Friday, February 29, 2008


I won, I won!! The very excellent storyteller Alison over at RDHMom had a girl scout cookie contest, and I won Thin Mints! How very cool. Thank you, Alison, for making my day leap.

I've always thought it would be cool to have a February 29 birthday. Kind of like being left handed? Something a little off, but in a good way? So happy birthday to all you Leapers out there.

And welcome home to my poet-friend Seth who returns today from a month at Vermont Studio Center! Can you imagine a month in a house with other writers and artists with snow and readings and all that uninterrupted time to write? Seth completed his manuscript for a book of poems, and I couldn't be more thrilled for him. Maybe in my next life I'll be able to escape like that for a month.

Meanwhile, I am escaping this weekend for one night with my sister. No kids, no laundry, just me and Lynn eating and talking and shopping and sleeping. What a great way to start a new month!

“When in doubt, make a fool of yourself. There is a microscopically thin line between being brilliantly creative and acting like the most gigantic idiot on earth. So what the hell, leap.”

- Cynthia Heimel

Thursday, February 28, 2008


Where, do you think, this suitcase, has been? What would it look like smell like feel like if you opened it up? What do you think is inside?

There's a story there, I just know it. Thanks, MJ, for the provocative pic.

“Where there is an open mind there will always be a frontier.”

- James F. Kettering

Wednesday, February 27, 2008


I got a new toy: a GPS for my van. Which is great, because I am often dashing here and there. And this spring it seems I have quite a few adventures planned. So now I won't have to cuss Mapquest or stop on the side of the road to examine my poor beat-up atlas that is missing very important pages (like the eastern half of Tennessee) or, god forbid, stop to ask for directions. (I really like to figure these things out for myself.)

And it's got me thinking (of course) about my writing. I guess the GPS for writing would be the outline. You will find all sorts of opinions about this from all sorts of writers. For me, I find at some point, in order to plot a novel with effective narrative and character arcs, I've got to have some sort of plan or outline. But before I can get to the outline, the story has to live inside my head for a while. Like months or years even. Then I write a chapter by chapter outline and off I go.

The key is to leave yourself room for veering off course. Because how many times has the best most meaningful part of any adventure happened as a result of getting lost? I'm thinking every now and then with my new GPS I might just type in some random address and see where it takes me. Or turn it off completely. Then, when I'm ready, I'll turn it back on.

Same with the writing.

"A good traveller has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving."

- Lao Tzu

Tuesday, February 26, 2008


My children, particularly the middle (and most word-loving) Andrew, adore it when I tell them a story. This is far different than reading a story from a book, this is a living breathing thing that changes and grows depending on the moment of the telling.

I wish I was better at telling stories. I wish I had that gene that Kathryn Tucker Windham has. Or the one my father has. You know that one that lacks all self-consciousness and uses voice and inflection and suspense to really make a story come alive?

Well, I try. But I much better at putting words on a page than pulling them out of the air. If I could, I would totally take this class!

"No one in the world knew what truth was until someone had told a story."

-Rudyard Kipling

Sunday, February 24, 2008


I've been thinking about these words ever since I read them at Frozen Toothpaste. Be your own protagonist. I mean, how empowering is that? It's a phrase that fits with so many of my other favorites, like "just do it," "be the change you want to see in the world," and "life is not about finding yourself, it is about creating yourself." And it suits not just the writer in me, but the reader as well. Because isn't that the mark of a really great book? A protagonist whose skin you would like to inhabit, someone you would like to BE, if only for a little while?

Be your own protagonist. I like it a lot.

"A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer.”

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

Friday, February 22, 2008


Of all the mysteries in the universe, perhaps the most amazing is the human body. What do we look like under the skin? How do all our parts work together so wonderfully?

This exhibit is currently parked in Mobile, Alabama, just four hours from my house. Apparently it is not for the faint of heart; it is for the brave and curious.

I gotta see it!

"The final mystery is oneself."

-Oscar Wilde

Thursday, February 21, 2008


I'm not sure what fascinates me more about this pic, the way the glass gleams in the light or the fact that someone out there thought to stick those bottles on the broken branches.

