Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Pausing the blog

I began this blog in 2011 when I first began to work seriously on my writing. I was so anxious about exposing my work that this low-key blog was as public as I was willing to get.

Since then I've written a lot of pages, shared my work in workshops,  submitted pieces for publication, and had a couple fiction and nonfiction pieces accepted.

Nowadays, when I write something I like,  I'm ready to see it published. And that generally means I can't "publish" it myself on my blog. Not all editors count a blog post as "published," but many do. For that reason, I've decided to stop (for now) using this blog to share new work.

This doesn't mean I've stopped writing. Just the opposite. I'm writing quite a bit, both fiction and nonfiction, and submitting all the time. The blog no longer seems necessary as a halfway step.

At the same time, I'm starting another blog with a much more specific purpose, "Tortoise Guitar." I want to try... for the umpteenth time... to learn to play guitar... but this time I'm going back to the beginning, working from principles of meditation and yoga. That blog will be a journal of how I am doing -- or more to the point, how I am "being."  I hope other people who get anxious when they pick up an instrument will chime in and help me figure this out. Tortoise Guitar:

This doesn't mean I will be spending less time writing fiction. If anything, I hope that the lessons I learn as I practice Tortoise Guitar will make me a more truthful writer of fiction.

Thanks to my dear friends who have cheered me on, in person and in the comments. I'm not going anywhere. I'm still writing. I'll keep you posted.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Me and Penn Jillette

Penn Jillette just wrote an article about how his life changed when he realized the Beatles weren't magical supermen after all. It's excellent. 

In a strange (?) coincidence I wrote a piece for this blog a couple years ago about how my life changed when I realized the Beatles weren't magical supermen after all.


I think Penn's language has more punch than mine, but my piece might be more informative.

Here is Penn's well-written article.
Here is mine.

And here's what all the fuss is about:

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Writing on the right side of the brain

The classic book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (Betty Edwards) offers essentially one piece of instruction for would-be artists: Use your pencil to set down on a piece of paper what you can see about an object, not what you know about that object.

To illustrate: if I asked you in conversation to describe a Radio flyer red wagon, you might mention at some point that the part you sit in is shaped like an open box, and another part is wheels, which are circles. But if you wanted to draw that wagon settled in the tall grass of your back yard, boxes and circles wouldn’t come into play.

From your seat on the back steps, the little red wagon doesn’t look like a squared-off shallow box; it has the skewed angles of a parallogram. You know there are four wheels, but you may see only two or three. Your brain knows those wheels are circles. But you see ovals, and only partial ovals. Your drawing will look more “real” if you forget about what the wagon is like “in reality” and draw only what you see.

What can a writer learn from that? Let me put out a few ideas.
  1. The observing voice of a piece, whether it is a character or a narrator, doesn’t have to include every detail in the scene. Back to the drawing analogy: not every spot of rust, not every dinged bit of red metal has to go into my drawing of a Radio Flyer for you to say, “Oh, I had a wagon like that.” Depending on what details I include, I might intend for you to think of the exciting candy-apple shine of the wagon under the tree on Christmas morning. Or maybe I’m hoping you’ll feel a regretful pang, that your little red wagon is rusting in a basement far away. So: not every observable detail, just the ones that matter to the story.

  2. Fiction is mainly about people, what people do and say and feel and believe. To write fiction, you have to care enough about people to look at them closely. You don’t have to like them, or approve of them, but you do have to consider them with the same patient gaze you’d give to the red wagon on the grass as you sketched.

    I personally believe that the more closely you observe people, the more you do like them-- or at least you can regard their messiness with some compassion. Not every writer believes that. Tolstoy is with me on this, but I think Flaubert went the other way.
  3. This means that idealists (like me) may not be the best natural storytellers. If I write a novel that shows people as I wish they were – or wish they had been– that may not interest people who live in the real world, i.e., everyone else.

  4. That doesn’t mean you can’t write about utopia, or write satire, or write fan fiction about Jabba the Hutt’s singing ABBA at karaoke. But it does mean that the details you set down on paper have to add up to something people recognize. As economically as possible. Flair is always welcome. A keen eye that sees something in the world and matches it to words that fit just right is golden. It doesn’t matter whether the reader says “Yes, that’s exactly how it is,” or “I never thought if that way before, but hmmm.”

The job of the writer doesn’t start with choosing words, thinking about words. It starts when you care about people in the world, take the time to look closely, and absorb the heart of the scene. That's where you find the words, lift those details up and make them shine.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Welcome, Spring. Thank you, Eccentric Chai.

When I was a kid, we had a lot of books in the house full of enchanting language, fascinating and way over my head like a balloon caught in a tree. Poems by Sir Walter Scott and Elizabeth Bishop. The Little Prince. Even my mom's piano book of folk songs fascinated me, with its colorful words and strange dilemmas. 

In that spirit, I wrote a children's book. It's for children like me, who like the feeling of words just out of their grasp --  tickling their souls with light.

In my imagination this book is illustrated. Please imagine the most wonderful pictures you can think up to go with the words on the page.

