Saturday, September 12, 2015


Hickory dickory dock. A mouse ran up the clock. The clock struck one - the mouse ran down. Hickory dickory dock. As a general rule, I'm not a big fan of mice... or rats... or gerbils--the live kind.

I'm also not a big fan of clocks--they're not my friend. I don't like them--worst invention ever, especially alarm clocks. Ick. Clocks document the passage of time as their hands tick-tick-tick in a circle. They also represent waiting and I'm not always the best at that. Of course there are various levels of waiting. There's waiting in line for two hours at Six Flags to ride a roller coaster. You know eventually you're going to get to ride the ride and it won't be too much longer that you have to listen to the people in front or behind you debate the merits of shoes with laces versus those with Velcro.

Then there's the waiting you do in anticipation of say, an exciting vacation. You cross off each day on the calendar as the trip draws near. You can see it getting closer and closer. The same is true of Christmas or your birthday. One day at a time and like waiting in line for the roller coaster, you know you'll reach the end soon enough and be on the beach or blowing out candles on a cake.

But the worst kind of waiting, the kind I'm not always good at, is the throw-yourself-out-there-and-hope-for-the-best kind. You've done something of a singular, independent nature and the final result depends on someone else's opinion. Skating is notorious for this. You train for years, getting up before the roosters crow to try, try, and try again one bruise-inducing move after another on a frozen slab of ice until finally you get the hang of them. You enter a competition and you skate your best--or you don't. Maybe you crash and burn all over the place. Maybe things are more 50/50, some success mixed with failure. However it skates out, the judges will decide just how well or poorly you did based on established criteria--and in their opinion. It's the latter part of this that causes people to scream at their televisions and boo in the stands when they feel a fan favorite is robbed of a medal or even simply a better score. When you're the athlete, however, waiting for the results can seem like an eternity. Time drags, like a pulse hooked up to a slow-motion machine.

Writing is like this, too, whether it be a paragraph written or a completed tale. There's waiting involved. You wait for an idea to sprout. You wait for the words for the paragraphs to materialize. Later, after you've revised and revised and revised, after you've re-laced and tightened your skate laces, after you've taken a deep breath and finally stepped out onto the ice and sent in the manuscript--you wait. And wait. And wait. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. The pulse of the wait slows, maybe even flatlines. You try not to think about it. Then, just when you think you can't wait another heartbeat, hickory dickory dock the scores are given and the judges announce you've won the Colorado Gold Writer's Contest--Romance category!

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Dog On It

We're thinking about getting a dog, something to deter the deer from further devouring our hostas. We already have one canine companion, a sixteen year old beagle named Guy Beagle. He arrived, as most strays do, on the coldest day in winter. Shivering, hungry, and scared, there was no telling how long he'd been on his own. We coaxed him in, fed him some kibble--a lot of kibble, and rubbed his floppy brown ears in the warmth of the kitchen. He must have decided he'd found a pretty good spot because, fourteen years later, he's still with us.

Over the years other dogs have come along and kept him company on his scent-filled adventures in our woods and along our creek. But Guy's managed to outlast them all. Roscoe, a big brown Shepherd-Golden Retriever mix, schooled Guy over the course of ten years on the ins and outs of his favorite game "Wish Upon a Deer Leg." This is the canine version of the human Thanksgiving tradition of pulling apart the wishbone of a turkey. In Roscoe's version, each dog grabbed an end of a deer leg and together they carried it home. Upon arrival, a game of tug-o-war ensued in the front yard. The winner got to gnaw on it for as long as he liked. Bonus points were earned if you, the dog, successfully kept it from the human as he or she tried to dispose of it; points were lost if the human caught you and gave you a bath as a result of eating the rotted dead meat. Not to be outdone, Guy had his own tail-wagging tricks up his paw to share, in particular "Garbage Can Roulette," a crafty little adventure that involved knocking over the neighbors' trash cans in search of such delicacies as moldy pot roast, rotten eggs, and a-day-past-expiration potato salad.