Beautiful, isn't it? Thanks, MicaJon, for another great shot. It almost makes up for the fact that there was no lunar eclipse to be seen in Birmingham last night. We kept going out to check, but the clouds just kept getting thicker and thicker. You can bet we'll be out there trying again December 20, 2010.

“It is strange how often a heart must be broken before the years can make it wise”

-Sara Teasdale

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


The jonquils are blooming in Birmingham! This one is called Narcissus Sweetness. How can you not love a flower with that name? Plus it is very fragrant. Be careful, though, because these blossoms are kind of fragile. Once I mailed one off in a Pringles can, and it turned into a mushy mess. Ah, well. The things we do for love.

"Let us be grateful to people
who make us happy;

they are the charming gardeners
who make our souls blossom."

-Marcel Proust

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


See this little girl? Her name is Artelia Bendolph, and this photo was taken by Arthur Rothstein in 1937 when Artelia was ten years old.

Rothstein titled the photo "Girl at Gee's Bend." It is this photo that I turned to again and again as I came to know Ludelphia Bennett, the main character in my novel THE WITCHES OF GEE'S BEND. In my mind, this is Lu. No matter what art winds up on the cover of the book, this is the girl I see.

My image of the main character in my latest novel ESCAPE FROM FIRE MOUNTAIN is not nearly so clear. I know she's got long unrurly dark hair that springs up around her face in the humid island air, but her face is still vague. I have a feeling it will be a "know it when I see it" kind of thing.

“I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life's a bitch. You've got to go out and kick ass.”

- Maya Angelou

Monday, February 18, 2008


According to we will have a wonderful opportunity Feb. 20 to view a total lunar eclipse.

I don't know about you, but this thrills me. I am fascinated by space, and it is constantly popping up in my writing. So this is a big deal to me. You can bet on the night of the 20th (this Wednesday!) I will have the camera in my hands and the kids snuggled up in quilts beside me on the trampoline.

Then I wll write about it.

"In order to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe."

- Carl Sagan

Sunday, February 17, 2008


Today the Big Table Poets will meet to share and critique poems. We've been working together for nearly six years, and it amazingly still feels like a fresh new thing. Many people have asked how we have pulled this off, and the truth is, I don't really know.

But I am aware of an element in our group that I don't see in a lot of other groups: a decided lack of hierarchy and organization. No one is in charge. No one is the leader. We have a core group of five who show up most consistently, but we also have a revolving door of poets who come for a while then drop off. Everyone is just as important as everyone else, regardless of how skilled they are as writers. We operate on the tenet that everyone has something important to write about, something only he/she CAN write about. Therefore every piece of writing is valuable no matter how raw or polished.

However, you've got to have tough skin to sit at our table. We are there to work. So you've got to be open and ready to hear suggestions for improvement. And then ultimately you have to sit with yourself and own your writing.

Today I am workshopping two poems: The Final Prayer of Klara Hitler and In my mother's dream. I have a feeling it's going to be brutal. I'll let you know. :)

"Kill your darlings."

- has been attributed to William Faulkner, Mark Twain, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. If you know who really said it, I'd love to know!

Saturday, February 16, 2008


Last night we listened to author Carl Hiassen speak about his writing career.

The first thing Hiassen did was bring out a very thick file full of newspaper clippings. He then proceeded to share headlines and stories that have inspired plot and character in his novels. Most of these came from The Miami Herald where Hiassen has worked since he was twenty-three years old.

He tagged his books "satire" (for those of you who thought he was just plain funny and perhaps a little odd) and was delightfully self-deprecating. He had much to say about the dumping ground that is his home state of Florida, and he told story after story of the unsavories that somehow find themselves in the state. In fact (he claimed), the most challenging part of his writing is staying ahead of the weirdness curve of actual happenings in Florida.

So there you have it, folks. The trick to being a NY Times Bestselling Author is right there in black and white served up with your morning coffee. Start clipping, and start writing!

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

- Oscar Wilde

Friday, February 15, 2008


Meet Daniel, age thirteen.

Yesterday morning we put him on a plane (with 74 other 7th graders) to Washington, DC. What a fizzy feeling it is, sending your baby out into the world. I've heard writers say it's a similar feeling when they launch a book. I might even have said this when WHAT CAME BEFORE was released. But it's not true, not really.

