Increasing “the ambient intelligence.”

There’s a lot more to writing than Snoopy knows. I suspect, though, that Charles Schulz understood.

I got to hang out last Saturday with a bunch of really cool people — writers. Some of them approach writing very differently from the way I do, so I learned a lot. Even better, I had some time over the weekend to chat with writers about the writing life and about, well — real life. My tribe.

I love stories. I love people who create stories, fiction and nonfiction. I love the fact that people do indeed create stories, love that we humans have been explaining the world to each other through stories since the moment we were able to do that, somewhere back in time around the campfires outside our caves.

But… here’s the thing. There is a real difference between people who write as a career — or people who aspire to write as a career — and people who do not.

And I’m not sure it’s fair — not sure it’s a service to good writing of any kind — to ignore this.

The main difference often appears to be writers who aim for agents, publishers, grants, awards, etc. as compared to writers who self-publish. That’s an obvious difference, but it isn’t always an accurate, or complete, comparison.

I’m talking about a difference that goes deeper.

I mean the difference between writers who make a practice of submitting their writing to critical scrutiny from the wider literary community, and those who chose not to. Scrutiny is what writers ask for every time they apply for a grant, or submit to a journal, or query an agent, or research publishers, knowing that success with any of those things means eventually working with an editor, who will ask for changes the writer probably prefers not to make.

Making stuff up is fun. Revision is not.

But it’s necessary if we are to “increase the ambient intelligence” as George Saunders puts it in his honest, and funny, essay, about constructing his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. He invites writers to “imagine [their readers] generously.”

We should do that.

Here’s a secret I wish I had know when I first started writing fiction and poetry: Criticism makes my work better. Lots better. So I plan my time to include grant applications (and the feedback therefrom when I’m declined) and submissions to journals and contests and public readings. It’s the reason I will spend significant time and effort seeking an agent when I finish the manuscript for my first novel later this year.

I solicit and read and reflect on every piece of feedback/criticism/critique I can get from writers who know more than I do. And yes, it took some time to steel myself for this, to understand the difference between those who “get” my work and those who don’t.

Every writer I know who is willing to do this has three things in common: 1) they say that they cannot not write; 2) they write to know themselves; and 3) they read intelligent writers — voraciously.

They’ve stumbled on a great truth. We might as well write to know ourselves, because that’s going to happen anyway.

If we admit that goal to ourselves, it simply happens sooner.

I was blown away this weekend when Rose Arrowsmith DeCoux performed part of her middle-grade novel for us. She’d printed the wrong passage from The Marvelous Imagination of Katie Addams, so she punted. And — wow. She had us participating with Katie as she dug in a sand bank and discovered the door to an Egyptian tomb, advanced to grab the golden scepter in the mummy’s hand, dropped it, ran back through creepy passages to the ancient doorway, and buried it again in the sand. Wow, I thought, this isn’t just a story that Rose has memorized.

This is a story that’s in her bones.

Rose self-published this novel. She leads a writers’ group at her local library. She visits schools, and just about anywhere else she’s invited. She has a plan to get her work into the world and she devotes her time, and her efforts, to follow it. She participates fearlessly in the wider literary community.

Staci Drouillard is finishing her manuscript for Walking the Old Road for University of Minnesota Press. She’s spent years researching the history of Chippewa City in Cook County, Minnesota, interviewing Ojibwe elders, seeking permission to publish oral histories and photographs. When she joined us on Saturday to read from her work, I was immediately struck by how quietly and firmly she grounds herself in her material. She told us about the Ojibwe tradition of written history going back hundreds of years to the time of the migration from the East Coast to Lake Superior, about people’s relationship to place, about roads as conduits to other worlds, about the responsibility we have to preserve something once we name it.

Big ideas.

The passage she read was from an interview with an elder who described walking the Old Road into Grand Marais with his grandmother when he was a boy, pausing near Halfway Creek on the mile-long journey to eat the lunch she packed for her small grandson, stopping at a cafe in town, watching his grandmother enjoy the ice cream they ordered.

Small ideas.

But so very, very human. I was right there with that small boy and his grandmother, walking the road into town. Staci made it so with her lyrical writing, because this story is — literally — from the marrow in her bones.

Shoshanna Matney has just finished her first novel, Dog Lake, and is deciphering the feedback from the three agents who responded in ways that made sense to her. She sent dozens of inquiries just to get to this point. She’s already begun her second novel, but now chooses to return to the first one, and its revision. A daunting task.

Shoshanna read a passage that had in common with her childhood only this: a dog named Jack who escaped one night for a few hours. Her writing spun this skillfully, made a window into the book’s tension between the silence of peace, and the silence of secrecy. Two sisters witness their mother lying prone on the ice of the lake behind their house, trying to rescue their dog. They sneak back into the house before their parents know they’ve been out. “Don’t tell,” the older sister whispers. I was standing right there inside the younger sister when she came face-to-face with her father, weighing what to tell him. Bone deep.

