Weeding the secret garden

Weeding Secret Garden notes (1)I am on an odyssey to touch and organize everything in my house, one drawer one closet one surface one room at a time. Where does this drive come from? Something about an awareness of mortality, of course, and also a desire to clear some mental space before tackling new projects.

And I prefer neatness.

This weekend I ruthlessly emptied two boxes of paper stuff, which began life a few years ago as four cartons of paper stuff. Making two from four was an achievement, yet it was also a kind of ‘kicking the can down the road’ move. I only partly decided on things. From the two boxes, all that’s left is a short stack of photos, moleskine notebooks filled with notes, a few letters, and To Do lists and notes that I might keep.

Here’s something, in the snapshot above and full size here. They are my handwritten notes, on the blank back of a photocopied rubric, that capture my observations of what writing and editing moves could improve a batch of student essays. I see I had an idea for a blog post or article on these notes: “Weeding the secret garden.”

My writing observations and advice? Try these instead of fretting about the proper use of “which” and “that.”

  • Don’t use words you wouldn’t actually use, like a “panoply” of examples. (Funny, in my  notes I spelled it “panapoly.”
  • There can be no all-or-nothing argument.
  • You might not want to start with a sentence that summarizes something already known. “Society is constantly struggling to keep up with rapidly evolving and new technologies.” Such an essay would seem as though conceived around a cliché.
  • “Throughout history.” Do not start this way, either.
  • Avoid using smart language to cloak a bad or incoherent idea, e.g. “altruistic outcomes can justify self-interest.” What.
  • Put the sentence verb next to the subject. Do not do this: “The reality that blah blah blah blah blah is the complex nature of blah blah blah blah blah requires…”
  • Ration your use of em-dashes, cliches, parentheses, and questions.  These are fake ways to engage a reader or present yourself as a thinker. I count these as I go, limiting their use.
  • Put your phrasing on a diet. Avoid needless words, and avoid stacks, like “prevalent unresolved issue.”
  • Write a real and full conclusion.

Fellow writers, please try one of these and report back.

Also, fellow writers and partial-draft hoarders, consider also shredding, deleting, burning, or trashing any unfinished projects older than five years, as I did with these 3.5″ floppy discs I discovered. There might be a tasty bit on one of these, but even more compelling are the tasty bits inside me NOW.

FullSizeRender (1)

Remember the Michael Douglas character at the end of the film Wonder Boys (2000)? As I recall it, his character drops a full manuscript that he has labored over when he is outdoors, and the whole box of leaves of paper blow away in a gust of wind like… leaves.  It’s liberating. His life and work can improve.

That’s how I remember it. Is that what actually happened? In this case, it more matters what I remember, and what I’m making it mean to me.

We all have secret gardens of possibility in us. In the children’s novel The Secret Garden, which was one of my favorites when a child myself, a girl and two boys, living unloved as either actual or emotional orphans, starting tending a neglected garden adjacent to the big, house they live in with one relative and a few servants. Tending the garden, uncovering its beauty from weeds, and making friends with birds and animals becomes the pursuit that restores their happiness and vigor.

As a teacher, I must believe that the first drafts of student work are gardens of possibility. Actually, I believe this of all first drafts, even if at first they seem halting, incomplete, or even a mess.

As a writer and person, I must hold onto this belief about myself. There is a secret garden still living and growing, even when locked up behind a stone wall and neglected. The thing to do, once you unlock the door and go back in, is not to neglect it or tend only the weeds, which do fine on their own. Sure, they’re plants, but there are too many of them. Tend the possibility. Keep the door ajar.

It’s hard, though, isn’t it?





The things you carry may no longer be needed.

Will this matter to anyone else but me?

August and now September have been months of reducing possessions, my own and others.


love letters from a child (2004 – 2005)

In July, a friend’s mother died, and I offered my practical skills as a form of condolences. A favor turned into a part-time job — and teachers love summer income, especially with a child in college! — and in the past few weeks the furnishings of a 10-room house have been winnowed over time to a few piles for the local charity thrift store.

While I have some posts to write about the stripping of that life of all its possessions, this one is not about that. It’s about my life, and my possessions. As I’ve been clearing the house that is not mine, in parallel I’ve been casting a critical eye on my own stuff in attic, basement, and bookshelf storage and reducing it almost ruthlessly. When someone has died (well, someone whom you’ve never loved or known well), and you realize that the life is not at all in the things, you have to realize that your own life is also not represented by your things.

