Tag Archives: Priscilla Long

All works are equal

I’m not going to throw my hat into the ring of commentary-on-Ferguson. I’m not going to think about how there-but-for-the-grace-of-god-go-I in regards to random violence. I’m not going to imagine the pain of Brown’s parents. I’m not going to listen to the estimates of when the elephant will become extinct (most likely in my lifetime. I’m broaching 50, so you can do the math).

I am going to remember that I asked Priscilla Long, in regards to her Work Inventory, why she didn’t note where her pieces are published. Because, she said,I have a body of work I want to do, and it doesn’t matter where it’s published. All works are equal.

All works are equal.

I am going to remember the giggle I couldn’t suppress while waiting to board airplanes this summer, when the gate agents called the “first class/priority” passengers to come through their priority boarding area. Which means those passengers walk over a rubber-backed 3×5′ piece of polyester carpet atop the regular carpet, to the left of the “boarding area” sign. They walk over this piece of carpet and they get to sit down first and they get to sit in seats that are a bit wider and if the plane blows up or disappears they get to lose their lives. Just like everyone else.

All works are equal.

I am going to reflect that on the day Captain Byers died in Iraq, my local obituary page held death notices for Catherine Cupp, Alma Frey, Goldie Gearhart, Lillian McClean and James May. I am going to assume that each person left behind a “to do” list, an unrequited love or two, and others who will remember their frown, their laugh, their bad puns.

All works are equal.

I am going remember that Michael Brown’s status as a young black man headed for college is a distraction from our disgrace.

All works are equal.

I’m going remember that the effect an essay, poem, screenplay, or novel has on any one person is as much, if not more, about the person reading than the work itself.

All works are equal.

I’m going to work today.



To write, perchance to produce?

World Cup Cafe

World Cup Cafe

I returned to Taos for the third consecutive year last week, for the Taos Summer Writer’s Conference. It’s a highlight of my year. It’s a highlight because it’s in the desert southwest; because its attendees are, to a one, interesting, informed, and intriguing; because it’s an excellent “reset” button for my writerly self; because it’s near Taos’s World Cup Cafe; because the World Cup Cafe serves a mocha borgia; because I feel like a brilliant writer after a mocha borgia; because when I fell like a brilliant writer I am a more productive writer.

Productive writer. An abstract concept that toddled into my thinking three years ago when I first read Prisicilla Long’s must-have-if-you’re-a-writer book, The Writer’s Portable Mentor — an abstract concept that steadied itself and began walking, sure-footed, during the time I worked with her (for the second time) at the Taos conference this year.

Prisicilla Long's book ...

Prisicilla Long’s book …

Long, like Macklemore, notes that the greats aren’t born great. They’re great because they paint/write/practice a LOT. Long suggests writers make a “list of works,” an inventory to track their pieces’ completion dates, where they’ve been sent, and when they’ve been accepted. In The Writer’s Portable Mentor, she says,

The list allows you to see the work you’ve done and it signifies respect for work done. It allows you to track your yearly production. It allows you to find any given piece to take up again. The list gives you a practice that you now share with those high-achieving creators who do quantify their works. (Georgia O’Keefe, 2.045 objects; Edouard Manet, 450 oil paintings among other works; the American painter Alice Neel, about 3,000 works; dare we mention Picasso? — 26,000 works; the remarkable short-story writer Edith Pearlman has published, according to her website, more than 250 works of short fiction and short nonfiction. That of course, does not tell us how many works Pearlman has composed.

I have a modest list of works that has grown incrementally for the past three years. And I do mean incrementally, because I haven’t been able to focus on more than one writing activity each day: if I’m generating a new short story, that generative free writing takes all my writing time. Ditto editing and conceptualizing.

But this year, for the first time, I managed two, sometimes three, types of daily writing during the conference: generative, editorial, and conceptual. And I did this because I told myself, per Long’s advice, that I only had to do it for 15 minutes. Those 15 minutes, for five days, yielded a found poem, an improved short story, and several roughed out story concepts.

I’m sure this capacity was enhanced by the total absence of my Domestic Goddess responsibilities, Engineer Hubby, our two sons, the dogs, the cat and that pesky groundhog in the backyard — a lot of my writing is done while it appears I’m daydreaming, and there’s no daydreaming time in my Real Life. Nonetheless: I’ve managed the 15 minute practice every single day, for a week, so I know I can make progress on several fronts simultaneously.

Here’s to slow, steady and productive. May it be so.

The Yuletide 100

My writing craft group and I agreed that during the holiday break we would  jot notes about the holiday.  At least 100 words or phrases to capture the essence of the season.

