I arrived home tired from the laboratory one night to find I couldn’t get up the stairs. I kept running into strings that were placed strategically across the stair well. First, I had to duck, then to step over a string, next to duck WHILE stepping over another string, etc. Needless to say, by the time I was up the stairs I was pretty upset.

My roommate was sipping a hot mint tea, sitting on the couch covered with an embroidered red Greek folk bed spread, watching my exertions with glee. “I’ll bet you’ll never take that space for granted again,” she said, getting up and beginning to disassemble the spider web of strings.

“Did you have to do this to me when I was so tired? I might have appreciated it earlier.”
”This is when you came home. I didn’t choose the time, you did.”

This experience made me aware of a staircase in an apartment, maybe not worth so much effort. But a lot of times since then, I’ve had a flash back to that moment, and taken in the details of a small, unusually shaped space in which I’ve found myself, the scraped paint, the way there is a little molding sticking out at the corner, the way the first flight is wider than the second one, the size and shape of the hickory sculpture at the turn, reminding me of a totem pole, its smell of furniture polish, the spot on the wall where she had killed a moth once and no one had wiped it off.

You don’t need this experience to become more aware of space, just imagine it happened to you, and think about spaces you’ve visited recently that could have had spider webs of string in them, and write.

Friday, June 1, 2007

When is time?

An artist with whom I roomed many years ago once said, “You really don’t understand time and space at all, do you?”

I said, ‘Well, if you’re going to explain, just start with time. I don’t think my brain can take in both at once.”

She looked at me in bafflement for a minute. Then she said, “Okay. Time. When is it?”

“What? You mean, it’s 2:30?”

“No! I mean when is the time, when is the time?”


“It’s NOW, that’s when it is. It’s always now. It’s never then, it’s never future time either. We’re trapped in a tiny sliver in between then and time-to-come. We have no influence over either the past or the future, only the present.”

“I see why we can’t influence the past, but of course we can influence the future. That’s called planning.”

“ No, the future…you can never go there and change it. All you can do is right now, something you guess might change the future. But you might guess wrong. Don’t you see? Time is a tiny, cramped spot, not the huge expanse we like to think about. Right now. If you don’t sense your surroundings right now, if you don’t observe, then you have wasted that part of life.” She looked at me quizzically.

I thought she was talking philosophy, a subject that can give me a strong headache. But I had a glimmering of the idea she wanted me to get. “It’s only now, but I still say the best use of now is to plan how to influence the future.”

“So that’s why you smoke?” I did at that time, luckily I’ve had the sense to stop.

“No, that’s why I can do experiments. The smoking is stupid.”

“Stupid now and stupid later. But the best use of now is to perceive NOW, not waste all your time planning for the future. We humans aren’t that good at planning anyway, and if you’re doing that, you’ll be missing what you could take in from your environment, human and otherwise.”

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Location, Location, Location

I used to think that location was not important, that human encounters and interactions were the interesting part and they could happen anywhere. When I was reading, I even used to skip past the description at times. But then I moved to California. It’s different here. From back East, we used to say California was ‘far out.’ It’s not the same, that’s clear, although I’m not sure it’s really far out. But there’s a flavor of difference. Where we are matters.

Reading Joan Didion’s description of evil greenery growing in the Inland Empire where I live, or her description of the isolation and impersonality of driving on the freeways, I find the mood she creates resonates with the characters and the story. Moving the action to New York would not fit. I’ve been reading Willa Cather’s fictionalized life of Bishop Lamy recently, and New Mexico is a character in the story without a doubt. It interests me that the location can determine a lot of the shape of a story. Character and plot can arise from it, rather than location serving as Windows Wallpaper for a story that could take place anywhere.

What of the universality of human conditions? It’s true, but part of it is that we’re made to be tuned to our environments. So, West Coast Writers must be different in their assumptions. Maybe it’s being laid back, not wanting to argue with that East Coast guy who’s blowing his horn or butting in. We’ll all get there in the end, right? Or maybe it’s the assumption that we can jump in our cars (on our horses) and go anywhere. Or that nothing ever closes, no blue laws exist. Or the closeness of natural places, the ocean, the mountains. Or the hokey way the rivers have been made into Disneyland concrete channels painted with glorious and horrible graffiti. Lots of things are incorporated into our unconscious assumptions about daily life.

So, I think there’s a West Coast viewpoint that writers have, maybe not all writers, but a lot of writers who are out on this edge of the country. And reciprocally, I think people who write in other parts of the country or world have an intrinsic viewpoint too. Do you agree? Let me know what you think.