And then there was Penny, a calico-colored Corgi-Jack Russell Terrier mix rescued from a shelter. Originally a city pooch, it took her no time at all to adjust to being a country girl--especially with Guy to show her the merits of splashing in the creek, admiring the bluebells, and rousting Coyote from his den at the bottom of the 150 year old oak tree. Her favorite responsibility, however, was wildlife patrol. She had such a natural ability at scaring raccoons up a tree, cornering pesky possums, and derailing deer attempts at landscape damage that Guy quickly promoted her to Chief of Farm Security. This allowed him to transition nicely into retirement after twelve years of round-the-clock service.

Now fully retired, he spends his days concerned only with how many hours of snoozing in the sun can be achieved in between meals. He's a character in his own right, which got me thinking about some of my favorite fictional pooches.

There's Rosemary Wells' McDuff, the West Highland White Terrier that melts your heart with his expressive eyes and red bandana. I'm so glad that nice couple in the book took him in that rainy night.

Ree Drummond's Charlie is the Basset Hound to beat all Basset Hounds. Slow on the uptake, lover of naps, and with a large-and-in-charge personality I would love to have my own Charlie someday.

It's a good thing Chris Raschka's Daisy got her ball back, albeit a new one after that well-meaning but over-enthusiastic dog park friend popped the first one. No one likes it when a favorite toy breaks.

But, dogs are quick to accept apologies and get back to the things that really matter, like enjoying a good meal, taking time to smell the flowers, and naps. At 112 years old, "Old Man Beagle" is still teaching us a trick or two--except, of course, the ancient canine secret to keeping deer out of the hostas.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Bug Bites

I don't like mosquitoes... or any other bug that makes me itch. The worst bites are the ones you get on your toe...when your shoe is on...and you can't do a thing about it because you're in a meeting with people way above your pay grade. What do you do? You do the best you can until you can get back to the office or car or wherever and give it a really good scratch.

Writing is like that. Once you've been bitten, it's all over and woe unto you until you can give it a good scratch. Anything that gets in the way of that is in deep doo-doo. The fact that there is something, albeit a reasonable something, impeding your writing progress does nothing to comfort or lessen the itch. It's like finding an empty tube of Cortaid in the medicine cabinet. Frustrating.

It's one thing to have a case of writer's block and the idea-fish aren't biting. It's another to have a whole school of ideas swimming around in your head and no bait and tackle with which to reel them in. This begs the question, "How do other writers do it? How do they balance everything?" We sometimes tend to think of them as a type of superhero, able write to great stories in a single bound. But really, they're people just like anyone else...and it doesn't seem to matter when they were writers, either. The same issues that confront writers now did so "back in the day"...just perhaps in a different way.

Take Gertrude Chandler Warner, for example. Most kids want a secret tree house or a fort of some sort in which to escape. I wanted a boxcar. Warner made it sound so cool, so inviting. The perfect retreat. I had to settle for pretending a clump of bushes in the backyard was one. No matter. It was the idea Warner came up with that was fascinating. She could have gone the traditional route, but instead followed a different track. Boxcars...based on the trains that daily passed by her house. Genius. Growing up she was frequently sidelined by illness and as a result never finished high school. But that didn't dampen her imagination. She'd sit and watch the trains, tossing around in her mind what it might be like to set up house in a boxcar. Later, as a teacher, she discovered kids didn't have interesting, easy-to-read books...and from there the rest is history.

Here's the thing, that wasn't the days of smart phones that act like mini computers with wi-fi access readily available pretty much anywhere you go so you can keep your notes quickly at hand and type up whole passages while you wait in line for your double decaf caramel macchiato. The Boxcar Children was initially published in 1942, which means she had to be working on the story a few years before that at least. This was World War II, when everything was rationed. Everything. Paper. Ink. Food. Gasoline. Writing supplies, I would imagine, were tough to come by. She also taught. She had a job. She cared about her students as people, which meant she attended their sporting events, their plays, and other such activities. She remembered their birthdays and had celebrations for them during the school year...and if someone's birthday was during the summer, she picked a day during the school term to celebrate it.

