This is the Work You Were Born For: some thoughts on teaching kids the practice of Story



Good grief. I haven’t blogged in over a month. What on earth have I been doing?

(actually I know exactly what I’ve been doing, and I’ll get into that in another post. right now I have important things to discuss with you. ahem.)

Anyway, once again I am spending a week with some amazing third and fourth grade students at Chanhassen Elementary. I’ve been doing this same residency for a number of years now, through my work with COMPAS, a statewide community arts program, and every year I am stunned by the brains of elementary school kids.

They are philosophers, these kids. They are scholars. They are giant hearts with legs. They are analysts. They are deep thinkers. They are Big-Idea-Types. 

One of the things that I do at the beginning of the residency, and I feel this is vitally important, is I get the kids all jazzed up about writing stories by talking to them a bit about why we tell stories at all. Because they all know stories – of course they do. They read them and listen to them and watch them on television. They act them out. They observe them in photography and sculpture and paintings. They watch high drama unfold every day in the casual gestures of their parents or the overheard side commentaries of their classmates in the hall. These kids are always engaged in Story.

So I tell them stuff about stories. Big stuff. Broad stuff. Big Idea stuff.

“The act of making a story is not the words you write on the page,” I tell them. “When we write the words on the page, we’re just making a pathway for the reader, and a pathway for ourselves, to journey toward the story. The story, you see, is separate. It is a prize waiting at the center of the universe of your brain, and only you can take us to see it.”

Stuff like that. They eat it up, these kids.

“Stories,” I tell them, “are uniquely human. When we write a story or think a story or tell a story or listen to a story, we are connecting ourselves to every other human being who has ever written or thought or told or listened to a story. We are connecting ourselves to the larger human family.”

I tell them this, and they are itchy to start. I can see it in their hands – the way they hold their pencils.

“Human beings,” I tell them, “have told stories even before they had language. At first they told stories through song, through dance, and through rhythm. They made pictures in the mud. They painted on caves. They invented language to be able tell stories more effectively and efficiently.”

This blows their minds, actually. I can see it on their faces. I have to work pretty hard at the beginning of the class to catch all their attention in my little butterfly net and hold them close to me, but at this point, I could stand perfectly still, and each one of my little butterflies would simply cling to my hands and arms and eyes. They don’t fly away. The kids hold their breath. I hold my breath. This is my favorite part, I think.

“Telling stories is your birthright, folks.” This is true, you know. I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t believe it. “This idea. This story in your head. These words that are about to pour like water out of your giant-bucket brains and onto the page. You were born to do this work.

And then they do. With gusto.

So far, I have gotten stories of hidden super powers and stories of kidnapped parents and stories of hidden treasure and stories of mad scientists who only wanted to find a way to make their teeth stop hurting. There have been friendly bears, wicked giants, dragon librarians, stealthy spies and a boy who becomes King of Poopland. I’ve gotten stories about a best-friend-zombie and a best-friend-talking-bunny and a best-friend-ogre and a best-friend-robot. I’ve gotten stories about a mall full of people suddenly possessed by ghosts and two sworn frenemies who are the only ones who can fix the situation. I’ve gotten stories about parents who download an app and then their children disappear.

So many stories.

And it’s good for me, even though it wears me out – the driving, the teaching, the geyser of enthusiasm that pours out of me every class period and with every interaction with students. It’s tough on an introvert. Necessary, yes, but tough. My family has been most attentive and sweet when I come home. But still, I love doing it because, even as it depletes me, it fills me up at the same time. Standing in a room full of thirty kids all attacking their pages at once, writing furiously as though chasing their stories down like bison on the plain? Well. As I pour, so am I filled. It’s amazing. And bearing witness to the raw enthusiasm from these kids, their joyful chase of the stories in the bright Universes of their brains, that I, too, am born to do this work – this teaching, this writing, this sharing of stories. And that it matters, you know?

The story matters. The telling matters. The sharing matters. The reading matters. It all matters.

It’s nice to be reminded.


I have more to say, of course, and some Very Cool Stuff About Various Books to share with all of you, but that will have to wait until tomorrow. I gotta go get ready for class.


“Everyone Else Can Suck It” – thoughts on art, work and making things.


One of the things I treasure about living here in the Twin Cities is its astonishingly vibrant, well-populated and deeply talented children’s literature community. I have friends who write YA novels and MG novels and picture books. I have friends who are illustrators and graphic novelists and copy editors. And not to mention the editors, publishers, agents and professors of children’s literature. And don’t even get me started on the librarians and curators. It’s ridiculous. And I adore them all.

