About life, writing, and “non-negotiables”

Hello everyone,

Photo by Theresa Barker.

Here in Seattle we’ve been getting snow, snow, snow, and now that the snow has melted, we’re still getting bright sunny days and cooooollllllddd temperatures (for Seattle!). In the 30’s (F), which, for us, is a bit teeth-chattering. As much as I enjoy our lush green Pacific Northwest surroundings, and as much as I understand that our winter marine-rain climate makes that greenery possible, I have discovered how uplifting it is to get up in the morning and be greeted with a bright clear sunny day. It sneaks up on you, that feeling of optimism when you’ve had a number of sunny winter days in a row. Those of you in Phoenix or southern California – Australia? –  and other tropical places know what I mean!

Photo by Theresa Barker.

In the early morning of a super-sunny day, it seems even more relevant to think about spending time on the things you want to do with your life. It’s as though a gray winter day makes one feel like slipping into pajamas, making a cup of hot tea, and finding something cozy to do. (Watch old movies? Read a book? Chat with a friend?) But those sunshine-startled days are different. As the sun pours across our green-green landscape of firs and evergreens, a little voice in my head says, “What do you really want to do with your life? What really matters to you?”

I’ve been thinking about how I want to write, what I want to write, and about how I would like to tailor my writing process so that it is even more meaningful. This mullling-over of how to write reminds me these lines from the Mary Oliver well-known poem “The Summer Day”:

"Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?"
- Mary Oliver, "The Summer Day"

(If you’re not already familiar with it, her entire poem is worth a look , and you can find it here, at the Library of Congress. )

It’s the things that stay with us that become part of our identity. On a beautiful sunny day, it feels like the world is full of possibilities.

And here is a fun piece I wrote last week!

Red red wine by juanpedraza is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Wine Regard

The bottle of wine had sat on the shelf too long. “It’s gone vinegary,” one clerk would say to the other. And if a customer came in, cast eyes up toward the bottle with its vintage gold and green label, the red cork-neck wrapper, the beguiling curve of glass containing its reclusive liquid, if a customer looked up at it, the clerks would redirect them quickly to a more suitable choice, on a shelf in the regular part of the store.

Why the owner kept this bottle on the shelf in a special position behind the counter was not clear. The wine would never be drunk for pleasure, it being too old and it having gone sour. But at times the old things are not the things you get rid of. Something old may still have value even if not for its original purpose.

The wine would cling to this hope. Wine itself is a hopeful thing. It begins as a grape popping off the vine of a treasured vintage. The sun had developed its sugars, the cool nights have set them into the flush of the grape. Moisture in the grape can make electricity in a microwave oven, that’s how magical a mere grape can be. The grape has been picked, plucked off the twisty sinew of its vine, placed into a vat and crushed, its juice spraying into life as an intoxicant. Then comes the vintning process, the intelligence and knowledge of generations of winemakers poured into the grape’s substance, never carelessly, never without thought or attention. This is the crucial element. After creation the wine becomes a poured liquid, into a bottle that will contain and convey it into the final place in which it will be imbibed. Perhaps a bar, perhaps a fine restaurant. Perhaps the table of a couple who will, afterward, make love. Or the family sharing a Thanksgiving dinner. There is nothing but hope in the process. The hope that the grape’s sweetness will be properly grown, the hope that the winemaker’s talent and skill will be borned out in a fine flavor, the hope of a customer purchase of a wine to toast their loved ones, or to romance a sweetheart. The wine has become a thing of hope in all this. Sitting on the shelf, object of curiosity and admiration in customers’ eyes, symbol of a thing lost, or found, a story yet to be told from the mind of the owner of the shop.

Take care and good writing,


Why I love poets

Hello everyone,

Photo by Theresa Barker.

Every week I go to an appointment where they put out The New Yorker in the waiting area, among other magazines like O and The Atlantic, and every week I pick up the latest New Yorker and glance through it. Of course I read the cartoons! – but I also look for the poetry. I admit some of it is not to my taste, but that’s what poetry is about; it’s not all to one’s taste. A lot of it is not. But that’s part of what poetry is. It is a very personal experience, it is reading lines or words or phrases that either pull you into a different landscape or atmosphere, or they do not.

For a long time earlier in my life I thought something was wrong with me, that I wasn’t getting poetry correctly. If I encountered a poem I didn’t understand, I thought I wasn’t smart enough to puzzle it out. However, a few years back, during my MFA program in a master class on poetry, we had a session that changed my life. The professor asked us to read five poems she assigned in advance, and to bring in a list of those poems in order of favorite to least favorite. When we came into the classroom we brought our lists, and the professor made a big chart on the white board, with the names of the poems running down the left side, and our names across the top. In each column under our name she put the order of preference for each poem according to the list we brought in.

