Week #139

As chief groundkeeper of Pleasant Hills Cemetery, I am often witness to peculiar things.


"Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail."

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Cool site

If you are looking for even more inspiration here is a cool site that has not only random words to get the ideas flowing but pictures and videos too! Check it out here.

Week #138

Barnett Grimswell came into my life the day I found him asleep in a tuxedo, clutching a bouquet of crushed carnations, on the front lawn of the petting zoo I owned with my brother.

Random Exercise

Use these three words in a short story:

lemon, hairspray, rock.


"Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don't try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It's the one and only thing you have to offer."

~Barbara Kingsolver

Do You Have a Favourite?

I am having a great time doing the author interviews I've introduced on the blog this year. (There's a new interview coming soon!) One of the things I like best is being able to feature first-time authors from small presses. But, alas, I am just one woman (and a busy one, at that)and I fear my list of small publishers has a lot of holes in it. So, if you have a favourite small press please leave me a comment so I can keep an eye on what they are publishing in my quest to find interesting people to interview on First Line!

Or, if you have a favourite author you would love to see interviewed here, whisper (or shout) their name to me in the comment section and I'll see what I can do.

Have a Gander

I stumbled on a blog I thought some of you might enjoy. It's called, "A Book Inside - How to Write and Publish a Book."

Click here to have a look.

Week #137

The first thing Edwina did after the divorce was buy herself a pair of red cowboy boots.

Random Exercise

Make a list your ten favourite scents. They could be a winter morning, freshly cut grass, your grandmother's Chanel No 5, etc. Then choose three of the scents from your list and write for ten minutes on each describing the smell, what emotions they evoke in you and what they remind you of.

Author Interview: Priscilla Long

I am happy to welcome Priscilla Long to the First Line blog! Priscilla Long is the author of, “The Writer’s Portable Mentor” which was reviewed on the First Line blog yesterday and, “Where the Sun Never Shines: A History of America’s Bloody Coal Industry.” She is also a writing teacher and a widely published author of essays, fiction, science and poetry. She has been awarded a National Magazine Award and a Seattle Arts Commission award. Welcome Priscilla!

First Line (FL): You have a fascinating section in "The Writer's Portable Mentor" about collecting words. Do you have a favourite word?

Priscilla Long (PL): I keep finding new favourite words! I like odd words like crook and croodle. I love the work lickspittle. I like words of Old English origin like crock, cricket, work. Peduncle is one of the great words. Tick and croak. Then there's hornswoggle.

FL: What was the best advice you received as a writer?

PL: The most important advice I ever received was from a book by Dorothea Brande called "Becoming a Writer". She advised to write for 15 minutes every day (more if the day allowed but 15 minutes in any case). I read that lovely book before I knew there was such a thing as a writing teacher and I have been writing for at least 15 minutes every day ever since. That was thirty years ago.

FL: While reading, "The Writer's Portable Mentor" I flipped to the back hoping to find a "Recommended Reading" list. But there wasn't one! So, here's my chance: What book(s) do you think every writer should read?

PL: "The Writer's Portable Mentor" uses many virtuoso sentences and passages to show the effect of this or that technique. The bibliography in the back comes to thirteen pages, about different 150 works. I read the whole of anything I quote from and I recommend these works passionately! Writers need to read, read, and read. A short list is difficult! Susan Sontag's essays. Michael Ondaatje's "The English Patient". I currently adore the novels of Ann Patchett. I am reading the essays of Katha Pollitt and Orhan Pamuk. Anne Carson is indispensable. I am rereading Emily Dickinson. A fabulous essayist is Brian Doyle. Joan Silber's short stories are breath-taking. Oh, you have set off a long answer. For philosophy I will take Gaston Bachelard. For science, Stephen Jay Gould, Oliver Sacks, Lynn Margulis. For weirdness, P. K. Dick. You have asked what books every writer should read and I am answering with what I have read. As for books about writing, besides "The Writer's Portable Mentor" of course, I recommend "Art and Fear" by David Bayles and Ted Orland. Even though it was meant for visual artists, every word is true for writers. I recommend "The Weekend Novelist" by Robert J. Ray and Bret Norris and "The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery" by Robert J. Ray and Jack Remick. I am just now reading a lovely book by Bruce Black, "Writing Yoga". Charles Baxter's "The Art of Subtext" is excellent. I highly recommend Twyla Tharp's "The Creative Habit". Ok, now I'll stop!

FL: If you weren't a writer, what would you want to be?

PL: If I wasn't a writer I would be a painter. Someone once said that poets and painters have a relationship of love and envy. It is true that I love and envy the painters. I try to one-up paintings with vivid words but I never succeed. The way they get to work with paint is not fair.

