This Week in Books 

If days after I've finished a book I'm still thinking of the story, characters, pace, or plot,  I know it's one I need to shout about. This week I've enjoyed three great — and very different — books.

The Penguin Anthology of 20th Centry American Poetry
by Rita Dove, editor

Remember those college English classes requiring the ridiculously heavy Norton Anthologies with onion-skin thin pages? The just-released Penguin Anthology is like that — but so much better. I'm not sure if it's age (it's been, ahem, many years since I was an English major) or my increased appreciation of poetry but I am loving this collection.

Thumbing through the pages is like seeing old friends: Anne Sexton, Walt Whitman, Amiri Baraka (in college I filled an entire wall of my studio apartment with his words: What can I say? / It is better to haved loved and lost/ Than to put linoleum in your living rooms?  from In Memory of Radio). There's newer friends too: Kay Ryan, Adrienne Rich, Marie Howe, Billy Collins, and more. With both classic and contemporary poems, this collection deftly gathers 100 years of poetry and manages to shed the academic obligation and emerge refreshingly necessary.


Feeding Strays
by Stefanie Freele

In this collection of 50 short, and sometimes very short (flash fiction), stories, Stefanie Freele offers loopy and touching slices of life. Characters and plot are both sincere and silly, gritty and surreal. At the heart of each absurdity lies great sensitivity. We're all a bit broken, she seems to suggest, and that's what makes us whole.


Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America
by Helen Thorpe

In this engaging narrative nonfiction, Thorpe — a journalist long before she was wife to Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper — offers an insightful look at immigration policy through a moving (and evenhanded) story of four young women as they struggle to learn, grow and prosper. "Helen Thorpe has taken policy and turned it into literature," says Malcom Gladwell.



Thankful Thursday: Read and Misread

Everything Lush I Know

I do not know the names of things
but I have lived on figs and grapes
smell of dirt under moon
and moon under threat of rain
everything lush I know
an orchard becoming all orchards
flowers here and here
the earth I have left
every brief home-making
the lot of God blooming into vines
right now then and always

— Kimberly Burwick


As part of my new routine of reading and writing each morning, yesterday I read this poem from Horses in the Cathedral, by Kimberly Burwick, a writer living in Moscow, Idaho.

Despite its brevity, the poem is full, and well, lush. That first line is an immediate hook — I do not know the names of things — and the reverent details and tone transported me easily from the poem to my journal. Energized, I lifted a line — a lot of God blooming into vines — and started a freewrite.

This prompt produced pages of material. Later, I reread the poem and realized it was not a lot of God but the lot of God. But no matter, whatever unfurls the mind and moves the pen.

On this Thankful Thursday, I am thankful for poems that arrive and energize.


It's Thankful Thursday, a weekly pause to appreciate the people, places, things (and poems) in our lives. Joy contracts and expands in proportion to our gratitude. What makes your world expand?


Try This: Morning Read & Write

What's your writing routine?

Influenced by Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way, years ago I wrote Morning Pages — a freewwrite filling two full pages, every morning. Most days the pages filled fast, and I started the day doing what I do best and enjoy most: writing.

Poet Molly Spencer, who shares details of her writing life at The Stanza, recently shared with me her writing routine: 

What I always do, no matter what, is what I call my morning reading and writing. I read someone else's work, then write something, anything. It's usually junk, but sometimes a jewel finds its way onto the paper. And even the junk feels like an accomplishment because it's writing.

I like this idea because it establishes a time and place for writing. In doing the same thing everyday, I am making an appointment and declaring the importance of writing in my life. And in reading the work of others, I am prepping my write mind.

With Molly's nudge, this morning I read Facts About the Moon, poems by Dorianne Laux, and then wrote fast and fevered, without thinking. What a great way to start the day! I was reminded how powerful morning writing can be. Reading and writing first thing sets a tone and pace for everything that follows.

Try a Morning Read & Write, and let me know how it goes for you.



Thankful Thursday: Ikea

I don't even like to shop.

