Monday, January 30, 2012

the canary review

Just a quick "blowin' my own horn" sort of post today. I'm honored to be the featured piece in the latest issue of The Canary Review. Thanks to Melissa Reeser, too, who asked me the sort of smart questions that made me really come to grips with the impetus behind my book and the blog I started in concert with writing the book.

Nice way to start a Monday!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

put a jar of Vicks on it

Regardless that Portland is the hippest thing since sliced tofu (even though Brooklyners beg to differ), when the end of January comes along it's always clear that I live in the valley of death. Oh, sure, there's a bit of Old Wives Tale in that adage about Willamette Valley's Native American translation, but if you look around at the pallid faces, the wadded Kleenex, the lines at the supermarket pharmacies--you'll have to concede that when it comes to prolonged post-nasal drip, the Pacific Northwest rules.

The stack of medicines in the photo? Currently, they are the regime of my husband, but we like to play "tag--you're it" with our winter crud, so next week, I'm sure it'll be me squeezing saline into my brain via clogged nasal passages. I'll be the one hacking up phlegm at 3 in the morning.

Ten years ago, I was writer-in-residence at Fishtrap. With two of my three kids, I ventured to the Wallowas for the winter to hole up in a riverside cabin to write and teach. Idyllic, yes? Well, sure, sort of. The writing, teaching and out-in-nature part was terrific. The not-so-terrific part was that my kids were sicker out there than they've ever been. Infections, febrile seizure-inducing fevers, trips to the emergency room via ambulance, cool compresses and hot toddies. There was this Little House on the Prairie feel, complete with aggressive deer that attacked us with their craven hoofs as we made our way to the minivan, my 2-yr-old swaddled in a quilt.

Thankfully, this neighborhood I live in now has a dearth of deer--aggressive or otherwise. (Though our local coyotes and raccoons take down the occasional backyard chicken.) What we do have is plenty of mucus. Less dramatic than toddlers and fevers, but annoying, gross, and tenacious. The plus side? More downtime (aka writing time). The silver-lining on winter blech is word count (but remember to wash your hands before touching your keyboard)!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

hot girls don't write

Today I spent an hour with middle schoolers in a creative writing classroom. As the mom of a 7th-grader, I wasn't going in there cold. But still. Remember that line from Anne Lamott about why she never wanted to have a girl? Seventh and eighth grade, she said. Or something like that.

Being a 13-year-old girl--particularly a shy, bookish 13-year-old girl--is a special sort of hell.And it's a special sort of hell that continues to deliver once you've grown beyond the experiences of a 13-year-old girl and somehow, miraculously, find yourself a middle aged female writer. Ergo, the writing exercise I trotted in with and presented to Ms. Andronescu's class.

The prompt was: during lunch in a school cafeteria, there are three kids. A popular kid, a shy kid, and a best friend (of either the shy OR the popular kid). The shy kid has baked some cookies and wants to give them to the popular kid. The prompt was embedded in a lesson on POV, so I asked the students to write a paragraph using the third person, and then, write the same scene choosing one of the characters as the first person narrator.

I did not specify gender, but surprise, only one of the students chose to make the shy cookie-bearer a boy.  Most of the students eagerly read their accounts of bookish, shy girls tentatively approaching brazen popular boys with the carefully baked treats. They took care to describe wild heartbeats and skinny jeans and the plucky best friends who egged them on. And the boys in this particular class? One wrote that the shy girl had offered peanut butter cookies to the boy. He was allergic to peanuts and died before the end of the paragraph. Another boy wrote a sci-fi thriller in which a character was given an assignment to have a "crush." It was an amazingly detailed, voicey 3rd person piece, and the kid, I know, will have his potboilers lining bookstore shelves before he's thirty.

Last night, to prepare for my immersion in adolescent culture, over dinner I asked my son his opinion about the prompt. And, of course, I was fishing for information about the creative writing class itself (which, by the way, even if it were the only elective at the school, my son let me know, he would never, ever darken its door). I wondered if he knew any of the students, and what they were like. He didn't. And then he offered, "But I can guarantee you there are no hot girls in that class."

"Ex-cuse me?" I hammered back. "What makes you think that, Mr. Profiler?"

