The Guilt-Riddled Reader

Picture from my mom's Facebook page, taken by my dad in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem somewhere. A wild, black-colored gray wolf.

Picture from my mom’s Facebook page, taken by my dad in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem somewhere. A wild, black-colored gray wolf.

I recently ordered a multitude of books from my school library’s fantastic Link + system (in which I select books online and they come to me from nearby universities with more extensive library systems). I wanted to read them for fun, because I always have to have something to read that doesn’t have to do with school. Since I’m an English major with an emphasis in literature, that gets difficult. Last quarter I was reading three novels a week—-including such titles as Cannery Row, The Joy Luck Club, The Color Purple, Tuck Everlasting, Holes, Treasure Island, Little Lord Fauntleroy and so on—-and for ten weeks, and I barely had time to stare at a non-class book for a few seconds before I turned my lamp off at night.

This quarter I have, much to my sorrow, no English classes. I’m taking a history course in which I get to read four books, among them E.B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed and Elie Wiesel’s Night, but aside from that, I am free to read whatever I please. So that is why I ordered books from Link +, books like Ordinary Wolves (which Barbara Kingsolver, author of The Poisonwood Bible, which I deeply enjoyed, gave a ravingly positive review) and Two Old Women and The Woman who Married A Bear and The Raven’s Gift. I picked up Ordinary Wolves, and was sure the writing was lovely, but put it down after twenty pages. I did the same with the rest of the books. I felt horrible each time I gave up on a story. I am a reader! I thought. I am not supposed to give up on a book. Not even if the only thing I read is the first page. There’s a silent rule that binds a reader to a book once her eyes grab the first word, and I was breaking that rule with abandon.

I walked past one of my bookshelves (even in our shack we have three different bookshelf areas) after breakfast one day, wondering what to read. I had to find something. I felt lost. And then an pumpkin-colored spine snagged my attention: a beautiful hardbound copy of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. I had read Little Women as a girl and loved it, but I realized that I have seen the Winona Ryder film version so many times that I barely remembered what actually happened in the piece of literature itself. I did remember the way Alcott’s words tugged me into a cozy world of charming but very human characters, so I opened the book to the first page and began to read.

I did not stop. The greatest delight of re-reading a book I read at a younger age is finding the humor and wisdom and nuances I missed at that earlier period in my life. Alcott’s Little Women might leave me even happier when I finish it at 21 years old than it did when I finished it at 11 years old, and that is fine with me.

This experience showed me that I do not have to feel guilty for giving up on one book or even five or six. Books speak to different people at different times in their lives, and Ordinary Wolves and its fated companions in my library book stack have to wait until the time is right for them. For now, the Marches capture my mind and give me an escape to Concord in the midst of my hectic last days of undergraduate school.


P.S. Though this is a blog about writing, reading and writing are best friends. I write about both. 🙂


41,368 words later…

The picture my sister drew as the mock-up for my Honors portfolio's cover (based on the manuscript). Isn't it gorgeous?

The picture my sister drew as the mock-up for my Honors portfolio’s cover (based on the manuscript). Isn’t it gorgeous?

This morning, at 7:43, after two hours of writing, I finished the first revised draft of my manuscript (And the Blackbirds Mock). It is 149 pages long–41,368 words–and divided into 17 chapters. I started this draft in December, and it took me until now to finish it, which seems like a really short amount of time in which to finish a manuscript, but I recently read an interview with children’s and young adult author Gary Paulsen (he wrote Hatchet, one of my favorite childhood books) that made me feel better. Paulsen says that he spends two to three years thinking about a project, outlining it in his head, and deciding what the plot is and who the characters are…and then, after all that time, he sits down and writes the entire manuscript in two months. According to him, typing the words you’ve had stewing in your brain is the easy part.

I’m no Gary Paulsen, but I did spent a long time thinking about this story, making an outline, and plotting it. As I mentioned in an earlier post, this manuscript is technically a second, drastically revised draft of the original manuscript, which was called And the Sea-Gulls Cry. Yes, I know. The title is practically the same, only with a different bird. But And the Sea-Gulls Cry was so wretched that I couldn’t bear to waste ink and paper on printing it. And the Blackbirds Mock satisfies me so much more that this morning, after making sure all the chapter headings were aligned at the tops of the pages, I printed the entire manuscript, all 149 pages, and put them in the binder that’s been roosting on my desk for a couple weeks just waiting to get that story tucked between its kraft-paper covers.