And what’s more, it’s an incredibly loving, supportive and dynamic community, all deeply committed to children’s literacy, children’s access to books, as well as infusing the art form with the kind of vigor and wonder and love that it demands. I’m lucky to be a part of it.

The other day, I was at a local coffee shop, working at the big table with a bunch of other authors. We had laptops and notebooks and sketch pads interspersed with coffees and scones and salads. We kept one another on track when needed and offered commiseration when needed and told jokes and even, as a group, did some quick research on the names and types of ladies’ underwear. Yanno. Story stuff.

At one point I showed the folks present some of the preliminary sketches for the cover of my new book, The Witch’s Boy (I wish I could show you. But alas. It’s not ready yet), and I enjoyed the collected ooos and ahs, and I shared some of my feelings of anticipation and apprehension and worry. The other writers and artists assembled nodded their heads sagely. We know, their faces said. We super know.

“But,” I said, “fortunately, I have already pre-written my horrible reviews. So that’s taken care of and I don’t have to worry about it.”

Cue the collective sigh.

“Really, Kelly?” they said. “Why do you do this to yourself?”

And it’s a reasonable question. And I do this to myself a lot. The book I wrote. The book I wrote a while ago. The book I’m writing now. It is so easy to see how someone along the way will dismiss it out of hand. Who will turn a small gripe into a condemnation of the book. Who will not see my characters as I see them, and love them as I love them.

And it is silencing, this pre-bad-reviewing. And it is hurtful. And it is mean.

“Well,” my friend Swati said. “What do you think about your book? How do you feel about it?”

And I looked at her, and I allowed myself a rare moment of honesty.

“I love it,” I said. And I meant it too. “I really love it. And I’m proud of it. And I feel like it’s the best thing I’ve ever written in my life.”

She smiled at me. “Well. There you go. You wrote a book that you love and that you’re proud of, and that’s all that matters. And everyone else can suck it.”

And I told her that I was going to make a sign saying that very thing and put it above my desk, which I have done, and am looking at right now, with total love and adoration on my face.

I turned in my copy edits to The Witch’s Boy last week – it was my very last time being able to touch the paper, to make marks or switch things around or affect anything at all. And I took the time to savor it. I closed myself in my office for days, reading the pages out loud. It was, in truth, like the fiftieth time I have done so – I am an out-loud sort of self-editor. And I read each word with gusto, heft and meaning. I felt each sound vibrating in my bones. And I felt as though Ned and Aine and Sister Witch and the motherless wolf and the bandit king and the dead brother and the aging queen and the grieving father and even the insufferable Brin and Ott and Madame Thuane – all of them, you see, were right there with me. Their hands on my hands. Their breath in my ear. Their hearts rattling away inside my rib cage. And I loved them. And I was proud of them. And I slipped them all into a document box and sent them away.

When we make art – and really, when we do any kind of work that we feel born to do – there is this wonderful sense of non-self that comes over us. Hours can vanish, our real life can vanish, even our bodies and histories and futures can vanish. While we work, there is only the work. It’s wonderful, really.  Our work is not us, it is separate from us. And that is important, because we send it into the world, where it can be loved or hated, adored or abused, learned from, built upon, and, ultimately, transformed. The work changes us, it changes the people who touch it, and it changes in return.

There is something wonderful that happens when we make work that we like. We can hold it in our hands; we can turn it around and around; we can run our fingers through the sheets of paper, and listen to it make the sound of ocean waves whispering on an endless shore; we can linger on the scent of ink and paper and fingerprints. But what’s more – we can say to the world, Look. I made this. And you can love it or you can hate it or you can not care either way, but it doesn’t matter. I made this. And it is for you.

I was at South High School the other day, and I said some stuff about making art and being vigorous and demanding and infusing their stories with the fullness of their intelligence and curiosity and perfectionism. But what I should have said was this:

Make art.

Work hard.

There will be people who don’t care for what you do. That’s okay. And that’s their right. Work hard anyway.

Pour your heart and soul and self into whatever you do until you think there is no more you left. (You will be wrong. There is an endless fountain of you-ness. And there is no limit to what you can make.)

Make work that you are proud of. Work that will outlast you. Work that is your gift to the world. Make work that is separate from you.

And everyone else can suck it.

Can gnomes steal a person’s handwriting? I think maybe they can.