All that took time. And yet she was able to carve it out and provide millions of future readers with this marvelous escape pod of a boxcar, deliberately rewriting it in such a way so that kids who normally struggled with reading would not have that problem with her book...and then might go on to read more of them. And read them kids still do some sixty years later. I'm a reader for the very reason she rewrote the story. Without that and Nancy Drew, who knows what track I might have chosen...if any. And just like I imagined escaping to a tricked out boxcar, I now find myself--as I type this--considering WWGD...What Would Gertrude Do? What might Henry, Jessie, Violet, Benny, and Watch the dog suggest through the voice of their creator?

I think I know. "No matter how crazy things may become, take time to watch the trains go by. And when an idea hits, make sure your boxcar is ready. If it isn't, fix it." And don't forget the Cortaid.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Snowflakes & Daffodils

Winter and I have never gotten along…creatively, anyway. Snowball fights? Of course. Skating? Absolutely. Hot chocolate? A no-brainer. Ideas? Not so much. They hibernate right along with Bear from Karma Wilson’s Bear Snores On. No party to wake and shake things up is going to jolt a creative thought out of its slumber before it’s ready. Trust me. I’ve tried many ways to fix this flat. Here’s a brief list:

1.    Chocolate. While this is a tasty option, it only leads to more hours in the gym.

2.    Travel. As a rule, I don’t between December and March. Now, if there was sun and sand involved….

3.    Conferences. Great for networking and learning something, but the “application” stalls like the DeLorean out of plutonium in Back to the Future.

4.    Exercise. See #1.

5.    Writing. Brilliant ideas spark-out and die as quickly as a summer firefly’s blink.

This “issue” almost begs to be named a syndrome. It’s worse than writer’s block. That at least can be written out of. No, this causes creativity to come to a full-out, grinding halt. Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zero. Dead. Writer’s hibernation? Very possible. There is something about the change in seasons, from fall to winter.  The cooler temperatures, change in colors, and geese flying south seem to leave the following voice mail message: “Thank you for calling Liz’s muse. I’m sorry. All ideas are on hiatus right now. Please leave your thought at the beep and the creative brain cells will get back to you at the first sign of warmer weather.  [Pause].  Beeeeeep.”

    An argument could be made that this so-called hibernation is a time when things swirl around in the brain like the season’s snowflakes, slowly working themselves into a shape…which would explain spring’s effect. That first sunny, warm (by ‘warm’ I mean in the seventies) weekend, when the daffodils, tulips, and crocus decide enough is enough and shrug off the heavy gray coats they’ve been wearing for months…finally inspires this writer’s muse. Those wintry snowflakes morph into a spring blizzard of ideas, passages, and revisions that are next to impossible to keep up with. 

   Hey look! I’ve written something. Could spring be close? Hmmm…may-be. Better load up on legal pads and pens. 

Confused Daffodils

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Art is the Thing

Reading, or perhaps more the point a book, is a lot like art...everyone knows what they like and what they don't. There's also something for everyone, even those who claim they don't like to read...or at least say they aren't readers. Both are a reflection of who we are, what our personalities are. When you stop to look at a painting or a sculpture and after a few seconds (or minutes) consideration announce "I don't like it," can you put your finger on why? Usually, the answer is "No, but I know what I like." And, yet when almost the identical question is posed regarding a book, answers range from things like, "The characters were whiny," or "The plot dragged," or "The language was too complicated." Very specific measures of like or dislike are employed. So, why is it that a painting seems more complicated to "understand" than a story?

Part of the answer lies in what we bring to the experience, just like reading. Our frames of reference dictate what see, how we see it, and what we take from it. For instance, those who are parents can identify with the toddler pitching a boneless flop-fit mentioned in an earlier post. Those without kids of their own, or close relationships to, say, a niece, may look disdainfully at the mom who struggles to keep said flop-fitter under some measure of control. "How hard can it be?" is the question that scrolls across the observer's forehead like an electronic message board. In a word, very. So, when the flop-fitter's parent reads a tale about a child who does something similar, he or she can identify...but the bystander in the store can't.  Both responses are fine in equal measure...and each will take something different from the story.

