Interview with Margaret Erhart

Margaret Erhart will be in town tomorrow, February 1st,  at Powell’s Books on Hawthorne to do a reading and signing for her latest novel, The Butterflies of Grand Canyon. I was able to interview her by email recently– you can read the interview at Reading Local: Portland.

State of Mind

I always look forward to the Wednesday Poetic Asides Poetry prompt. Writing a weekly haiku is totally non-intimidating. Today’s prompt: “… take the phrase ‘State of (blank),’ replace the blank with a word or phrase, make that the title of your poem, and then, write a poem.” This one came to me right away– I guess that’s what a rare sunny day in the midst of a Portland winter can do!

State of Mind

Late winter angst yields
To peace of mind– all because
The sun showed its face

Event Recap: NW Author Series

Event Recap: Amber Keyser speaks at Northwest Author Series, January 24, 2010

Many writers braved the elements yesterday to attend the writing workshop presented by Amber Keyser: “Don’t Suffer Alone: How to Use a Critique Group to Enhance Your Writing” at the Wilsonville Library. This was the fourth workshop in the 2009-10 Northwest Author Series (, presented by Christina Katz, and supported by the Friends of the Library and the Wilsonville Arts & Culture Council.

Amber’s engaging presentation was divided into roughly three parts. She began by introducing herself , and describing her unusual path from evolutionary biologist to freelance writer of children’s lit. As different as these disciplines appear at first glance, they both, she told the audience, rely on keen powers of observations and a sense of creativity. For scientists, it takes creativity to design experiments, while writers utilize creativity in translating life experiences into a story. And just as science utilizes critiques in the form of peer reviews, writers can also benefit from critiques.

In the second part of the talk, Amber went on to distinguish criticism from critique, and to present a case for the usefulness of critique groups. To criticize is to list faults, while to critique is to analyze what works and what doesn’t, with the goal of offering solutions. With audience participation, Amber listed the main benefits of a critique group:

  1. Motivation
  2. Improve craft
  3. Encouragement and validation
  4. Accountability
  5. Sharing of resources/contacts
  6. Attending conferences/retreats together

While writing is essentially a solitary activity, a writer’s life does not have to be solitary, Amber maintained. She shared that she went through several critique groups that were not a good match for her for various reasons, before becoming part of her current critique group composed of seven children’s lit writers, Viva Scriva. In the final part of the presentation, three members of Viva Scriva illustrated how the group works in action, by critiquing a folktale Amber had recently written.

Writers interested in more of the nuts and bolts of how to form a successful critique group can check out Amber’s website, where she has posted notes from this presentation, including recommending reading. (

The next presentation in the Northwest Author Series will be on February 21, 2010, when Cindy Hudson will speak on “The Nonfiction Book: From Idea to Publication”.

Book Review: The Wink of the Zenith

In my continuing series of book reviews with an Oregon connection, the following is a review of Floyd Skloot’s The Wink of the Zenith: The Shaping of a Writer’s Life. Read more of my reviews at

5.0 out of 5 stars A Compelling Examination of “The Shaping of a Writer’s Life”, January 20, 2010

In The Wink of the Zenith, his fourth memoir, Floyd Skloot turns his focus on how his past shaped his life as a writer. Through a series of overlapping essays, arranged in roughly sequential order, Skloot reconstructs memories vividly in order to examine how the influences of his past turned him towards a writing life. In the chapters covering his childhood in Brooklyn, and later on Long Island, what emerges is a stark portrait of a lonely boy with a vivid imagination, who struggles to make sense of his father’s untimely death and his mother’s cruelty.

Through a baseball essay originally assigned by a teacher as punishment, and through his fascination with the world presented to him by the television set his family owned (the Zenith of the title), Skloot details how he came to discover the creative world of writing and how it functioned to provide him an escape from his troubled life.

Subsequent essays follow Skloot during his undergraduate years at Franklin and Marshall College, where under the mentorship of his advisor, he discovers Faulkner and embarks on a comprehensive study of the works of Hardy, and continue into his early years as a writer. The essays in the third part cover his adult years, as he copes simultaneously with his mother’s Alzheimer’s, and with cognitive changes in himself brought on after contracting a virus in his early forties that left him with neurological damage. It is a testament to Skloot’s writing skills that what emerges is an always compelling, sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant account of how he got where he is today as a writer.

The Wink of the Zenith was a 2009 Oregon Book Award Finalist in the category of creative nonfiction.

