Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Last Post

The title of this post makes it sound like it's a Western set on the open prairie at the end of the trail. Well, it sort of is. I've been blogging for over half a year because everyone in the world told me I should blog.

But the truth is, this method of communication doesn't feel right to me. I only have so much writing I can do in my life and I don't want to waste any more of it on trying to think up clever, insightful things to say on my blog so people will like me and think I'm funny and ultimately buy and read all my books.

I like writing poems much better. They give back to me.

But I think I gave it a good shot and I'm pleased about that and I feel honored to have gathered a loyal group of followers and other readers who dropped in from time to time. Please stay in touch--send me an email if you want or better yet, show up on my doorstep and come in for tea.

Because, besides writing poems and stories, I really like to have long, deep conversations with people about life and snow and flowers and dog poop and toenails and what the weather's going to be.

So call me a former blogger or just call me.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Poem for the Solstice


Every year I write about snow

and every year it surprises me.

If no snowflake is the same,

then certainly no blizzard is either.

How scary when hail pelts the windshield,

How charming snow is nestled on the bird feeder.

There are storms that catch you unaware.

In your nightgown you watch

flakes bigger than fists fly at the windows.

Know it will all melt, the ice,

the piles at the end of the driveway.

Even now it is moving toward liquid.

Know you will stand at the window again

watching green pulses push from the garden.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Just a picture

I'm busy grading papers and reading theses and trying to finish up everything so I can think about the solstice and the end of the year and all.

So here's a picture of me and a small rug I hooked for an event called BIRD X BIRD in which artists making art and donate a portion of it to a silent auction for the Audobon Society.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Last Image

The other night in class I had my students write the last image in their books. At this point most of them are only three or four chapters into their novels. I wrote my last image too. We pay so much attention to the beginning of books, as we should, that I think the end is often neglected. This is our last chance to give our readers a gift. We have traveled a long road with them and they deserve something memorable. We build these fictive worlds out of images--so I think that's where to start with the end. What image do you want to leave them with?

I was surprised by my image--a pair of tail light disappearing around a bend. Seemed very mundane and a little cliched. But then I had them all write scenes that lead up to their image and the scene I wrote pleased me and surprised me and felt right. And it led to the tail lights disappearing.

Also, I think it's exciting to have the ending to head toward. Even if it doesn't stay the ending. It has a kind of weight that can pull you along when you're struggling with the middle, etc.

So try it. Write an image that a novel can head toward and then aim at it. Might even be the first thing you write in a novel.

Thursday, November 25, 2010


Thanks to all my readers.

I have a short list here of things I'm thankful for on this sunny, but nasty cold day (10 degrees) in Golden Valley.

I'm thankful that:

--Jacques, my 7-pound toy poodle, caught a short-tailed shrew today, but still prefers eating apple

--I have a head-to-toe down coat that allows me to go outside in this weather and, because it's brown, acts as a solar collector when there is sun

--I made it to the library and have a huge pile of books that I want to read

--I finally finished hemming the velvet winter curtains after four years of hanging them with pins stuck in them

--there are only two more months of this limited light

--Thanksgiving isn't at our house, but Pete's cousin's

--holiday music will start playing on the classical music station (I know, I'm a sucker)

--my friends and family are safe and healthy after a couple scares

--I'm back to writing poetry, the ground of my writing life

--I like turkey, but I really love pumpkin pie

Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 20, 2010


I got very wound up this fall--lots to do, talks, classes, manuscript work, my own work, never enough time. Forgot about walks, about friends, about quiet moments.

Now I'm starting to unwind. I can almost feel my body twirling around in the air. This process is so physical and emotional. Letting go of tension, letting go of things to do, lists, letting my shoulders drop, the email go unanswered for a day or two.

I recommend it. I'm reading more, which the dogs love because we all get under the same fuzzy blanket on the couch, I'm walking more even though it's getting a bit frigid here in the upper Midwest. I'm gazing out the window more. Watching the trees move is a lesson in unwinding. I try to copy them, swaying back and forth, letting my arms hang like willow branches.

