Monthly Archives: May 2014

Write on Mamas – New Anthology

Hello Dogpatchers! I just read this blog post by an editor/writer from a group called Write on Mamas. They are professional writers (and those just beginning their writing journey) in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. I think the post contains some valuable insights about “beautiful writing” and what the editor learned while shepherding the group’s first anthology into publication.

So often, a piece can be beautifully written  (crafted) but feel lacking. A loooooo-n-g time ago, I took a poetry workshop and spent a great portion of the time discussing whether certain poems had “duende.” Here’s Wikipedia’s definition of the word:

Duende or tener duende (“having duende”) loosely means having soul, a heightened state of emotion, expression and authenticity, often connected with flamenco[1] The artistic and especially musical term was derived from the duende, a fairy or goblin-like creature in Spanish mythology.

I think this is sometimes the missing element in what would otherwise be called “beautiful writing.” So here’s hoping you are all out there inviting that little fairy goblin into your work.

Link to the blog post:

Write on Mamas’ new anthology:

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Filed under Craft

Mindfulness: Raisins and the Writer

Mindfulness is the buzz word, isn’t it? Or is it just because I live in California?


I attended a yoga class last week. The lesson for the day, including climbing like spiders up the wall, was about mindful eating. Each of us was offered a raisin—yes, singular—and instructed to hold it close to our eyes and observe its wrinkles and crusty sparkles.


Then we smelled it. Essence of sugary, ripe jam.

Then we were asked to listen to it. “Horton Hears A Who,” anyone?

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Yes, we listened to those tiny raisin voices as we held them close to our ears and rolled them between our thumbs and forefingers. Mine squeaked.

“Please, I know you’re going to eat me. Can we just get this over with?”

Yoga is a cruel sport, isn’t it?

Finally, we were asked to put those raisins on our tongues and roll them around in our mouths for a full minute before being allowed to chew.

In much less than one minute, I knew I didn’t have the mindful moral fiber it takes to be a true yogi. I wanted to chew that soggy, yet crystalline, drop of zero taste and swallow. Then I wanted to grab a whole handful of those little squeakers, stuff my mouth, and grind away, turning them into a sweet mass of gumminess. That, my friends, is how you get the real flavor of raisins.

The solitary fleck of grit in the universe of my mouth was—

“Chew!” said the instructor. “Chew! Chew! Chew!”

My train had already left the station.


I must remember to do this

Let’s move the focus from my flawed moral character to how “one vs. many” plays out with language. Despite the lovely alliteration, repetition and raisins should not be bedfellows.

A whole handful of examples (adverbs being one) will often not make the experience that much sweeter, richer, or more textured for the reader. It usually achieves the opposite. Instead of strengthening the effect, the writer steeps weak tea. Instead of making the prose rich, the writer sews the empty pockets of a pauper. Instead of making the prose more muscular, the writer births a 98 pound weakling.

Shoot me now before I have to read another cliché in a string of clichés.

The moral of the story is this. Whenever you’re tempted to:

  • create characters whose purpose is redundant (or worse, nonexistent), eliminate or combine two or more characters to achieve the same effect.
  • indulge in repetitive sentences, paragraphs, scenes, and chapters that don’t move the story forward, cut and/or combine.
  • use weak verbs “strengthened” by adverbs, select strong verbs and cut the adverbs.
  • create weak dialogue and surrounding exposition that relies on adverbs (commonly called “two-by-fours”) or repetition to get the point across, take the opposite approach. Dialogue means you’re in scene. Show one single telling detail (not two or three or four) that conveys the essence of the character or character’s reaction, thoughts, or physical trait. Extra points for doing this via dialogue instead of in the exposition used to anchor characters in space.
  • give characters multiple actions that convey the same meaning, select one action that’s unusual to convey the essence of your point.

If there is a critical moment or action that begs repeating for fear your reader won’t “get it,” think and think again and then think some more about whether it’s necessary, or whether it’s a matter of finding a better way to say it once to make it unforgettable for the reader.

And to remind myself of these points when I’m revising, I’m going to breathe and think of:








Filed under Rants

My First Writing Teacher

Emma Ann Henning (1894-1977), my grandma, in Detroit Lakes MN

Emma Ann Henning (1894-1977), my grandma, in Detroit Lakes MN in 1935.

