Sunday, January 27, 2008 and great first lines

I've talked about before but it's been a while, and who looks at archived blog posts, anyway? It's hard enough keeping current on new blog posts. is a clearing house of sorts for print and online magazines and journals. Check it out if you're researching publications.

And talk about a first line that'll grab your attention. Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, offers one up right here.

Friday, January 25, 2008

I have grown addicted... the quiet of the library. It doesn't look like much here, and mostly you can't hear the quiet--the blizzard of quiet--which is what I love most.

I also like sitting where I can look out into a patch of wild.

Where do you write, and do you love it there?

Monday, January 21, 2008

More on creating a written photo

The other thing is, in a photograph, you get what you see, but you don't get what you don't see.

In other words, in yesterday's post, if that were a photograph (and I know I have photos of the kitchen circa 1998), you wouldn't get the sounds of the car outside. You wouldn't get the history of the table that Brian and I painted, and you wouldn't get the Rampalski's house across the street (they have long moved away). You wouldn't get Travis' dialogue and my supposed verbal abuse (according to Brian). You only get what you see. And most likely it wouldn't be a panoramic vision.

So right now, where you sit, create a written photograph. Look up from your computer, and straight ahead, what do you see? If all you see is a wall, turn your head a bit. Now what do you see? Or take your pen and paper and go into another room. Go on the front porch. Look out a window. If someone's sleeping, go into their room and take a written photo.

I try to take my own advice. So here's mine:


Our younger cat, Rosie, sits on the table beside the front window and sticks her head through the curtains, looking outside at the dark morning sky. It is 6:39 and the sky is periwinkle, with swaths of white. It looks like rain. Through another window a branches stir.

I pull back. The 25-gallon aquarium that sits in the fireplace--the house filled with smoke when during our last few fires so our aquarium took up permanent residence there--sounds like a tiny stream, reminds me of Vermont and the last place I lived there, with the creek behind it. In the winter the creek would freeze over and in the spring you would hear loud thuds and creaks as the ice flows broke apart and the water rushed downstream.

Travis likes noise. He doesn't like it to be too quiet. He misses the sound of the aquarium in his room and at night turns on a miniature electric volcano, for the sound, as he goes to sleep. He blames his desire for sound on me. He says it's because I vacuumed when he was a baby, getting him used to sound so he could sleep anywhere and not need quiet, as I usually do unless I'm exhausted.

Now Rosie turns this way and washes herself, sitting back like a cartoon cat, her legs splayed this way and that, her white-tipped paws pointed at me.


Creating a written photograph gets you accustomed to paying attention to the details and gets you writing visually and viscerally.

If you feel like it, post your written photo.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Create a written photo

A long time ago Andrea Schulz, my editor at Harcourt, suggested I post chapters or sections that didn't make it into Pen on Fire. I've been meaning to. So let this be the premiere entry!


The kitchen clock, with the watercolor painting of a blue-eyed sun and his full dark lips, ticks loudly. The green wicker chair on which I sit creaks as I shift my position. Clean dinner dishes crowd the red dish drainer.

The retro high chair with chrome arms and legs and duct-taped vinyl is pulled close to our small round kitchen table. Brian and I painted it with acrylics and lacquer. Its sides go down. And hanging from a white cabinet knob is a vintage red fabric heart that my student Robin gave me for Christmas that first year she took my class. January 1998.

Does the past exist if you neglect to record it?

A year later I wrote this:

It is nine o’clock on a balmy June night. Travis, almost four, took a late nap and is still sleeping. Knowing him, he will wake at midnight, kick up his heels, and be ready to party.

The front door is open, and Leao, our Portuguese water dog who has webbed feet but hates going in the water, lies on the carpet midway between the open door and me. The houses in this beach town sit so close to one another I occasionally hear the shake and shimmy of a neighbor’s washing machine.

Strains of jazz from somebody’s stereo drift across the fence along with the rumble of voices, and the computer I work on which is usually rather quiet now sounds loud. Someone's phone rings, a car whishes by, and someone else parks and slams the car door. I’m sitting in a direct line with the front door, and it’s dark out, getting late, so I get up and ease it shut.

Before I do, I look outside. Across the street, the Rampalski’s porch light is on, and in the corner house Jordan’s room throbs and changes colors from the TV.

When I sit back down, the refrigerator motor kicks in. The noise distracts me but Brian likes it. For him, a quiet fridge when he returns from a gig in the wee small hours of the night makes for a too-quiet house. For me, the fridge, plus the hum of the laptop, makes the room a prime source of noise pollution.

On a day last week when my nerves felt particularly jangled, Travis was yelling, and I said, “You’re creating some real noise pollution, honey.” In his low key style, Brian said he wasn’t sure, but I may have just committed verbal abuse.