Children's books (not so much YA) are great for unwinding. Gentle and human, often humorous, thoughtful, they tell stories that help us grow--not matter what age we are.

I'll end this short post with a couple lines from my new poem:

"Turn around as many times as you need

to finally see. Like a top you blur into a hum."

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Stories that Haunt You

I'm teaching a class on plot in the MFA creative writing program at Hamline and I asked my students—after having them bring in their favorite picture book and then pick their favorite Grimms fairy tale—to write a short essay on what stories they carry with them—both from their own lives and from books. Then I asked them to write about what stories they want or need to tell and how this all relates.

We are close to Halloween and the sense of stories haunting us I think is worth exploring.

I was so inspired by what they wrote that I think I will try to write such an essay myself. You might too. Make a list of the stories that you come back to again and again. A few for me are: Daniel Martin by John Fowles, Leaving Cheyenne by Larry McMurtry, The Spiral Staircase by Karen Armstrong, Anna Karenina by Tolstoy.

Make a list, add to it, let it brew. Think about what these stories are about. Where is the energy in them. You will learn more about yourself and your writing.

Sit down on the floor among your own personal library. Pull books off the shelf and absorb what they have to tell you about your own work.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Trying to get a handle on the universe

I'm about to start working on a new rug. I drew this picture and watercolored it many months ago. Since then I've been staring at it every once in a while.

In some ways, the process of making a rug so resembles writing a book. There are long periods of thought, of ambling, rambling through ideas for what I might want to be creating. These long periods can look like wasting time, can resemble daydreaming, often take place during walks around the neighborhood and car drives.

I'm trying to test the strength of my idea--does it have durability? Does it have some odd kind of worth? Will I learn something if I attempt it?

So what does this rug represent? I have no idea. I like circles. I like that when you rug hook you don't have to go in a straight line. I like curving around. I like colors. I like this deep blue--the new Yves Klein exhibit at the Walker shows that I wasn't the only one to like this blue.

I spent a wonderful afternoon dyeing this blue from indigo with my friend Jan. We worked outside and dyed wool and then t-shirts and whatever we could get our hands one--blue. Dyeing with indigo is real magic. The dye bath is kind of the color of Mountain Dew--pea yellow/green. You put the fabric in and it too becomes yellowy. Then, after a few minutes, when you pull it out and the air hits it, it turns blue.

Peter calls this rug Earth and Sun. He thinks they're colliding. That's not how I see it. I see them as two balls of energy, happily co-existing in a swirling blue universe.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Deep in the Trees

I went down to Stockholm this weekend, the weather was outrageously beautiful, and I had to go to a board meeting at the Lake Pepin Art and Design Center. I stopped into my house and then went for a long walk in the woods. The hunters aren't out yet, so the woods are relatively safe. I still wore my red plaid hat and clapped my hands to tell all I was coming.

I walked along the field road at the top of Hap Palmberg's open land, tucked in right under the bluffs and under the treeline. About a block down this dirt track, I saw large creatures moving in amongst the trees. There were about ten horses, saddled up, and tied to trees, hidden in the woods.

Just one of those moment when you get a wonderful surprise, a gift. Dark horses staring at me out of the woods. They neighed, I clapped, we watched each other until we could see no longer.

They were still there when I walked back. Again the nods and nickers. About an hour later, I saw a group of people saddle up and ride, not down into the town, but up into the bluffs. All I can figure is that they had come down for lunch and lived somewhere up on the farmland above.

You never know what you're going to find when you go for a walk in the woods.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Time to Sleep

After my first day on the art tour, I arrived back at my house in Stockholm, WI, to find the phone machine beeping at me, telling me there was a message. It was from Peter. I had an offer on a book. A picture book. A story I had been gently working on for a few years, tweaking and honing. About a little girl who isn't sleepy. Her parents are understanding. They know some nights are like that. But they move her toward bed. She wonders if everything has to sleep. They discuss this.

I won't tell you the ending. No spoilers here.

So all day long I sold my mystery books and my scarves and showed people how to hook a rug. Then, that night, I sell a story from my heart.

This selling stuff is hard work. It's emotional. It's stressful and energizing. It's a part of our work.

