The Particular Rock I’ve Been Under

Well, hello there. It’s been a while!

Where have I been? I’m so glad you ask.

Under a rock is the answer. A very particular, very heavy rock.

I spent this last year teaching.


Yes, last fall I accepted a job with a one-on-one private school. I taught English and Life Skills to students with a variety of learning needs, from ADHD and dyslexia to autism and severe anxiety.

It was very rewarding. I met some incredible kids and inspiring teachers. Education is amazing, because you literally get to see your work growing up in front of your eyes. Someday I’ll probably end up writing about the experience.

My English-teacher Halloween costume. (Also Hamlet in the corner.)

It was also hard. Extremely hard. Even if I don’t mention the hours (ahem, unpaid overtime), that doesn’t even begin to touch on the stress and the chaos, the student meltdowns, the last-minute sub requests, the weekly Contagious Diseases Roulette, the discipline, the lengthy and critical parent emails, the active shooter drills.

If you can read this, go thank whoever taught you to read. No, really. Stop what you’re doing. Okay.

For myself, I decided to step away from the position at the end of the school year. While my teaching experience left me with immense respect for everyone who works to help young people grow up okay in a world that isn’t, I also realized that being a full-time classroom teacher isn’t for me. A worthwhile experience in itself. And the reason I have been mostly MIA from the writing/publishing world for a year.

Which was one of the hardest things about this job. Writing gives me life, and it was so tough to have nearly no time to work toward my passion. However, in spite of the chaos, I did still manage to accomplish a few things on the writing front this year. I wasn’t very good about communicating them, though, so here’s a brief recap in case you missed anything!

  1. I released audio versions of The Illuminator’s Gift and The Illuminator’s Test
  2. I gave a TEDx talk called “Do Something Worth Writing”
  3. I had a poem published in an online literary magazine
  4. I wrote a handful of new poems
  5. I’m just happy I stayed alive for a year, let alone published anything!

Now that I’m starting to recover from a year’s worth of lost sleep, the creative juices are flowing once more. I have a few new projects coming down the pipe, at least two of which I hope to release before the end of the year! Keep your eyes peeled for:

  1. An audiobook of The Illuminator Rising, read by my awesome British narrator, Wendy Wolfson!
  2. A completely new book! It’s still very much under construction, but I will say that it is a book of poems.

Yes, poems!

I focused on fiction writing during my English studies and have never primarily thought of myself as a poet. Yet I’ve been writing poetry since I was 12 and have read, studied, and taught poetry in various contexts. I’ve even written about poetry, shared a few poems, and interviewed a poet on this blog. More importantly, poetry is the clearest way I know to give voice to the truth as I see it. And to make music with words, because words are beautiful and interesting and filled with all the meaning in the world. It will be very different in genre and tone from my previous books, yet I can already see that they will share a number of themes, such as loss, hope, and redemption.

More details to come! For now, I am happy to be climbing out from under my particular rock.

World Literacy Project 2015

Quick! Before Thanksgiving arrives, it’s time for the World Literacy Project 2015!

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(This is my own private nonprofit initiative, which involves decorating a pumpkin with words from a poem or other literary selection. Raising the world’s literacy levels, one pumpkin at a time. World-changing, isn’t it?)

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Previous years’ selections have ranged from Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman” to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” to a particularly sentimental line from The Illuminator’s Gift.

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So, can you guess this year’s poem? I even added some decorative features to help you out 🙂

Comment below if you know the poem’s title and/or author!

Small Songs

Seems like hummingbirds are everywhere this month. I think they like the hot weather. Somehow they manage to find and kiss nectar out of drought-dried flowers, wings beating faster than sight.

I remember the first time I saw a hummingbird sitting on a branch. I must have been about six. I was surprised that hummingbirds had legs.

The other night, on a golden summer evening walk, I saw a hummingbird singing. I was close enough to watch its little throat bulging like a frog’s. The song wasn’t beautiful, but it inspired me:

A finger-long hummingbird who sings, because he can,

with all his might, an off-key warble,

a brave small song because,

in the world’s great harmony,

only this finger-long, emerald-backed little man

can sing that note.

This week, I hope you sing because you can.  And because you’re the only one who can sing your note.

2014 World Literacy Project

Happy Halloween World Literacy Project Day!

For some reason, my family has never really carved jack-o-lanterns. We’ve historically painted our pumpkins–probably because my family members have so much rampant artistic talent.

