Background Image

Story Chairs: The Man on the Train

Moe and I started sequencing the audio for the Story Chairs yesterday. Two hours of listening and thinking and guessing, turning to each other when we rediscovered something great and sitting quietly with a piece that didn’t quite fit with the other stories and poems, before we assigned it a home. We worked to keep too much sorrow and loss from clumping together and added sparks of joy and delicious voice as leavening to one or the other list. After the rough sort, and without the music, each of the two chairs has a little over an hour of audio. There are almost 60 pieces and they run the gamut of emotion and voice. I’m glad to have two young readers in the mix, some challenging poems and enough funny to knit it all together. Now I have to sit down and listen to all the audio again and make the play lists. This will likely happen after Christmas when I have some days off work. I look forward to those listening sessions.

I am especially grateful for the generosity of writers who recorded the work of others, those who couldn’t come to the studio because they lived out of town or couldn’t find time in their schedule. My friend Gwen Demombynes recorded a story by LK Gardner Griffie, who I know from Twitter and now her books, and gave it a life I hadn’t read on the page. Here she is reading her own story, 

The Man on the Train.

Yesterday was the 75th anniversary of the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge and today is Memorial Day. I was home with my sisters at our mother’s house when this incredible fireworks display took place. We might have tried to hike up the hill and try for a glimpse but we never once thought of it, partly because our mom was in hospital (home now and cleared of worrisome complications) and partly because we lost a sister off the bridge many years ago. We’ve got those mixed feelings.

I am fond of the bridge. The summer after my freshman year in college I took a walk onto the bridge with a friend who had just been treated for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He talked about how it seemed like the hospital made him sick – he’d felt fine when he went in. It was cold and windy on the bridge and we didn’t walk out too far, but we looked back at Berkeley while he told his story. A gifted photographer, he would go on to become a doctor. I loved this boy and never told him, and I was so scared and grateful all at once about the cancer and his getting through his treatment. Standing on the windy deck with the cars racing by I felt so close to him. There was no internet then; you went off and left people behind unless they were the sort to  write letters. It turned out we weren’t.

Here is a beautiful post about the head of the bridge painting crew that is always working on the Gate. I felt that sense of its being alive that day with Daniel.

Several years ago I was visiting my best pal Laura at her family’s lake place in Wisconsin over the 4th of July. Her dad, who flew over 35 missions as a navigator on B29’s in the Pacific, gathered the kids and conducted a solemn flag ceremony. It was so lovely and simple and really passed along his sense of country and duty to his grandchildren’s generation. Later during that visit, he told us a story over dinner that Laura had not heard before, about the end of the war.

Doug was on his way home when the war ended and so was stuck for a time in the Pacific theater as the armed forces worked to move all the returning soldiers at once. Mail from home reached him on the boat to the west coast via plane, including the front page news of the GI Bill. When they arrived in San Francisco they steamed under the Golden Gate, which was draped with a welcoming banner and were greeted jubilantly on the docks. Kissing. Food. Home.

All the trains had been commandeered for the return of servicemen, and the train to Chicago stopped in every little town. The stations had been set up with field telephones and Doug called his mom all along the way. At every station they were greeted with food and love and welcomed home. A remarkable way to return and the only place I’ve heard that story told. Of course as he told it there were tears in his eyes. All the friends lost, an old man in his early 20’s. But he started a life, went to college on the GI bill, and had a family.

So I think of him when I see the bridge, and the surprise of seeing the welcome waiting for them.

A tip of the cap to all those who have served and lived. They carry the memories forward of those who never got to make it home and of the war. It’s a great burden and an honor too. Here is a video of Doug talking about his time in the war.