Unlike my little girl I was very tired that night. After a dinner of chili and wine, I talked with my sister Dodie about the day. We both fell into bed tuckered, ready to sleep our fill so that we could be up and at 'em the next day, selling those small pieces of our lives—in picture or story form. As they say, priceless.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Fresh Art Tour Oct. 1-3, 2010

This weekend, starting on Friday, I will be happily working away in a barn.

Barbara McIlrath, a wonderful painter, has invited my sister Dodie, and friends Harriet LeVian, Holly Swift, all three painters, and my lucky self to sell our work in the main part of her barn on the Fresh Art Tour. This tour has been going on for many years and circles around Stockholm, Durand and Pepin, featuring numberous artists who make baskets and bowls, spoons and books.

I will demonstrating rug hooking and selling the natural-dyed scarves I make with my niece Juliet Morris, who will also be there, helping us all.

And then there's the barn. It is a work of art, with hand-hewn beams and enormous sliding doors. Just spending time in this space will feel like a gift.

The weather is supposed to be perfect, the leaves are starting to turn and might well be in full flush, and as an extrovert, I probably won't get tired of talking until well into Saturday. We're saving the wine until Sunday afternoon.

Come join us if you can!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Re-viewing the Loft

Friday night I gave a presentation with Pete Hautman (my guy), Deborah Keenan (poet/friend), and Mary Rockcastle (dean/novelist/buddy) at Hamline University for the publication of Views from the Loft. This is wonderful compilation of essays that was written over the last thirty-plus years for the newsletter of the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, called, you might have guessed: A View from the Loft.

Besides reading other essays by some of my favorite writers, including Yehuda Amichai, Larry Sutin, Kate DiCamillo, and Jim Moore, I re-read my old essay: "Writing about the Mysteries of Life." I wrote this essay a good seventeen years ago and it was better than I thought it might be. It's a story that I've told many times and will probably continue to tell until I bite the big one—how I've come to write mysteries.

And so I thought I'd quote a bit of it in this blog:

" It flabbergasts me that some people disdain mysteries. But then, I'm also amazed when some writers think they've accomplished something by writing a complicated, erudite sentence that no one understands. Good writing is about telling stories, and confusion is not the same as mystery. Mystery is when everything is painfully clear: the sky is immensely blue, the land is covered with hills and valleys, and the person you most love in the world is dead at your feet. How could this have happened? Mysteries are not meant to be solved but explored—just as when someone dies, we are meant to feel it, not get over it."

The line I keep in my back pocket and pull out whenever there's a need for it is: Confusion is not the same as mystery.

Blessings to the Loft for creating a community of writers that is still thriving today.

Friday, September 10, 2010

School Starts

I taught my first class of the fall semester last night. When I left school at nine o'clock, it was dark outside. I walked across the Hamline campus feeling the new energy as students ran past me on their way to somewhere.

The longer I teach, the more I realize how important and fun it should be, the more I think about teaching. I've taught for many years and never gave it much thought. That doesn't mean that I didn't put a great deal of effort into my teaching. It's just that I never thought much about what it means to be a teacher. How I'm meant to gently poke my students. Make them go further than they think they can.

This morning, I taught a swimming class of 3- to 6-year olds. For the first time a tiny dark-haired three-year-old boy jumped into the deep end of the pool all by himself. He bobbed up in the water puffed up with pride for what he had done.

Last night we started out the class writing a scene in which our main characters realize they want something--desperately.

Curl your toes over the edge of the pool and jump. The water is deep and full of wonder.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Corn Dog at the Minnesota State Fair

The end of summer in Minnesota is marked by the state fair, which goes until Labor Day. The next day is the first day of school. I worked at the fair--first as a bus girl in a smorgasbord, then as a cashier, then as a manager of a waffle shop. I learned how to cram the most food on a tray--cover the whole plate with mashed potatoes, a good foundation for the sloppy food.

I still go to the fair every year—early in the morning and by myself. I am waiting at the door of the Fine Art pavillion when it opens. Anyone who lives in Minnesota can enter a piece in one of 8 categories, which include painting, ceramics, glass, etc. and also fiber arts. My rug featuring animals from Lake Pepin made it in this year. While it's not that small (over four feet long), it's definitely crooked.

