One of us lives on the east coast. One of us lives on the west.

One of us lives in a rural community. One of us lives in a city.

Both of us wander. Both of us witness. Both of us write.

This is a record of what we find.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Secret Inner Landscape

In KL Going’s The Liberation of Gabriel King, Gabe has to face his fears. And he has lots of them: spiders, his best friend Frita’s brother, jumping from the rope swing into the river, going into fifth grade. His list goes on and on. The book is extraordinary, in my opinion. Paralleling Gabe’s journey to liberate himself from his fears is the historically accurate, emotionally charged, and deeply moving journey of Frita, her family and the rest of their community to liberate themselves from the oppression of racism.

That entwining of the two—the mundane personal struggle with the striking social, political (and yes, personal) struggle—is well worth a blog post in and of itself. Maybe one for another time. Right now, though, I want to focus on Gabe. At one point in the story, he has dinner at Frita’s house, and Frita’s father gives an impromptu lesson about oppression. Gabe understands it immediately and fully, and he retells a story his own father had told him, about a group called the White Citizen’s Council and how Jimmy Carter had stood up to them and what the black community must have felt. Gabe says, “I bet they felt some oppressed, and they must have had to be real brave.” And Frita’s mother responded, “I think we’ve got ourselves another Peace Warrior.”

And this is, indeed, true. Despite Gabe’s outwardly meek and subservient behavior—his outward landscape—he has a secret identity tucked away inside. He is a Peace Warrior. And this got me thinking about just how many people have a secret identity like that on the landscape of the inside. Lots of us do. And sometimes it is even secret from our own selves. My daughter, Zory, is a perfect example of someone with that kind of dual landscape. She is in the process of identifying the internal, secret one and then learning how to bring it to the outside. As someone who is close to Zory; who can see the outward landscape but who knows what is just waiting to grow from the inside to the outside, I have been thinking hard on how to identify that inner landscape. I have to look beyond the biggest outward characteristics (raised voice, let’s say, or quick body movements…ummmm…think temper tantrum) and search, instead, for the smaller, more subtle ones. Ones like a single deep breath in the middle of the tantrum or a split second eye contact or an almost imperceptible reach of the hand. These are the windows into that inner landscape. The natural, organic one hoping to burst forth.

I wonder how this duality parallels the landscape around us. The obvious example is the volcano ready to erupt. The less obvious ones are the flowers and plants about to push through the earth just before spring. What are others? And how can we use these overt and hidden landscapes in our stories?


Thursday, February 16, 2012


One of my favorite walks in the Bay Area is right across the Golden Gate Bridge, in the Marin Headlands. As I hike up the steep wooded trail, to the top of Hawk Hill, raven’s croak and hawks soar overhead. The reward for this climb is a spectacularly sweeping view; on one side, the jewel box city that is San Francisco gleams like a silver Oz in the distance. 

On the other side, the wild rolling landscape of the Headlands meets the Pacific Ocean stretching on to the edge of the sky. In the afternoon light, sun stars dance on the water and the Farallon Islands hover mysteriously on the horizon. Standing and gazing out at the land, the water, the sky, never fails to deeply move me and fill me with both a sense of complete peace and profound awe. I cannot imagine anything more beautiful.

It is this experience of beauty that most often catches my attention when I am out wandering and is what draws me back to the landscape time and time again. Now, I know that beauty is one of those words, like love and friendship, that has gotten watered down in our culture from casual use, leaving us with impoverished sense of what these words mean. But the essence of the meaning is just as important as it ever has been.

The experience of beauty can come from many sources; the beauty in nature, a beautiful painting, an exquisitely moving poem, a gorgeous musical passage, the taste of a fresh peach, the beauty in an act of great kindness. These experiences move us and change us by affecting us at a very deep level. True beauty, I believe, has transformative power. It can be a threshold that takes us from one place to another—from hurt to healing, from famished to nurtured. The experience of beauty can summon not only great joy but deep sorrow—it works like a probe that brings all kinds of emotions up from the deepest place.

I recently listened to an interview with the late Irish poet, John O'Donahue, where he discussed his thoughts on the inner landscape of beauty. He said that we feel most alive in the presence of what is beautiful, and that beauty enables the heart and reminds us of what is infinite in us. He even talked about how the experience of true beauty can be an experience of homecoming. He asked listeners to think about what comes to mind when they close their eyes and visualize beauty, reminding us that beauty and glamour are not the same—that beauty isn't all about nice loveliness but about an immerging fullness, a greater sense of grace, a deeper sense of belonging.

Yes. That’s the experience I’m talking about.