I know I’m going to make changes to the manuscript as my first readers finish reading it and I continue to edit it, but I was so happy this morning after typing the last word that I wanted to print it right then. But my husband was still asleep, and the printer is in our bedroom on his dresser because we live in a shack-sized piece of history from the early 1900s, so I had to wait. I had Insanity to do, anyway, and thankfully today was the Cardio Recovery day, which meant I could listen to music as I did Shaun T.’s murderous leg exercises. I delved into my half-Cuban blood and chose the most celebratory music I know: Arturo Sandoval’s Danzón album. My favorite of these songs, I discovered today as I danced in between squats and plank work, are “A Mis Abuelos” and “Suavito” (just in case you wanted to check them out 😉 ).

The kind of joy I felt then, and feel now, is not that thank God, I’m done with that thing forever kind of glee I get after finishing a research paper I never wanted to write or a presentation I didn’t want to present. It’s a more triumphantly terrifying feeling, because I know it’s done in one way but not in others, good but not the best it can be. And besides, I will miss getting up to write it every morning. Now I have to get up early and write those research papers I mentioned while I play the classic ‘let-it-sit’ game with And the Blackbirds Mock, which means I will not read it or think about it for a week (because that’s all the time I can afford for that–usually I wait longer!). After that week, I’ll hold that solid binder in my hands, pretend what I’ve written is a real book, and read the story with fresh, critical eyes.


My binder and me this morning, photo courtesy of my husband.

My binder and me this morning, photo courtesy of my husband.

What Eowyn Ivey, James Herriot, and Wallace Stegner Showed Me

What Eowyn Ivey, James Herriot, and Wallace Stegner Showed Me

I plopped into the middle of the field in front of my house in Montana, my new bone-white Macbook settled into my lap like a baby, and stared at the things around me. The grass, late-summer brown swallowing the green. The sharp outlines of hills and mountains smoothened into their most beautiful state by a haze only the departing sun can create. My grey house, the evergreens guarding the front yard. I wanted to put these things into my ‘book,’ (that failed story about the girl whose parents die, and who, I suppose, lived in the same house I did). I was sitting in the field with my fingertips perched over my keyboard in order to weave Montana into my words, but it was not working. I couldn’t do it, and I didn’t know why. I sighed, closed the laptop, and went indoors.

That was three years ago. Maybe two. (I’m a failure at even the simplest math problems.) When I first sent one of my professors the first two chapters of Blackbird, she had this comment to make about Polly, my female lead character (Wardie is the lead male): [Polly] is also very much a character of her place. She belongs in Montana.

Whoa. I was excited and surprised, because I had not consciously tried to stick Montana into my characters’ identity: I use a fictional Montana community for the story’s setting, and somehow that setting sneaks into Polly’s flesh and makes itself known as a part of her. After doing a celebratory dance–even a small thing like that feels triumphant to me with this manuscript–I sat down, worried. What if I can’t continue that throughout the entire manuscript?

A few weeks ago, I finished reading a book called The Snow Child, by Alaskan author Eowyn Ivey. The book immersed me in rural Alaska of the 1920s, into a brutally beautiful wilderness that at first weakens the aging protagonists, who are newcomers from the east looking to escape old sorrows and find luck in homesteading, and then finds its way into their bones and strengthens their minds, bodies, and hearts. I did research on the author after I finished the book (which I highly recommend, by the way) and found that she loves Alaska deeply–but she attended college in Washington state when she was my age, and though I do not know her personally, I started to wonder: did that separation help her with writing so wonderfully about her home state later on in her life, even though she wrote The Snow Child with Alaska’s beauty surrounding her?

After I finished The Snow Child, I read the third James Herriot memoir, All Things Wise and Wonderful. I love these books because of their delightful verbs and poignant blend of humor and sadness, and this particular story reinforced my thought about Eowyn Ivey’s writing, because in it Herriot has to leave his town in Yorkshire (in England), his veterinary practice, and his pregnant wife in order to serve in the Royal Air Force during World War II. In the book, he often reflects on how everything in his surroundings makes him miss his hometown and the surrounding hills and dales. Even though he never had to leave England to fight, that longing for home may have inspired his writing when, later in life, he wrote his memoirs.

And then, after I finished that book, I started Wallace Stegner’s collection of essays, Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs. Stegner writes about the American West, and not in a romanticized way. He spent his most formative years in Saskatchewan and Utah, and they shaped the way he thought about life. Stegner confirmed my suspicions about Eowyn Ivey and James Herriot in the book’s first essay, “Finding the Place: A Migrant Childhood,” in which he says that his father’s yanking the family away from their beloved Saskatchewan plains when Stegner was a child fiercely influenced his writing later in life: “Every story that crowded to the typewriter evoked the smells and colors and horizons and air and people of the region where I had most lived…I grew up Western, and the very first time I moved out of the West I realized what it meant to me” (page 19).