Another component is taste. If whiny people drive us nuts in real life, then we're probably not inclined to like whiny characters in a work of fiction. If you don't like bright colors, then bold modern art probably isn't for you. Pastels might be, however. There is this myth out there in the cosmos that wrongly states you are only considered a "reader" if you read literary works. This is sooooo not the case. Like Nora Roberts romance stories? Excellent. Comic books or graphic novels more your thing? Far out! Big fan of Better Homes & Gardens iPad version? Cool! The point is, there's something out there for everyone...all tastes...and each one counts you as a reader.

The same is true for art. From the outside, children's book illustrators are some of the most overlooked and under-appreciated folks out there. Many understandably view books for children as cute little stories with nice pictures. And yet, the same amount of time (probably more), effort, and technique is used as those hanging their work on the wall of a gallery or their living room.  The same principles apply. Illustrators must use color, line, shape, texture, and composition to produce their work...and they must do it over and over because unlike a single painting, that white mouse with the purple plastic purse is going to appear throughout the book on multiple pages and must therefore be consistent. Here's the kicker: each one of those "appearances" is its own piece of artwork. Every illustration in a book is a separate drawing, or photograph, or collage.

But, what is it about illustrations that causes them to frequently be given just a passing glance? Perhaps it's the some circles art isn't considered art unless it's hanging on a wall or sitting on pedestal, so the fact that it's in a book, especially one for kids, causes issues. Perhaps it's the fact that as schools dispense with said classes there's less knowledge or awareness of the benefits of creativity and imagination (which is a whole 'nother discussion for another day) . Or maybe, maybe some just aren't given the opportunity to just investigate what they like and don't...thus later falling into the trap that they must either like ALL art or not...or so they believe. It's the myths that are so damaging. Where is it written that a person must do this? And how does one figure out a taste for something if things aren't tried, opportunities aren't provided? Reading is no different. How would someone find out they like to read vampire novels unless they actually read one? They can't.

What's ironic is many of the world's illustrators went to art school. But, do you have to go to art school to be considered an artist? No. Do your works have to sell for thousands of dollars for you to be an artist? No. Do you have to sell your work at all to be an artist? No. What if you just like to doodle, or simply draw fish, or fashion a bowl out of clay because you simply enjoy doing it? Then, you're an artist...and there's an artist in EVERYONE. It's just waiting to find its niche, to find where it fits in, to be given the opportunity.

Another myth ties to the type of medium used. Too often many think you must be partial to all forms. Not so. If you prefer watercolor over oil, fine. Black and photos are where it's at? Nice! Have no interest in painting, or drawing, but love to work with clay? Perfect. Nothing says you have to be versed in all media. But without giving each at least an initial try, how do you know what you like? How else would you figure out you love chocolate ice cream but not bubble gum flavor? By tasting them.

It's our tastes, our explorations, our adventures, the people we're friends with...everything that makes us who we are that help us determine what we like and what we don't. That determination is different for everyone, just as if you sat ten people down in a room, handed them paper and crayon, and said, "Draw a mouse." You would get ten different mice...each neither better nor worse than the other, just different and therefore perfect in their own way. Which briefly--for this discussion--brings up another myth: perfection. There really is no such thing. At best it's subjective. What I find "perfect" is based on the aforementioned tastes etc. What someone else finds perfect will be based on theirs. In no way are these going to be the same for either of us, nor should they be.

What we like reflects who we are. Chocolate ice cream vs. bubble gum. Vampires vs. romance. Pottery vs. oil painting. Photography vs. sketching. For me, if it makes me laugh...Sold!

Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes
Published by Greenwillow, 1996

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Poetry Pizza

What is it about poetry that strikes such fear in people that they visibly cringe, look at the ant crawling around on the sidewalk or the nonexistent plane flying overhead, and practically hyperventilate? Seriously! Poems are just another form of storytelling. Admittedly, the way they're laid out on a page looks a little strange. But, if you retyped a poem to resemble something more familiar, like sentences, suddenly it doesn't look so weird. And just like stories, how we interpret and understand them all depends on our previous experiences. I don't mean our previous experiences with poetry. I'm referring to things we've experienced in life, our frames of reference.