I figured out early on that I don't like straight lines. One of the wonderful things about hooking is that it's not weaving and it's made for curves. Even my geometric rug, which took second place in its category in the Creative Activities, is not straight. The Navajos are said to have purposefully put mistakes in their rugs as only god can make something perfect, but I go a few steps further. I want my humanness to show through, to be what the rug is about. I love how the hand naturally draws things with a sway.

For me crookedness isn't a mistake, it's a gift. It is a way into a piece, an admission of the rolling of the world. Why take the gentleness of a curve out of your work--be it rugs, or drawings, or stories? Emily Dickinson wrote her rhymes "slant." She left the door wide open.

As I was leaving the fair, I ate my yearly corn dog. Just an excuse to enjoy mustard and ketchup.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Full Moon over Lake Superior

Pete and I have taken our annual vacation with our two darling pups. We've gone up to the north shore of Lake Superior, almost to Canada. We're staying in a small rental cabin with a tiny stove, a funky bathtub, and a deck that faces west. We've managed to strew our stuff—books, maps, computers, more books, mushrooms, rocks that look like hearts, papers, and even more books—around the small cabin so that it more closely resembles our home.

This cabin definitely qualifies as being "small and crooked." Just what we love.

This time away from our lives, or as much of our lives as we couldn't fit in the car, also signifies the end of summer. When we get back, I'll have many manuscripts to read and a class to put the final touches on, and two of my own books to send out into the world.

Both Pete and I brought work with us. Being a writer, I often go on vacation so I have the time to write. One technique I've been using on this trip (and I often do it at home too) is to stay in bed after I've woken up and think about the book I'm writing. Muse might be the better word. What if this happened? How does a teenager feel after their first really good kiss? How do they describe it? When should this scene take place in the book?

I feel the whole book within me, simmering in the soup of almost sleep, and I stir it. When I get up, I write some of what I've seen. It's a gentle, easy way to work. I recommend it.

Last night we decided to drive a bit closer to Canada, so we got in the car and went north about twenty miles. On our way up we saw a moose. It was a first for both Peter and I. I pulled off the road and Pete got out the binoculars that he keeps in the glove compartment (I don't think he was a boy scout) and we watched it watching us. A young bull moose with a big hump and new felty antlers. After about five minutes it said enough and ambled back into the forest.

On the way home the moon came up over the lake a Maxwell Parrish moment. That rose-purple is unmistakeable.

Hope the end of summer is sweet for you.

Monday, August 16, 2010

An Amazing Reading at Dog Days

This last weekend, the middle of August, "dog days" indeed, we had a celebration in Stockholm, WI, of dogs and books.

On Friday night, charming emcee Pete Hautman kicked off the community read: poems or stories, often featuring a dog. We had eight-year-old Cole Johnson reading about his love of books; and our unofficial poet laureate, Bill Charlesworth, reading about driving to Sturgis to hang with the bikers (Bill is about ten times Cole's age and a more gentle, intelligent and dignified man would be hard to find). The readers, too numerous to list here, were terrific and the work was as varied the breeds of dogs.

The next day a slew of dog-related activities went on in the park, including a doggie parade complete with several competitions. Including in this blog, is a photo snapped by Maryanne Coronna moments after Jacques, a seven-pound toy poodle, received his trophy for third place for best costume, held by his proud owner—me. His flowers had grown limp so I had already discarded them, but he had pranced across the stage as "Flower Boy."

The very outrageously grand finale was Saturday night when David Rhodes read from Driftless and I worried that we didn't have the ambulance still on hand as several members of the audience were laughing so hard I feared for their lives. (John and Bill, you know who I'm talking about.)

Then three members of the St. Paul and Minneapolis Poetry Slam teams—Cynthia French, Kyle "Guante" Myhre, and Khary J.—enthralled the audience with their performances. When it was over, no one wanted to leave. It was very clear why these poets were members of the winning teams--the St. Paul team took first in the national poetry slam held a week ago. There is talk of putting together a slam team from Stockholm, talk to John Graber if you're interested.