Return to Evergreen

I’m still trying to get my mind around my experience at The Evergreen State College over the weekend. Celebrating the 40th anniversary of the founding of the college, The Return was organized not so much around the chicken dinners and salad lunches and tearful embraces of old friends and colleagues – though these were all in the mix – but the seminars, lectures, panels and far-ranging inquiry that are the hallmarks of learning at Evergreen. Panels and keynotes studded the days but the seminars were at the heart of our time and all of them ran full. The experience was deep, it was funny (Matt Groening was the anchor draw to the comics and animation panel on Saturday afternoon but everyone else on the stage more than held their own), and it was provocative. The ongoing conversations were about the founding generation of students; the ethic of venturing forth, doing one’s work and making a difference; the changes in our lives and in education that technology has brought, and how to preserve the crucial mix of individual initiative, collaborative and interdisciplinary inquiry, and diversity in the student body – all while saving the world.

I enlisted my best pal from Evergreen, Laura Millin, who ran the gallery her senior year, went on to found On The Boards, COCA, Art In Form (a business selling artist books and an early outlet for ‘zines and comics), and ended up at the Missoula Art Museum where she oversaw the expansion of the museum, created a dedicated gallery for First Nations artists and has established the art museum as central to the life of the community. Laura is typical of ‘Greeners we met and saw again after many years. The accomplishment factor is awesome, but the quieter stories are impressive as well, the college professors, librarians, entrepreneurs, writers, artists, doctors and scientists, dancers, and those who have explored a number of fields, continuing in the interdisciplinary tradition of their time at Evergreen.

At an evening of wine and conversation with our mentor in the arts, Maralyn Frasca, Laura was recounting her undertakings after graduation and I said that I thought I’d been flipping pancakes that whole time, but truthfully I was writing and making artwork, working away at the 10,000 hours that hopefully lead to mastery, still a task I work at every day.

The notion of passion married to responsibility and underpinned by service was evident in all conversation. Having been a student in the first ten years of the college, when the founding faculty, newly minted PHD’s all, were still refining and inventing the mode of learning that would serve us all so well in our lives, I realized how lucky and how unique was the experience of my education. Lynda Weinman of, the online learning site with over a million subscribers, gave the final keynote we saw during our stay, on education of course, and the challenge going forward of integrating our digital lives with the intense, in-person learning that has served us Greeners so well in life. This subject, along with a lunch time conversation with professor emeritus and environmentalist Oscar Soule about the future of the planet, have been occupying all of the free space in my thinking ever since.

Bruce Hale, Matt de la Peña & Rachel Vail

Bruce Hale stepped up in his fedora, suit and spectators to give the first keynote of the conference. During the opening Editor/Agent/Art Director panel, Eddie Gamarra spoke to how public speaking skills and a comfortable relationship to public appearances make all the difference in supporting your work once it’s published. He could have been talking about Bruce, whose ease and sense of humor infused his talk, Writer’s Mind, Warrior’s Mind: Toughing it Out and Getting Published. He used the metaphor of the writer being a warrior, stepping up the game if you’re not being published – or if you’re not being published in the way you’d like. Distractions like email and errands and food can eat away at the writing time, and often our limitations are of our own making. He closed by singing Des’Ree’s You Gotta Be with the chorus a sing along.


Matt de la Peña was a highlight of the conference for me, as I was able to attend his fiction workshop on Friday, focusing on dialogue, hear his keynote, and then host his Sunday session on the role of the narrator in fiction. de la Peña is a powerful combination of writer from a working class background at the front end of his career (with 4 books published), questing intellect, gifted teacher (NYU and The Vermont College of Fine Arts) and disarming storyteller. His notions of patience, allowing space within the narrative by stepping back so the reader can collaborate with the author on story, and getting in, getting your beats and getting out, resonated with me. His keynote was funny, self deprecating and described his journey from reluctant boy reader chiefly motivated by girls to a college discovery of fiction, through his MFA program (mentors secretly applied for him – he had a few programs to choose from) to publication. Who wasn’t in love with the guy by the time he sailed copies of his novels into the crowd as if they were frisbees?


The closing keynote was by Rachel Vail, whose funny, heartfelt novels have been embraced by middle grade and YA readers, and whose picture books are as vivid and fun as she is. She gave us insights into her writing process, how her work with drama and acting informs her character development, and the methods she uses to access emotional touch-points in her own life to breathe life into her characters. She closed with asking us to be the kind of person who listens to kids, takes them seriously as people and brings that sensibility to their own work.