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This is my mother’s pumpkin from 2012. A hobbit hole, complete with smoke in the chimney. No pressure.

But being a writer isn’t much help when it comes to decorating pumpkins. Or at least, not until 2012, when I decided to forget about keeping up with my family and put words on my pumpkin.

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Year 1 of the World Literacy Project: The Highwayman

I called it the World Literacy Project: simultaneously embracing writerliness and offering all those cute trick-or-treaters a healthy dose of literary education. Good deal, right?

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2013 World Literacy Project: The Raven

Well, something a little bit special happened in my life this year. So I found a gold pen and imitated the style of a designer I admire very much. The 2014 World Literacy Project now features an illuminated pumpkin.

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Anybody want to guess where they’ve heard these words before? Add a comment if you think you know!

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Improving world literacy, one pumpkin at a time!

Beach Poetry

Yesterday my family and I spent an afternoon at the beach. It was the first time I’d been there this summer. This may sound ridiculous, living as close to the ocean as I do, but I protest: I’ve been writing a book.

I love the ocean, even–maybe especially–when it’s overcast and silvery, like yesterday. It’s the perfect place to rest and read in the warm sand. Or to walk and think to the rhythm of the waves. And to write poetry.

Because the whole place is poetry.

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So here’s what comes of a walk along the Northern California coast on a foggy August day.

 

Beachcomber

She runs down the beach,

feet kissed by

the cream-white foam,

soul blue as the gradient of waves.

 

She combs the beach,

not for coins or glass,

not for complete shells

or perfect rocks.

She seeks

pieces—

fragments battered and broken

by the relentless blue waves.

 

She sifts for shards of shells:

one ridged like a potato chip,

one translucent white like a nail paring,

one striated with warmth like an Arizona canyon,

one shimmering iridescent like mother-of-pearl,

her favorite a feathered infinity spiral

like the twirl of a dancer.

 

She hunts for rocks

smoothed by the rough-and-tumble sand—

one spotted like a leopard,

one crinkled like a brain,

a jade-green speckle.

Some are ordinary gray rocks, scarred with

fractal patterns,

straight white stripes,

or irregular embeddings of fossils.

One has a smooth indent

just the size of her fingertip.

 

She walks up the beach,

soul blue as the gradient of waves,

fists clutched full of

fragments—

shell-shards and

smooth stones,

pieces

battered and tumbled and

beautiful.

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What do you love about the ocean?

Happiness Haiku

About two years ago, I read the book One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp. It inspired me to start keeping a thankfulness journal.

Thankfulness has long been touted as an important spiritual discipline. But recent psychological research shows its connection to a happier mindset as well. Writing down the good things that happen in a day helps bring the positive things to the top of our minds and overcome our natural human “negativity bias.”

Over the long term, I think my thankfulness journal has really improved my mood and, more importantly, begun to discipline my mind into a habit of focusing on the positive things. Every night, look back over the day and write down the moments that brought me happiness. Sometimes they’re things anyone would consider happy–like getting a call from the Los Gatos Library, inviting me to their literary fair next month (see my note in the sidebar!). But more often, I write down the little things that brought me a smile or a heaven-sent moment of relaxation in the midst of a stressful day. A sunny morning walk. Classical music playing over the gas station speakers. A yummy cup of coffee.

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This past spring, I decided to take my one-line thankfulness notes to the next level for an extra boost of happiness. First thing in the morning, I would look back over the last night’s thankfulness notes, pick one, and immerse myself in that memory. Then I used it as the subject for a seventeen-syllable haiku poem (5-7-5). Haiku is short, rewarding, and emphasizes life’s details–a perfect form for this exercise.

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A haiku a day

Lupin beside the asphalt

Gratitude snapshot.

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Photo credit: Tom Flemming

Writing a happiness haiku first thing in the morning had two benefits. First, it started off the day with a focus on something good.

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Shopping bag of smiles

Rainbow Skittles, photos, frames,

A little goes far.

Photo credit: Dano Nicholson
Photo credit: Dano Nicholson

Morning haiku also had an unexpected perk. It got the words flowing. When I was done with my seventeen syllables (sometimes counting to seventeen before coffee was harder than it should have been), I wanted to write more. Which was perfect for someone working on a second novel.

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From among sharp spines

Pale orange petals shimmer.

Fierce, lovely triumph.