02-Favoite Gnome

So, I’m cleaning my office (I know, right? Shocking), and I come across a notecard with the beginning of a story. One that I have no recollection whatsoever of actually writing. Like, at all. It’s my handwriting, for sure. My handwriting, by the way, is terrible. It’s beyond terrible. It looks like it is the ripped from the final gasp of last Will and Testament of a dying raven, written in its last minutes, in dust and tears and its own red blood. I’m stunned that anyone can read it. Hell, I’m stunned that I can read it.

Wait. What was I saying? Oh, right. The story.

There’s not much to it, just the beginning of a story that I can’t remember writing at all. I can’t even remember coming up with the idea. When did I do this? And why is it on a giant note card? Where was I when I wrote it? A bus? A coffeeshop? The dentist’s office? On hold with the health insurance company? No idea.

Anyway, here it is, transcribed, for your reading pleasure. Don’t know if I’ll ever do something with it, but it’s always a possibility.

Arthur stood on the chest of the now-cold body of the giant and pulled his father’s sword from the monster’s heart.

“One down,” he thought. “Nine to go.”

“Is it dead?” a voice came from a small pile of stones nearby.

“It is,” Arthur said, wiping the green blood of the giant off the gleam of his sword. “No thanks to you.” He checked the bright edges for nicks before returning it to the safety of its sheath.

“Are you sure?”

“That it’s dead, or that you didn’t help?” His shoulder ached, the wound on his left hip oozed and legs were giving out. He needed a doctor. And a bed. And a year of sleep.

“Killing giants wasn’t in our agreement,” the pile of stones said. “I was very clear what I wanted you to do. Don’t expect a bonus payment. In fact, maybe we should put this down as a deduction for pain and suffering.”

The pile was silent for a minute. “My pain and suffering,” it added, just to be clear.

Arthur rolled his eyes. He slid carefully down the curve of the giant’s ribcage and landed squarely on his feet, wincing as he did so. The pile of stones shivered and shuddered and quaked. It clattered to one side and then the other, assembling and disassembling, reorganizing itself over and over until a boy about Arthur’s age climbed out of its center, patting the dust and dirt and debris out of his smart tweed suit and beating his cap clean.

The stones were gone. There was only the boy.

“I hate transforming,” the smart-dressed boy said. “So dusty.”

Maybe I wrote this while camping. Or after a long day of cleaning my dusty, dusty house. Or maybe I didn’t write it at all, and my office is infested with story-writing, pen-stealing, idea-surfing gnomes. Maybe the gnomes have been creeping in the walls, burrowing in the ceiling and harvesting our dreams. Maybe gnomes eat stories. Which, honestly, would make sense, now that I think about it.

Has this ever happened to any of you people? Have you ever found work that you must have done but you have no memory of ever writing it? Maybe this does happen to everyone.

Or maybe I’m just nuts.

On cutting, and revising, and hanging on, and letting go.

For those of you who have followed me on Facebook and Twitter, back when I used to be on Facebook and Twitter (I am still on the latter, officially, though the only tweets currently are the automatically generated blog post alerts from WordPress. My computer prevents me from accessing the site until September. Because my computer is bossy. Which is to say, my thirteen year old daughter is bossy, because she was the one who set it up.) you may know that I spent the spring engaged in a grueling editorial process with my upcoming novel The Witch’s Boy. This was through no fault of my beloved editrix Elise Howard, who is brilliant and amazing and right about everything.

This has everything to do with me. And with the work of novel production, and novel refinement, and novel discovery, and novel re-discovery. And, believe me, it is work.

Revising a novel is building a granite castle. And then taking it apart and building it again. By hand. By yourself. And then, when you’re done, you run a marathon. Barefoot. While carrying a very heavy and very ill-tempered goose. It’s kind of exactly like that.

Revising a novel is a return to a garden that you planted a while ago – one that you know is loaded with vegetables, but you cannot see them because the weeds now tower, jungle-thick, over your head.

Revising a novel is that colicky baby that will not go to sleep no matter what you do.

Revising a novel is the thick, muddy traverse through a swamp, only to realize that you have to climb a cliff on the other side. And you forgot your rope.

Revising a novel requires the skin of a rhinoceros and the strength of a bull and the delicacy of a jeweler.

Revising a novel feels like performing open-heart surgery. Without anesthesia. On yourself.

Revising a novel requires you to heft a thousand-pound boulder, sling it onto your back, carry it up a mountain, and balance it on the head of a pin.

Which is to say that revising a novel is effing hard.