Your life is in your life. Continue reading

You may be looking for a person you have already found

cemetery_dogI was pulled along by the dog.

It was morning, shortly after Grace had left for school and Jimmy for work. A day at home, grading papers and fixing the bathroom sink, stretched ahead of me.

In the cemetery, besides Winston and me, was only a green public works truck parked on one of the roads with a man in the passenger seat drinking his coffee out of a Dunkin’ Donuts cup. There was no driver visible. Perhaps it was just this guy, resting at the beginning of the day, in the passenger position in his own truck.

I remembered a day when I was about 16, walking from my house, through my neighborhood, through another one, and then through a cemetery on the way to Pine Street to walk to my job at the pharmacy in the center of town. I took the back roads looking for a short cut, but it would probably have been just as direct to take the two main roads, Pleasant Street to Main Street. My route, probably 2.5 miles long, seemed deserted, although there were plenty of houses along the way. It was autumn, and I kicked the eddied piles of leaves along the way. I wore a blue-flowered quilted jacket made by my mother that had a band collar and frog closures, which together made it “Chinese style” to me in my limited knowledge of other cultures.

This is not the first time I recalled that day, which is so memorable to me, not for its eventfulness — nothing actually happened — but for a feeling of happiness and oneness with myself. All conditions gave me the feeling of simply being that made me realize I can be my own best company and contented alone.

In my present life, I have been reading The Trauma of Everyday Life, by Mark Epstein, MD (Penguin Books, 2013). He is concerned with Buddhism, psychotherapy, and the transformational power of trauma, about which he writes this:

Trauma is a basic fact of life, according to the Buddha. It is not just an occasional thing that happens only to some people; it is there all the time. Things are always slipping away. Although there are occasions when it is more pronounced and awful and occasions when it is actually horrific, trauma does not just happen to a few unlucky people. It is the bedrock of our biology. Churning, chaotic, and unpredictable, our lives are stretched across a tenuous canvas. Much of our energy goes into resisting this fragility, yet it is there nonetheless. (197)

The book is punctuated with personal stories from his own life and other people he knows or has encountered. The death of his father from brain cancer, which occurred when his doctor/father was an old man, is told in fragments over the book.


I was very moved by the account of a conversation he had with his father when the older man’s days “were severely numbered” and Epstein started to wonder if he should “try to talk to him about what I had learned from Buddhism” (179). The challenge, he realized, was to talk to his father in plain language about concepts the father had never, in his life as a doctor, ever studied. The father had also habitually avoided the topic of his own mortality. “This is not an uncommon strategy for dealing with death,” remarks Epstein in the book (180).

Epstein calls his father on the phone from his office:

Continue reading

Jane’s junk: keep or torch?

box 1Even the neatest among us have loose ends stashed somewhere. A second closet full of clothes. An attic full of old furniture and toys. Paint cans in the basement. Old parts and garden tools in the garage. Out-of-battery watches in the bedside table. Hand-knit baby sweaters in the cedar chest.

They’ve been there for years, perhaps almost the whole time you’ve lived in that house, since your children were babies at least. You know where those leftovers  are: which box, which corner of the attic. In your mind there floats a vivid image of the folded stacks of baby clothes, the jumble of toys, the keepsakes wrapped in tissue.

Knowledge of them and their location is a weight. You want to get rid of them yet you are afraid that these items, which you haven’t needed in ten years, in twenty, will someday be needed.

In my house, there is a box full of notebooks on a shelf in the basement. Calling the contents “Jane’s Junk” when I was consolidating them was easy. That they belonged to me was more important than what they were: stuff I had archived; ideas and observations I had recorded.

Here, a sketchbook in which I had rubber-cemented magazine and catalog images of clothes I liked. It was a wish book, for how I could look if I had the money or if I were a different person with a different body.

box 3

Even more, there are notebooks filled with dated entries. One captures ideas:

11-9-90: Company that takes all store returns, then returns in bulks to the stores. (Name ideas from Jimmy: Take Me Back or Return to Sender.)

12-7-90: There are ice cream shops, and frozen yogurt shops. Why not pudding shops? “Puddin’ Heads”

7-15-91: Story idea: Old woman in nursing home. Young woman comes in once a week to give knitting lessons. Makes old woman think she will not die as long as this continues — it’s like a hope holding her to earth. One week young woman does not come in.