Eccentric Chai, a nifty blog about creativity, selected this piece for honorable mention in their contest for Children's Picture Book Writing. Thanks, Lina!

Welcome, Spring

I’m watching for Spring to come. I’m watching for the moment when Winter gives way.
How will I know when Spring is here?

Will it be like when a baby is born, trumpeted with noise, and mess -- when everything tells us that we are all changed by this new arrival?
Or will it be like the moment a person like you becomes my friend? Something deep arrives between us. We see each other more clearly now.
Will Spring arrive in a moment of green?

Or could I see that Spring arrives before the green -- when snow relaxes into water, when the wind no longer pushes us down into our coats, when the seeds that the birds look for on the ground sink into the mud.

I’m watching for Spring. I am watching, for one moment, then watching still. I’m ready to welcome Spring in whatever costume she decides to wear.
Spring may come back as a queen, in purple crocus regal robes, forsythia bracelets, a crown of sky blue.
Spring may come back like a mud-brown turtle venturing to the pond’s edge, or like tattered leaves edging up from the melting snow, or like the skittering of ice sliding off the roof.
Spring may surprise me with her splendor. She may tiptoe into view. I’m watching closely, as quietly as breathing.
How will I know when Spring is here? I will wait and I will see.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Forever Love, a new song

A couple of years ago, I wrote song lyrics on the theme of lifelong love and set them to a traditional Irish tune, Citi na gCumman. I asked two terrific musicians, Shannon Lambert-Ryan and Robert Messore to record the song for my parents,  in honor of their 50th wedding anniversary and their 80th birthdays.

The song was a big hit in the Blankenbaker household. I was surprised (though perhaps I shouldn't have been) that the first thing my 80-year old mother said about the song was "Do you really think your Dad and I are in the winter of our lives? I think of us as being in autumn."

This may be the secret to a long, vigorous life: don't let anyone else tell you winter has arrived.

Now, I'd like to share the song with my friends, so I put together this Youtube video. The tune is a traditional Irish one. The English words are my own, rather than a translation of the Gaelic words.

Thank you to my friends who kindly allowed me to use their portraits in the slideshow, and to my friend Pierce Campbell who supervised and mixed the original recording. Thank you most of all to Robert Killheffer, my fiercely loyal husband, who knows his love is at least half the inspiration for the song.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Good knee, bad knee

For the past year I have been living with a “good knee” and a “bad knee.” The good knee, the left one, has served diligently without complaint. The bad right knee has buckled under me. The good knee left me free to have conversations while I walk upstairs. The bad knee begged for attention so I couldn't  think about anything else. The good knee has been quiet, well-behaved, and admirably flexible. The bad knee woke me every night like a cat who thinks breakfast comes before sunrise.

The bad knee has kept me from doing all kinds of things I like in the last year. No biking, no hiking. I've meditated in a chair while the cooler, hipper yogis balance on their zafus on the floor. I wore flat shoes to parties and I rode the elevator to go up just one flight. At the library where I work, when I would get down on the floor to talk to little kids, my grimaces made them hide behind their mother’s legs. 

Ten days ago I had surgery to fix the bad knee. A doctor took about twenty minutes to open up my knee, stick a camera inside, find the raggedy piece of torn cartilage, and trim it back into a neat shape with no frayed edges to flap around and make me squinch my face in pain. “Minor procedure,” the doctor said. I guess it was minor for him, since it only took twenty minutes out of his day. 

For me it’s been more like a two-week vacation on a cruise ship you really, really want to get off of. On this ship, the post-surgery cruise ship, the bed is uncomfortable, the food has no appeal, the bar is locked up and the entertainment is basic cable. I understand I’m getting better, and I can see progress day to day, but – allow me to say something breathtakingly obvious here – pain is exhausting, and pain pills make you blotto.

As an aside, how many of the Seven Dwarfs could be my avatar right now?

Sleepy – check.
Dopey – check.
Grumpy– doublecheck.
Sneezy -- I'm not Sneezy, thank goodness, but I have a strong resemblance to Sneezy's cousins from the wrong side of the tracks, Itchy and Scratchy. 
That leaves Bashful, Happy, and Doc.  I'm usually quite Bashful, really, but the pills I’m taking make me talk without constraint about anything that comes into my head. Junior high school crushes, constipation, everything. Happy hasn’t been around here much lately. either As for Doc, the opioid pain pills have been giving me kind of crazy dreams that sometimes feature my knee surgeon. But on the other hand, the surgeon really did have an uncanny resemblance to Mitt Romney, so who's to say what those nightmares are about.

This morning I woke up and realized that for the first time since the surgery I had slept all the way through the night without waking up in pain. I went to the dentist and had my teeth cleaned, and the effort neither made me sweaty nor did it make me cry. So yes, progress. I found myself thinking kindly towards my bad knee. I told it, “You’re not going to be the bad knee very much longer, are you. You are really shaping up. Thanks, I appreciate it.” 

And then – I distinctly heard the voice of my bad knee speaking up, like a voice-over in a documentary called The Knee Whisperer.