2010- The Best and Worst

Today’s Poetic Asides prompt: “…write a poem that combines the best and worst part of 2010.”

The worst is easy enough. One has only to check out today’s headlines to read about the devastation in Haiti and how bipartisan politics threatens to doom any efforts at health care reform in this country. Yet it seems to be the human condition to endure, in spite of both natural disasters and man-made hardships.


Amidst earthquakes and
Political fiascoes
The sun still rises


This Wednesday’s Poetic Asides prompt: “…write a poem covering something you think about all the time.”

Now arguably, I don’t think about frogs ALL the time, but I do think about them more than one might think. 🙂

I was just about to post, when I decided I’d better check dictionary.doc to verify how many syllables “really” is. It just had the looks of one of those slippery words. Sure enough, the first entry said three. Oh no! Had I worked so hard to get it down to a haiku, only to be foiled at the last minute? I checked Merriam-Webster online, and even resorted to my physical dictionary only to find that they all had “really” listed as having three syllables.

In desperation, I turned to The Free Dictionary (online), which finally listed “really” as two OR three syllables. When I went back to, it turns out it has a two syllable version of “really” listed there as well. I had just been too hasty, I guess. The first entry for “really” was really for “re-ally” (a subtle distinction, for sure!) So here is  my haiku, with a two-syllable “really” on the first and third lines. And for any one who remains unconvinced, this works just fine with “indeed”, “in fact”, “truly” or “in truth” in the place of “really”. I just like the cadence of it best as is:

What I Think About

Frogs who are really
Princes in disguise, and frogs
Who are really frogs

Did I Succeed?

So here’s the moment of truth. I actually found last year’s resolutions and now I get a chance to do a post-mortem of 2009 and see how well my accomplishments actually stack up with my expectations. My 2010 comments are in pink.

I was dating a check this morning and realized with a shock that January is flying along, and here I haven’t even made my New Year’s Resolutions! This is one tradition I just can’t bring myself to deep six, so in the spirit of better late than never, here goes.

Well, in the first place, I sat down to write my resolutions almost three weeks earlier this year (January 3, as opposed to January 22). That’s a good start!

For as many years as I can remember, one of my resolutions has been to exercise regularly. I know I am not alone, as looking for a parking space at my fitness club lately recalls the less happy aspects of shopping at the mall at Christmas time. My friend Tricia assures me that come Valentine’s Day, all these New-Year’s-Resolution people will have given up, and life will be back to normal.

I’ve been to the gym every single day this week for one class and thirty minutes of walking. Go me! (The parking lot at the gym is still a disaster.)

Well, that got me to thinking about how people in general, and me in particular, tend to approach resolutions. We generally set unrealistic expectations that feel more like a punishment than a way of promoting self-improvement. What’s the use of resolutions if you either ignore them, or worse, if they damage your self-esteem? I want resolutions that motivate me, and will make me feel good about myself when I look back over the year!

True that.

In that spirit, I think I’ll start with a year-in-review look at 2008. My chief accomplishment last year, although I cringe a bit at using the word “accomplishment” to describe it, was in caring for my parents (along with my siblings) after both were diagnosed with terminal cancer. Along with the heartache, there were happy periods mixed in there as well, and I can look back now over that time with the sense of peace that comes from knowing that I did everything within my power to bring a measure of comfort to my parents’ final months.

On March 20, what would have been my parent’s 60th anniversary, we held a memorial service for them. It was very healing.

Later that year, my siblings and I also worked in concert to settle my parents’ estate. It was a Herculean effort to empty their house and get it ready to put on the market, and a tribute to our efficiency skills that we not only did so in record time, but were able to sell it shortly before the market tanked. As my own house is now stuffed to the gills with my parents’ furniture, art objects galore, glassware, and boxes of old papers, I can perhaps be forgiven if “eliminate clutter” does not appear at the top of my New Year’s resolutions list for many a year.

I still haven’t gone through the boxes. Maybe next year…

In the course of notifying family friends and relatives of my parents’ deaths, we rekindled acquaintanceships that had been dormant for years, some going clear back into my early childhood, and I was excited to discover two “new” cousins of our mother’s, hitherto unknown to me, that I am now in contact with.

Joining Facebook this year really helped with this also. Go Facebook!

Besides all this, in 2008 I managed to find time to hit the gym on a reasonably regular basis, all things considered, I wrote frequently, and had the pleasure of seeing a respectable number of my writings published on the web, took inspiration from my writing group, and mastered (most weeks!) the Wednesday NY Times crossword. Not bad for a year that started off on such a sorrowful note!