Next: Picture Books


My morning GalleyCat newsletter showcased the new Reading is Fundamental PSA, starring a bevy of familiar characters from children’s books with music by The Roots and Co. I’m rather fond of the skydiving pigs. Watch for a cameo by Levar Burton, who is pretty fundamental himself. Hey, Levar – keep on reading! You too, everybody – and help get those kids started!

Music produced by: The Roots with vocal support from Jack Black, Chris Martin, John Legend, Regina Spektor, Jim James, Nate Ruess, Jason Schwartzman, Melanie Fiona, Levar Burton, Carrie Brownstein & Consequence.

Idea Spillover

This is my room in the American Academy in Rome, where I was a visiting artist too many years ago to be right. I could only afford a little studio room with a shared bathroom across the hall. Vic joined me after one week and we walked all over Rome, saw many wonders and made fast friends. I always felt that my IQ went way up the minute I passed through that front door, simply by being around that varied group of smart people, this one writing their thesis on a Pope who no one else found at all sympathetic; this one making sculpture out of rocks and wire and string; this one with mad plans to build a model of the water system in Rome; this one drinking and writing short stories. We all ate together at long tables under the portico while the fall weather stayed warm. It was intimidating and enchanting and scary and weirdly familiar, like being at one of my dad’s graduate student wine and cheese parties 24/7.


My time at the academy came to mind in the wake of Jonah Lehrer’s lecture at Town Hall Monday night. Of the many ideas he brought forward so economically over the course of about 45 minutes, the concept of idea spillover resonated most with that AAR experience – in his reference to studies showing that more creative problem solving happens in cities than out of them he threw away, “People get smart when they’re around smart people.” Exactly. When you get to tag along on a walk through the Forum that is led by the archeologist in charge of excavations there, you will have a closer idea of what the Vestal Virgins might have really been up to than if you walked around with a brochure – and ask better questions. As well, sitting at a table made up of individuals all very focused on their area of study and assembled expressly to focus more closely on whatever their passion is will in fact produce fabulous dinner conversation – and send you away with a head brimming with ideas. Loved hearing the science behind the intuition that my own creativity benefits from the smarties surrounding me.


Two other threads from his book Imagine: How Creativity Works really inspired and tracked with my experience. Lehrer has been quoted often on the uselessness of brainstorming. His view: its only value is in morale raising. Science says it’s much better to hang out near others who are also working away on their own solutions for creative problems, and have random conversations during breaks. Ideas spring up in the casual bumping up of one idea against each other (thus the power of cities: more bumps). So work away on your own, but have those other guys around to spur you on and take you down a rabbit hole or two. In addition, don’t focus too hard and long on trying to solve a creative problem. Those incredible moments of inspiration (they can measure them: alpha waves are involved) happen while you’re mentally looking the other way, relaxed and able to turn your attention inward.


The other idea that arrived with a satisfying ker-chunk was the notion of grit, something that has only in the last decade or so come forward as an articulated factor in measuring an individual’s success, whatever the venture. There is a direct correlation between simply not quitting, just having the tenacity to work through the hard parts, and success. You have to have talent, but without grit it’s just talent. Advice familiar to any young baseball player or aspiring writer.


Jonah Lehrer is the cub reporter of scientists – he’s the coolest nerd on the block. I cannot wait to read all of his books, and he passes the acid test: would he find an easy place at that long table under the portico? Oh my, yes.


trees, blue & besweatered

This installation by Suzanne Tidwell has departed from the park across the street from 4Culture’s office. I miss the tree sweaters. They brightened up the joint, and during this long winter in the Northwest we’ve needed a bit of brightening. The project has crossed the lake to Redmond for the spring season, where I look forward to seeing its new digs.


