Shuffle the Word Deck



What are the odds of playing the exact same game of Solitaire twice? Given 52 cards, it’s beyond my wimpy powers of calculation. I play Solitaire a lot. It’s my go-to avoidance trick but this morning I was noodling around with it and it struck me that as much as I play, the random deal always seems fresh. Hmm, given the number of words in my vocabulary, my random deal of language must be way out there. So, do this:

Get a deck of cards, preferably one you don’t plan to use in Texas Hold’em because you will definitely mark these cards. With pen or black marker (Because cards are slick the words may blur, so experiment with the jokers, which you won’t need.) build a word deck, 26 black nouns and 26 red verbs. Shuffle them and deal out seven like the base row for Solitaire. Now make something of that hand. Cheap entertainment and good exercise for your imagination. Finding new connections among random words is creative. Go play, write. This is one card game you can’t lose.

RMFW Conference

This weekend Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers held their 30th Conference at the Westin Hotel in Westminster, CO, a sold-out event—400 writers in the same place at the same time. The word tribe echoed through the conference rooms, but we were more like a host, an army, a hoard, bent on lending and bending ears and picking brains for the secrets to great writing. William Kent Krueger, award-winning mystery and suspense author was there was there. Mark Coker, CEO of Smashwords, was there. I was there. My head is still there, maybe in one of those brown leather chairs in the lobby, maybe under a skinny writing table in a conference room.

If you have not yet been to a major writers’ conference, take note:

  • First, you pay. Paying ahead usually gets you a discount. Special add-on sessions will add on to the total. Budget for travel, hotels, etc. At least some of the meals will be included in the registration fee.
  • Traveling, rooming, planning with a friend is fun, but don’t cling to that friend. Mingle, meet new people. This weekend we were encouraged to invite ourselves into conversations and clutches of people. Agree to meet your friends for lunch or at the wine bar, but don’t forget the value of networking.
  • Take plenty of business cards that say clearly that you are a writer/author. Cards fly around like snowflakes.
  • Wring out all the juice: hear every note of the dirge and ode that is writing advice. Sleeping in and hanging out at the wine bar is not the best use of your time. Yes, you’ll get tired. But this is part of your job as a writer. Just do it.
  • Go ahead and fill the conference tote bag with free swag, but remember that you have to carry it around. Unless you choose the tiny candy bars and eat them. I guess you’re still carrying them, just not in the tote bag.
  • Study the program ahead and accept that you cannot hear every speaker. You’ll regret some that you did not hear; you’ll regret some that you do hear. We had the option of buying audio tapes of those we missed or wanted to hear again.
  • Plan to buy books, not because you need them, but because they are delicious and often discounted. Authors are present to sign them. Then again, you’ll be carrying them around. I waited to buy near the end of the conference for that reason.
  • Ration you energy. The stimulation is enormous—400 people in the hallways, jockeying for seats in popular sessions, talking, talking and talking. If you can, find a quiet spot whenever the schedule allows. Use the restrooms every chance you get, especially at odd times when they are less crowded.

Some of the advice I heard at RMFW confirmed things I knew, some of it added to what I knew, and some of it scared me, e.g. I don’t have a book series and that’s a big money issue. I don’t know that I’ll ever want to write a series. But as Kent Krueger said in his closing speech, we write because we love it. Our first job is to write good stories, poems, memoirs and essays. Given the weekend with the tribe, I’m more than ready to get back to that job and use some of the tips I gathered in those conference sessions.

Flawed Landscape

In each of the books listed at the bottom of this post, a poet serves as our witness to the world in ways that conventional news does not, cannot. The list is far from inclusive, but each book is especially meaningful to me. Most timely this summer is Sharif S. Elmusa’s Flawed Landscape: Poems 1987-2008. Now an American citizen, he was born in Palestine and brings us news that only he can. We need to know that he could “go around,/like an ancient Chinese poet,/ watching moons and donkeys.” And that he has trouble going around freely because “Gaza is a cage.” And that he wants “to cross borders/unseen/like salmon/like contaminated wind” (from “Moons and Donkeys”). Here is a real person in a real life seeing his birth country torn apart.

We won’t get such a complex, first person point of view as this from the news agencies, and yet, we need to hear his experience in his words. And to thank poets who brings us news, not only of battles and beheadings, but of daily life lived in a war zone, whether it’s Iraq or Appalachia. Auden said that “poetry makes nothing happen.” But I stand with William Carlos Williams who said in “Asphodel, that Greeny Flower”: “It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.”

When Sharif read his poems in a bookstore in Maine, he seeded into the world a truth we sorely need. Poetry is an enzyme in the body politic, a vital stimulant and we could die miserably for lack of it.

Elmusa reads at Gulf of Maine Books, August 2014Elmusa reads at Gulf of Maine Books, August 2014

Brian Turner, Here, Bullet

Jack Hirschman, Front Lines

Martin Espada, ed., Poetry Like Bread: Poets of the Political Imagination from Curbstone Press

Betsy Sholl, Otherwise Unseeable

David Mason, Ludlow


Hope & Serendipity

Last week I wrote about the commercial context in which we hear awful news about Palestine, ebola, and now again about ISIS, the news worse each day. Hope, however, keeps strange company.