FL: Describe your work habits. When do you write? Where?

PL: I get up every morning and write in my journal for about an hour. This can be about anything but through it I frame my day. There are days when that is all I get. (I have a heavy schedule teaching writing and editing the online encyclopedia of Washington state history, www.historylink.org.) I often write in one of several Seattle coffeehouses. I write virtually all first drafts in a notebook, then transfer to the computer. I don't carry a computer to a café but use the notebooks in the cafés. This is partly because I love to write in notebooks and partly because I spend so much time at the computer (editing the encyclopedia and also revising my own writing) that I am maxed out on the computer. I work on several pieces at once, always. Some of the pieces require considerable research and take time. So it's valuable to be able to switch from one to another and then back again. I am very concerned with issues of productivity (but believe that anxiety is counter-productive), and I am concerned with finishing works and sending them out. I teach mostly advanced writers and I do all the assigned exercises myself and hand my homework to the writers in the class. I do the word lists, the Before/After exercises, and all the rest, very consistently, and it helps me become a better writer all the time. These are not digressions but lead to published works.

FL: What inspires you?

PL: Art inspires me. That would be Beethoven. That would be Jim Morrison belting out "Light my Fire" or Otis Redding's "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay." I get a lot from looking at paintings, from the visual arts. Miles Davis. Great writing always inspires me.

FL: If you could have dinner with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

PL: I would like to have dinner with Kafka. At this dinner I will inform him that although he thinks of himself as "an incapable, ignorant person" (as recorded in his diary), I think of him, on the contrary, as a great writer. And, I will tell him, so do lots of other people. And, no, they don't all have terrible taste … And, yes, they do know what they are talking about. So, no, he is not "an incapable, ignorant person".

FL: Do you have any other creative talents? Do you paint? Play a musical instrument?

PL: I used to play banjo and one day will again. Last week I made a great soup.

FL: What are you working on now?

PL: An exciting new project. It is a weekly blog column, to be called Segue to Science, to be published by the journal The American Scholar. Each weekly column will have a core of science and will then range from the personal to poetry to whatever and then back to science. I am having a great time with these. (The Scholar will start posting them soon.) I am also composing 36 sestinas. I am also composing an abecedarium called "Autobiography: An A-Z". A stands for Arrests and details one of the times I was arrested in the Civil Rights movement—back when. B stands for Bottle-fed Baby. Etcetera.

To learn more about Priscilla Long visit: www.PriscillaLong.com

Book Review: The Writer's Portable Mentor by Priscilla Long

The Writer’s Portable Mentor by Priscilla Long is a treasure trove of information and inspiration for all writers, at whatever stage they may be at in their writing lives. Priscilla Long focuses on six areas she feels are important in every writer’s development. They are: basic productivity, language work, training in observation, grasping and employing story structures, developing sentencing skills and the regular practice of completing works and publishing them.

In the first section Long states: “Writing every day is the key to becoming a writer.” I completely agree. She then provides plenty of ideas on how to incorporate writing in your already busy life. In the exercise, “Hands On: Jump Starting an Essay or Story” she teaches how to generate a first draft in just sixty minutes. This exercise alone is worth the price of the book, in my opinion. She also has a brilliant chapter on training ourselves to observe.

The middle chapters of the book are taken up by a fascinating and useful look at structure. Long points out highly productive writers often share two habits: they write a set number of words a day and they write into a structure. In this section four different types of structure are discussed: theme structure, collage structure, two-or three-strand (braid) structure and dramatic story structure. Wonderful examples of each are given.

After learning how to put words on the page and how to structure them, Long gets down to the nitty-gritty. Topics such as sentence structure, paragraph structure and punctuation are examined next. Part Five concludes with a wonderful chapter on revision and Long’s own take on “Work vs. Talent.”

The final section of the book deals with publication. Why else are you doing all this hard work, right? For writers already accustomed to sending out their work much of this can be safely skimmed, but writers just beginning to submit their stories will be grateful for Long’s clear instructions. Everyone, though, can benefit from the chapter on productivity. And Long’s method of organizing her own writing has improved and revolutionized my own. The final chapter is on success and reminds every writer of why they are writing.

The Writer’s Portable Mentor is exactly what it claims to be: a mentor. It has earned a place on my bookshelf alongside the few, precious books I reach for again and again. The Writer’s Portable Mentor is in turns educational, inspiring, encouraging and entertaining. Priscilla Long has generously shared all that she has learned in her years as a writer and writing teacher. I think every writer should own a copy of this book.

Be sure to stop by tomorrow for my interview with Priscilla!

To learn more about Priscilla Long visit: www.PriscillaLong.com
“The Writer’s Portable Mentor” is published by Wallingford Press.

