Safe in the arms of Koko.

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Robin Williams left too soon. When you hang yourself with a belt in your bedroom, there’s not much doubt that you intended to end your life. That is sad beyond words. But words are all I have, so here goes.

Sadder still is the story and photo posted by the St. Paul Pioneer Press a few weeks ago when Williams visited the Dairy Queen in Lindstrom, Minnesota while he was in treatment at Hazelden. He looks gaunt, even ill, but poses dutifully with a DQ employee, his eyes avoiding the camera. I have some familiarity with this Dairy Queen from the time a few years ago when my former husband spent 28 days at Hazelden. Pete didn’t enter Hazelden willingly, and hoped that the family would keep his secret. It was a disorienting four weeks for our kids and me, but of course, much more so for him, another step in recognizing what the disease had done to him and to our family. He did the work as best he could, and boarded the van a couple of times each week for the DQ outing. You take what breaks you’re offered, I imagine. He wouldn’t have welcomed being recognized by anyone he knew.

And yet Robin Williams put his private self on very public display, surely knowing he’d be recognized. Perhaps he felt he had no choice.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between curing and healing. There’s no cure for addiction or mental illness. Nor for most cancers, or heart disease, or diabetes, or a host of other medical conditions. No cure for the human condition at all. But we can learn to manage our conditions. We can help each other heal. And we can be — should be — very sad when beloved people leave in spite of that.

My friend Ed Hessler sent me a link yesterday to a piece on Slate.com about Robin Williams’ encounter with Koko, the gorilla who has learned American Sign Language. Ed has taught me a great deal about science, and poetry — about life — in the years I’ve known him. With this link, he reminded me of our deepest connections to every being, every thing, in the “entangled bank” of our world.

“We shared some interspecies laughter,” says Williams in the video. At the end, Williams and Koko embrace, at first tentatively, and then Williams smiles and relaxes into the embrace, eyes closed. Whatever greeted him on the other side of yesterday morning, I hope he was embraced with that joy. And I hope he joyfully returned the embrace.

It’s here! Carver County Library Writers’ Retreat

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Registration is now open for the Saturday, September 13 retreat from 10 AM to 3 PM. Call Tari Clay at Carver County Library at 952-227-7609 for details and directions. We’ll do lots of fast and fun writing exercises, with a couple of breaks for quiet writing time on the grounds of the retreat center.

Sharpen your pencil, pack a lunch and join us!

Other good stuff.

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I recently changed my email signature from “Writing, Editing, Research” to “Writing and other good stuff.” I still pay the bills with Writing, Editing and Research, but I’m having a blast with Other Good Stuff now, too.

Behind me here at Minnesota Center for Book Arts in Minneapolis are pages of handmade paper dipped in indigo dye. Mary Hark does wonderful things with indigo and paper. She taught a really fun and not-as-messy-as-you’d-expect weeklong workshop in which we made many, many sheets of linen/abaca/hemp paper and then dipped most of it in indigo. I’m more familiar with indigo and textiles, like the beautiful Shibori techniques, from which tie-dyed T-shirts came. (Remember RIT dye?) It’s still around.

The strength and suppleness of the paper was a delight to behold. It was a leap of faith to dunk those gorgeous sheets into a stinky vat of dark, oily, bubbly sludge. But the results are incredibly beautiful — darkest navy to be sure, but overlaid with hues of green, pink, purple, sometimes even iridescent. Most of the papers I dipped are heavy enough to be book or journal covers, and I’m looking forward to binding them with small signatures of white and ivory, maybe pale green and lavender. After I gelatin-size them and hang them to dry again, lest that lovely blue rub off on the hands, clothing, etc. of gentle readers.

And here’s what happened when I wrapped and twisted an old linen dresser scarf from my great-grandmother, and dipped it in indigo. Other good stuff, indeed!

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Local workshops coming up!

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I love traveling to teach, but I’m thrilled to offer these workshops and retreats closer to home in the Twin Cities:

Monday, July 21 from 7:00 pm – 9:00 pm at Deephaven Education Center. Register at Minnetonka Community Education. If it’s a beautiful evening, I promise we’ll go outside!

Saturday, September 13 from 8:30 am to about 3:00 pm — Carver County Libraries Writers’ Retreat at Charlson Meadows Retreat Center on the border of Excelsior/Chanhassen and Victoria, just off Hwy 7. This is going to be so cool – details soon!

Book Art — several people have asked me about teaching an altered journals or book making class. I’m still playing around with all of this, but will post photos and info soon. If you’re really eager, sign up for a class at Minnesota Center for Book Arts.

 

Fun with books.

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I took a class this spring with Sheila Asato, who does lots of interesting things with dreams and art and books. This altered book is in honor of my great-great aunt Lora (Eleanor) who raised my grandfather after his mother died. My two-year-old granddaughter Ellie (Eleanor Therese) is named for her.

A hundred years ago, Aunt Eleanor was a milliner in Chicago — you can see here my collage of a woman whose head is a hat stand. She’s wearing a photo of a quilt, her hands are knitting (purling?) and she has mismatched, but fashionable, shoes. I’m having fun altering other pages of this book with materials from the Textile Center Garage Sale — and I even have a few odds and ends of Aunt Lora’s millinery work that will make their way in.