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Photo credit: Seen Not Heard

It’s been several months since I wrote my last haiku, but now I have a collection of these short, intensely focused memories of happiness, like tracks showing me the road I walked. At the moment all my words are going into The Book, but maybe when it’s done, I’ll pick back up on this habit of capturing the ephemeral blessings in daily life.

Inside Creative Minds: Erica Goss, Poet

Please welcome Erica Goss to our Creative Minds series! Erica is the Poet Laureate of Los Gatos and a lovely person who’s as elegant as she is whimsical. I’ve always loved reading and writing poetry, but meeting Erica at California Bookstore Day inspired me to work on my craft (and teach it to my students). Listen in as she talks about incurring traffic tickets, juggling multiple jobs, and finding inspiration in parking lots.

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AS: Delighted to have you, Erica! So let’s go back in time: as a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

EG: Lots of things: a dancer, an artist, a scientist, a mother, besides being a writer.

AS: How did you end up in poetry (versus fiction or nonfiction)?

EG: I starting writing poems as a young child. Poetry was always the most attractive literary form to me, the one I most enjoyed writing and reading. I also write non-fiction, as in creative non-fiction or memoir, but poetry was and is the most natural fit.

AS: What are some of your favorite books?

EG: That’s a hard one! The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson, Anna Karenina, Wuthering Heights, Beowulf. I’m drawn to 19th century fiction. Virginia Woolf’s essays, Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, Wanda Coleman’s Mercurochrome – these are books that feed me. A novel that I read about once a year is Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson. I think Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is one of the best non-fiction books of the last five years. I read poetry constantly, and a current favorite is Terrence Hayes. As a child I loved Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, and the fairy tale collections edited by Andrew Lang.

BEOWULF: one of Erica’s favorite poems! Public domain image courtesy of the British Library

AS: Do you have another job (or more than one)? How do you balance it with your creative writing?

EG: In addition to writing, which includes poetry, blogging, magazine articles, etc., I work as a grant writer and as a freelance teacher.

AS: Wow, that’s quite a load to juggle! So when you’re writing, what are some of the most unusual places you’ve gotten ideas for poems?

EG: I have a secret muse: parking lots. For some reason, I find these sad stretches of concrete more inspiring than Yosemite. I think it’s because I like the idea of claiming a neglected space as my own, a place no one has seen the value in yet. I advise my students to find some place like that – an alley, or a dumpster, or the back of a building – and embrace it. Describe its climate and inhabitants. Do research about your place. Visit it often and note the change of seasons. Immortalize it in poetry.

AS: What is one of the funniest things that’s happened to you as you’ve spoken to audiences about poetry and writing?

EG: At Village House of Books’ Author Day, I made exactly enough selling books to pay for the parking ticket I received that day.

AS: Ooh, ouch. So do you have a daily creative routine? What does it look like?

EG: I try to be at my desk every day by 8:00 a.m. I catch my best ideas early in the morning. I write until noon, eat lunch, and then switch gears to more mundane tasks. Often I will have a burst of energy late in the afternoon.

AS: One of my other jobs is tutoring students in writing. So why do you think it’s important for students to learn to write poetry, as opposed to just essays?

EG: Poetry is a lot more fun than essays. Poetry can get students excited about writing. They know that the poem they write is a true expression of their inner life, and for that reason alone writing poetry is valuable.

AS: Anything new coming down the writing pipeline for you?

EG: My first full-length collection of poetry, titled The Museum of Moving Parts, is making the rounds of poetry publishers. I’m working on a series of poems based on the previous year of my life, tentatively called “Time Lapse.”

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Erica’s published book, “Vibrant Words,” is a collection of prompts ideal for teaching poetry.

AS: What’s one piece of advice you would give to aspiring writers?

Turn off all distractions and read. Read widely. Start with classic fiction, then read great works of non-fiction like In Cold Blood by Truman Capote and Black Boy by Richard Wright. Read a poem every night before you go to sleep. Find an author you enjoy and read all of his or her books. Try more challenging work. Read the poetry of many eras and countries. Read travel writing, food literature, science fiction and fantasy. Read children’s books. You can’t become a writer without reading. Visit your local library and discover its gems.

Here’s a great quote from Ray Bradbury about the importance of libraries: “I spent three days a week for 10 years educating myself in the public library. You can get a complete education for no money. At the end of 10 years, I had read every book in the library and I’d written a thousand stories.”

Thank you so much for stopping by, Erica! 

To connect with Erica, visit her website or Facebook.