Everyone at some point early in life enjoyed poetry.  Stop shaking your head. You did.  It's called "Mother Goose."  "Hickory Dickory Dock," "Jack and Jill," "Humpty Dumpty," they all are poems kids get a kick out of. Why? Because they're silly...and kids are silly. They can identify with the silliness. Do they have to understand the "message" in the rhyme? No, and neither do you. Admit it. How many of you out there know the true "meaning" behind "Humpty Dumpty?" Uh-huh. Thought so. Why are "we" so bent on deriving "deep and meaningful messages" from EVERYTHING we read, especially poetry?

The answer lies somewhat in something former poet laureate Billy Collins once said: "Poetry goes to high school to die." He's right. For the most part, we enjoy poetry up to and including junior high...although depending on the teacher the death of poetry may actually take place then. Well-meaning teachers, as Collins points out, introduce certain poems long before a child can actually make sense of what he or she is reading. This idea can also be applied to anything a child reads.  Content and age appropriateness are elements that must be considered. For example, you wouldn't necessarily want to read A Nightmare in My Closet by Mercer Mayer to a three year old...especially if said child was convinced one lived in HIS closet (or under the bed, in the basement...wherever). However, a six year old who understands there's no such thing as monsters in closests (or anywhere else in the house) would find the humor in the story. So, why are poems that are beyond a child's developmental stage introduced at all? This is what Collins meant by poetry proverbially choking on a chicken bone in high school.

Think back to grade school. Does the name Shel Silverstein ring any bells? Uh-huh. I thought so. How about Jack Prelutsky? Well, both write poems kids (and adults!) can identify with. And that's the key, connecting to a story. What causes a connection? The "Yes. That's how I felt" moment and all of its cousins. For example, an eight year old can easily identify with this from Prelutsky:

My father's listed everything
he's planning to repair.
I hope he won't attempt it,
for the talent isn't there,
he tinkered with the toaster
when the toaster wouldn't pop,
now we keep it disconnected
but cannot make it stop.
(from "I Wish My Father Wouldn't Try to Fix Things Anymore" in Something Big Has Been Here)

Read this to a group of kids and sprinkled amongst the giggles will be bobbing heads of understanding and a few shout outs along the lines of "Yep. That's my dad." Or, how about this one:

grasshopper gumbo
iguana tail tarts
toad a la mode
pickled pelican parts
elephant gelatin
frog fricassee
puree of platypus
boiled bumblebee
porcupine pudding
steamed centipede skins
squid sucker sundaes
fried flying fish fins
meadow mouse morsels
cracked crocodile crunch
the school cafeteria
serves them for lunch.
 ("Grasshopper Gumbo" in There's No Place Like School)

If these are the types of poems that kids enjoy and can relate to, why then do "we" suddenly make them jump to things like Blake or Dickinson in high school? There isn't, at least initially, a big difference between a 13-year old graduating from middle school to a 14-year old beginning high school. There's plenty of time for Blake and, college. But until then, a solid foundation must be built just like a house. Or, to use another analogy, you can't make a pizza without the crust.

The good news is, it's never too late to discover a new food. There is something out there for everyone. Some people like anchovies on their pizza. Others prefer plain cheese. Reading is no different. Some love vampire fantasy such as the Twilight series, but don't enjoy Harry Potter. And yet both are considered fantasy. There's no rule that says it's an all or nothing thing. You can like bits and pieces and still legitimately say you like it. Same is true for poetry. You like Silverstein and no one else. Or, you enjoy Prelutsky, Eugene Field, and Ogden Nash and other more silly-type poets over the likes of Coleridge. Fine.

Two other ideas that influence the interest, or lack thereof, in poetry are 1). generalizations, and 2). knowing how to read a poem. Generalizations can be lethal, especially in the arts. Many people say they dislike art and yet are avid collectors of black and white photographs. Um, guess what? Photography is an art. So is literature. In my travels I cross paths with many who say they don't like to read. Yet I'll note they have the latest issue of Car & Driver in their hand and point that out to them. The response is something along the lines of, "Yeah. But, this doesn't count." Why not? There's no rule that says you must read literary fiction to be considered a reader. Again, this goes to the generalization idea.