And that’s the case generally, and in the case of The Witch’s Boy, it is even more so. This book is incredibly close to my heart, and was often emotionally exhausting to write. I have always loved my characters, but, in this novel, I – for real – love these characters. Partially because I didn’t come up with them on my own. This story began, very long ago, as a story that my son and I told one another during a particularly grueling hike through Shenandoah National Park when he was only six. There is a lot of Leo in Ned. There is a lot of me in Aine. And Sister Witch. And the Bandit King. Hence my struggles.

Also, there’s something about working with a new publisher – it’s exciting and inspiring and energizing, but also nerve-wracking. Because we want to get it right. And we want to make people happy with us. And we want to not suck. This is the way of things.

So I worked my bum off, took three months to write two crucial chapters that were going to re-imagine and re-focus the larger arc of the novel, allowing the choices and action to flow from a single nexus point where my main characters converge, bear witness, keep silent, and irrevocably change their trajectories.

Three. Long. Months.

And….maybe it worked? We’ll see.

Anyway, apparently, in the last revision, I managed to grow the novel by ten thousand words. And that was after some major textual excising. Which explains a thing or two.

And now I am, once more, into the brink. I have tools. I have a map. I have my dear editor sounding her trumpet and spurring me onward. I have a lantern. I have a sword. I have a pure heart and a just cause and a mind on fire. I have characters to rescue. I have giants made of stone. I have a stalwart wolf and a ferocious girl and a boy who does not know what he is capable of. I have my heart and my brain and my love, and I hope it will be enough.

Anyway, I will be posting some out-takes here and there.

Like this:

He was alive. For now.

“Ha!” a man said, shaking his fist at the water. “It won’t be taking this one, by god. Only one victim for that blasted river.” He gave the river a hard look. He did not help the father, nor did he touch the boy. Everyone in the village knew that those marked for drowning were cursed by nature. The river was a greedy thing. And foul-tempered. It would have that boy eventually. This was common knowledge.

And this:

This was not magic. This was a simple practicality. Witching, after all, is tricky work. And complicated. She had learned, after all these years, to see the world from the inside – its foundation and its beams, its braces, insulation and gaps. She knew the weak places. She knew how lean against the fabric of the world and nudge it this way or that. She knew how to make suggestions. Anyone could do it, if they ever learned. But people called it magic, and conflated it with her real magic, and Sister Witch didn’t correct them.

Her real magic was dangerouscapable of great good and great evil in equal measure. It was work keeping it good. It required a firm hand and an iron will. Best to use it sparingly, if at all.

And this:

The ladies from the village came in droves. They descended onto the grieving house like an army of magpies, all feather and gossip and claw. Sister Witch thought she’d never be rid of them, and suffered the indignities of grief in relative silence.

“It’s a pity,” the magpie ladies simpered. “Such a terrible pity.”

Go away, Sister Witch seethed.

“And on such a beautiful day,” as they munched on the pastries they had brought for the family.

She thanked her visitors for their meat pies and fruit pies and custard pies and pies she could not identify or name. She thanked them for their pots of stew and their legs of lamb and their heavy rounds of hard cheese. Their gifts were thoughtful, tender, and full of wiles.

They were gifts that asked questions.

Sister Witch had no intention of answering a thing. Her son, Tam, was dead. Her magic could not save him. And that was that.

Here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter how deft your hands may be, or how sharp your scalpel or how cunning your eye. Cutting away bits and pieces of our novels – fingers, toes, tumors, tongues, unsightly moles or pounds of pulsing flesh – well, it hurts. 

A lot.

And because I hate being alone and wallowing in psychic pain, I turn it over to you. Any sections that you’ve cut lately? Any extraneous scenes that simply detracted from the central pulse of your novel – that single, beating heart? Paste it here and share! Our amputated novel bits can assemble and congregate. They can bind together into hideous and beloved homunculi. They can resuscitate, respirate, ambulate, and live.

Here is Faust and his homunculus. It worked for him, right?

And it will be beautiful.

I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.

Dearest Readers,

Have you noticed that I haven’t been posting much lately? I have noticed and I am sorry. I am, right now, engaged in the process of novel revision, which means that I have lined my pockets with lead and have covered myself with post-it notes and have dangled baubles from every conceivable extremity, and then set out to run a marathon.

Or, I have engaged in the total reconstruction of a many-gabled house, with only my hammer, my hand-saw, a bucket of nails, and my own strong back, and I have to thread a new support system all on my own self.

Or I am trying to balance a boulder on the tip of a toothpick.

Or I am digging for treasure using an infant’s spoon.

Or something.