I’ve resisted the list concept for most of my writing years: all those “list my life” books at Barnes and Noble. Listographies  for couples, for singles, for mothers and daughters. Barf. Like a list matters. Plus, is listography a word? (Not in my 1979 edition of the New World Dictionary! Oh, I feel so vindicated!) Regardless: making a list is just too easy! One must *suffer* for enlightenment!

You’d think I’d have learned by now that when my instinct is to sniff haughtily, a great Lesson is lurking. But no. I sniff away and it is only under duress — duress I PAY for in the form of a workshop or a book, or duress that is unavoidable (yes, I consider the holidays a time of duress) — that I grudgingly push open the creaky door of my Self  to possibilities.

My writing group adapted a Priscilla Long list exercise from her book The Writer’s Portable Mentor, and here’s mine. Not only was it a valuable exercise that I’m Officially Adding to my Writerly Toolbox, it tells a wee story. Happy New Year!


  1. 12 y.o. has two teeth pulled after last day of school.
  2. 12 y.o. vomiting, 2 AM.
  3. 12 y.o. sick first day of vacation.
  4. Amazon shopping.
  5. 16 y.o.’s girlfriend over for supper, to make treats for neighbors.
  6. 12 y.o. rallies to deliver treats to neighbors.
  7. Xmas tree purchased day after mini ice storm.
  8. Ice inside heated home = water. Duh.
  9. Entire first floor washed by melted ice.
  10. Kids dub ice “christmas juice.”
  11. Xmas tree trunk too big for 70’s-era metal stand.
  12. Engineer hubby drags tree to deck for trunk detailing.
  13. Engineer hubby shaving  trunk with pathetic little saw.
  14. Engineer hubby borrows Real Tools, updates Xmas wish list to include Real Tools.
  15. Tree tilts 15 degrees to the left
  16. To the right.
  17. More trunk shaving.
  18. Tree tilts 5 degrees to the right.
  19. Engineer hubby: I’m done. Kids: but the tree …
  20. CVS has one tree stand left.
  21. Tree top breaks off. No one cares
  22. Tree is vertical!
  23. Burned out Xmas lights.
  24. Xmas eve shopping at Dicks Sporting Goods: all Medium sized fleeces gone. Panicked call to Engineer Hubby re: 16 y.o.’s preferred basketball clothing. Does it matter so long as it’s in school colors of blue and yellow? Engineer hubby: you know there are different shades of blue. Me: Seriously?
  25. Two hours later: new fleeces acquired for all the men in the family. Restorative hot chocolate purchased for frazzled mama on way home.
  26. My dad and brother arrive; my brother tallest person in the house @ 6’2″.
  27. Tissue paper for wrapping.
  28. Cat on tissue paper.
  29. Curling ribbon.
  30. Cat claw stuck in my thigh after “playing” catch the ribbon
  31. Can only find one batch of gift tags. All gifts labeled with the same green disc.
  32. Dog treats laid out with Santa gifts on coffee table.
  33. Dog treats all gone.
  34. Dog barf Xmas eve at midnight.
  35. Six hours sleep.
  36. New bird feeders: one with copper roof glinting in the sun. Birds confused, pecking forlornly at deck railing.
  37. 16 y.o.: “This is great!” re: coupon book for movies, dinners out, “Dates” with parents.
  38. Bag of gluttony and regret: chocolates & electric toothbrushes
  39. Kids give me hot tea/cocoa coupons 🙂 I redeem immediately.
  40. Settlers of Catan.
  41. Multi-handed solitaire.
  42. Blokus.
  43. Goldfinch.
  44. Mini Poppers: pig, monster, penguin, monster. Unknown-1
  45. Dogs eating popper balls. You’d think they’d had enough stomach upset. You’d think wrong.
  46. 16 y.o. visits girlfriend on Xmas day: a first
  47. Panettone
  48. Holiday-blend coffee from Milwaukee’s Colectivo Coffee.
  49. Turkey breast.
  50. Turkey breast with spine intact.
  51. Turkey breast deboning YouTube video.
  52. Dull knives.
  53. Scissors.
  54. Brining on back deck.
  55. Cold sunshine.
  56. Walking dogs.
  57. New scarf.
  58. Stuffing with sausage.
  59. Cranberry sauce by my dad. 3072908890_d2d0eb7ddd_b
  60. 16 y.o.: mashed taters.
  61. Toasted pecans.
  62. Frozen crust.
  63. Cook’s Illustrated cookbook: brand new. Corn syrup on page 720 by 3 PM
  64. Dessert wine.
  65. Port.
  66. Sauerkraut crock.
  67. Nine cabbages.
  68. Dill borrowed from neighbor.
  69. Virgnia Tech pillowcase over sauerkraut crock.
  70. About Time with 12 y.o. & Engineer Hubby. 12 y.o.: “That makes you think about life.”
  71. The Dark Knight Rises: surprisingly good.
  72. Sherlock Holmes, season 1 marathon
  73. The Full Monty: even my dad laughs
  74. The Last Emperor: like taking vitamins
  75. The Santa Clause
  76. All is Lost. Yikes
  77. Listing all colors for brown with writer pal Andrea Badgley day after Xmas.
  78. Basketball tournament in Roanoke for 16 y.o. Massive losses ’til very last game.
  79. Sauerkraut smells a bit funky.
  80. Old friend visits after New Year’s
  81. Old friend’s dog encounters skunk in backyard.
  82. Friend’s dog rolls on rug, runs through house.
  83. Friend to PetSmart for enzymatic skunk cleaner
  84. Friend’s dog washed on back deck with skunk cleaner.
  85. Temperatures dropping.
  86. Friend’s dog confined to crate.
  87. Friend’s dog depressed. Our dogs confused.
  88. Entire house smells of skunk; food tastes like skunk.
  89. Apple-cider scented candle lit.
  90. Sauerkraut smell obliterated.
  91. Rug removed to patio.
  92. Clothing washed with de-skunker.
  93. Friend’s dog washed repeatedly next day.
  94. Dog smelling better. Released from crate confinement.
  95. Joyful frolicking.
  96. Friend returns home.
  97. 16 y.o. to youth orchestra. Cello, case and music all smell like skunk.
  98. Xmas tree to fire pit, rug to dumpster.
  99. Sauerkraut funk again discernible.
  100. Carpool buddy to 12 y.o. on first day back to school: your hair smells like skunk.