So… if you’re counting, this book spans six generations. Someday, I’ll give the book to Ellie. I hope she’ll find it inspiring. And even more, I hope she’ll know it’s okay to write and draw in books to make stories of her own!

The Time in Between

Another effective writing exercise is to consider two photographs taken at different times (decades apart, or a few minutes) or your own mental images of yourself or another.

Write a few words to orient yourself with each image – who, when, where. Add a word or two about the feeling or emotion most prominent when you think of each image.

Now spend a few minutes writing about the time between the images. What changed for the person in the image?

Go deeper: Return to the images a few more times over several days or weeks. Guaranteed, you’ll come up with more to say, questions you’d like to ask (or wish you could ask). Write about that.

How To Be

Writing a mini-instruction manual (really, just a paragraph) about How To Be a particular person is a quick way to remind yourself of all sorts of stories you can tell. For each line of your “recipe” to be this person, you’re drawing on your experience and memory. Those are the stories.

For instance, I could tell you that my mom is from Indiana, she’s 5’3”, she likes to read, she’s kind, she eats healthy food, she loves me. And maybe, if one of those things resonated with you, you might want to meet her.

Or I could think a bit more about each of those points, and give you a recipe that shows how my mom is unique. Bingo. Instantly, she’s a more interesting person. Fiction writers use this exercise all the time to see what their imaginations “know” about a character and to help predict how that character might act. I think it’s just as much fun to do with real people.

How To Be Sandy - Be born in a small town in Indiana and be both glad that your childhood was spent there, and glad that you left as a young adult. Be small, about 5’3” and neat and modest. Smile often, except when you are reading; when reading have a relaxed yet intent expression. Be kind. Be critical of ideas, but not of people. Rarely eat fast food, but once or twice each year or so, really, really enjoy a Big Mac. Interrupt frequently, and fail to notice that this annoys people. Love your family unconditionally.

 

Story Starters

And here are some writing prompts I use with my students. They also make good conversations starters if things get dull at parties!

Writing Your Own Stories:
-  write about someone or something you loved with all your heart at age 10 –  or 16, 38, 67.
-  tell about a time you moved from one place to another. What did you miss? What did you like/dislike about the new place?
-  write about a trip you took. Did it meet, or fail to meet your expectation?
-  is there something you wanted but never got? What filled that space?
- write about your jobs in the order you held them, and how you learned what you needed to know.

Tell about your best birthday gift.
Who was your favorite relative when you were 10 years old?
What would you ask your grandmother if you could?
Tell about a family food or meal that you either like or dislike.
What is the most significant weather event you can remember?
Tell about the worst haircut you ever had.
Who was your best friend as a child?
What’s the naughtiest thing you did as a child?
What amazes you most about the year 2014?
Who was your favorite teacher?
What do you remember about learning to swim or ride a bike?
How old were you when you left home? Where did you go?
Tell about your ideal Sunday afternoon.
What skill do you wish you had learned better?
Did you have siblings or cousins to play with?

Story Starters for Writing About Family Members:

It’s OKAY – more than okay – to start with questions. That may be all you really have. Consider any documentation you have about a particular person – diaries, letters, photos, charts, notes. What’s missing? What would you ask that person if you could? What do you wonder about? Know that it’s also okay if you can’t find answers. Just asking the questions connects your life to theirs, and connects their story to your story.

Try to imagine your relative in the year 2014 —  what would be most surprising to him or her? Why do you think so?

Did the person emigrate from another country? Another city or state? Why? What did they miss about their old home? What did they like and dislike about their new home?

Who left for, came home from or stayed home from a war? What did this mean to family members?

Think of an object you associate with this person, and describe it in detail. What does it say about the person?

What was their first job? Their last? What happened in between and why?

How old were they when they left home? Where did they go? Why?

Tell about a vacation or trip they took.

Tell about a family food or meal that you either like or dislike. What do you know about the family members who started this food tradition?

Who in your family tells the funniest jokes?

What did an ideal Sunday afternoon look like?

 

 

 

 

 

List Poems

Valentine’s Day approaching is a good time to tell you about one of the easiest and most popular writing exercises I do with students.

1.  At the top of a blank page, write the name of the person you’re writing about, yourself or another.
2.  Freewrite for 2-3 minutes, jotting down every word, phrase, thought, or image that comes to you about this person. Write as quickly and as much as you can; editing comes later.
3.  End with an object, something this person holds in their hand or pocket. (Because this can give you a clue to writing more about this person later.)
4.  Read through what you’ve written, circling or noting any recurring themes. Cross out anything you don’t want to keep.
5. You have a List Poem, a snapshot or sketch of the essential characteristics (as seen by you!) of a particular person. Now, you can
A) Use this to write a story.
B) Copy your edited poem in your best handwriting, one ides or phrase per line, and frame it along with a photo of the person.

Variations:
Love Poem — in step 2, list everything you love about the person. Step 3, end with I love you because…

Think about everything that scares this person when you are freewriting in Step 2.