Personally, I think this reading might have been the best one I've ever been to in my life.

Once Mary Anne Svoboda, Harley Cochran, Ericka Svoboda, Mary Michael, et al. recover (which may take months) we might consider doing it again. Bravo to all!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Hiding Out

I hate to admit it, but I'm in an air-conditioned cafe in Red Wing, Minnesota, absorbing some cool, hiding out. I'm almost sick of summer, or at least the form of grass-rotting, shirt-sweated-through, all-surfaces-damp summer that we've had this week. The good news is I'm getting some work done.

Each morning, before the deep heat sets in, I've been camped out at the table, reworking a book, adding some scenes. I sink into this fictional world, the way I embrace air-conditioning when it's just too blamed hot. I finish before noon and feel holy for the day.

Last night my sister Dodie and I went to see the Rush River, which had leapt its banks. Impressive and scary, farmers had cows swept out of their fields, bridges crumbled, a beautiful small pristine trout stream turned into a roiling, brown, dangerous torrent. Two days earlier we had gone swimming in this river.

We are so not in control in this world. Enjoy the danger and hide out once in a while.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Evolving Stories

All the plants are peaking. They are stretching up with their leaves, their stems, their flowers, reaching as far into the air, toward the sun, as they can. We only have a week or two of them at their ultimate growth. And it all has happened earlier than usual this year, because of our warm spring.

I feel this stretch too. I want to write better and more than I've written. I want to push myself to capture the world, the characters that move in it, and the questions that I am forever probing, even more than I have.

I just finished reading Charles and Emma, a YA non-fiction book about Charles Darwin and his wife. Their relationship was extraordinarily close. They were rarely apart. He struggled with anxiety most of his life and yet he worked through it. He was extremely worried about how his theory of evolution would be taken and even stalled in publishing it for a few years, hoping that it would not make too big a stir. It was beyond inspiring to read about him, how hard he studied, how long he honed a piece. And there was always Emma, reading everything and editing it all.

I am working on two books now that I want to give just a bit more oomph to before I send them out into the world. I can be brusque in my novels, getting to the point, forgetting that the getting is the point. Each book needs another scene or two that are dallying scenes in which our sense of the characters and their desires deepen. These scenes will make the books richer and denser in a good way. I hope. I push myself. I study my stories for their intrinsic turns. Their evolutions.

Friday, July 23, 2010


I'm beginning to be in the world again. The residency ended with a rousing banquet in which kazoos were tooted on and songs were sung and tears and laughter flowed. Then back home to laundry, email, happy dogs, weeds, and summer with tomatoes and corn coming in from the fields. I sat on the back patio and drank gin and tonics and watched the grass grow for a few days.

But I wanted to share a piece of writing that I did during the residency. I was fortunate enough to workshop with Ron Koertge, a wonderful poet. Every morning before we dove into critiquing, we would do a little writing. On the fourth day we tried our hands at nonsense poetry--we were just the perfect combination of brain dead and loopy.

Here's what I wrote:

There was a girl named Rosie
who had a crooked nose.
She went to pick a posy,
but could not touch her toes.

She could not touch her toesies,
she could not scratch her knees.
She went to pick a posy,
but all she got was fleas.

I'm rather happy with this poem and feel it more than qualifies for inclusion on a blog that focuses on small and crooked. More nonsense might well take place here. Watch for it.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Off to Summer Camp for Writing

This will be a short one. I'm slightly brain dead and very focused on the few remaining tasks I have to do to finish up the low-residency program in children's lit. I teach in at Hamline University. But I wanted to capture a few thoughts.

In this program we are kept busy basically nine to nine. Workshops, lectures, readings, BBQs, square dancing, zombies, deep reflections, and of course late night talks followed by early morning walks. I have taught in this program for over three years now, July and January, and while I don't seem to be doing it a lot easier, I feel that I'm getting ever more out of it. I worked with Ron Koertge this time in workshop and his quiet, steady humor and gentle persistent questions led me to cut about half the first chapter on a new middle-grade book I'm working on.