1-20-92: Maps for the car that do not have to be folded — roll into a tube, or a window shade

11-8-92: Baking sweets without sugar, for local sale or catering. Or, a “sweet of the month club” for diabetics.

^Eventually sell to Harry & David.

2-24-93: “The Medical Consumer” — a consumer mag. to cover medical industry — does Consumer Reports already do this?

4-6-93: Christmas present for Brian. Call Yosemite gift shop. “Go Climb a Rock” t-shirt.

I never became an entrepreneur even though this little book is FILLED with random business and product ideas. I look back on these notes, and they have no present-day use. I have no plans to become one, ever. Good thing — I don’t see a pudding cafe generating a lot of business. Continue reading

Lost and found writing

garageI’ve been on Google Docs, which is now part of Google Drive, since the beta version became available. (Was that 2007?) I do most of my writing in that environment, whether collaborative and individual. I’ve lost track of what I’ve stored there.

Recently, I was searching for a document I knew was in there, and I came across one with an unfamiliar title, “toc: Jane’s World.” While I don’t recall the moment of this file’s creation, I recognized the contents immediately. It’s an annotated table of contents of a book of essays I imagined writing and publishing. There is a list of 11 titles with short descriptions of them after.

The table of contents was aspirational, I could see. The titles of essays were mere drafts; I’ve thought of better ones since. What really made me happy was to realize that 5 of the 11 essays were since completed and published, and one is well underway.

I worry a lot that, with time being fragmented by work and personal responsibilities and activities, no writing gets done. This lost and found table of contents makes me realize that writing is getting done.

Though many of my professional hours are spent as a teacher, I am still a writer. The list is akin to a letter written by the self years ago. I’m sending her a thank you note.

Alone time and its treats

ice creamToday’s post, in lieu of an essay, is a set of notes I took during a two-hour lunch break last Saturday in the middle of the Children’s Literature Summer Institute (blog post here). It was sunny, after days of clouds and rain, and I wandered over to Jersey Street for Thai food, wine, dessert, and the solitude that happens on city streets and in restaurants. I sat alone at one of the three tables with umbrellas on the sidewalk out front, and the waiter did not rush me. I wrote — about the conference and what was going on around me. It looks like I made some thought or section breaks as I wrote, by inserting horizontal lines; I kept them in this transcript:


Everyone [speaking at the conference] seems fully to make their living from art — only Yee even used words having to do with money + employment.

I surmise though that speaking at these conferences helps writers/illustrators connect with school librarians who hire them to speak at their schools. In fact, the school librarians I met mentioned specifically that they were hoping to bring some of their artists to their schools. There seems esp. to be budgets for this in K-8.

For me, this kind of environment is really inspiring — gets me wanting to do this, to value it as important.

The YA novelists talk about themes in their novels that were themes in their teen years. They keep trying to work them out. How did I stop my YA novel so easily, worrying about neurosis? This is the territory — maybe writing is not the way of mental health. Continue reading

Animal rescue league

Jimmy asked, “How was your day?” We are sitting in the living room. I get the couch, the best seat, and he the green chair.

Our usual weekday subjects are work and kids.  The conversation is always better if there’s an anecdote.

“Grace called me twice this afternoon. She found a cat in the yard without a collar, and she wanted to talk it through with me.”

wild thing, you make me stalk you (june 2013)

wild thing, you make me stalk you (june 2013)

I described the stream of texts she sent, her eagerness to locate the owner, and desire for me to come home and help. It was late afternoon, and I was wrapping up anyway. By the time I pulled into the driveway, Grace had already called an adult friend for cat-catching advice, posted a photo on Instagram, searched craigslist for “lost cat,” and speculated as to who in our neighborhood might own the cat.

cat_textShe and I stalked the collarless cat for a little while, trying to herd it back to our yard where we believed we could think and plan better. After we tip-toed into the fourth neighbor’s yard, I said to Grace, “I’m going home to get a laundry basket so we can try catching it.”

The cat eluded catching with the laundry basket. Grace finally said, “I sense this cat is smart enough to survive and find her way home. And I think I know whose cat it is.” We abandoned pursuit.