"Seriously, Mom, you have to trust me on this. Hot girls don't read and they don't write."

Okay, I admit, I'd had a glass of wine and my appropriate Mother-knows-best demeanor was a bit, ahem, askew. "For your information, lots of hot girls read. And my writer's group is filled with hot, um, women."

"Yeah, well, the hot girls I know aren't into that stuff."

"Okay, who would you rather spend time with, someone interesting and engaging and funny, or someone sort of boring, but really cute?"

"To spend time with, or kiss?"


"Well, it makes a difference. If we're talking lip to lip contact, she has to be hot."

Now, my 12-year-old son is barely 85 pounds soaking wet. He's a little firecracker and, yes, he's garnered his share of freshly baked cookies (metaphorically speaking), but I still think of him as my baby--kissing? Where did that come from?

"I'll have you know that I would totally have been one of those girls signed up for Ms. Andronescu's creative writing class," I argued, while signaling the waiter for a second glass of wine. "I lived to read and write when I was your age."

He looked at me with his practiced smirk, beneath his ballcap, and he nodded. "No surprise there, Mom."

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

writers and branding: an interview with Julia Stoops

I am very pleased to introduce my colleague Julia Stoops, who not only designed the latest iteration of, but the first one as well. Julia and I have worked together on branding and web projects for a variety of artists and organizations over the years, and I’m thrilled that she agreed to talk about visual identity, and how writers can benefit from giving some thought to establishing a brand look and feel. Tonight she’ll join other writers for a reading at Portland’s Blackbird Wine Shop.

According to your tagline, you work with “changemakers” and “cultural innovators,” why do you like working with people and companies that fit that description?
I love working with people and organizations that are forward looking and inspired to do something innovative online. "Changemaker" and "cultural innovator" are pretty broad categories. They cover foundations and nonprofits that make direct, tangible contributions to social justice issues. They also cover creative professionals, such as writers, architects, musicians, and visual artists. Then there are the harder to define "special projects," such as ones I’ve done for research organizations. For instance, the site we made for In essence we created an online museum for a huge private collection of antique needlework samplers. It was exciting to come up with new ways in which these textiles, made by young girls hundreds of years ago, could be shared and analyzed online with a global audience.

How is your approach to web design informed by your career in visual art and your perspective as a writer?
I’m glad for the visual art background. Color theory, principles of composition, visual symbol, and art history all inform my aesthetic choices when I'm designing websites. And my time as a college teacher, designing and teaching new courses, gave me skills in creating systems of information communication where the parts can be independent but they also fit together to make a whole. And learning the craft of creative writing grounded me in the importance of the story, the big picture of the client's communication. I'm always thinking, how is this client’s story going to come across to others, particularly to the client's target audiences? And while I don’t do copywriting for clients, I have a facility for establishing the big picture of the brand and maintaining that vision through the months-long design/content/build process.

What do you see as the biggest mistake writers often make with their websites?
Many writers ignore the importance of establishing a visual brand, and their resulting websites look dull and uninteresting. They get done on the cheap, and the result is mediocre. Assuming a writer's work is wonderful, why promote it in a mediocre way?

Why should writers think about visually “branding” themselves? They’re writers, shouldn’t their words just speak for themselves?
The idea that writers' words should speak for themselves is, alas, not tenable in the 21st century. If it were true, books would still have the featureless covers they did a hundred years ago. Books remain a strong medium for entertainment and education, but getting your book noticed and bought means facing the reality that it is competing with film, television, podcasts, video games, and more. Information is cheap – it's attention that has become expensive. Well known writers with established fan bases can (unfortunately) afford to have mediocre websites, whereas lesser known writers have to work harder to stand out. The reassuring thing is that going for a strong visual brand does not detract from your writing. It's not like you have to change your work or make aesthetic compromises. A strong visual brand that is aligned with your vision can only enhance the perception of your work.

You just launched a website for your novel, Parts Per Million. Why did you choose to do a “novel” website instead of an “author” website?
Hmmm, good question! The honest answer is probably that I don't quite think of myself as an "author" yet. Sure, I write, but I'm not going to be comfortable with "author" until I'm published. Until then I'm an artist/designer who one day followed a crazy compulsion to write down a story that was stuck in her head, and after ten years of refinement, it’s ready to go out into the world.

