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, May 28, 2015

Authentic Sense Of Place

A recent post in Eco-Notes—Living Shelter Designs’ green building blog—caught my attention and imagination. Any discussion about ‘sense of place’ always peaks my interest, as it’s a concept I think about a lot, as a writer, as an artist and as an urban dweller.

The thought-provoking article focused on building local in the Pacific Northwest, but brought up ideas that are relevant no matter where you live. (Or if you’re a fiction writer, where your characters live!) In the post, author Kira Connery discusses how building local should strive to help define this often “ephemeral” sense of place. She says:

Place is a challenging term to define – what makes a location an authentic “place,” rather than just coordinates on a map? What makes some cities, towns and homes memorable and others forgettable? What impact does “place” have on our community and individual identities? And how do we uncover a location’s sense of place? Building professionals and scholars have long debated these questions amidst ongoing explorations of what makes a space a “place,” and how this sense of place varies from region to region.

She mentions my home town, San Francisco, and says while many immediately think of Victorians as its defining characteristic, the authentic character of a place is much more than just architectural style—it is a constantly evolving relationship between the people who live there and the landscape that defines their environment. I love that. And know that we San Franciscans interact daily with the hills, the circumscription of water in three directions, the tumble of fog advancing and retreating from the horizon. This to me defines the sense of place where I live as much as the wooden bay-windowed houses tightly butted up against one another lining the hills in my neighborhood.

Like many, I am drawn to landscapes with an authentic and unique sense of place and I feel strangled and even offended by landscapes that have been striped and replaced by something ugly and generic. Ms. Connery has something to say about that too:

In most cities and towns, it is easy to find buildings that don’t tell us much about our communities. Fast-food chains and big-box stores are two common examples of buildings that owe their appearance to processes far removed from their site and the community they serve. They are uniformly prescriptive, rather than uniquely perceptive. These buildings detract from a sense of place not because they lack a specific style, but because regardless of where they are built, their appearance and relationship to their surroundings is the same…
Place-making requires discovery, participation and interaction, not only from building professionals, but from home owners and community members as well. This process can shape architecture in a variety of ways: a building may respond to the history of a region, highlight local cultural or natural resources, showcase the craft and innovation of local artisans and builders, or celebrate local materials.

This last line acted like a light switch in my writer’s mind—I’ve copied and saved it to use when I’m revising a story for setting:

“…a building may respond to the history of a region, highlight local cultural or natural resources, showcase the craft and innovation of local artisans and builders, or celebrate local materials.”

What a marvelous tool for creating a specific and distinctive setting. Instead of just living in a ‘house in the suburbs,’ (or the city, or the country) what if your character lived in a house or a community that reflected the region, the local culture and/or the indigent natural resources, prescribed by artisans of the area? It’s a richer, more layer way to create setting and certainly worth considering, don’t you think?

To read the entire excellent article go to Living Shelter Designs’ Eco-Notes. Oh, and by the way, Living Shelter is owned by my brilliant architect sister, Terry Phelan!

I’d love to hear your thoughts on sense of place, whether in the real world or in your writing…