Later, she took our dog Winston for a walk and rang the bell of some new neighbors. Indeed, the cat belongs to them. The woman told Grace, “She lost her collar and we haven’t replaced it yet. But we know she’ll come home when she’s hungry.”

I told Jimmy that I hoped we weren’t going to become those kind of people, always on the lookout for strays. Continue reading

Blurt out, babble out the first draft (says John McPhee)

My favorite part of John McPhee’s recent essay in The New Yorker on first drafts and revision is the text of a letter he wrote to his daughter Jenny McPhee (now 51 and a novelist), when she was a senior at Princeton High School and frustrated by her inability to get things right the first time.

Dear Jenny:

The way to do a piece of writing is three or four times over, never once. For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something — anything — out in front of me. Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something — anything — as a first draft. With that, you have achieved a sort of nucleus. Then, as you work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the ear and eye. Edit it again — top to bottom. The chances are that about now you’ll be seeing something that you are sort of eager for others to see. And all that takes time.

What I have left out is the interstitial time. You finish that first awful blurting, and then you put the thing aside. You get in your car and drive home. On the way, your mind is still knitting at the words. You think of a better way to say something, a good phrase to correct a certain problem. Without the drafted version — if it did not exist — you obviously would not be thinking of things that would improve it. In short, you may be actually writing only two or three hours a day, but your mind, in one way or another, is working on it twenty-four hours a day — yes, while you sleep — but only if some sort of draft or earlier version already exists. Until it exists, writing has not really begun.

Entirely by John McPhee. A writer could go a long way on his advice and reassurance.

Leaves of insight, before they disappear

6130889443_74c365a02b_b Here are three quotations from my reading over the past few weeks. Each has something to do with writing, even when it is not about writing.

In this profile of Dr. Steven Zeitels (“Giving Voice,” John Calopinto, New Yorker, March 4), who is the surgeon who saved Adele’s voice, another patient, Scott Flaherty, “an operatic tenor… working as a teacher,” describes his motivation for undergoing risky surgery to restore his singing voice:

He explained [to Colapinto] why teaching was no longer satisfying. “I’ve grown tired of just talking about it,” he said. “I mean, when you sing you’re giving voice to your soul.”

Teaching singing to singing parallels the relationship of teaching writing to writing. It’s not enough to talk about or comment on. And yet that seems to be mostly what there is time for. This was my mournful state of mind in the weeks leading up to Spring Break.

The playwright Annie Baker (“Just Saying,” Nathan Heller, New Yorker, February 25) also teaches in the graduate playwriting program at NYU. In his profile of her, Heller follows Baker and her playwriting students into the basement of a Washington Square bar, where they discuss the pressure to outline screenplays. Baker is wearied by them and negotiates her contracts to avoid outlining. She says

“I feel like it’s the most dangerous — I actually feel like Hollywood hurts itself when everybody outlines screenplays. And then it trickles down to grad writing programs. Like, I’m willing to sit around for hours to talk about what the screenplay’s going to be, and talk about ideas, and doodle diagrams on dry-erase boards, but I just won’t…. Because by the time I finish the outline, it’s dead.”

Talking and drawing can be explorative and generative when it comes to creative writing. But outlining: a killer. Too much left brain.

Piano player Jason Moran (“Jazz Hands,” Alec Wilkinson, New Yorker, March 11) lives in New York but teaches once a month at the New Conservatory of Music in Boston. In tutoring Jiri Nedoma, who played his own composition once hesitantly and again with more sureness, Moran directed him to play it again, changing “the whole idea of the song”:

“Make it entirely different. Could you play it in stride piano?” […] Put different factors into the equation. Play it backward. Upside down. Your left hand might use something 1940 and your right hand is 2000, and what you find becomes part of your vocabulary.”

Nedoma played it again: “more delicate,” with richer chords. “He ended with a series of rising notes.”

Moran responded

“What you played at the every end, that’s where you should start… It’s almost like you played all that prelude just to find that little bit.”

Play, play, play. Mess it up. Experiment in unlikely ways. Often, you discover what you’re writing about at the very end — that’s what we tell students. It seems like this is true in other kinds of composition. What is found, at the end, becomes the new start. Not everyone, though, will have the perseverance to revisit one’s own work with the eyes of new discovery.

Image, “A Sense of Direction,” by Constanza on Flickr via a Creative Commons license