Still, last week I found myself trapped in the dizzy march of the Ikea maze. Sandwiched between screaming toddlers and dawdling adults is not my idea of a fun Saturday morning. Shopping in a concrete warehouse, under fluorescent lights, is really never a good time.

Except when it comes to paper and pens, I don't like a lot of choice. And Ikea, the behemoth of affordable housewares, offers choice after choice after choice. Smart design, clever ideas. And cheap! It's all too much. Saturated with sight and sound, I started snarling at youngsters (those who hadn't been plopped off at the kiddie corral) and glaring at shoppers who were inexplicably having fun.

When my husband not-so-gently asked if I had brought a book and pointed to an empty table in the cafe (Must everything involve food? I snapped), I jumped at the chance to escape the circus.

There, in the din of consumer overload, I wrote. Page after page in the loopy scrawl of the slightly mad. The rant turned inward eventually and slowed to a less charged pace. I wrote and wrote. Hours later, when the shopping was over and the car packed tight, I had written, rewritten, and polished a poem (one which had absolutely nothing to do with consumer waste, screaming children, clueless adults, or food court stench).

On this Thankful Thursday, I am thankful for Ikea — for driving me over the edge and into a poem.


It's Thankful Thursday, a weekly pause to appreciate the people, places, things (and poems) in our lives. Joy contracts and expands in proportion to our gratitude. What makes your world expand?




How to feed your writing life 

Every week, a friend and I exchange the same question:

How did you feed your writing life this week?

We are writers. We want to write more, and better, and see the results of our commitment to a creative life. And so, like Weight Watchers or a 12 Step Program, we keep each other accountable. We share our drafts and works-in-progress. We exchange achievements and concerns. We encourage each other while also applying slight (but loving) pressure to act. It is not enough to wish. You must write — and when not writing, you must exercise the writing muscle through other literary actions.

Five Ways to Feed Your Writing Life

Read, Read, Read.  And read more.

Read more than you write. Read stories, poems, essays, magazines, dictionaries, history books, cookbooks, cereal boxes. Reading will always expand your life and your writing. Influence is good. Let yourself be immersed and influenced. Good writing will shape your own writing.

Attend a Workshop.
I just returned from the South Coast Writers Conference where I led two workshops. The sessions were lively and the writers warm and friendly. It was great fun.

I spend much of my time alone, quietly crafting words. Until I am in a room full of writers, I forget the wonderful rush writing with a group can bring. When we write together, we buzz in a collective creativity, and when we share our work we feel great energy and relief.

Take a workshop. Week-long and weekend workshops are plentiful, but there are loads of one-day, half-day and one-hour events, too. And many are free or low-fee. Look to your library, or local writing organization, for writing opportunities.

Go to a Reading.
Nothing stirs the writing juices like hearing the work of others. Almost every town holds a reading or an open mic night (even small towns, like mine, with just 650 people, have readings at coffeehouses and libraries). At a reading, you'll have the opportunity to meet other writers, hear new ideas, and measure your work against what you hear. Even better, take part! Sharing your words before an audience is an excellent way to discover where your work skips, soars, or lags.

And remember, it's good to encourage one another. We're all in this together. Give yourself bonus points for reaching out to newbies.

Write a Letter.
You know how I feel about letters. They save lives, or at least brighten them. Writing a letter is an excellent way to "pretend" write. You know you should polish your poems, or start your story. But you're not feeling it. Reach instead for pen and paper, and write a letter. You'll quickly find yourself in a pool of words and ideas.   

By the way, how is the Month of Letters Challenge going?

Watch a Movie about Writing.
It feels a bit like cheating but watching a movie about writers always inspires me to pick up my own pen. After all, literary acts are really just ways to nudge us back to our own writing.

A few of my favorite write-themed movies are:  Il Postino, Freedom Writers, Bad Writing, SlamNation, The Hobart Shakespeareans, Finding Forrester, and Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man.


Tell me, how are you feeding your writing life?