I'm way way more proud and worried and enthusiastic about this thirteen-year-old. And I miss him. Think he's remembering to brush his teeth?

Aw, who cares. :)

“The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.”

- St. Augustine

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


Here is another pic, courtesy of my very talented brother MicaJon. These gears are part of an old printing press. When I look at it, I think about the way words fit together, the way people fit together, both emotionally and physically.

Every now and then there's bound to be a jam. But what this picture makes me think of is all the times things go so smoothly, it feels like together you are one big thing instead of entirely separate parts. When things feel so right, it's as if you were placed on the planet for just that purpose: to love and share space and become.

I crave moments like that.

"That is happiness: to be dissolved into something complete and great."

- Willa Cather

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


I've been thinking the past few days about this poem by Naomi Shihab Nye:


If you place a fern
under a stone
the next day it will be
nearly invisible
as if the stone has
swallowed it.

If you tuck the name of a loved one
under your tongue too long
without speaking it
it becomes blood
the little sucked-in breath of air
hiding everywhere
beneath your words.

No one sees
the fuel that feeds you.

How true is that?? Each of us has something that keeps us getting up in the mornings and helps us be the people we want to be. No one else has to know what it is so long as you know.

"I love living. I have a home on a river in Nova Scotia and I watch the water coming and going. Being a poet is not a choice. It is a way of life. It comes to me like the water, from some invisible well or source."

- Joanna Harris

Monday, February 11, 2008


I woke up this morning thinking a bunch of things, first and foremost, hey, I'm not immediately diving for the kleenex and my thoughts aren't the mushy mess they have been the past few days! I think good health is probably the number one thing I take for granted in my life, so these weeks have been a real reminder.

So I wallowed in gratitude for a few minutes, then started thinking about all the piles I've got to wade through at some point, starting today: the house is a wreck, my briefcase is stacked with unfinished work I need ready by tomorrow, I have a poem due today... also my editor said to expect the final revision packet mid-February, so any day now I'll have to re-enter the world of 1932 Gee's Bend and make sure to get it JUST RIGHT...

Oh and there's all this other stuff I want to do, too, now that I feel a bit more human, like write and read and love the ones I haven't loved enough in the past days or weeks or years, and what I was thinking was, mediocre isn't good enough. Not for any of these things. Well, except maybe the laundry. If there's one place in life to be mediocre, I'm thinking that's it :)

"Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss it you will land among the stars."

-Les Brown

Sunday, February 10, 2008


So I was telling a friend about the awful time we've had at my house with sickness this year, and she said, "we've entered the dreaded Year of the Rat." Dreaded, I'm thinking?

I figure you can look at rats two ways, and probably more. They can be nasty little critters, but aren't they also amazingly resilient survivors?

On a day like today when I am so ready to kick this flu out of my life FOR GOOD, I am going with the survivor argument. Thanks to those of you who have been so kind as to check up on me. It helps so much.

“Life is hard. After all, it kills you.”

- Katharine Hepburn

Wednesday, February 6, 2008


My brother took this one on a recent trip to Florida. Don't you just want to scramble right over that gate?

Let's do it. Let's go right over it.

"Still round the corner there may wait,
A new road or a secret gate."

- J. R. R. Tolkien


The cherry on top of my day yesterday was receiving this award from Alison. Thanks, Alison, for making my day!

Now for some more calorie-free fun:

And hey if you don't like mine, you can make your own!

"Part of the secret of success in life is to eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside."

- Mark Twain

Tuesday, February 5, 2008


My father is a voracious reader. He reads on average a book a day. He also loves listening to books and confessed to me recently that just for fun, he tried to see if he could actually read and listen AT THE SAME TIME.

Well, it didn't work. But you gotta admire the reading spirit going on there.

Of the five kids in our family, I am the only who inherited the reading gene. I can't claim the numbers my father's got, but I do read with a hunger. And it's got me thinking about why I read, about what it is I get from the reading experience.