Guess what? Do you think that there was a consensus on which poems were “the best,” and which were “the worst”? In other words, did our lists look similar when we put them on the white board?

As you’ve probably guessed, they did not. In fact, there was a wide variation among which poems were “the favorite,” and which were “the least favorite.” In fact, it was almost an even distribution among all the poems, of most- to least-favorite status. Poems that one person hated were the favorite of another. I was shocked. And I was relieved.

Photo by Theresa Barker.

My takeaway was this: it’s completely okay to like a poem just because you like it. It’s also completely okay NOT to like a poem if you do not. This was a huge demonstration that understanding or preference for a particular poem is not a reflection of one’s intelligence or how smart one is. It is just that – understanding or preference of a poem because of what the poem is to YOU, and what it evokes or suggests or reminds you of when you read it.

This is not to say we shouldn’t try to understand poems that are hard at first try. I’m not suggesting all poems should be “easy.” What I want to express is, like art, it’s perfectly okay to enjoy a poem you like, and it’s okay to pass on poems that don’t appeal to you. What I look for in a poem, even if I don’t enjoy it very much, is a sequence of words, or a phrase, that I have never seen before, or that strikes me as unusual, or that makes me think of something else creative.

I really liked a poem from a recent New Yorker, Brenda Shaughnessey’s “Gift Planet.” I like the start of it:

My six-year-old said, “I don’t know time.” She already knows it’s unknowable. Let it be always a stranger she walks wide around.

Gosh, can you imagine that? Time is “unknowable.” Let time be a stranger that her daughter gives a wide berth to, something not allowed to dominate, to dictate, to determine the course of your life. Fun!

Why do I love poets? Last week at my writing conference I had the chance to hear recent work from two poet-colleagues and friends who are poets. And once again I felt drawn to, and transported, by the loveliness of their work. Not that their poems were all about flowers or gardens or the sunrise, not at all. But their language, their phrasing, their word choices really spoke to me, and when I heard them read their work I felt uplifted. I know that’s an overused word. I felt touched and connected and better than before I heard their work.

As you know, I like to start my daily routine writing exercise with a line from a Poem of the Day, and I have a very short piece I wrote using the first lines of a Robert Frost poem, “Fragmentary Blue” (what a great title, huh?). The opening of Frost’s poem goes,

Why make so much of fragmentary blue
In here and there a bird, or butterfly,
Or flower, or wearing-stone, or open eye,

I wrote this piece, “Blink,” in recollection of my recent visit to Phoenix, Arizona, and on the heels of a lovely visit with poet-colleague and blogger-friend Luanne Castle.


Her eyes a fragmentary blue. She blinked, blinked, blinked again and the hills turned to valleys, the valleys to rivers, the rivers to lake beds. She blinked, blinked, blinked again and the stars fell to earth, the hills behind the mountains became the beyond. She blinked, blinked, blinked again and you could see eternity in the bowl of the desert, blue band along the rim of mountains, pink above, just as the sun rises over the turning earth, to the east, east, east, and every hopeful, ever the optimist, ever the punching declaiming sun to rule and to rune the desert earth. Petroglyphs sing the messages of the old ones. Here, here, here, the eyes blink and the earth sinks and the sun is evermore.

Take care and good writing,


What are your core beliefs?

Hello everyone,

Photo by Theresa Barker.

Do you ever ask yourself, why do I write? What are my values and how are they connected to the writing I do?

This week I’m at a writing conference in Port Townsend, Washington, on the Olympic Peninsula. In one workshop we spent time thinking about what landscape(s) we feel most drawn to and how those landscapes were evocative of our personal values. I wrote down two landscapes: the Desert Southwest, where I was born, and the Pacific Northwest, where I have lived all my life. To me, the desert  represents eternity in its rocky minimalist landscape, while the northwest represents renewal in its prolific greenness, but both of these landscapes convey a yearning for beauty. We talked about how the things that are important to us keep popping up as themes in our writing and in our art. Thinking about what themes come up in my work, I have to say it’s often about what it means to be human. What makes us act and think and believe a certain way? Can we become better versions of ourselves? – More fair, more generous and kind, more knowledgeable?