These are writers who amaze and exhilarate, who make my heart stop for just long enough to help me know I’m alive.

I’m lucky to have many examples of inspiration, from this past weekend, and elsewhere. One of my favorite North Shore writers, Nina Simonowicz, couldn’t join us on Saturday. It’s not an exaggeration to say that her first book, Nina’s North Shore Guide is part of the reason I moved to Duluth, nearly twenty years after first reading it. She made this region come alive for me. It was the first time I read a nonfiction book that so clearly voiced the human being behind the geography her writing described. A bone-deep voice.

Nina self-published the first edition, with a quote on the back from her banker that said, “You should buy this book.” Eventually, University of Minnesota Press asked to publish it, and asked for revisions and editing and expansion. Nina is still at it, writing and maintaining the seminal guide to the North Shore. She makes it possible for others to live their stories in this landscape — “the prehistoric North Shore ridegline rising out of Lake Superior” — and maybe for some of us to write about it.

Every creative effort deserves praise. We should be a community of writers, celebrating and supporting each other’s work. We should cheer each other on. Of course we should.

But we can hold each other accountable, too. We can encourage literary and artistic criticism, because it makes our own work better. It raises the bar for creative endeavors for the communities where we live, work, and hang out.

We can “increase the ambient intelligence.” My bones tell me, in this era of fungible truth, it’s even more important for writers to pay attention to this.

Whatever credibility my writing has I owe to writers who weren’t afraid to show their bone marrow.

I’m grateful to them.


Some writers read some writing, and we have a good time.

Thank you, thank you, to the writers who read their work for Some Writers Reading on Saturday, March 25, and thank you to the Grand Marais Public Library for sharing their lovely space for this “disruptive public event.” We writers sat in a loose circle in comfy chairs; people who were interested pulled up chairs around us. Comfortable and casual, and a whole lot of fun. Thank you again to Arrowhead Regional Arts Council for awarding me a 2016 Career Development grant, which made possible my time in Grand Marais. Good place here to note: Funding for ARAC programs and services is provided through appropriations from the Minnesota State Legislature, the Arts and Cultural Heritage Amendment, and a grant from The McKnight Foundation. Yay, Minnesota!

As we settled into our seats in that welcoming library space, I said I hoped to listen for the different worlds each writer creates in their prose — a physical description of the world, an emotional landscape, the world inside someone’s head. We heard all that — and so much more.

Shelley Odendahl talked about creating four different time periods for one character, spanning several thousand years, for her romance novel. Gene Glader described his research into Grand Marais’ downtown history, block by block, inspired by the accelerating rate of change in the area in the decades he’s lived there. Joan Crosby read a delightful passage about the year she and her husband lived 40 miles up the Gunflint Trail, off the grid, before that was a thing. Rose Arrowsmith DeCoux read an engaging passage from her middle-grade novel, and when she couldn’t find the second excerpt she’d planned to read, she performed from memory, encouraging us to act it out with her. Sandy Bloom read a powerful and poignant passage from the novel she’s created by fictionalizing her partner’s years as a young nun, living in an isolated convent. Staci Drouillard recounted an interview with an elder, who remembered walking the mile-long “Old Road” into Grand Marais with his grandmother, a journey long enough that she packed a lunch to share with the little boy. Shoshanna Matney read a moving passage based only tangentially on childhood memories, but still a brave choice with her (supportive) sibling in the audience; she talked about creating fiction from the smallest piece of real life and trusting imagination to take it from there.

Enthralled with the Q&A and conversation after each writer read, I didn’t take very good notes. But here is some of what sticks with me:

 — When you grow up reading The Chronicles of Narnia, you are always looking for doors into other worlds.

 — Responding to change, and planning for change are not the same thing.

— Roads are conduits between worlds, bridging distance, culture, time.

 — When we name something, we have a responsibility to preserve it. Writers do that by storytelling.

 — Writing true is important and essential and the only kind of writing worth doing.

 — Things often (usually?) fail to turn out the way you planned. This is good.

— Making stuff up is fun. Revision is usually not.

 — There are as many ways to write a story as there are writers, but there might be only a few reasons to write.

And everyone promised to get a copy of their book to Steve Harsin at the Grand Marais Library. Surprise of the day… Steve has a novel manuscript in progress, too!

Continue to part two of my musings, Increasing “the ambient intelligence.”

Some Writers Reading.

Participants in the 2016 Grand Marais Art Colony Mentorship in Fiction with Faith Sullivan, who is seated in the center.