Okay, so I didn’t move out of the West. I live in California right now, and that’s considered West. But my family moved away from Montana a year after that sitting-in-the-field moment, and I have now realized that even though I miss Montana every winter with California’s dearth of snow, its summers’ overbearing sun, and its green-leafed fall, leaving was priceless to me in one way: it gave me the perspective I needed in order to do Montana justice in writing. I resonate with Wallace Stegner’s words because I understand them well. Here in southern California, among the swarming people, the green-tinted smog that smothers the mountains, and the eternal background music of sirens and gang members’ thumping radios, I am allowed to close my eyes and drift back home. I am allowed to remember the dangers and the beauties, the smells and the sounds, the feelings and the mysteries of Montana. I do not have to worry about it making its presence known throughout the rest of my manuscript, and I am thankful to James Herriot, Eowyn Ivey, and Wallace Stegner for bringing me to that realization. Montana finds its way into And the Blackbirds Mock without my even trying because I have known how it feels to lose that treasured place.


To Clancy

In one of those classes I mentioned in my first post, my professor required us to write journals about different times in our childhoods (the class was called “Writing for Children”). She gave us a page of prompts, and one was about loss: of a pet, of a person, of a friend. I have never lost anyone (thank goodness) except my German Shepherd dog, Clancy, who my family got when I was ten years old. I wrote a journal entry about a moment I spent with her and her four-year-old puppy (and my personal dog), Bella, after I had returned from a summer-long trip to Europe and was suffering from jet lag and a vicious cold born of lack of sleep and airplane germs.

My family had recently moved from Montana to Arizona, and I was about to enter my junior year of college. I never thought I would share this piece with anyone, but I consider it a tribute to Clancy. Her loss inspired one of my favorite essays of my college career (which is not what I am posting here–it’s too long). It is written, in present tense, to her from nineteen-year-old me.


(Above: a self-portrait I took with Clancy in 2012. She is standing on top of her dog house in the backyard in Montana, the ever-present tennis ball lodged in her mouth. Bella is trying to get the ball for herself 😉 .)

I open the sliding door to the porch, and Bella jumps to me, but you make your way slowly, carefully. The stars are brilliant tonight, and so many: do they remind you of Montana, and the back porch there, and the days when you ran to me like Bella does now?

You are older than you were then. Your eyes tell me things that you cannot say. They tell me that the move to Arizona hurt you, that you’re not young enough for a change like that. You wag your tail and it thumps against the house’s brick wall, and you lay your ears back so I can stroke your softest fur, the place between your triangle ears that I have touched since I was ten. Do you remember the first day we got you? Do you remember how you cried and cried and would only stop if I put my small hand on your little body? You fell asleep that way, and joy bloomed in my sore heart. You knew I needed you, and you needed me too.

You were the pride of my childhood. Once a man from the church jumped away from you because you growled at him, and he said, “Is that a wolf? Gosh!”

I tucked that away in my heart. I, a girl of eleven, had a German Shepherd that looked like a wolf. Nothing could make me feel braver and fiercer than that. I could walk anywhere with you and not feel the fear sneak into my bones the way it did before we got you.

And do you remember the time you fought with a giant dog at the Missouri Headwaters when we went there for a Sabbath excursion? The dog came to you, to your territory (our Toyota pickup), and attacked you. Dad let you fight, as he usually does, and you snarled and gnashed and showed that dog what courage meant. I had never seen you that way, Clancy, and my heart pounded with amazement and love for you. If you could protect us from that dog, you could protect us from anything. You won that fight and many others, but to me you were gentle always.

How many times did I creep to your bed in the laundry room in the Montana house so I could whisper you my troubles and grasp your proffered paw? And how could I forget how kind you remained to our whole family when you gave birth to Bella and her six siblings? Many dogs would nip at two inexperienced teenagers handling its day-old puppies, but you trusted Sarah and me the way we have always trusted you.

You are nine years old. I am nineteen years old. I lie on the porch and gaze at the stars, and Bella whines before she curls on my right side. You follow her lead and sigh as you settle into the rug on my left. We stare at the night together, the silent night. I can hear the tumor as it expands on your thigh. I feel your joints groan as you move. I see the white that sweeps your chin’s black fur into a realm of memory. I know you will leave us soon, Clancy, but I don’t want to think of that.