So, what does this have to do with writing? When I am getting to know a character, one of the questions I always ask myself is, "What does he/she love?" Once I’m able to answer this question, I know so much more about who this person (character) is. I think two equally revealing questions might be, " What does she see when she closes her eyes and thinks of beauty?” And “How does the experience of beauty inform and change her?” They are questions I plan to incorporate in my future getting-to-know-you ritual.

O’Donahue reminds us that the root of the word beauty is the word calling. Beauty calls to us but also can remind us of our calling by evoking what moves us.

You can listen to the entire 51-minute interview with John O’Donahue at :

Take good care,


Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Landscape of Ritual

I have been thinking about rituals lately. I have quite a few of them in my life. Maybe we all do. I run, as you know, along the same river trail most mornings. I practice yoga once a week in the same studio with the same teacher and, most of the time, the same fellow practicers. I make pizza for dinner almost every Friday and our family plays Rat-a-Tat-Cat most weekends. (Awesome card game, if you don’t know it. Great for the whole family.)

Rituals are comforting. It feels good to do something familiar. My body can relax into it because it knows, instinctively what to do—downward dog or stretching pizza dough or whatever the movement may be—and so my mind can relax too. There is no thinking about the action, only doing it, and this frees me up to dream or imagine or simply let go.

But rituals also facilitate discovery. Because I run along the same river trail day in and day out, I notice when a tree has fallen or a fox has been by or the ice flow on the river has shifted. I can hone in on tiny new details because I am not taking in the entire landscape in that sweeping, wide-angle way I do when I am in it for the first or even second or third time. Rituals strengthen that observation muscle.

Alison McGhee explores this idea of the landscape of ritual in her Julia Gillian series, which I am reading with my eight year old daughter right now. Julia Gillian takes her dog, Bigfoot, on a walk through her neighborhood almost every day. They visit the same hardware store with the entertaining window display, the same house that leaves a bowl of water out for walking dogs, and the same bakery where Julia’s friend Zap works. This walk is safe and familiar. Julia could do it with her eyes closed. But the point is she doesn’t, right? She treks her route with her eyes wide open, and her head and heart open too. It is on these walks that she comes to solutions to her problems. And it is on these walks that she finds new objects or people or actions that become pivotal plot points. Alison does a gorgeous job illustrating how ritual—both in a character’s life and as a writer’s tool—can deepen a story and make it exceedingly more universal in its attention to detail.

I will leave you with that. Right now I am off to revise my picture book manuscript. Oh yeah. Revision is a ritual in my life too…


Thursday, February 2, 2012

Out of The Fog

Fog is a living part of the San Francisco landscape. It's a year-round naturally occurring phenomenon that follows a predicable pattern; whenever the temperature warms up around us, it pushes the fog in. Or as Carl Sandburg said, it comes in on little cat feet. We tell ourselves that we love the fog. It’s cool and moist and mysterious. It softens edges and muffles sound. It has been a seductive muse to many writers, musicians and painters. Mark Twain actually did not say ‘the coldest winter I’ve ever spent is a summer in San Francisco,’ but we love to repeat the misquoted sentiment anyway.

A few days ago, I took a walk around Stow Lake, where a low, thick fog had shrouded much of the landscape, erasing Strawberry Hill—the island in the middle of the lake. I could hear the rhythmic lap of oars dipping in and out of the water, but when the boatman came rowing out of the fog, it felt like a vision. Like magic. Like he appeared out of nothing.

When the fog comes into the bay, Alcatraz vanishes. As if it isn’t there anymore. I’ve heard visitors say, “What happened to Alcatraz? I thought it was out there in the Bay?” I reassure them that it’s still there and I do know that it is, yet I always experience a sense of relief when it peeks out of the top of the fog bank. Ahh—there it is. See?

I learn life lessons every day; quite often they come from the landscape around me. There is a very steep hill a few blocks from my house—so steep that when you drive to the crest, you cannot see the road in front of the hood of the car. When my girls were young, they would beg me to drive home that way and then we’d all shriek as we went over the summit and I swear, that as many times as I did it, there was always a moment of Oh Sh—! doubt that we are about to plunge off a cliff.

Like a person who wanders in the fog, I used to be a complete pantser—someone who writes by the seat of her pants. I would get a vague idea for a character and a situation and then just start writing to see where it went. It was an act of faith, like driving over the crest, trusting that the road would come up to meet me. And it did (although I wrote a lot of plot-less fiction that way.) In the past few years, I’ve tried to be more of a plotter. A planner. I find I like having a map that shows me where I’m going.

But still, there are times when the fog comes in and even with a road map, I can’t see where I’m going. It’s scary and takes an act of faith to push forward. Slowly, I’m learning to trust my sense of direction again, that if I continue to take careful steps forward, I will find the road. Alcatraz is still there. When the words do appear, they’re like that boatman rowing out of the fog, ferrying an unparalleled thrill and reminding me that writing is magic.