In the meantime, I thought I’d share some snippets of pieces that are currently on the desktop (because, of course, I am also writing short stories. I love extra work. And punishments.) And it occurs to me that I would very much like to see what you are working on. Because why should I be the only sharer here?

I’ll tell you what: I’ll show you mine if you show me yours. In the comments section, copy out a paragraph or two of something you’re working on. Pretty please? I’d love to see it.

Here. I’ll start.

From “The Invisible Dog”

My name is Jackson Marks and I have an invisible dog.
 I know what you’re thinking.
But it isn’t like that, I swear.
I’ve had him now for six years. I don’t know how old he was when he showed up, but he hasn’t grown. The top of his head reaches my knee. He’s got wiry fur and skinny legs and a tail that whips me in the face when he jumps in my bed and turns around and around until he finds a comfortable spot. And good god. He reeks. I suppose he’d smell better if I washed him – and believe me, I’ve tried. But he’s invisible. And he doesn’t like baths. So.

And then, from “The Unlicensed Magician”:

The junk man’s only daughter slides along the back of the low, one-roomed building that houses the constable’s office. The alley lights are out again – energy crisis. It is always an energy crisis. She appreciates the dark. She presses her hands against the wall, curling her fingers into the bricks. The sun is down and the moon isn’t up yet. The night air is a puckering cold, but the wall is still warm, and so are her hands. She can hear the constable inside, explaining things to the Inquisitor.
“I don’t care what you think you’ve heard, sonny,” she hears the old man say, “there ain’t been a whiff of magic anywhere in the county, nigh on fifteen years. Not a drop. Now you can write that down on your report and send it on up to your superiors. You got bad information is all. And not the first time, neither.”
  A scribble of pen on paper.
 An old man’s harrumph.

And then, from “Mrs. Sorensen and the Sasquatch”:

The day she buried her husband – a good man, by all accounts, though shy, not given to drink orfoolishness; not one for speeding tickets or illegal parking or cheating on his taxes; not one for carousing at the county fair, or tomcatting with the other men from the glass factory; which is to say, he was utterly unknown in town: a cipher; a cold, blank space – Agnes Sorensen arrived at the front steps of Our Lady of the Snows. The priest had been waiting for her at the open door.  The air was wet and sweet with autumn rot, and though it had rained earlier, the day was starting to brighten, and would surely be lovely in an hour or two. Mrs. Sorensen greeted the priest with a sad smile. She wore a smart black hat, sensible black shoes, and a black silk dress belted at the waist. Two white mice peeked out of her left breast pocket – each one tiny shock of fur, with pink, quivering noses and red, red tongues.

So what’s on your computer right now? Or your notebooks or scratch paper or napkins? Share, please! 🙂



Theories Of Revision

I am, and have been for the last week, engaged in the revision of my new book, The Witch’s Boy. Actually, I’ve been engaged in a lot of things lately – new short stories, two new novels, a novella, a weird research project that had, until last week, soundly kicked my poor arse. But the dominant thing – the substance of the day – has been Witch’s Boy. Even when I’m not working on it I’m working on it, you know?

(This is a thing I tell my students all the time. “What do I do if I get stuck on a project?” they ask. “Start a new project,” I say. Because nothing greases the gears of work like work. And nothing ensures that the stuck stays stuck like stagnation. I avoid stagnation like the plague. If I am stuck, I write a poem. Or a blog post. Or I start a new story – sometimes knowing full well that I won’t finish it for years. Or I do research on …. some damn thing. Or I draw. Or I work longhand on the other novel that I’m not really writing right now. And I write notes on the primary project. The side projects shed light on the primary task. They are my little flashlights in the dusty gloom.)

Anyway, Witch’s Boy. New publisher, new editor. New energy, new life. I love it. I’m incredibly lucky that, so far, with my three novels, I’ve worked with three very different, and very brilliant, editors. All of whom have challenged me to push myself into new territory. All of which have helped me to visualize the path from where the book is now, to where it can be. Where it ought to be. And frankly, where it wants to be.

And so there are theories. Of how this happens. Because sometimes you need a metaphor. Sometimes you need a construct to explain the reason why you’ve been sitting at your desk for so long that you can’t feel your butt muscles and your fingers feel like they are built out of shattered glass.


Last week, on Facebook, I wrote this:

I got my editorial letter.

You know the process that a caterpillar goes through? How they wrap themselves up, and their bodies literally UNMAKE THEMSELVES. How they turn into a mushy, gooey, primordial ooze before re-assembling their cells into the form of a butterfly. How their skeleton forms filament by filament, increasing their discomfort by degrees, how they emerge, spitting and clawing and gasping, only to find themselves brand new again, exhausted and astonished, a damp, leaking mess, and defenseless on the ground?