Hello from the Dogpatch,

One of my former writing students, Susan Chase Foster, a teacher herself and now a colleague and friend, touched me deeply by nominating me for a Mayor’s Arts Award. Last night, I joined the other recipients in a truly moving ceremony. Our emcees were Bellingham City Council President Cathy Lehman and Bellingham Arts Commission Chair Alexandra Wiley. The event was held at Bellingham’s Walton Theater in the gorgeous Mount Baker Theatre complex, to make it that much more special.

We recipients were asked to talk about our accomplishments, which no one did. I happened to be last, and marveled as person after person got up and turned the spotlight off themselves and onto their mentors, sources of inspiration, and our community. The result was a marvelous feeling of warmth and generosity in the room, and it was heartwarming and humbling to be a part. The recipients were:

Mayor's Arts Awards

Mayor’s Arts Awards Invitation from the City of Bellingham

  • Alan Rhodes – Community Columnist. Satirist extraordinaire, Alan is well known in these parts as, among other things, the Cascadia Weekly columnist on the popular Chuckanut Radio Hour, produced by Chuck and Dee Robinson of Village Books and which received the award last year. We got treated to a snippet of a hilarious Bellingham-centric column Alan wrote a while back, reminding us that all the men in Bellingham are indeed sensitive and all the children recycle.
  • Margaret Bikman – Entertainment News Coordinator. Margaret is the beloved entertainment news coordinator for the Bellingham Herald, curating content for the Herald‘s Take 5 weekly entertainment section, including its calendars, her behind-the-scenes column, and her artist profile.
  • Shannon Laws – Poet. It was a blast to share the podium (and drinks after) with Shannon Laws, author of the book Madrona Grove, whose cover features her own exquisite art.
  • Becky Elmendorf – Former Whatcom Symphony Orchestra President. At one point in telling us the history of the symphony, Becky asked members of the orchestra who were present in the audience to stand up; it was like a fabulous Greek chorus rising in the midst of us.
  • Tore Ofteness – Photographer. Having a wide fan base, Tore was traveling overseas, and there was a collective groan from the audience at not getting to see him!
  • Jack Frymire – Opera Singer and Educator. Truly delightful in all ways, Jack gets props for the best opening line of the night, saying how this award was perfectly timed: not premature and not posthumous.

For me, another wonderful aspect was getting to talk about my grandma, who inspired my writing. I’d thought a lot about her over the last days, and this morning, got up and looked at pictures of her. So here’s my speech from the ceremony, dedicated to my first and best writing teacher ever, my childhood friend and confidante, the best cook in the world, my beautiful grandma.

Young Henning Family

The young Henning family: William and Emma with daughters Maxeen (my mom, holding her dad’s hand) and Irma, on the porch of their Fargo ND home. William was a violinist and a doctor; Emma was a pianist. I visited the family home a few years ago and the delightful family there let me wander all through the house.

My beautiful grandma, Emma Ann Henning, was born in Volga City, Iowa, in 1894. She lived until 1977. In the time that I knew her, she gave me enough love to last a lifetime—and she also gave me stories.

As a little kid, lots of nights I’d sneak into her bed, snuggle up against her big grandma bosoms, and she’d tell me the most wonderful stories. They were stories about everyday people, doing everyday things, but my grandma had a knack for knowing what was funny or unusual or thought-provoking. Her stories were always entertaining, and for me they were also comforting. Whenever I was sick or sad or scared, a dose of Grandma’s stories did the trick.

Grandma with my Aunt Irma, about 1923, at their home in Fargo ND. Little Irma died quite young and this is one of the few pictures I have of her.

Now I realize that in those soft, quiet moments we spent together, she was in many ways teaching me to be a writer. Throughout my life, my way to both entertain and comfort myself has been to make up stories, write them down, and I’m fortunate to now make my living as a writer and editor.

And while it’s extremely gratifying to be part of a book production team or to see my own stories in print, as much as anything, it’s the quieter moments that I treasure the most deeply.

For example, I’ve been delighted to teach creative writing classes for both Whatcom Community College’s and Western Washington University’s Continuing Education programs. I’ve had students from age twelve to ninety-two in my classes, which is wonderful in itself. This particular day, I watched a student who was about twenty-two talking across the table with a student who was about seventy—watching the difference in age become completely immaterial as they talked excitedly to each other about their stories was a quietly special moment. Continue reading


Filed under Pack News