I hit the gym 3-5 times most weeks, wrote pretty much everyday, got my first writings in print (one story each in Cupcakes on the Counter: The Stoves and Stories of our Families, Chicken Soup for the Soul: Count Your Blessings and Chicken Soup for the Soul: True Love), joined a second writing group, mastered the Wednesday NY Times crossword puzzle, and made the happy discovery that if my family makes it a communal effort, we can complete most days. Plus I had a “My Turn” essay published in the Oregonian, and people are still coming up to me (four months later) and congratulating me on it, making me a mini celebrity of sorts around these parts. 🙂

I note in passing that were I to judge myself by the number of resolutions I actually met in 2008, I would come up short! So this year, I decided to craft resolutions with a twist, by focusing not on a rigid set of expectations, but instead on identifying hopes, dreams and goals for the coming year, an idea that was suggested to me by one of the guiding questions in a Cup of Comfort on-line forum.

Still like this idea.

Now I think I better define, for the purposes of this discussion, what exactly I mean by hopes, dreams and goals. I guess I’d say that a hope is something that you want that can reasonably be expected, in the best of all worlds, a dream is something a little wilder and perhaps a little less attainable, but nonetheless something to strive for, and goals are the concrete steps to take to move towards these elusive hopes and dreams.

Got it.
That being said, my hopes for this year are for maintaining my health, having my family and friends thrive, and getting more of my writings out there both on the web and in print. Okay, this is definitely hard. I’m not sure where a hope ends and a goal takes over, so we’ll move on.

Ditto for this year.

Dreams? Don’t even get me started!

My goals now, in no particular order. Focus on family and friends. Check. Write every day. Check. Try something new. For starters, I volunteered for Komen and Wordstock. Tackle the Thursday NY Times crossword. Check. (see above) Read just for fun. (I read at least one “fun” book a month). Exercise more. Check. Spend time in my garden. Check. Attend some writing workshops. I discovered the NW Author Series and attended several workshops. Actually read some of the writing guides I purchased last year. (Finally read Bird by Bird, Half Past Perfect, and Writer Mama. Also, read Writing the Memoir, Novel Shortcuts and Creative Nonfiction) Work piecemeal on getting the house organized. Getting there. Think about tackling a major house project (and maybe even do it!). Remodeled a bathroom. Take one day at a time. Check. Make time for myself. Double check. And finally, don’t judge myself too harshly if I fail to make great strides in any category. But I did! If I learned anything from the past two years, it is that sometimes just getting by is enough. Here, here.

An upcoming biopsy has started this year on a somber note. This isn’t my first biopsy, and I imagine it won’t be my last, but I refuse to let it get me down, and deter me from living my life to the fullest. Hence the importance of keeping my focus on hopes, dreams and goals. As any self-respecting kid can tell you though, the fastest way to take the fun out of something is to be told you have to do it. Keeping in mind that my list is more in the line of friendly suggestions that I came up with of my own free will, not inflexible action items, how can I possibly fail? And when New Year’s Day 2010 (or thereabouts) rolls around and I sit down to review this year, I’m perfectly sure I will have a whole new set of accomplishments to laud!

The biopsy eventually came out clean, thankfully, but it was yet another reminder not to take anything for granted. So was losing three more relatives from my parents’ generation this year.

So did I succeed with my resolutions? By any measure, I’d have to say emphatically, yes! All in all, 2009 was a good year. Here’s to good things for 2010!

Look Out World

The Poetic Asides Wednesday poetry prompt was to  “write a ‘take no prisoners’ poem.” My first response was, huh? But then Robert went on to explain:

“You can take this in any creative direction you want, but I’m thinking of a poem that resembles those rallying songs by bands like Muse (“Uprising” or “Knights of Cydonia”) and Queen (“We Are the Champions” or “We Will Rock You”). Write a poem of what will be and how no one will stand in your (or whoever’s or whatever’s) way.”

I was thinking of two things this morning. One was the charming Dr. Seuss book Oh, the Places You’ll Go! (which contains a line to the effect of “except when you don’t because sometimes you won’t” ) and the other was of how my mom used to loved to sing the song Hey Look Me Over (which endsHey look out world, here I come!”). Somehow these two things came together for me into the following haiku:

Look Out World

I’m invincible
Brave, bold and impetuous–
Except when I’m not.