I'm home for an afternoon. And Peter (my guy and fellow writer) told me I had to stop thinking about the program for a while. So I sat down and wrote the first four pages of my next Claire Watkins. This books is pushing to come out. I'm promising it the rest of July and all of August.
Three more days and I'll be home. Very full of inspiration.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Getting Ready to Start

I did two book signings this weekend--one in Red Wing and one at Abode, a lovely gallery in Stockholm, WI. I was signing Frozen Stiff, my new book, the eighth in the Claire Watkins mystery series—hard to believe. I've been thinking about the ninth book for a long time, almost since the series started. Ideas percolate in my brain for at least a year before I try to write anything down.

The process of collecting bits of information for a book reminds me of what I think quilting must be like--finding a piece of fabric that you think would be nice in a quilt and then slowly over time gathering more and more bits of fabric that somehow might fit with the first. Finally one day you have to sit down and start. You have to be bold and begin to write. Laying it out, changing the order, pinning it down.

I'm getting very ready to start. In a way, I have already. I taught a class at Hamline University this early summer and had my students do writing exercises every class period to get us in the mood. I always write along with them. And I aimed all my writing at this new book. So now I really do have bits and pieces. Other than doing these exercises, I'm a very linear writer. I start at the beginning and plow ever onward until I reach the end.

I have a few more events to get out of the way—a visit from an old friend, teaching for almost two weeks in a low-residency program at Hamline—and then I will launch.

Claire and I are old pals. I look forward to finding out where her life is headed.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Flaws As a Way In

So what is this blog going to be about? I guess it's just going to be my small and crooked vision of the world.

I'm going to write about my old farmhouse in the country; my cobbled-together life of writing, editing and teaching; my crotchety and darling aging poodles; my mystery series, which straddles the line between cozy and hard-boiled; my primitive rug hookings; my poetry; and how my life with another writer just keeps getting more interesting after twenty years of unwedded bliss.

I want to look at the seams, where we're almost coming apart, how we hold together. Or to examine the way the flaws allow us into pieces of art--be they poems or bowls or rugs. I want to praise hand work in all its forms, even if its just painting a wall or weeding a garden or washing the dishes. All the traces we leave of our movements through the world.

I want this blog to be one of my traces. Will there be flaws? You betcha.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Weekend in the Country

As a gardening friend said in Stockholm, WI, on Sunday, "it's wet and weedy out there." The earth is exhaling, that's for sure--and it's a moist, fertile breath.

I drove down to my house in the country for the weekend, my two two furry sidekicks, Rene and Jacques, seven-pound poodles, riding shotgun. Well, actually Jacques was riding in my lap. When we hit real countryside his small head pops up and he stares out the window. I wonder what he sees, this blur of fields, golden and waving.

We both know when we're in the country. It sinks into our bones. I drive a little bit slower. I visit the sky. He stares out the window. I'm sure he knows where we're going. Rene sleeps, but then he's sixteen. He deserves to sleep. He comes out of his coma when I turn up J to go to our house. Then they both become frantic, out, out, they want to be out of the car.

When I open the door to my house, the calm silence hits me hard. My shoulders sink. I drop my bags and breath in. I love the smell of my house--reminds me of bridal's wreath spirea--dusty and slight spicy, but not as sweet.

We walk down to the very small town—eighty some people on a good day—and say hi to everyone in the shops. My dogs get treats, and I get all the good gossip. We walk back up the hill, feeling satisfied.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Why Small and Crooked?

When Pete Hautman and I had been going out a year or two, he gave me one of those winsome, knowing looks that I have come to dread and love at the same time, and said, "I know what you like--you like everything that is small and crooked."

He was and still is absolutely right. In this brand-new blog I will write about my mysteries, my rug hooking, my dyeing, my house in the countryside of Wisconsin, my poetry, my family and friends and dogs. While not all of them are exactly small (my house is small, my poems are usually small, my dogs are very small and getting smaller poodles, but my group of friends is large and Pete's no small potatoes), they all have their own definite crookedness about them, and I mean that in the absolutely best of ways.

Please come by for a visit often.