I’ve been doing a LOT of journaling in the past few weeks, trying to learn more about my own creativity and about the barriers that keep me back. Sometimes in the past I’m tempted to think of journaling as the “lazy way” to write, because you just have to write down your thoughts and feelings and you don’t have to make up characters, or try to use poetic language. But let’s face it, in journaling we can drill down into our thinking. We can elicit core beliefs. We can put together our approach to life and to our art.

Photo by Theresa Barker.

Through journaling and in some of the workshop sessions this week I’m starting to realize more of a vision about my writing. When I get up in the morning here the winter light beams across the water, over the lightened cliffs of Whidbey Island in the distance, and onto the rocky-sandy shore. Clouds mass over the water in whites, browns, and grays. It’s a complicated landscape. Like writing!

Here’s something I’ve been working on recently:


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Now that I have your face by heart I look at the way it looks back at me. The eyes, the eyebrows more, the curve of the cheek, the half-smile, these all reflect back the long pearl-chain of women who came before you and I. My mother, my grandmother, her mother, and so on and so on. The female mitochondria that don’t lie. They carry such a burden. My mother’s insouciance, my grandmother’s cratchetiness, a great-grandmother’s long-suffering, another’s dogged perseverance. They all lie together in our shared DNA, that X in my cells that became an X in your cells. Don’t forget you have an X from your father, an X that takes you back through his mother’s line, mothers of mothers of mothers of mothers. We all have the burden of Xing back to the lines out of Africa. There is, somewhere, a DNA-based Eve. Or more than one. Perhaps seven, a lucky number. They who scratched in the dirt for roots, who climbed down from the trees to the savannah, gathering nuts and berries and who dried the meat hunted by men, they who carried babies on their backs and around their chests, they who dried the tears of children who cried, they who cried themselves when they lost their own children to illness, to injury, to stealing raids by attackers.

Now that I have your face by heart I look at the way it looks back at me and I feel the presence of all those lineage ancestors. The hearted burden of inheritance brings danger, brings knowledge, brings love.

Take care and good writing,


What inspires you?

Hello everyone,

It’s another morning, a gray Seattle morning. And it’s raining this morning. On days like today I really love the green-ness of Seattle, but it can also be hard to get going on projects that involve creativity. It’s hard not to feel dull, like a blob, when it’s gray-gray-gray outside. Reaching in vain for inspiration. Feeling like nothing is interesting, nothing is promising, nothing is worth writing on. Hmmm!

Photo by Theresa Barker.

Last week we had a lunar eclipse and the skies in Seattle cleared just a couple of hours beforehand. It was cold! and I bundled up to go out and stand in my driveway to watch the eclipse. I had never seen a lunar eclipse before! The feeling of seeing a thing happen on such an immense scale, the moon passing into the shadow of the earth, me standing on this one tiny place on the planet and watching it – I can’t really describe it. Goosebumps! Eventually the moon became a bumpy orange dot on the background of the sky, almost like an Asian lantern. And it stayed that way for quite a long time before going back to “normal.” As I mentioned, I can’t really describe the feeling of observing this event, except that it reminded me how immense nature is, and that it’s always worth taking a moment to view what’s going on outside. Right?!

If you’d like to see more on the lunar eclipse, including a video of the event, click here.

Other things that inspired me this week:

Visiting a friend-poet in Arizona. I had a chance to meet in person with my blogging friend and colleague and accomplished poet, Luanne Castle, when I traveled to Arizona last weekend to visit family in Phoenix. I was born in Tucson, and we moved here to Seattle when I was very young, yet I’ve always felt connected and at home in the desert. (All those summer trips visiting the grandparents!). Luanne has a new chapbook out last year, Kin Types, and we had a chance to talk about the poems I enjoyed best in her book, I got her autograph! – And we also brought three “favorite poems” to discuss with each other. Since Luanne has a Ph.D. in Literature and she also has a graduate degree in History along other graduate studies, it was a great chance for me to “pick her brain” about poetic constructs and concepts. You can learn more about Luanne’s work by clicking here. Thanks, Luanne!

Photo by Theresa Barker.

Touring Taliesin West. If you’re interested in architecture, design, or in the desert and desert plants and environment, you might want to visit the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation’s site, Taliesin West. They give tours of the historic buildings, as well as of the surrounding desert habitat – in winter – that provide a lot of information on design principles, what it’s like to live in a small closed community focused on the arts and design, and on the historic development of this iconic site. In the afternoon we had a chance to go on a student-led tour – it’s still the site of an architecture school – that included the student-built shelters out in the desert area. Very minimalist, and the designs ranged across a huge variety of visual and spatial forms and structures. I didn’t want to take photos of student shelters – they sleep in these shelters in the desert, so it felt too personal – but if you’d like to get an idea of the student shelter projects, here’s a link to a portfolio of one student’s final project to re-construct an existing shelter.