Sharing others’ good words and mojo

Brendan Constantine, thank you: this blog post  says it better than I could have, and echoes my heroine Priscilla Long’s advice: a large part of creativity is production, finished pieces. Can’t make a pie if we spend all our time perfecting the crust. Fling some berries-n-sugar together, spoon ’em in that misshapen piece of dough, cook that baby in the oven and then see if it’s any good.

The Porches

The Porches (Photo credit: orange cracker)

I’m writing at the Porches in Norwood, VA this week: a tornado alit here last week, folding a metal roof back like so much origami paper and felling a 26,000 pound tree on the local (historic structure) church. The retreat house itself: untouched. The California-based writer in residence during the tornado: went back to her third floor room when she saw the 50-foot-high maple trees in the front yard  bending to kiss the earth. Those of us who can imagine three stories off the ground is a good place to be in wind like that: creative to the max.

Whatever the tornado of your life is right now: get back to your room and do your creative thing. That mojo will keep you safe-n-sane.

Just because you already have fabulous style doesn’t mean you shouldn’t add a turtle to your decorating scheme.


From my garden this year …

I was lucky enough to spend time this summer with mamas who are more than a decade younger than myself, whose kids are correspondingly younger than my sons. It’s not just the sippy cups that have changed! These women are smarter than I was, at this stage of parenting, about their options as wage-earners, about how to respond appropriately to tempter tantrums, about which foods to avoid unless they’re organic (strawberries, for example). They are confident, savvy, and fun to boot.

Which isn’t to say they don’t wrestle with the question of “Am I doing this right? Is my kid normal? Am I setting up my precious baby for a lifetime of dissatisfaction that will only be healed through biweekly sessions with a dominatrix?” Typical questions for every stage of parenting, I’m discovering, though the child’s particular behavior, and our responses to it, change.

In one particular conversation, the question was about a kindergartener’s reaction to his parents’ suggestion about after-school decompression time: the kid wasn’t interested in the parents’ ideas of appropriate choices at all. Nope to snack, nope to quiet time, nope to snuggling with a favorite stuffed animal, nope to taking a walk, nope to listening to music. This kid wanted to watch movies, play video games, or go over to a friend’s house. Despite being utterly exhausted, cranky and therefore extremely weepy.

Well! I am very familiar with kids who say “no” to my inherently fabulous ideas of great activities. Those who know my kids realize I am an untapped national expert. Howzabout, I said, letting your kid pick one of their activities once a week? And if it doesn’t go well, they’d lose the privilege the next week?

Oh, no, that’s not my style, the mama responded. I don’t do it like that.

US Dollars

Dollars I could’ve saved (Photo credit: artist in doing nothing)

I wish I’d had a tenth of her self-assuredness when my boys were that age. Would have saved me about $500 in parenting advice books and all those subsequent visits to a therapist to figure out why only 2% of the advice worked for me. I was rudderless in regards to the “right” style for me when my kids were in Kindergarten and preschool. I didn’t even know I HAD a parenting style, nevermind being able to discern when an approach would or wouldn’t work mesh with that style.