Of course the past exists if you don't record it. But its details drift away. You strain to remember.

Writing down the details can evoke a scene more than a photograph can. And I've been a photographer for a lot of my life!

Set the timer (an exercise)

Record a scene with words (instead of, or in addition to, taking a picture). Note the details--what it sounds like, smells like, looks like. Include snippets of dialogue.

Friday, January 11, 2008

I'm in love ...

...all over again, with the library. I tried renting an office in town but so far they're so expensive, and not quite right. So the last two days went to the library to work on Starletta (I'm deeply enmeshed in the refining stage, which is difficult, and also a gas). Yesterday I arrived at the library early enough to nab a study room, but today I was too late. So I found a quiet corner and loved the ceiling, with it's white painted exposed pipes and hoses, and how the wall at the opposite end of the structure was farther away than the farthest area in our cottage (ha! easily!) or a Starbucks or anywhere else I could work about now. So quiet, too. I strained to listen and heard little. Love it love it love it.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Saroyan Prize

Just came in....deadline is soon....

Re: Call for Submissions.
Deadline for Entries: January 31, 2008

Dear Colleagues,

Nominations are now being accepted for the third William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. This award, given by Stanford University Libraries in partnership with the William Saroyan Foundation, recognizes newly published works of fiction and non-fiction with a $12,500 award for the winner in each category. The prize is designed to encourage new or emerging writers and honor the Saroyan literary legacy of originality, vitality and stylistic innovation. While normally biennial, this third round of the award is on a triennial schedule, having been timed to coincide with the Saroyan Centennial celebrations taking place in 2008. For entry forms and more information on the prize, including entry forms and rules, visit the Saroyan website for prize info..

Entries must be received on or before January 31, 2008.
(Scroll down for a press release on the prize.)

Best regards,
Sam Petersen, for Stanford University Libraries


**Ms. Sam Petersen, Sam Petersen Associates:
(650) 854-5575,

William Saroyan International Prize for Writing to be Awarded in 2008
Award coincides with Saroyan Centennial celebrations

Stanford University Libraries, in partnership with the William Saroyan Foundation, announced today the launch of the third William Saroyan International Prize for Writing (Saroyan Prize). Intended to encourage new or emerging writers and honor the Saroyan literary legacy of originality, vitality and stylistic innovation, the Saroyan Prize recognizes newly published works of both fiction and non-fiction. A prize of $12,500 will be awarded in each of these categories, and the prize winners will be recognized publicly during Stanford’s Saroyan Centennial celebrations on September 5, 2008.

Literary fiction, including novels, short story collections, and drama, will be eligible for consideration for the Saroyan Fiction Prize. Literary non-fiction of any length is eligible for consideration for the Saroyan Non-fiction Prize, most particularly writing in the Saroyan tradition: memoirs, portraits and excursions into neighborhood and community. Entries in either category are limited to English language publications that are available for individual purchase by the general public. Entries must be received on or before January 31, 2008. Official entry forms and rules are available at .

“The Saroyan Prize is an integral part of the library’s ongoing and active involvement with the Saroyan archive, but it also provides a wonderful opportunity for Stanford students and alumni, as well as literati everywhere, to interact actively with the emerging literary figures of our time.” said Michael A. Keller, Stanford University Librarian. “Such interaction is a distinguishing feature of a Stanford education. We are particularly pleased to be offering the prize during this centennial celebration of Saroyan’s birth, when so much attention is being given to Saroyan’s life and work.”

“The Saroyan Foundation is pleased to be involved in fulfilling Saroyan’s dream of establishing a writing prize to encourage and perpetuate the art he so loved,” said Haig Mardikian, President of the William Saroyan Foundation. “Saroyan not only had a great passion for writing, he was also an accomplished visual abstract artist; so it is particularly fitting that this award is being granted during the Saroyan Centennial celebrations where we are commemorating many of Saroyan's artistic achievements.”

The first William Saroyan International Prize for Writing was awarded in 2003 to Jonathan Safran Foer for his novel Everything is Illuminated (Houghton Mifflin, 2002). The second Saroyan Prize, awarded in 2005, was the first to be offered for both fiction and non-fiction. The fiction prize was awarded to George Hagen for his novel The Laments (Random House, 2004); the non-fiction prize went to Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman for The King of California (Public Affairs, 2005).

William Saroyan, an American writer and playwright, is a Pulitzer Prize and Academy Award winner best known for his short stories about humorous experiences of immigrant families and children in California. Much of Saroyan’s other work is clearly autobiographical, although similar in style and technique to fiction. Saroyan was the fourth child of Armenian immigrants. He battled his way through poverty and rose to literary prominence in the early 1930s when national magazines began publishing his short stories, such as The Daring Young Man On The Flying Trapeze, My Name Is Aram, Inhale & Exhale, Three Times Three, and Peace, It’s Wonderful. Saroyan soon moved on to writing plays for Broadway and screenplays for Hollywood, including: My Heart’s in the Highlands, The Time of Your Life, The Beautiful People, and The Human Comedy.