If you’re interested in learning more about poetry, Erica will be starting monthly poetry readings at the Los Gatos Library on Sunday, September 21. They’ll be called “The Poetry Kitchen,” and each session will open with a poem about food. There will be a featured reader and an open mic.

A Bucket of Daffodils

I know winter in California is nothing to complain about. But it’s still my least favorite season. December brings Christmas, but then the lights and the cookies and the carols are done. January wears on, and sweaters get thin in the elbows. Windshield wipers fray. I start to long for spring. 

And then there are daffodils.

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My mom brought me a miniature bucket of them for my office the other day. Yellow and sprightly, they brighten the whole room. I remember studying abroad in England and admiring the hardy bulbs, the only things daring to bloom in a stubbornly cold April.

British poet William Wordsworth, whose cottage we visited, admired them too. They filled his quaint garden, where I sat and jotted notes nearly four years ago.

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He admired these flowers so much that one of his most famous poems is called “Daffodils.” It starts with these lines:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

I only really understood what he meant when I saw the fields of daffodils that sprawl over the English countryside while spring is still clinging to winter.

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Maybe you need a cheerful sprig of yellow, a bucket of daffodils, in your life today. They’re flowers of hope. May they remind both of us that spring is coming.

A Seventeen-Days-Late New Year’s Blessing

I know it’s three Fridays into the New Year. So posting a New Year’s blessing now feels late and a bit silly.

I also know it’s been two weeks since I blogged. I haven’t gotten up early every morning, and I’ve been writing a lot, but not 5 times a week. It’s discouraging to see myself fail to achieve my noble-minded New Year’s resolutions so quickly.

But maybe three weeks into 2014 is exactly when I need to be reminded that the year is still fresh and young. And maybe especially because those resolutions are already broken, it’s a good time to be reminded of grace. I shoot for the moon and miss on the first try. But thank goodness God isn’t done with this wayward archer.

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My mom tied up this poem with ribbon and gave it to me at Christmas. I love that it skirts the victorious sentimentalism of many New Year’s reflections. Rather, it focuses on a living relationship with God: sometimes gained through sorrow rather than joy; through failure rather than success. It’s a narrative of grace and a song of hope.

I hope it blesses you today.

New Year’s Blessing

In the new year I do not wish for you
that God will bless you,
since God already intends
only the deepest blessings for you.
I don’t wish that good things will happen to you,
since I don’t know
what will most beautifully shape your soul—
in what losses you will receive grace,
in what challenges you will gain wisdom,
in what struggles you will become more truly yourself.

Instead I hope for you this blessing:
that your heart be at peace,
that your mind be open
and your will be lovingly present;
that you live each day this year with love, courage and beauty,
with gentleness, trust and gratitude.
That you speak and be the truth,
that you find joy and wonder in your life,
that you be deeply mindful
of God’s indwelling presence,
God’s deep delight in accompanying you
in every breath.

May your work be fruitful,
your hope vibrant,
your voice clear,
and your friends faithful.

Whether you feel it or not,
deep blessing will be yours this year.
May you know it, and rejoice,
and live in harmony with God’s grace.

~Steve Garnaas-Holmes
(http://www.unfoldinglight.net)

Pumpkin Fun

Today’s post arrives on a Wednesday. I hope that doesn’t lead you to think that tomorrow is Saturday…

I am introducing this confusing mix-up because tomorrow is Halloween and I want to write about pumpkins! 
My very favorite kind of pumpkin is the costume variety. I think all babies should be dressed up as pumpkins at least once in their lives. 

Photo credit: James Willcox

 Awww…just TOO adorable! Dogs make pretty cute pumpkins, too:

Photo credit: C Jill Reed
But at my house, there being neither babies nor dogs to dress up, we paint real pumpkins. One of the vegetables below was designed by the engineer, one by the artist, and one by the writer in the house. I’ll let you guess whose is whose.
See? They’re Betty Boop, a hot air balloon, and a poem.
Last year, I stopped trying to fight my klutziness and penchant for stick figures and instead repurposed Halloween as the World Literacy Project, decorating my pumpkin with the opening lines of “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes.

This year it’s a different famous, slightly spooky poem (which I subjected my family to a reading of as I was writing it out in Sharpie). 10 points if you can guess the title and author! 
But though I’m greatly enjoying the World Literacy Project (and I hope the neighborhood kids will, too), there’s nothing wrong with stick figures. In fact, they can even make pretty cute costumes. Get a good laugh out of this one, and enjoy tomorrow!