I’ve been thinking about the tree sweaters a lot this past week as we get press out, muster volunteers and begin the installation for Konstantin Dimopoulos’s The Blue Trees project. Like Tidwell’s tree sweaters The Blue Trees have worn their color in multiple locations. The ultramarine blue pigment lends a startling presence to the landscape, fading away over time. People have opinions. They’ve been coming in for days. Whatever else the response indicates (concern, outrage, interest, excitement) I am convinced its strength and persistence stems from how much trees mean to humans, how we form emotional attachments and chart our year by their buds, flowers, crown and leaf fall.


When I had a bad patch as a girl I used to climb the maple in our front yard and sit in a comfortable Y listening to the leaves rustle and watching the cars go by. Across the street, which sloped down toward the houses below and Berkeley in the distance, very old live oaks had branches that were made for kids to scramble onto and bounce upon. We solved a lot of problems on those branches, too.


We take trees personally, and we should. Both projects mean to create conversation and to celebrate the participating groves. When the tree sweaters first went up, in Occidental Square, there was a similar grumbling, but a great affection grew for them over time. I like to think the shoes pictured at the foot of the tree in the post were left as an offering. Did you notice? The laces are ultramarine.



Selling Story

I’ve been working with a colleague on last year’s Annual Report for 4Culture, the arts, heritage and preservation agency I work for in King County. The challenge is to deliver the facts and figures that are the very reason for being of an annual report, and somehow impart the energy and accomplishment of our activities and interactions with our community that happen over the course of a year. It’s a challenge that has made me revisit the website redesign for Public Art I worked on several years ago with the brilliant and ever-patient Sean Stearns, that has served to inform other redesign for 4Culture’s online presence. How do you tell a story fairly simply when it has complexity?

Several years ago I was excited about the idea of storytelling entering popular culture. I had not only been working on fiction in my own writing but had been developing how to tell the story of 4Culture online, and specifically 4Culture’s public art practice, for four years. Story was how I talked about this work, and how I framed it to my director and the advisory committee as I worked with them to budget and plan for implementation. The online resources we ended up building for Public Art and then for the overall organization aren’t perfect but they are rich. The stories are there, the challenge is how to bring them to the surface – something I work on doing in my writing practice every day. We are looking to evolve the site to better tell our stories, but that’s part of the process. Everything online has to change, as in the end it is a living thing made up of complexity and a myriad of influence. Three years, tops, and you need to refresh your architecture. So it’s all a work in progress, always.

I was grateful to the Bancroft Library for the site they developed for the centennial of the fire in 2006, and to New Media Consortium, which grew out of San Francisco MOMA’s multimedia interpretive program, for which they developed Pachyderm, for the models that led my thinking as I worked. Museums had to problem solve the loss of viewership at the same time as music and movies were struggling with a changing business landscape. People had a lot of other ways to enjoy culture. So museums figured out that it wasn’t enough to simply have a great collection; you had to tell its story in such a way as to intrigue the public enough to engage with that collection. You had to get them in the door with that story, or you had to offer virtual interaction that was valuable enough to garner financial support. And with social engagement (event and social media) they crafted a new model of how the public interacted with the museum, and to the redefinition of what a museum’s mission should be. Culture always leads.

The museum was a huge inspiration to me in crafting storytelling for our agency. The nexus of story and culture, culture and commerce is an informing mechanism of our time. The aim is to tell authentic stories that will connect with an audience. This is also the mission of the fiction writer. Solving design and content problems toward an end of telling the organization’s story, I often meditate on my own practice and how the nut of the thing remains the same, and successful outcomes can be measured by the same yardstick. Is it real? Do I care? Can I connect?


February is a curious month. It has Valentine’s Day, the first tulips and the long President’s Day weekend in the course of its days, so in addition to not being January it seems as if there is much to recommend it. It is the shortest month (though this year is one day longer – we leap), yet seems the longest. In the Northwest, February feels to be the heart of winter. I try not to make precipitous decisions in February. It is always the month I want to ditch my book club, drop out of critique group, quit my job, stay home and order flower seeds. But I do none of these things. This I guess is the wisdom of age, though honestly, I should order my seeds by the end of the month. I just have no real conviction that spring will actually arrive.