The William Saroyan Foundation was officially founded by the author on December 30, 1966. Since then, distinguished professors, business executives and high-ranking government officials have accepted appointments to the Foundation’s Board of Trustees. Commencing in 1990, the Trustees set a goal of bringing together into one single archive his entire literary estate. A decision was finally made by the Trustees to offer Stanford University the assembled Saroyan Literary Collection with provisions that would safeguard in perpetuity one of the rare treasure troves in American literature, carrying on the legacy of Fresno, California’s own native son, William Saroyan.

Stanford University Libraries & Academic Information Resources supports the teaching, learning and research mandates of the University through delivery of bibliographic and other information resources and services to faculty, students and staff. It is tackling the challenges of the digital age while continuing the development, preservation and conservation of its extensive print, media and manuscript collections.

# # #


So...a survey....

1 - What's the best book you read in 2007?

2 - What's the best book you read in 2007 that was published prior to 2007?

3 - What's the one book you read in 2007 that you wanted to like--that the critics liked, or loved--but you didn't?

4 - What's the best movie made from a book that you saw in 2007? (Didn't have to be made in 2007...)

5 - Any books you received as gifts recently that you want to read, are reading, or tried to read (and couldn't)?

Answer any or all......

Monday, January 07, 2008

Back to Starletta's Kitchen

I love holidays and like to prolong the holiday as long as possible--obviously. Our tree is still up, blue lights still line are yar and front of the house. Yesterday was the Epiphany, which is a signal to us to take down the tree, dagnabbit, but not yet. Not yet....

But Travis is back at school, and as promised, I'm back to Starletta, mostly reviewing notes and reading the first chapters, making notes. It's good to be back.

I'm also looking for office space--just the teeniest space is all I need--in town, within a 10 minute walk. Somewhere outside of the house (know of one?). I have one lead which I'll check out today. All of my work is pretty much home-based, so I'd love a place nearby where there's no internet, no phone, no nuttin' except my novel to work on.

If you work at home, how do you stay focused on your work and refuse to be distracted by email, cleaning, phone, etc., and if you have an office outside the house, when did you get it and has it helped?

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Happy New Year 2008!

Okay, ante up those resolutions, guys and goils.

My resolutions are the same as they are every morning of my life--be sweeter, more generous, more productive, smarter, eat healthier--with one additional resolution: finish Starletta's Kitchen by the time I go to New York in April.

What about yours?

Along the lines of eating healthier, on tomorrow's show my guest will be Melissa Clark, a food writer, who has a fun diet book called The Skinny. We'll talk about food writing, writing essays, writing process, and what writers can do to stop or decrease zee writers'--ahem--spread.

Speaking of writer's spread, here's a recipe for muffins that's in the oven as we speak--as I speak, anyhoo. Not sure how great it is for decreasing writers' spread, but the muffins are among our faves.

I wrote a piece for the old Westways magazine some years back (the column was called Food Souvenir) and included this recipe. (It's adapted from a recipe from the Willows Palm Springs Historic Inn, which I wrote about for the Los Angeles Times Weekend Escape.) We love it. Enjoy, and Happy New Year!

Crazy for Cardomom Muffins

(Makes 15 regular muffins or 30 mini-muffins, or mix them up, as I do.)

2 cups whole wheat pastry flour (or a cup of w/w and cup of unbleached white, or all white, depending on your inclination)

1/2 cup, plus 2/3 cup sugar

3/4 cup chopped toasted walnuts

2 large cage free organic eggs (or equivalent egg replacer)

1/2 cup nonfat yogurt (or if you like rich muffins, use sour cream. I used to use sour cream, when I didn't gain weight just by looking at fatty delicious foods....)

1/2 stick of butter, melted

1 1/2 cup peeled and grated tart apples

1 tsp. ground allspice

3/4 tsp. powdered cardamom

2 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. baking soda

1/4 tsp. salt

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Mix the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, 2/3 cup sugar, 3/4 tsp. allspice and 1/2 tsp. cardamom. Set the mixture aside. Lightly toast the walnuts in a frying pan.

Whisk eggs, sour cream, melted butter. Mix in the apples. Add the dry mixture to the wet. Add 1/2 cup of the walnuts. The remaining sugar, walnuts, allspice and cardomom will make the topping.

Fill muffin pans with paper liners or spray with oil. Fill muffin tins and top with the remaining spice and sugar mixture. Bake for 20 minutes or so, until brown (bake for less if you make the mini muffins).