Saturday, March 25 from 12:30 – 2:00 p.m.
at Grand Marais Public Library
104 2nd Avenue West, Grand Marais, MN  55604

Please join us as alumni from Grand Marais Art Colony‘s 2016 Mentorship in Fiction gather at Grand Marais Public Library to read from their nearly-completed manuscripts — Sandy Bloom, Joan Crosby, Shoshanna Matney, Shelley Odendahl, and Judy Budreau. We’ll be joined by some of your favorite Grand Marais writers — Rose Arrowsmith DeCoux (YA fiction), Gene Glader (Cook County history) and Staci Drouillard, who’s finishing a book about Chippewa City for the University of Minnesota Press. After the readings, we’ll have plenty of time to answer questions and talk about the writing life. Free and open to the public. BTW, that’s me, seated at lower left.

This event is made possible by the 2016 Career Development grant I was awarded from Arrowhead Regional Arts Council. Funding for ARAC programs and services is provided through appropriations from the Minnesota State Legislature, the Arts and Cultural Heritage Amendment, and a grant from The McKnight Foundation. Thank you, Minnesota!

Preserving words.


A couple of years ago, my mom gave me back my first cookbook, with a note pasted inside: “Clearing out — can’t throw away — you do it!”

Around the same time, I saw somewhere a switch plate that looked as if a dictionary page had been pasted to it. I could do that, I thought. And tucked the idea way back in my mental filing cabinet, in the part of my brain that isn’t wholly obsessed with writing and reading.

I’m a writer by trade. I live in language every day. I spend all day, every day writing and reading, with the necessary breaks to feed myself, do laundry and wander around outside.

My email signature line says, “Writing and other good stuff” — I line I added several years ago, on purpose, to remind myself that I’ll have more to write about if I actually go out, and you know, experience the world. So I learned to make paper, and weird little books, and erasure poetry. I incorporate these into the writing workshops I teach. Fun for me, for attendees, and a good reminder that we are always surrounded by more language and ideas and creative possibilities than we might realize.

Back to the switch plates. I came across my childhood cookbook on Saturday morning, and oh, joy! — the brain-file with the image of the dictionary/ light switch appeared. I unscrewed the switch plates from the kitchen wall and headed to my workshop with a small bottle of Elmer’s glue (mistake — more on that in a minute). By the end of the day, I had an array of personalized switch plates for every room in the house.

For the front hall, the frontispiece of Witold Rybczynski’s The Most Beautiful House in the World
For our bedroom, from Dava Sobol’s The Planets, quoting a poem by Diane Ackerman —
“At night I lie awake/in the ruthless Unspoken…”
For hallways and stairwells, pages from long-ago-read Doubleday paperbacks.
For the kitchen, pages from my first cookbook.

I loved the conversational tone of that cookbook. I think it was the first book of nonfiction I read by choice. I learned to cook from that book. And I learned that storytelling was possible, desirable — necessary — beyond the fairy tales and storybooks I cherished.

Here’s what I learned on Saturday about gluing words to switch plates:

  1. Elmer’s glue is too slippery, and doesn’t dry fast enough, and when it does, it’s gummy.
  2. Modge Podge Decoupage stuff is better. I used gloss, which actually dried to a soft sheen that will repel fingerprints and moisture.
  3. Applying Modge Podge with a foam brush to the paper first gave better results than applying it to the switch plate.
  4. Thinner, older papers were easier to work with.
  5. I had a good time figuring out where words and images would appear. Holding the paper piece and the switch plate up to the light before gluing helped. Each paper was just under 1/2 inch large than the plate. I cut the corners of the paper off to reduce bulk. The glue-wetted paper is a bit stretchy, and acts almost like papier mache as you form it around the edges and corners.
  6. The little bubbles that appeared in the thicker paper were gone once the item dried, the paper shrinking to the surface of the switch plate.
  7. Two coats of Modpge Podge on the front.
  8. Once dry, I used an awl to poke the screw holes from the front.
  9. From the back, I used an X-acto knife to cut an X shape for the switches, leaving flaps to fold back.
  10. Mistake — I tried at this point to re-install the plates, but the little paper flaps got in the way.
  11. Coated the back of the plate with Modge Podge and fastened down the flaps, so each opening was nicely framed by glue-coated paper. Re-installation easier.
  12. When I went around the house uninstalling switch plates, I marked the back with a Sharpie so I’d know the location. Helped with re-installing, but more importantly, made it easier to choose the text/images I wanted for each room.

I like best the ones that are simply text spaced on a page. Purist, I guess. But next, I might use nursery rhymes or Eric Carle pages for my grandchildren. Pages from the New York Times Book Review. Favorite poems. Comics.

And to be clear, I don’t tear apart perfectly good books. I buy slightly damaged books at Goodwill and library sales, anywhere I find them, and use the inside paper to make new paper, repurpose the covers and spines to make new books and journals.

It is not possible to have too many good words hanging around with us.