February is an excellent month to get out of town, so over the long weekend we did just that, and New York City cooperated with sunshine and temps in the 40’s. Just walking in the sun was a tonic, but looking and seeing made of our time a holiday.

The water tower maintenance truck with its weathered, hand-painted sign; the carved facades of the crosstown neighborhoods on the upper east side; the Highline in winter with the Hudson sparkling in the distance; the deep pit being excavated at its south end which we stared into for the longest time, trying to figure out its mystic construction and whether the cast concrete piers were being dug up or driven in; (this is marriage to an engineer – endless fascination with infrastructure). We walked across Central Park and spied cocoons masquerading as pine cones, were tempted by the Ramble and tried to look up trees on our TreesNY app (forget Central Park – the City arborist data doesn’t extend to its thicket). And then there were the museums.

The Met is my first love. I adore her plenitude, the lobby with its enormous sprays of fresh flowers – this visit it was forced cherry blossom displays the size of dwarf trees, the ancient and contemporary living cheek by jowl, and all the artwork from the centuries in between.

My new tradition is to visit the Valazquez portrait of Juan de Pareja. I remember how Elizabeth Borton de Trevino’s book, I Juan de Pareja affected me as a young reader as I admire the scumbled white of Juan’s collar and look into his proud, grave eyes. I can understand why the author was driven to know more about this man’s story.

The new Islamic Galleries at the Met are stunning. I found myself snapping pictures of objects with my phone as we moved through the many rooms, tucking away ideas for stories. I just got happier and happier as the day went on, right through lunch in the Tiffany Court, the show of caricatures, the photography exhibit and the enormous and beautifully restored painting of Washington crossing the Delaware in the newly opened American Wing. The Met. My true love.

There were other museums, but a visit to the Museum of the City of New York was a lovely way to end our trip. The Greatest Grid, which documents the master plan for NYC, was fascinating and contained a marvelous watercolor of the plan for Central Park, where we could see the Ramble in all its knotted glory and marvel once again that in the brutal imposition of the grid the vision and will to create Central Park endured.

I highly recommend getting out of town, if only by car to a place nearby. It refreshes, and we still have the rest of February and then March to endure, though each day is a little longer and a little closer to spring.

winter talk

I’m not having enough fun.

I started the year with reflection and resolution, having made it through the holidays intact and if not refreshed, then at least rested. I engaged with my new job duties right off the bat, worked at adjusting to the shortened hours at my job and set up a new schedule for my creative life. I rewrote the beginning of my novel, incorporating the advice given by my critique group and esteemed faculty at the SCBWIWWA fall retreat. Then, as the snow fell, the power winked out and the generator kicked on I slowly ground to a halt.

I had plenty of food. I had heat. I could take a shower and even run a load of laundry. But my husband was in B.C. and I was on my own as the tree limbs cracked off and fell on the roof. The landline cut out. No internet or television of course. Cell towers lost power and so could not provide a signal. So I wrote and I thought a lot and I took notes and I read. I did not motor on joyously through my book. In that endeavor, I slowly ground to a halt.

I thought: I can’t write my way out of this. The whole idea is stupid. It’s not going where I thought it was. It seemed clever but now I’m not so sure, maybe I should just cut my losses. Hell, I’ll shit can the thing. I have all these other shiny ideas, easy to write, ALREADY OUTLINED. I am not an outliner but I was driven to it. I was talked down off of that branch by my pal Dana before it broke under me, and I recognized this monologue for what it was: winter talk. It’s January. February is just around the corner. We have not seen nothin’ yet as far as the Northwest winter goes. It does go – on and on.

Here’s what I decided: I’m not having enough fun, and fun is really important to me. So instead of distracting myself with a shiny new story, instead of further whining and dark thoughts, I am going to be in the business of manufacturing fun. Like a little jolly elf, with a tiny, tiny hammer and a sweet little workbench, and a twinkle in my eye. I’m having some friends over on Friday to design puppets. Then we’re going to make them. Then we’re going to make stuff up for them to say. Then we’re going to play. Hopefully by then there will be less winter left and some fun will have spilled over into my writing. Wish me luck.