For me, I think it's mostly about discovering new worlds and finding myself in the characters. I keep a reading journal of quotes and passages from the books I read --some of these find their way into my own writing, but mostly they represent a glimpse of myself, a little peek into my internal world. I love it when writers put things I've felt or experienced into words I never thought to string together. There is this aha! moment, this recognition, like looking into a lake on a sunny day and seeing a shimmery reflection.

Katherine Paterson, a writer whom I admire greatly, has a little different take on this. She says in her book The Invisible Child that the reason kids need books is to prepare them for the emotional experiences they will later encounter. She tells a story of someone thanking her for the book Bridge to Terebithia, because a child's best friend had died, and the book helped her in some way to deal with that loss. Paterson's response was, "too late, too late!" She believes children need these books BEFORE they know they need them.

So I wonder: what books most prepared me for my life? What books gave me some tools to help me survive the traumas and heartaches I've experienced? What books taught me to recognize the joy and love?

Well, I'm thinking. Meanwhile, here is a quote from my reading journal:

"He thinks how strange life is with its frayed edges and second chances; and though by morning he will have forgotten that he ever thought it, Gerard feels as though he is being followed, that there are voices he can’t hear, that the footsteps on snow on the window are just that, and like Lucy’s conception - life is a string of guided and subtle explosions."

- from The Secret Lives of People in Love by Simon Van Booy

Monday, February 4, 2008


Charles Simic is the poet who currently holds the post as U.S. Poet Laureate. It's a one year appointment that begins in October and carries with it a $35,000 prize. The poet also gets to hang out in the Poetry Room at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. Usually the poet will adopt a cause of some sort for the advancement of poetry -- I don't know what Simic is doing, but maybe it will be something special like Ted Kooser's American Life in Poetry.

What's cool about Simic is he is an immigrant from Yugoslavia, and he offers the following really excellent advice on writing poetry:

1. Don't tell the readers what they already know about life.

2. Don't assume you're the only one in the world who suffers.

3. Some of the greatest poems in the language are sonnets and poems not many lines longer than that, so don't overwrite.

4. The use of images, similes and metaphors make poems concise. Close your eyes, and let you imagination tell you what to do.

5. Say the words you are writing aloud and let your ear decide what word comes next.

6. What you are writing down is a draft that will need additional tinkering, perhaps many months, and even years of tinkering.

7. Remember, a poem is a time machine you are constructing, a vehicle that will allow someone to travel in their own mind, so don't be surprised if it takes a while to get all its engine parts properly working.

He's also a funny guy - check out this interview.

And to get a taste of his work, here are 29 poems . There are only two in the bunch that I really like, but taste in poetry is quite the individual thing. Here's one of the two:


Green Buddhas
On the fruit stand.
We eat the smile
And spit out the teeth.

- Charles Simic

Sunday, February 3, 2008


When you're two, there's nothing much more fun than a water spray bottle. And it tastes good, too!

When you're one, laundry is still fun! And you just don't really know what a thing is until you put it in your mouth. (Fortunately BrenLeigh is just like a little chipmunk storing things away in her cheeks without any real desire to swallow them.)

There really isn't anything much better than that feeling you get when sliding down a slide. Okay, maybe watching HIM get that feeling.

What fabulous wonderful children these are! And what a full-time job! I can't believe all the stuff I've forgotten. I also can't believe how PEACEFUL my house feels now that the babies are gone. Wow, we've come such a long way. And it is really so different being an aunt than being a mom... it's like getting all the joy and amusement without worrying about teaching this or that, or considering the lifelong consequences. I like it a lot.

“Joy is the holy fire that keeps our purpose warm and our intelligence aglow.”

-Helen Keller

Friday, February 1, 2008


My brother and sister-in-law wanted a romantic weekend, so I said, bring those babies to me! They live in Tennessee and are currently on the way to my house. I've dragged the high chair and pack-n-play up from the basement and plugged up the electrical outlets. I don't know if the houseplants will survive all the attention, but we are all excited to have 2 year old Levi and 15 month old BrenLeigh. Tomorrow is supposed to be beautiful here, so I am planning to get them outside. I promise to take lots of pics, which I will post here. Don't you just love little kids?

You can learn many things from children. How much patience you have, for instance.

-Franklin P. Jones