Also, author websites make more sense when the author has more than one work. Or they teach writing or write book reviews or participate in some other tangible literary activity. And although I am working on a second novel, it's not ready to be talked about in detail. So at the moment I'm really just a one trick pony. It’s a big, complex trick, so it seemed better to make a website about the trick than about the pony.

And besides, there’s already a "portal" to my various other websites at ;-)

Where is it all heading in the artistic website realm? More DIY? Less? Are you worried that you’ll be phased out as more and more laypeople have access to the tools of your trade?
DIY web technologies have revolutionized the ability for creative professionals with low budgets to achieve a web presence. It's become crucial to have a place of one's own on the web, to the point where even a mediocre website is far better than no website.

But I'm not worried about being phased out, for three reasons. Firstly, while everybody has access to DIY technologies such as WordPress, Carbonmade, and Other People's Pixels, what these technologies give you is templates. If you're fine with templates, then I say go for it. But if you want to customize your site, then you need to get past a steep learning curve to gain creative control over your site's structure, features, and design. I've known creative professionals who've made their own custom sites with a great deal of pulling out of hair and gnashing of teeth. If you have lots of time, and no money, then that is your path.

The second reason is that the DIY tools are just mechanical tools. They do nothing to help you bounce ideas around, identify priorities, clarify your mission, vision, goals, target audiences, long-term measurables, aesthetics, symbolism, fonts, color palette, and all the other details that do into brand development. There will always be a need for this kind of expertise.

The third reason I don't fear being phased out is that these days I do more brand development and design work with organizations than with individuals. With their multiple stakeholders, dependent deadlines, and complex goals, organizations don't want to soak up employee time learning DIY tools. They often also want a full service design agency, and they understand the value of having an outside perspective on what they do. Collaborating with an agency like Blue Mouse Monkey makes it easier for them to communicate their mission and value to the community.

Julia Stoops, a native of New Zealand, is a recipient of an Oregon Arts Commission Fellowships for Literature and Visual Art. She has experience in alternative radio news journalism and anti-war activism, as well as a background teaching media studies, art and philosophy.
Currently Julia runs the branding and web design company she founded, Blue Mouse Monkey. She is an alum of Portland's popular Pinewood Table writing critique group, and has just completed a novel, PARTS PER MILLION. 

Sunday, January 01, 2012

in with the new

It really is a total coincidence that my new website launched as the ball dropped, but it works for me. Metaphorically, metaphysically and a whole bunch of other meta ways. I've been writing, oh, 42 years or so if you count my kindergarten scribblings, so if you go by the whole Deuteronomy thing, that's six big fat slate-clearing beginnings as a writer. My last website was conceived in 2005, so there you have it. I release thee. Done.

Last New Year's I had all this anxiety and do-or-die energy. I began the year with a pretty dramatic cleanse (no coffee or booze or sugar for a month!). Shortly thereafter, I wangled myself a terrific agent, I finished (or so I thought) my young adult book, I also finished another draft of my other novel. I taught classes, took on new work and clients, erased nearly 20K of debt, turned 50, and managed the usual family crises and hectic soccer mom schedule. I could not have accomplished any of those things without the help of my fantastic husband, my brilliant business partner, and, of course, my terrific, star-studded writing group.

2011was full of aggressive energy. We (Kirk, Carson and I) barely stopped moving the whole year. We capped it off with a rip-roaring party last night where we also managed to raise some money for the social service agency where my daughter works. Kirk and I were clearing up the beer bottles and plastic champagne flutes and piles of poker chips at 2:00 a.m., both feeling pretty self-satisfied. And exhausted.

So. 2012? I'm not going to move quite as fast. I'm gong to slow down and hunker in, and finish stuff. Make the things I've started as beautiful as I can. Fix what's broken. Nurture and nest and celebrate. Take lots of "next right steps." I hope. Today marks my transition from partner in a thriving communications business, back to independent contractor and sole proprietor of my little word-smithing enterprise.

Tomorrow my writing group will be over, and we'll do our annual spewing of intentions, which is something I personally cherish, but many of my colleagues do not. Show of hands: writing resolutions/intentions, good? Bad? Indifferent?