Take Good Care,


Friday, May 22, 2015

When Life Imitates Art… or What Tropical Storm Irene Taught Me*

I have written many times about my experience of life imitating art with regards to my debut middle grade novel, Another Kind of Hurricane – how I researched diligently as I wrote and rewrote the story; how I felt like I had done a thorough job of it; how I felt like I had found a deep place of empathy and understanding for Zavion, my main character who lives in New Orleans and who lives through Hurricane Katrina; and how, in one day, everything changed. Tropical Storm Irene swept through my town – and very specifically my block and my house – and I was suddenly and amazingly inside my story.
Another Kind of Hurricane coverI have also written some about what I learned through that odd, reverse process of the art experience coming before the life experience. First, my two main characters, Henry and Zavion, are strangers when the story begins. They are strangers from two very different places – geographic and internal – and yet the only traces of solace they eventually find are in one another. They become connected and they become friends. This happened to me during Irene too. Important lesson #1, a reinforcing lesson: I got that connection piece right in my book. Second – oh boy – the visceral and emotional experience of living through a flood (and the subsequent recovery from that flood) is intense, to put it mildly. And Katrina was so much more…everything…than Irene. Important lesson #2, a reminding lesson: striving for knowledge and empathy, while accepting that I might not be able to totally get it – is truly the best I can do. Maybe another way to put this is knowledge and empathy and a good dose of humbleness is my best practice when I write anything outside of my direct experience.
But is there more to it than that? And how does this all fit within the conversation about diversity we’ve all been engaged in? Does it offer anything new or useful to that dialogue?
Amy Koester, who has a blog called The Show Me Librarian, wrote a post in February of this year titled Selection is Privilege. It’s spot on, in my opinion. In it, she talks about the frustration she feels when colleagues take “diverse”** books out of their libraries, or simply don’t buy them for their libraries because they feel they either a) don’t have enough diverse patrons to read those books or b) their non-diverse patrons don’t have any interest in those books. She then said this:
 When it comes down to it…selection is a privilege. If you select materials for your readers, you are privileged to get to influence not only what children read, but what they have access to in the first place. And when I read arguments against including diverse titles, or questions about why we have to talk about this topic, it puts into sharp focus for me the fact that we have to recognize our privilege as selectors, and, more than likely, as white selectors for diverse readers.
I feel like this extends to us writers too. Or I’ll only speak for myself – to me as a writer. If I am to have the great fortune of having any sort of influence over kids, then I must recognize my privilege. In an interview over at CBC Diversity, agent and author Tanya McKinnon cited some neurological research:
“The thing that reduces hate and increases acceptance of diversity is knowledge and rational thought. The more we use our pre-frontal cortex, the seat of rational thought, the more likely we are to reduce hate. That’s why reading about difference, especially at a young age, is so very important. And it’s why racially inclusive children’s books are so crucial for a rational and tolerant society.”
And there it is. If there was ever a reason to use my privilege – as a white, middle class woman, but also simply as a writer fortunate enough to get a book published, really – well, there it is.
Tubidu Graphics on Etsy
To offer a door or a mirror for the child reading my book.
So how do we writers do this with integrity?
By finding the places where we are the same as our characters, and finding the places where we are not. By connecting to our characters where that sameness resides (and connecting our characters to each other in a similar way), and by trusting ourselves to hold an empty space inside that we work to fill by listening and researching and being curious (and allowing our characters to have similar empty spaces inside for the same kind of journey.)
We need to know the borders we are choosing to cross as we make those journeys. The process of that knowledge is fluid and constant. The more we are curious, the more open we are, the more we venture into places that are not our own, the more we integrate all of that into ourselves. We need to integrate, but at the same time keep things distinct. It is a dance of sorts. Am I more suited to tell a story about flood victims because I have experienced a flood? Yes. Am I still a middle class woman who could borrow money from my family when I lost so much in that flood? Yes. Did many of the flood victims in New Orleans not have that privilege? Yes. There is part of that dance right here.***
If I am taking those journeys, then I know it is possible to take them, you know? And thus I am creating the opportunity for kids (my readers) to take their own, perhaps similar, journeys.That means everything to me.
One of my favorite photos from Irene, taken by Jared Katz. Talk about a journey...
One of my favorite photos from Irene, taken by Jared Katz. Talk about a journey…
Back to Another Kind of Hurricane, and Zavion and Henry, and my experience with Tropical Storm Irene: it was all an accidental gift; a humble journey of finding connection despite (and alongside of) differences. Is there a way to consciously leave space inside of ourselves for those kinds of gifts? Is there a way of holding tight, as we write, to the threads that connect us all? Because those are gifts too.
I don’t know if this adds anything new to the diversity conversation. But I do know it’s something I want to continue to explore. What do you think about it all?

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*Originally from my post over at Emus Debuts.

**I am only going to use quotes around diverse once. But I want to use them a lot! It is such a loaded word. Take it to mean many things – racial, social, gender-based, ability-based differences; also differences in experiences and environments and many other things as well.
***This is a riff off of a great essay that Mitali Perkins wrote over at CBC Diversity.

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Gratefully yours,

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Revisiting The Geology of the Urban Landscape (4/11/13)

I have been reading Alexandra Horowitz's ON LOOKING, ELEVEN WALKS WITH EXPERT EYESher account of walking through familiar territory with someone who has the studied ability to see what is usually passed by, unnoticed.


In one of the first chapters, she takes a walk in her own Manhattan neighborhood with geologist Sidney Horenstein who spent forty years working for the American Museum of Natural History coordinating environmental outings. What she learns on this walk radically changed the way I've been looking and thinking about my own urban San Francisco neighborhood. Up until recently, I thought of the city, with all of its man-made structures and miles of asphalt, as, well, not exactly natural. But listen to what Horenstein has to say about that

"there are only two things on earth: minerals and biomass [plants and animals]. Everything that we have got here has to be natural to begin withso asphalt is one of those things."

Its just rocks, sand, and 'sticky stuff,' essentially pure and even recycled.

All right. That's good to know. In fact, it makes me happy knowing that.