I hope you know that you have always been my best friend. When you drift away, nine years of me will join you, and we will have to meet each other in my mind alone.


Clancy died two months after the time in which this journal is set. Death is part of life, but that does not make it easier to handle. Writing is my way of healing from things like this, and I know millions of people have had family-member pets die and have carried sorrow with them for it. This piece is for all of us. 🙂

Hello, reader!

I started reading The Boxcar Children series and all nine Little House books as a young child and have never parted with books since. I started writing about a half-million books then, too: “Rebecca Rose-Caroline” and her series of page-long adventures (inspired by books like Dear America and American Girl), the horsey mystery stories whose plots never found a climax and whose enigmas remained unsolved, and, as I grew older, first chapters of historical fiction novels, attempts at fantasy stories, and failed contemporary fiction ideas.

So much failure, so much lack of complete ideas.

And then I remembered a story I had written when I was twelve years old, one that I made my sister read at that time. It told the somber tale of a girl whose close family member perished in the sea, and she stood alone at the shore, gazing at the fateful entity of water, brooding on the wonderful life she had led until that wretched event.

My sister said she wanted to find out what happened next–that it could be a book. Like all my stories, however, it had no middle, no ending. But the scene simmered in my mind’s creative kettle.

During my freshman year of college, I wrote another ‘book,’ but this time it had to do with a girl who lived in my hometown of Bozeman, Montana, and who suffered the unrealistic tragedy of having a fire burn her house down–with her parents in it–while she slept soundly at a friend’s house for a sleepover. The girl then went to Florida to try to find her Cuban relatives and, in the process of the journey, to heal. I wrote 160,000 words on that one without getting anywhere valuable.

A year later, I decided to write a manuscript for upper-middle-grade readers for my Honors program’s  scholarship project. Most Honors students focus on research-based projects, but I felt the need to write about that girl I had imagined when I was twelve–the one who stood at the sea and stared. I declared myself too advanced to write an outline and sat reluctantly at my desk each morning with a coffee and a biscotti, dreading the process of figuring out what to write next. I did finish that draft–set in a coastal Washington town–even though it was horrid and I knew it.

Between then and this past December, I took two writing classes as part of my English major that transformed the way I choose words and organize snatches of creativity. I also discovered that I had to stay true to myself in my writing. I spent my most formative years in Montana, and that state’s air runs through my blood.

And so I drastically revised the plot. I bought a small green journal and tucked it in my purse like many great authors advise writers to do, and to my surprise, I found inspiration in the smallest things: wisps of hay falling off a bale-burdened truck, pieces of chopped wood against a house, the thoughts that danced through my head during dull school lectures.

I wrote a lengthy outline. I nervously asked my English professors and Honors project advisors if they thought my idea was any good. I procured first readers. And I committed myself to writing two chapters of seven to ten pages every single morning except Saturday.

I am halfway through my manuscript’s fourteenth chapter, and I have sixteen total in my outline. I no longer drag myself to my desk with dread tolling through my resistant typing fingers: I pop out of bed at 5:30 each morning and rush to my laptop with salivating joy (maybe that’s a tiny exaggeration). I have always known that writing was fun and reading was life, but now I have discovered writing has swooped up there next to reading: I love it. My manuscript’s characters, Polly and Wardie, are always hanging out in my head, developing as people and entertaining my thoughts. I don’t know what I will do when I finish the manuscript (oh, wait–I will revise! Even after I turn the manuscript in for the Honors project, I will revise, revise, revise).

The manuscript is entitled And the Blackbirds Mock, and the logline–or elevator pitch, or blurb, or whatever you wish to call it–is below:

Best friends Polly Peter and Wardie Mason have led mostly-contented lives throughout their grade school years in their Montana town, but everything changes the day tragedy shatters the Grayling Crossing community and only Polly knows exactly what happened. The ensuing grief interrupts Wardie’s search for answers about his father, and he and Polly fight their sorrow in ways that push them apart. Both must grapple with the questions the community asks—spoken and unspoken—that threaten to keep them from living their lives the way they always imagined they would.

We’ll see what happens with Blackbird, which is what I lovingly call the manuscript because it’s too hard to say the title I came up with every single time. I won’t be able to post much until I graduate (in 36 days!), and I am supposed to be hard at work on a piece of art for my handmade books class–which, as I painfully discovered, has less to do with books as I know them and tons to do with drawing and painting, about which I know nothing.

Welcome to Blogging Blackbird, my first attempt at a blog, in which I will write about writing.