Well, I’m in the the second part. Primordial ooze. And it is AWESOME.

I’m also forcing myself to refrain from getting to work on it until Monday. So for now, I am in that buzzy, tingly, crinkly, crackly, EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE phase. It’s a good phase.

This is a real thing. The unmaking. The unravelling. The questioning everything. This is the place where the book goes quiet. Where the writer goes quiet. Where the writer can be found, sitting on a couch, clutching her tea, and thinking. This is where long walks are helpful. Or a quiet cross-country ski through a wood. Or a long, long run. The story, once hard and brittle in the mind, once a living, ruddy organism, happily gorging itself on milkweed, becomes quiet. Dormant. As silent as leaves. Don’t be fooled. There are dynamic things happening inside.


Nine years ago, almost, we bought this house. It was too small for us and it reeked of cigarettes and talcum powder and mildew. But it was right on park land and fields and had a view of Minnehaha Creek and was on a dead end street. So we bought it. And then my husband tore off the roof and started to build.

I don’t know if you’ve ever lived through a construction project (the fact that I survived with two little ones and a new one on the way is something that astonishes me every day) but it sucks. Immensely. There’s dust everywhere. Nothing looks right. Nothing is clean. Debris and tools and supplies eat into the tiny amounts of living space that you’ve set aside. There are strangers in your house. Sometimes, things that you liked have to go forever.

When your editor walks through the house you built, sometimes you have to prepare yourself for bad news. “Yep,” she says. “You see this beam? It’s cracked. And pockmarked. And it makes a weird angle over here. You need to replace it with something else.”

And you imagine the work that it will take you to prop up the house and slide in a beam that will last. And you’ll do it, right? Because we can’t have a house that will fall. That’s just dangerous.

And then your editor goes upstairs. And she says, “You see here? You’ve got four rooms with sealed-up doors. And over here? A room that’s just been plastered over. Don’t you want to see what’s inside?”

And yes! I do! I really do.

And then she says, “Really? No bathroom?”

And then she says, “Oh! Look at the light in the livingroom. And look at the pleasant spaces! And look at how lovely it sits on the hill!” And you know you’ve built something broken, but something good. And you know you’ll do whatever it takes to make it strong, solid and lasting.


When I write books, it’s like I’m on a thousand mile journey with a bag over my head. Or, no….. It’s like I’m on a thousand mile journey walking backwards. That’s it. I can see what has happened, but I cannot see what is coming. I can see the faces of my characters, and I can see the details of the world, but I’m always a second behind them. And I never know where I’m going. This is problematic, of course, because there are stones in the path. And there are deep pits. And bramble patches. And wild, hungry animals.

When one has taken a thousand mile journey backward, entering back into it is a bit daunting. Because you only know the backside of landmarks. You don’t necessarily know how to begin. And you have no map.

Editors, in their souls, are cartographers. They send us detailed analyses of the worlds we built – they create lexicographies and explanations and theories of a world that is not of their making – but one that they inhabit all the same. They allow themselves the birds-eye view and painstakingly chart the course that the author has taken, points out the areas of stumble and groan, points out the trails that may not be marked along the way, but that provide firmer footing and possibly-breathtaking views.

They cannot walk with us as we make the journey again. They know the road is long, and dangerous. They know we will get lost in the dark. They know we will be, from time to time, beset by thieves. And they cannot hold our hands.

But they can give us a map. Mine is nine pages, single spaced. I clutch it to my chest. It is both mirror and lamp, both guide and memoir, both projection and rumination. I treasure it. And I journey forward.

And that is what I’ll be doing over the next month. That and the side projects. How about you?

First Lines

As I mentioned before, I’m teaching this week in Chanhassen Elementary through my work with Compas Arts. (For those of you who work in schools, I can’t say enough good thing about this program. The artists on the roster are some of the most passionate and talented artists that I have ever met, and all are deeply committed to their work as teachers. There is grant money available, and honestly, you could do worse.)

I love this part of my job. I love it a lot

Whenever I start the kids off in their week of working hard writing stories, I have them do a project writing first lines of stories. Stories that do not exist yet. Stories that they would like to read someday. I tell them to write as writers write, which is to say selfishly. Because we are selfish. We follow our own passions, quirks and compulsions. We write to entertain ourselves, and it is ridiculously fun.