Photo by Theresa Barker.

Images, story titles, lines of poetry. I might have mentioned before that, when I’m really stuck, or even when I’m starting my day of writing, I will often look for an image that intrigues me – what does this picture tell me, what questions does it ask, how can I use it to write something new? Or, I pull up a book of short stories, look down the list of story titles, find one that jumps out at me, and write the story for that title. Recent story title: “The Poetry Cloud.” If nothing else, I take a look at today’s “Poem of the Day” and look for a line that intrigues me; then I’ll set a timer for fifteen minutes and write.

Screenshot of Olney Gallery exhibition announcement.

While in Phoenix I had a chance to view an art exhibition in the Olney Gallery in Trinity Cathedral. One of the paintings. a stack of suitcases on an old-fashioned luggage trolley by artist Julie Frye (at right), inspired this brief flash fiction below.


The suitcases pile up on the old luggage cart. It is like a piece of performance art, Renata thinks. Blue, orange, gray, green. Brown. They sit atop the platform, each balancing the other, each a piece of a pyramid working with gravity. Straps, buckles, corners, hinges. Renata has been waiting on the platform between two brown hills, putting her in mind ever so much of that Hemingway story.

Hills like White Elephants is the name of the story Renata is thinking of, the story she is living inside of on this hot tired railway station with the blistered luggage settled on the old iron hand trolley. She wants to remember the image for her new story she’ll write next week, but the heat, the oppressive heat makes her feel like she cannot root around in her bag for the iPhone she knows is in there, that even if she made the effort she would miss the bright colors, the contrasting wrinkles and sad-sack straps that make this image stick to the part of her brain that writes stories. She has tried this before. Short of dragging along a bulky old-fashioned SLR to faraway remotes like this one, she has to compromise. Make do. It is not a thing Renata is good at. Only the best will serve. First Ballerina, principal in her big-city dance company, now aged out by injury and the inevitable loss of flexibility, she is trying career number two: writer. She has come to this dust-bedeviled part of the country to get away – no second-stage choreographer career for her, no telling other dancers what to do when she is consumed by envy with every step they make and which she cannot. And certainly no teaching.

The train is not due for some time yet, she has checked her watch. She takes out a notepad and her lucky pen. Not to waste the moment, the present of puckered leather baggage resting atop iron-wheel trolley in the oppressive heat of the place, she begins. The blue suitcase belonged to Ophelia. A trip, a long voyage, was what she needed. The brown was Laertes’s, or the actor playing the part, her lover since Hamlet had dismissed her. All the world’s a stage, Renata thought, she and Ophelia together. All the world.

Take care and good writing,


Oh, that green-eyed monster, envy

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Hello everyone,

If you’re like me, you fervently hope that your work will be recognized by an audience. When you’re making your artistic work you do it partly, yes, for the creative expression; and you also do it partly for having your work recognized by an audience, by having it published/shown/purchased/displayed.

And when one of my friends or colleagues has their work published or selected for an honor, I’m really happy for them. But – sometimes – I’m also feeling a little sad, like I didn’t measure up to the same standard, that I’ll never achieve success, that my work will languish in the darkness of never-read, never-viewed work.

And yet I so often forget about the relative success I have enjoyed! What’s up with that?

What have I done? I’ve achieved an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. I’ve written three novels. I’ve written countless stories. I’ve had my work published in professional-level fiction markets – recently!. Not only that, but I regularly receive compliments on my work in the form of personal rejections from submission editors.  “We like your writing, we just couldn’t use this story.” I have a blog that connects me with other writers and artists who are pursuing their own artistic paths, who share suggestions and encouragement for writing and art processes, and who often take the time to read and respond to my blog posts. All achievements, all successes.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

We are wired to compare ourselves to the next person. Last year I read a helpful article in the New York Times about how to diffuse the intense envy that comes from learning of the success of someone close to you. The research indicates that yes, it does hurt more when the success is for someone you know well, friend or family member; isn’t that interesting? The suggestion to counteract the sting of this personal form of envy was to reflect on your own path and how it has been different from the successful person’s path. So, for instance, if one of my fellow MFA colleagues published a memoir and he seems to be getting rave reviews and large-audience book reading events (as happened recently), following the suggestion in this article I might say to myself, “Yes, that’s great that he’s finally got his book published, hooray! And even better that it isn’t just sinking into oblivion, that’s wonderful . . . and unlike him, remember, you have a Ph.D. in engineering, a successful and happy relationship with spouse, children, and extended family, not to mention the work you’ve been doing recently as a community and neighborhood activist. Making a difference. Along with all that you’re getting somewhere with your own writing!” And indeed that helps me to feel much less like a failure and much more forgiving of my friend’s success.