Knowing how to read a poem, poetry in general, can go along way to appreciating it. Collins has a simple solution: Read it as if you would a story, stopping at appropriate punctuation--not the end of a line--and all the usual reading rules. If it helps, retype it. It's meant to be read out loud, and nothing says you have to get it right the first time. The idea of perfection in reading is overrated and really serves no purpose anyway. Some poems sort of lend themselves to being sung, such as Prelutsky's "Grasshopper Gumbo." Play with it. Try different speeds. See what fits you. Find out what you like on your poetry pizza. For me, hold the anchovies. I'm more of a Hawaiian or Supreme kind of girl.

Something Big Has Been Here by Jack Prelutsky
Published by Greenwillow, 2010 (reprint)

There's No Place Like School by Jack Prelutsky
Published by Greenwillow, 2010 (reprint)

Jack Prelutsky's web site:

Sunday, September 25, 2011


We've all been there...done something that others just don't (or frequently won't) understand. Perhaps you're new to the area and don't speak the local language. Do we care? Sometimes. Not always. But, sometimes it just gets to us. We can't help it...we're human...emotion driven. And, EVERYONE wants and needs a friend, to be accepted, to be understood...even by just one person. It doesn't feel like we're asking much. "What's wrong with me?" we ask ourselves when things aren't going right. The answer: Not a thing. It's the other guy who has the problem. Not you. She, or he, hasn't bothered to get to know you. Really know you. If she did, she'd find out that you are really no different from herself. A barrier would be broken and true friendship would be born. As for the rest of the crowd? Well, they'd be left to stand around the pasture fence wishing for what you've discovered.

For example,"There was once a cow that went OINK.  The cows that went MOO laughed at the cow that went OINK. MOO-HA." As poor cow's luck would have it in The Cow That Went Oink, everyone else in the barnyard Cluck-ha'd and Meow-ha'd and Baa-ha'd at her in her attempt to make a friend. Nothing like being in a new neigh-borhood at not able to speak the language. Sheesh. As if moving weren't tough enough, making new friends is even tougher. Cliques and circles are already formed and frequently hesitant to admit new to speak. Why that is has yet to be formally answered. But, I have a pretty good idea as to the reason: Change.

Yep, it's that simple. Change. No one likes it. Anything new pushes us out of our comfort zone. Unfamiliarity scares us. We clutch. We run from the door because the kids on the other side of it are rumored to want to turn us into stew. We're convinced from the moment we lay eyes on someone (or something) that there's absolutely no way whatever it is that's new is going to be any benefit to us. We know what works. Why fix it if it's not broken? Nevermind that it might actually make us better or that the other person involved may be just as terrified...if not more.

Stretching is good for the soul. Millions of people engage in simple stretches at the end of the day, yoga, tai chi, and other similar relaxation techniques for any number of personal reasons. But, they all have one thing in common...they help us tune in to the body and relieve tension. Well, the mind needs similar attention. Otherwise it experiences to one similar to that of a muscle accruing an abnormal supply of lactic acid, "Doink!" In other words, it seizes up instead of seizing the day.

Trying something new, reading in area or genre we're not familiar with, taking a few extra minutes to get to know that "new kid on the block" all stretch us mentally and leave us feeling better about life and ourselves after we've done it. The brain cramps begin to disappear, the neuro-lactic acid melts like a popsicle on 100 degree day. It isn't long before we find ourselves wondering how we managed without this new thing in our lives. It just seems so normal and natural.

Fortunately for the oinking cow, it wasn't long before she met a pig who...wait for it...yep, you guessed it...a pig who could moo. They spent quite a bit of time teaching each other how to moo and oink with attempts ending in hilarious results. It's not like "OINOOMOO" and "MOINKOO" are quickly found in Webster's Dictionary. But, they persevered, never giving up on mastering that new yoga contortion until they finally could both OINK and MOO...much to the consternation and jealousy of the rest of the barnyard.

Anything worth having is worth working for. Moink.

The Cow That Went Oink by Bernard Most
Published by Harcourt Brace & Company, 1990