I have the kids think about the kinds of stories they like to read. I ask them to think about what hooks them as readers. I read to them a long list of cool first lines, and then I set them to work.

Here is what they wrote:

I was the only one left.

The sun went down, and I knew it was time.

Late one night, Bruce came back from Buffalo Wild Wings and his house was a mess.

There once was a zombie named Trevor.

Close this book and burn it.

I’m not telling you nuthin.

When she went to live on the moon, she swore she would never come back.

School is a prison for me!

We all live in Garbage Town.

She was sitting in a large field where roses bloomed.

Her eyebrows never grew back.

He became the most popular kid in school after that day, and it was all because of one paper airplane and a miniature hamster named Morris.

I told them not to go; of course they didn’t listen.

I woke up and my room was warm. Warmer than usual.

The moment I walked up to the house, the lights went out.

My teacher screamed bloody murder.

When I woke up, the elephant was in my room. And he wasn’t happy.

Yup. I’m pretty sure this week is gonna rule.

All I Want, In My Whole Entire Life Is A Whale Best Friend.

My son, from time to time, has requested a whale best friend. He’s been wanting this since he was two years old. Indeed, it was one of his first requests.

A whale best friend, he says.

Who talks.

And flies.

And does magic.

Also, when pressed, he would like this magic, flying, talking whale best friend to also go in space. “Because,” Leo assured me, “everything is better in space.”

Alrighty then.

There are things, in parenting, in life, that we simply cannot provide. I cannot give my son a best friend – whale or human, magic or not, talkative or taciturn, on earth or in space. These are things that he must find on his own.

What’s funny is that I wanted a whale best friend as well, when I was his age. Though not in space. Which makes me wonder: is the random oddity of my imagination hereditary? Or am I contagious? And if I’m contagious, is the fact that I put my odd little imaginary constructions into books and disseminate them like germs upon an unsuspecting public (and children! I send them to children! Will no one THINK of the children) constitute a health risk?

Are the writers of stories all secretly imaginary bioterrorists?

Perhaps we are. I’ve already blogged about my callous disregard for my role as Corruptor of Youth, and I meant what I said. But perhaps my role in the world is more nefarious than I earlier admitted to. Perhaps I am, even now, at work at something so insidious that it defies description.

I am writing a story.

Two of them, right now.

And copyediting another.

The two I’m writing may never be read by anyone other than myself. I may yet contain this contagion. We’ll see. I haven’t decided yet.

But VIOLET is a done deal. I will release it into the world later this year. In fact, I’ve already infected my kids, who have gone on to infect the kids in their classes with their games. Just yesterday, Leo was playing a game that involved a one-eyed dragon. “It has a foul temper,” he told his friends.

You see? It’s spreading already.

Stories, I think are organisms. They viruses – injecting themselves into the cellular framework of our imaginations, replicating themselves, making themselves new again and again and again.

My stories were told to my children before they were ever written down. My children turned them into games, and involved other children. And thus the story replicates.

I have not, at least to my knowledge, written a story about a whale best friend. Not one that flies. Not one that talks. Not one that does magic. Not yet.

Perhaps I should.

Or, perhaps I should wait until Leo is older. Perhaps it is his story. And perhaps, if he is lucky, it will infect the world.

Regarding IRON HEARTED VIOLET: where I’ve been, where I am, and where I’m going.

this is my book as it was and my book as it is. and this is my desk in the attic.

I am now, and will be for the next week, in the final stages of my work on my next book, IRON HEARTED VIOLET. This is my last chance to get my grubby little fingermarks all over the text and the story and the outcome. This is my last chance to do….. Aw, hell I don’t know. Something.

After I send the book back to Julie Sheina, my beloved editrix, then that’s it. My voice is silenced. My fingers are stilled. I may want to re-set the book on Mars or in the future or in a utopic commune in Zimbabwe, but my cries will be fruitless and my desires thwarted. Once the book leaves my fingers, it is no longer my book.

It will never again be my book.

It will belong to the reader.

And that, my friends, is a gorgeous thing. Scary, yes. But gorgeous all the same.

In truth, there isn’t much for me to do. The copy is pretty dang clean (though I’ll have my titanium-eyed husband give it a once-through just to make sure), and I’m astonishingly happy with the story itself. The weight of the words on my tongue is both both soothing and tasty, with a little bit of a spicy bite, and the yaw of consonants against my molars has a pleasing give to it. And after so many weeks away from these characters, my heart leaps within me to see them again.