Week #136

As Dwayne nosed the rental car down the dirt road that led to his childhood home he began to have second thoughts.


"The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter - it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning."

~ Mark Twain

Author Interview: Gayle Brandeis

I am so pleased to be welcoming Gayle Brandeis to the First Line blog! Gayle grew up in the Chicago area and has been writing poems and stories since she was four years old. She is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperOne), Dictionary Poems (Pudding House Publications), the novels The Book of Dead Birds (HarperCollins), which won Barbara Kingsolver's Bellwether Prize for Fiction in Support of a Literature of Social Change, Self Storage (Ballantine) and Delta Girls (Ballantine), and her first novel for young readers, My Life with the Lincolns (Holt).

First Line (FL): What is your favorite word?

Gayle Brandeis (GB): I have two favorite words that I love with an equal passion: luscious and luminous. I love how they feel in my mouth, I love how they sound, I love what they evoke. Come to think of it, I have a third favorite word now, too—my one and a half year old coined it: bookagee (sometimes bookajay), which he says repeatedly and gleefully as he runs back and forth across the couch or the bed.

FL: What was the best advice you received as a writer?

GB: Write about what scares you. It’s where the juice is. Also, give yourself permission to write a really awful, messy first draft; revision is when you can give it shape, make it more--shall we say--luscious and luminous.

FL: What book do you think every writer should read?

GB: My go-to books about writing are Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and Writing Begins with the Breath and The Writing Warrior by my amazing friend and first reader, Laraine Herring. All of these books inspire and fortify me—they make me brave, make me dig deeper into my writing self than I would have on my own.

FL: If you weren’t a writer, what would you want to be?

GB: Someone who makes a tangible difference in the world, whether through relief work or research or education (or maybe through having a restaurant that offers the most mind-meltingly good food you can imagine, and is also conscious about feeding the hungry in the community.)

FL: Describe your work habits. When do you write? Where?

GB: That’s what I’m trying to figure out! I have not written nearly as much as I would have liked since the baby was born. I just recently started to have a babysitter over three mornings a week, and I tiptoe up to the guest bedroom to work while they play downstairs; much of that time is filled with online teaching and other obligations, but I’m trying to squeeze in my own writing, too. Traditionally late nights have been my most creative time, but I’m so exhausted by the end of the day now (something that wasn’t an issue when my 20 and 17 year old kids were little) and have to retool my idea of who and how I am as a writer. I haven’t quite figured it out yet!

FL: You write both fiction and nonfiction. How does the process differ for the two?

GB: It’s hard to say because I kind of disappear when I write and what happens in the process is quite mysterious to me. Of course I can’t disappear quite as much when I write non-fiction since I have to be attentive to facts and memory; that’s really the biggest difference between the genres—with non-fiction, I generally know what really happened, but I have to find a form to contain and shape that reality, whereas with fiction, I have no idea what is going to happen at all, so the main process for the first draft is figuring out the people and their world. With both genres, though, I try to keep my process as fluid as possible; I like to not know where I’m going, even if I am writing about subjects I know well—I want to invite discovery, surprise, transformation.

FL: What inspires you?

GB: Everything holds the potential for inspiration—I feel as if my job as a writer is to stay as open as possible, so I’ll be ready to breathe in inspiration any time, any place—whether it’s a snippet of overheard conversation or the taste of the first ripe garden tomato of the season. I’m also inspired by kindness, by generosity, by creative risk-taking, by anyone who raises their voice to speak truth to power.

FL: If you could have dinner with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

GB: Meridel LeSueur. I just discovered her as I was researching my recent talk on mothers who write socially engaged fiction, and now she’s my new role model. She was born in 1900, and wrote with a freedom and passion and desire to make a difference that was rare among women of her time. I wish I had known about her while she was alive—she lived until she was 96, and continued to be a rabble rouser until the very end. I’d love to talk to her about motherhood and writing and being an agent for change.

FL: Do you have any other creative talents? Do you paint? Play a musical instrument?

GB: Aside from writing, dance has been my other lifelong passion. My background is mostly in modern, improvisational dance, but I’ve been belly dancing in my friend’s troupe for a few years now, and find it a wonderful, cathartic outlet, full of fun and sisterhood.

FL: What are you working on now?

GB: I have three projects all screaming for attention—a new novel, a new YA novel, and a memoir about my mom, who took her own life when the baby was a week old. I’m not giving any of these projects as much time as I’d like, and am hoping that one of them will push the others out of the way for a while so I’ll have a clearer focus when I sit down to write. We shall see which, if any, of them rise to the top of the heap!

Thanks Gayle! To learn more about Gayle Brandeis and her work visit: www.gaylebrandeis.com