The author goes on to talk about how the geology of a place is not just what is under us, but also what surrounds us: how we are actually "inside the geology of the city." That each stone, cement, composite, or brick building is really a big rocky outcropping, each patch of green a grassy plain with scattered trees. She reminds us that each building began with naturally occurring materials-- either forged of stone or hewed from a once living treethat has been merely recombined into something for our needs and purposes.

I love that concept.

I love the idea that the city is a natural composite of trees and stonethe buildings take in water, are warmed by the sun, are slowly carved away by the steady force of wind, the slough of water and the passing of time. Nature, it seems, sculpts the city just as it does the side of a mountain. In the city, moss covers stone, ivy breaks away brick, sun and rain and snow transforms the color and texture of wood.

My own neighborhood, Russian Hill, is built on a bed of graywackle (a kind of sandstone) and shale with erupted trappean rocks (basalt, greenstone, amygdaloid and dolomite) and serpentine. My house, built out of redwood, sits on a high outcropping of serpentine, which holds it upright when the San Andreas fault slips and the earth shakes.

I have always loved picking up stones as I wander. I often have a pocket full if them, and when asked what someone can bring me from their travels, I always request a stone. To me, somehow, each holds the essence of place. I have a stone from the Egyptian desert, one from a small village in India, some from Chile, Peru, and Bolivia, from a number of beaches in Mexico and California, from the Raging River in Issaquah, Deer Lake in Eastern Washington, Flathead Lake and Glacier Park in Montana. Just to name a few. My house is full of stonesthey sit on shelves, keep doors open and grind herbs.

I was in Portland a few years ago visiting colleges with my youngest daughter. I picked up the purse I'd been carrying for a week and complained that it was so heavy, it felt like it was full of rocks. (thinking it was probably just a lot of loose change). When I dug into the bottom to clean out the coins, guess what I found? A half a dozen egg-sized rocks I'd picked up on a walk in Spokane the week before!  I transferred them from my purse to my suitcase and felt much lighter for it. Until I found the perfect stone on the Reed campus...

So what does this have to do with writing? HmmmLets go back to asphaltrecycled stones, sand and sticky stuff. The essence of place, the passing of time and the sticky stuff of human emotionsthat sounds a lot like the basics of a novel to me.

Take Good Care,


Thursday, May 7, 2015

Repost: The Landscape of Space

Yes, this is a repost.  But it is timely because I am smack in the middle of the process of trusting the reader yet again.  And the more I think about it, the more I realize that I am almost ALWAYS in the middle of that process.  And not just with my readers.  With my family, with my friends, with my editor, with my agent, with the booksellers who will (maybe) stock my book, with reviewers… it is so critical to remember that we are only half (and sometimes less than half) of the whole.  And that we need to make space---offer it gracefully---for others to add their energy and beliefs and effort into the equation.

That's when magic happens.

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I love this quote. And I believe it deeply:

A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it.

Samuel Johnson is credited with saying that. Here is another way to put it:

From BookBrowse's FB page
Right?  Have you ever done that? I literally have.  Or have you ever felt that? Felt like your book is so much a living breathing thing that you want to hold it, hug it, take its hand and walk to the park with it? I have felt that. Over and over again.

How does a writer create the kind of book that asks for that kind of engagement?  I have been thinking endlessly about this as I have revised my last WIP. My last blog post delves into this too. The answer lies, in large part, with the space we writers have to the story and on the page.  I have preached this for years. Ask my friends. I  have been obsessed with it. The partnership between the reader and the writer. Louise Rosenblatt's Reader Response Theory. (The reader is a necessary part of completing the book.) Scooting over on the bench to make room for the reader. All that and more. But it has been tough to put my pen where my mouth is. 

I made a break though though this time around. Part of what made it possible was that I had been away from the text for a while. (Give your self space from your WIP in order to make space for the reader!) I was ruthless about cutting. Not just excess adjectives or favorite phrases, but whole ideas. I took myself out of the manuscript and left the characters there to fend without me. I trusted---for the first time---that the reader would be there to take care of them. My characters. 

I created space, and in creating space I created trust. 

Or as Chuck Wendig says, as only he can say it:

The reader wants to work. The reader doesn't know this, of course, so don't tell him. SHHH. But the reader wants to fill in the details. He wants to be invested in the novel and to make his own decisions and reach his own conclusions. You don't need to write everything. You can leave pieces (of plot, description, dialogue) out. The reader will get in the game. His imagination matters as much as yours. Make that f#$%&@ dance for his dinner.

I am going to continue to ponder this. And work on it. I would love to hear your ideas about it too.  

Gratefully yours (and apologies for posting a week late! But it was worth it to spend more time with Megan Morrison's wonderful interview about her debut GROUNDED!)