Now, many of you already know that I’m a longhand-type writer. I love the scritchy sound of the pen on the paper. I love the fact that I’m forced to slow down, to breathe as my characters breathe, to worry over my inscrutable handwriting after a long day of writing and unwind the story like a bit of tangled thread.

Here is the book as it looks now: a stack of white, clean paper. Four-hundred-and-change pages of goofy fantasy goodness with a healthy dose of my nerdy, nerdy heart, forced into typeface and heavily bleached 8 1/2 by 11 paper.

But that’s not how it used to look.

It used to look like this.

(I’m actually totally astonished that the first line has remained the same. Well, almost the same. There’s a couple sentences that precede it, but the sentence is there. And it still feels like a first line.)



Okay, fine, it’s not exactly the same, but it’s interesting – given that I have the tendency to be a slash-and-burn self-editor, the kind to employ the select-all-delete with wild abandon, to ceremonially set fire to drafts in the fire ring outside with a kind of mad, cackling glee. The shape and heft of the prose in my earliest drafts has remained constant. Maybe this means that I’m growing up. Or maybe it means that I’ve finally moved past the fact that I once lost a novel in a spontaneously-combusting, and subsequently exploding laptop.

(okay, fine, that last part was a lie. It wasn’t once. It was twice.)

In any case, the consistency in this bout of story-making interests me. Perhaps it is the reason that I feel so happy with the text now. Maybe there are benefits to learning to trust one’s instincts.

Now, as you can see here, there are actually two notebooks, which I have out in case I need to refer to my original drafting. The smaller of the two – it’s a little moleskin, which I get is all uber-precious-artiste-ish, and you all should totally make fun of me for using one, and I get it that they’re overpriced and show an over-abundance of Hemmingway-love, but I gotta tell ya, I love those friggin notebooks. First of all, they force you to write small, so a longhand page in one of those is roughly equal to a manuscript page, so they’re useful. Also, it fits in my purse, so it allowed me to keep my page counts up because I could scratch out a page or two at the park with the kids, or a the doctor’s office with the kids or at a stoplight while driving the kids, or whatever. Also, they’re super sturdy, so after a long time of hard wearing, the notebook has resisted any damage to the binding, loss of pages and whatever.

And you can make fun of me all you want, but I can still tell you to CAN IT.

The other notebook is from the very earliest iterations of VIOLET. Mostly, it was my initial experimentations with the narration and the character of the narrator. Originally, Violet was named Evangeline (what was I thinking?) and there was no character of Demetrius, her best friend.

But even at the very beginning, I was wrestling with this notion of story-making. Why do we make stories? And are stories always good? Can stories hurt us? Where is the truth in narrative – particularly now when news media and corporate and political operatives manipulate narrative for their own cynical ends?

I wrote this story because I loved the characters, but I also wrote it as a work of philosophy as well. In the end, I needed to wrestle with the notion of Story – and I needed my characters to do the same.

Did it work? I have no idea. But I’m pretty happy with it right now. While it’s mine. Before I release it into the sky.

All Memory is Magic; All Magic is Memory


When I was three years old, I walked out into the yard. It was a cicada year, though I did not yet know what a cicada was. All I knew was that the air hummed, and the sky hummed, and the grass and trees and flowers hummed and hummed. I knew that the hum was visceral and alive. It moved and breathed. It had substance and texture and mass.

Which is to say, magic.


At three, I did not yet know what magic was. I didn’t know what electric was, either. I simply walked out into the grass, into the green, green grass, and heard a sound that filled me with wonder. Later, I would remember it as hearing magic. And still later, I would remember it as hearing electricity. And even later, I would remember it as hearing bugs.

But the memory of me at three (of unkowingness) has been fused with the memory of me at ten (of intra-knowingness), which is fused still with the knowledge of myself now at thirty-seven (of post-knowingness). Beauty becomes magic, becomes science, becomes philosophy. Now, they are all the same.

Which makes the construction of fiction – particularly fiction with magic in it – a tricky operation. Fiction, you see, relies on memory in which to operate. And this is true for both the writer and the reader. In Story, our memories are gathered, bound, altered, re-formed, re-purposed and re-named. Every story is built again and again in the minds of the reader – an amalgamation of the writer’s memory and the writer’s invention, and the reader’s memory and the reader’s invention.

It is a process that is alchemical, transcendent and infinite in its possibilities.

Which is to say, magic.

Which means that now, as both reader and writer, these fused selves must be parsed out, separated and laid bare. I must remember the magic without the bugs, and I must remember the electricity without the magic. I must rely on my readers to make those connections on their own.