On Monday I headed for the local library. Turns out it’s closed on Mondays. Hungry for books, I drove into Brunswick, Maine, to Gulf of Maine Books, where I overheard the owner, Gary Lawless, say that there would be a poetry reading in the store that afternoon. I bought a grand anthology, Poetry Like Bread, edited by Martin Espada, perfect for my interest in poetry of witness and I went back in time for the reading.

The featured poet was Sharif Elmusa, born and raised in Palestine, now a part-year resident of Maine. He read mostly gentle poems about his childhood in a place now ruptured by violence. (His book, Flawed Landscape, sold out and I have to wait until next week to review it.) What an amazing line of causality, bright as neon–closed library, bookstore, Palestinian poet–suggesting order in a world of chaos, hope despite the death and destruction in the Middle East. If I see a movie with a happy ending or read a novel in which the hero survives atrocities and hatred,  or I hear poems like Elmusa’s and hope for peace, kindness, equality, and justice, not revenge. I don’t know what to do because I don’t have an active role in world affairs.

For many years my role was to help people survive the effects of mental illness. Eventually, I took Lao Tzu’s advice: “Do your work; then step back.” I worked hard until fatigue and stress signaled time to step back. Still I fret and dither over my job in a whole word gone mad, a madness born not of neurological defect but of greed and deadly dogma. Maybe my job now is to pour hope into the world, to be generous and open minded, to witness suffering and to speak out. Multiplied by millions such attentive hope might save us.

Context Matters

At home I don’t watch much TV. For now I am a houseguest so the television is on and I see things differently. Admittedly I watch far more HGTV than is healthy, one of my guilty vacation pleasures. But I also watch news, and this week Ebola and Gaza are the big stories. The coverage is extensive and a very fine grind. That’s understandable. What upsets me almost as much as the hair splitting and violence is the context in which the news nestled: the sales pitches that urge me to hurry and buy a fast car before the model-year ends. Or buy a memory foam mattress and new flooring. Would that people in Gaza had a floor to stand on, a bed to sleep in, and a fast car to escape from the war. Would that they had clean water and bandages for the wounded children.

What ever medium delivers the news, the context shades the message. Can we hold onto the horror if our culture belies the truth by distracting  us with inane ads that highlight our mundane and commercial preoccupations? I don’t think so.

If I-Search, I’ll Find Something

As many of you know, I’m about to fly off for a month on the east coast visiting family, friends and former classmates. Traveling, though, does something to my creativity, something unpleasant. I still write, can’t do without that, but I don’t often come up with much worth continuing. So–I heard about I-Search and assigned myself to do one while I’m on a break from creative writing. It will be a lot of “left-brain” work and I think I can maintain that. It might even feel good after a long seclusion in the creative cabinet where I live.

Google I-Search Report and you’ll find a handful of instructions, most from an academic point of view. The basics, however, are to choose a topic that interests you, formulate questions, write down what you already know, research the topic, keeping a search narrative going as you do, and evaluate your findings and your ideas about it. All of this is very first-person, much less formal than what we all learned about research papers.

My topic came to me, as do many of my ideas, serendipitously. I went for my weekly library fix and found a book edited by Carolyn Forché and Duncan Wu, Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English 1500-2001. Reading through it I found that I wanted to know more. So I’ve ordered Czeslaw Milosz’s book, The Witness of Poetry. I set up a notebook to keep all this information in, a small one that will fit easily into my travel bag. And I went to Trident Booksellers in Boulder and bought two books of Milosz’s poetry. I’ll decide after I read his work where to look next. Given the scope of this topic, I plan to concentrate on contemporary poems. The big question for me is the relationship between political poetry and poetry of witness.  Another one is the variety of events that trigger such poems. I’ll let you know around the end of August what I’ve discovered.

Fast Pen, Sweet Story

A blank page and a fast pen, early morning, no goal but to let the ink flow. I think about the nudge I felt last evening when I bit into a piece of dark chocolate, my unique teeth marks clearly sculpted. And that observation connected to my long-standing love of mystery stories. What if I disappeared and left behind this forensic bite mark? Ah, WHAT IF? A writerly question, maybe the only one that matters. What if the police found that piece of half-eaten chocolate?

An APB goes out: Missing, a white woman, blue eyes, medium build, sandy hair, dark chocolate on her lips. Looks like she left in a hurry, didn’t finish her candy. It’s good stuff–Cadbury, an old company, started in Birmingham UK in 1831 on Crooked Lane. Note the dark overtone and the word crooked. Suspicious, no? Call Inspector Clouseau. If you find her in Mesa Verde or on the Dingle Peninsula, tell her that the folks at home miss her. They found more chocolate in the kitchen. It too was good and they thought about her as they bit into it.

Well, that was fun. Now what to do with it? Nothing! I am allowed not to set a goal for every word. That attitude is commercial and I’m not. A visual artist doodles for fun, a writer writes for fun. Go, have some fun.