My bad knee said, “HEY! I am your right knee. I am the strong side of your body. I am the one who has been doing more of the work, carrying more of the load. I take longer steps, I push harder on the bike pedal, I go first up the stairs. I have been compensating for the left knee – and the rest of your ungrateful carcass – for years. I have been the GOOD KNEE your whole friggin' life and I deserve a little more respect and care. You better take notes on this, chickie, or we are in for a whole bunch of a painful and broken-down decades."

That took me back a little bit. My broken-down knee thought it was the good knee. Who does that remind me of? Oh, me, the good volunteer, daughter, librarian, and friend, the person who tries to fix the world’s problems between migraines. And look what happens to the ones who try to carry more than their share, so they can acquire a lovely row of gold stars next to their name. We break down. And funnily enough, the very people who are pushing us the most may not be that sympathetic when we fall. We have to be kind to ourselves first and not wait for other people to do that for us.

I said that my knee told me this. More realistically, maybe the narcotics I've been taking had something to do with it. But just because it might be opiate-induced doesn’t mean it isn't true.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Only connect

My friend Nicole Birkholzer is like a family therapist for people and horses. She writes a fascinating blog at  When I met a horse on my recent vacation in Pennsylvania, I had to reflect how much I've learned from her, just by listening to her read out loud from her forthcoming book in our weekly writers' group.

On a recent trip across northern Pennsylvania my husband and I took a day to go down into the heart of a dramatic river gorge, Pine Creek Gorge. We would be traveling in a wagon drawn by a team of Belgian draft horses.

Now, I was never a girl who liked horses, and my adult level of interest in horses has hovered on the dial between "low attraction" and "mild anxiety." But over the last year, I've attended a weekly writers' group and heard Nicole Birkholzer  read from the early drafts of her book about working with horses. Nicole coaches people to understand horses with greater awareness, with a "mindful connection." The close relationships she talks about between people and animals sounded to me like practical magic -- hard to believe at first, but proven real again and again.

Listening to Nicole made me feel that I felt that if I had the chance to spend time with a horse, I could be open to making a "mindful connection," or at least giving it a try.

That morning in Pine Creek Gorge, I wondered whether I would have any chance to get to know the horses who would be pulling our wagon as a team. That certainly wasn't on the agenda of the tour operators, but I thought I'd keep my eyes open and be patient.

We got to the farm where our tour would start quite early, so I had a lot of time to walk around. There were a couple of vigorous-looking draft horses in one pasture. They had a barely contained adolescent energy, like teenaged football players in a locker room before a game.

Off in another enclosure I saw another horse who seemed quite different, older perhaps. He was also a Belgian draft horse, massive and reddish blond. His coat looked patchy and even scruffy, with a balding muzzle and hair that had thinned on his back. He was calmly eating hay about twenty feet from the fence. The woman who ran the place told me his name was Buddy.

I decided to try to "connect" to Buddy, since the two jocks in the farther field seemed like more than I could handle. I was prepared for Buddy to have no interest in me whatsoever. After all, he must be approached by tourists every day, and people being people, some of those visitors must be annoying. "It's just an experiment," I thought. "I'll try to practice what Nicole talks about. I'll listen to the horse, let him know what my intentions are, and see if he's open to meeting me."

I watched Buddy eating for a while and tried to sense his energy. He seemed absorbed in chewing on hay, sticking his nose deep into the bale as if the yummy stuff was way inside. After a while I began to "broadcast" my intention by thinking, "Hello, if you want me to scratch your back or anything, I'm available."

He kept eating with concentration, as if he were unaware of my presence. I continued to think, "You look like you're enjoying your food, but I'm just saying, I'm here, I could scratch you...."

Then I really did feel something bounce between me and the horse: a distinct "brush-off" feeling. It seemed like Buddy was telling me "Okay! I heard you! And I'm eating! This is what I want to do right now! Stop nudging me!"

I mentally acknowledged the message and told him I'd be around if he changed his mind. I went to sit on a bench in the sunshine fifty feet away. After ten minutes, he came right up to the fence and made eye contact with me across the open space. Oh, okay, I thought, lunch is over, now he may be taking me up on my offer.

I walked back to the fence and began to scratch his side, moving to his neck and the space between his ears as he stepped nearer. When he seemed squirmy, I moved to another spot until he settled down again, just like you would with a cat.

As I scratched and rubbed him, Buddy moved in closer and closer to me, all 2000 pounds of warm horse muscle and rough hair.  Finally his enormous nostrils were pressed right up against my face as my arms were draped along his sides scratching. Like the tip of an elephant's trunk, the edges of Buddy's nose explored my face with an elastic, moist, whiffling delicacy.

I felt entirely absorbed in this big creature. I felt I'd been given a huge gift:  this being was sharing his self with me, his weight, his smell, his breath, his gaze. It seemed like a long time we stood this way, but really, I wasn't aware of time going by. There was still a wooden fence between us, but Buddy's trust in me erased any fences in my mind.