As an aside, if you’re like me, it’s temping to think that you’re running out of time, that if you don’t achieve X success by Y date, you’ll never make it. Well, I read another article recently about research indicating that the “big discovery” or the “big achievement” in well-known accomplished people’s lives has come at all different points in their career; not necessarily at the outset, not necessarily when they are toward the end of their career, not necessarily in the middle. That Big Success can happen at any time along the way! So, even if like me you’re in a later phase of your artistic career without having won a distinguished award or having seen the success you are hoping for yet, that does not mean you won’t achieve an amazing accomplishment down the road!

And of course, we’re at our most envious when the other person’s achievement hits home, when they have a success that is exactly the kind of success we are hoping for: a published book, the sales record of a best-seller, a particular award or honor that is the same field as our own work. Right? But a good friend always reminds me, “When you’re feeling super-envious, that only points to the thing that is most important to you.”

So, in this early part of the year, perhaps you’ll take a moment, like me, to remember that that “ouch” point of another person’s success is like a compass pointing to the thing we want most. And then, we might take a moment to reflect on what we have already accomplished, and remind ourselves of the successes we have already achieved. And if you’re feeling particularly hopeful, perhaps you’ll take a moment to imagine that “big success” that may still be ahead in your artistic career. Woo hoo!

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

I have a friend who tells me he really enjoys the little flash pieces when I post them. This week I did a small flash in my “word improvisations” that I wanted to share. Here’s it is!

When the sea curls its granite lip

The poem found itself gleaning, gleaning, what was in the poet’s mind. Turbulence, seagulls, fortresses. Foundational elements of poetry. Meter and rhyme.

And yet detritus, so much detritus in among the salient bits. Robert Hass’s book is somewhere on my bookshelf, where did I see it last, I would like a clubhouse sandwich for lunch but I’m hungry now. Where did that pen go, I only want to use my good pen, my lucky pen, the pen I used for that last poem that the New Yorker almost took, but that pen seems to have disappeared. Oh, now the dog has come in, she needs a walk but I won’t get anything done if I take her out now, old Mrs. Pendleton waters her lawn at this time of the morning and she stands there with the hose hoping people will walk by and she can corner them and talk to them about the city’s inability to pave the streets properly and hasn’t she been here since 1949 and they should know that there is a law about citizens being served properly by city government since her husband was a city attorney for many years before he died in that awful plane accident and left her a widow with only her schoolteacher’s salary to raise four boys on, and do they ever call her or see how she’s doing? Not a one, those ungrateful boys-turned-men who married women that moved them out of state and for all she knows there are grandchildren now who she’s never put eyes on thanks to those women with their cutting-remark eyes and avaricious tendencies, but she was only a widow who did her best, including doing her best for all the students in her classroom who didn’t follow rules but made her life more difficult, not easier, as a teacher in the schools, where did the discipline go, where did it all go away, once they took away juvenile hall and detention everything went to pot, but now all she has is this house and the unevenly paved streets the city should have taken care of long ago and not only that, there was this cat that hung out, peed in her garden and killed her vegetables, must have belonged to the new neighbors who look like they moved here from out of the country and she’s not saying anything against them but you can tell things have changed since they moved in.

And now the poem is writing itself, all about xenophobia but not in a direct way, the poet using the pen that is not her lucky pen but just her second-choice pen lying next to the desk lamp and the white-white watercolor paper she salvaged from the kids’ art class when they were still in school, no need to let it go to waste, and the poem spools itself out over white textured paper as though it were the watercolor paint spilling, spreading, falling into microscopic crevices prepared for paint.

Ah, the poem thinks, this is the life, this is really the life, spilling and falling like a waterfall, like the enormous waterfall pictured in so-and-so’s blog that the poet viewed yesterday, the poem can feel the fluidity of movement in the words, the vocab the poet is trying out, juxtaposition of words that is a thrill all its own, and then and then and then the final sweeping phrase, the turn at the end that cinches it, the feel of cleverness that is not too cloying, and the poem breathes, breathes, breathes until it is closed and the draft is done and the poet sits back and smiles. Smiles because there is something new that was never there before and it has taken the form of poetry and movement and a waterfall despite there being no water in sight. A good day.

Take care and good writing,