Cartographical grocery list

Grocery list (Photo credit: cesarastudillo)

I have begun to identify – or perhaps acknowledge is the better word – my parenting style (it relies heavily on my kids hearing every pearl of wisdom that drops from my lips the FIRST TIME I SAY IT and then never having to remind them of aforementioned pearl ever again. This translates into me figuring out how much chaos I can live with before I start to notice what actually motivates my children, and then designing an elaborate system of incentives that usually involves an extensive set of hand-crafted, laminated magnets plastered across the fridge in a vast spreadsheet-style arrangement, leaving a measly two square inches of free space for the grocery list, resulting in insufficient pantry supplies, low blood sugar and a ranting, raging mother. Kidding. I’ve memorized the grocery list and replenish our pantry daily. The ranting and raging happens when I discover my just-purchased three pounds of pasta, eight bagels, a bag of carrots and a gallon of milk have all been consumed before dinner.)

It has taken me a long time to figure out, prior to trying a new strategy, if there’s even a remote chance it will work for me, and for my kids. This is in part because we are all works in progress, of course – and because the kids, particularly, progress rapidly, trying on different sports, hobbies, friends, and favorite colors.

But I’m aspiring to parent in a way that echoes Shinichi Suzuki’s philosophy: raise children who will be good citizens of the world. This can be done through learning an instrument, a la the Suzuki method, but I think it’s also done through providing them with enough different experiences and approaches that they will have a well-stocked “toolbox” to open when the world throws problems at them. The advantage of having come late to understanding my style is that I discovered, through frequently painful experience, that techniques I find difficult sometimes work amazingly well for my children.

Red-Eared Slider Turtle

Red-Eared Slider Turtle (Photo credit: Jim, the Photographer)

By being a wimp, I have inadvertently provided them tools that connected with them where they were, not where I wanted them to be, or where I was. I learned about all kinds of sports involving balls, because they love them, and if I can talk to them about how their choice to take another “day off” from cello practice has put them at fourth-and-ten in regards to the recital, they’ll get it. I’ve also learned about red-eared slider turtles, the time-space paradox, the Bach Cello Suites, fart jokes, the local high school’s starting quarterback (only a sophomore!), a neighbor friend’s child’s candle-making business and the Big Nate comics and books (drawn by Engineer Hubby’s third-grade friend Lincoln Peirce). And in learning about things I initially had no interest in, I have expanded my world. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the beauty of team sports, at the not-as-bad-as-I-thought-it-would-be-ness of popular movies, and tickled by my birthday candle. And every single one of those experiences connects me to my children. By stepping beyond my own “style” I glimpse into their worlds and  learn new approaches, attitudes, and opportunities for their toolboxes, and teach them about the tools I’m familiar with in language they can hear.

This is also true for my writing. It’s critical to look beyond the forms I’m most comfortable with: left to my own devices I would probably continue to read only murder mysteries and short stories. Thank goodness my mom told me I had to read Madame Bovary when I turned sixteen: another world opened. My freshman year of college required all of us to engage in a humanities course where we read everything from Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (abridged!) to Japanese literature, to Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. Then a creative writing course forced me to write villanelles, Shakespearean sonnets, limericks. I don’t currently write a lot (OK, any) of these poetic forms, but I understand how they’re put together; I’ve experienced the unique expression they afford a writer because the constraints of their form.

Les in Taos, 2012

And in Taos this summer I had the fantastic treat of studying with Priscilla Long (author of The Writer’s Portable Mentor – buy a copy now if you haven’t already). My week with her opened up another level of writing: she deconstructs sentences and puts them back together, and she demanded we do the same. She copies out beautiful sentences and rewrites them to figure out how they’re made, and demanded we do the same. She reads her work out loud and demanded we do the same. These are not demands I would have made of myself, but my writing toolbox is fuller because of them. What I can find alone is not enough; my comfort zone is too small. I need others’ techniques, tricks and tips to have all the tools necessary to  write my fiction.

Now, all that said, writing is very different from parenting: it is me and the words, not me and a small, snot-encrusted, sleep-deprived, sugar-highed six-year-old. Dealing with tiny people is different from detailing a single scene, and my existential angst about parenting would have been far less if I’d had more understanding of why I was in such agony while practicing the 1-2-3 approach. But in each case, observing as objectively as possible what is in front of me and addressing it in a manner that works for the child-slash-scene is critical. Using only “my” style manifests the adage “when all you have is a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail.”

Stinky Socks

Stinky Socks, slider turtle … bad smell either way. (Photo credit: Blaine Hansel)

I’m preparing my children to be good citizens in a big world! I owe it to them, and my writing, to venture beyond the preferences I think suit me best — and I also owe it to them to practice discerning when a style will create more misery than not. The world does not need my villanelles.

But I think it’s safe to say everyone in our household will put to good use the knowledge that slider turtles stink up a room as much as dirty socks.