Friday, October 31, 2014

Poem for the Weekend: Robert Frost


I was thinking about this poem's famous last line this week, which sent me off looking for the entire verse. Seems like a good choice for an Autumn-hued Friday.

One of our most beloved American poets doesn't need much in the way of introduction, but if you want to read a little about Robert Frost, here it is.

Nothing Gold Can Stay

by Robert Frost (1874-1963)

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Does Size Matter?

Something I get asked from time to time, when people find out I’ve written a book, is how many pages it is. This question tends to come from younger adults, perhaps students who are still in the world of 10-12 page essays and 25-30 page research papers. But length becomes a consideration for writers, too, usually at the point when you’ve finished something and you have to decide what to call it.
A quick perusal of the internet and you’ll find guidelines:
Micro-Fiction (up to 100 words); Flash Fiction (100-1000 words); Short story (1000-7500 words); Novelette (7500-20K); Novella (20K-50K); Novel (50K-110K); Epics (everything over 110K).
This is an answer from one source but overall, it’s a good general sense of what people think. (And for the record, I don't think I've ever heard of a "novelette.") Of course, an instant clamor will arise, as you all think of books that are exceptions to these guidelines. Here’s an article from the Huffington Post that shows the word count of some classics. Examples: Slaughterhouse-Five (47,192 words), Mansfield Park (159,344 words)—both outside of the range.
And what about short story collections? My clicking around has revealed that they should be at least 40,000 words, but the range varies. But...what if it’s a linked collection that reads more like a novel? What if your novel is a saga? What of historical fiction? Sequels? First in a trilogy? Etc., etc.
I was thinking about this issue of size from the consumer side, the reader. Recently, I wrote about reader expectations here, in terms of the buzz and marketing that may precede something you pick up at your local bookstore. But what about the tangible considerations, the actual heft of the book in your hand (or the number at the bottom of your Kindle screen)? When you choose a slim book with widely spaced sentences, might you commence reading at a more leisurely pace, expecting dense and poetic prose and vivid, immediate scenes? When you grab an 800-page biography (with both hands), do you light up a separate, more analytical and patient part of your brain before starting Page 1? And what of the sweet spot—that 60K-80K range that probably most contemporary novels fall into? (Note: this is my unscientific, un-researched presumption.) Might this be a range where we can keep a more open mind? Using Amazon’s Text Stats feature, it’s been found that the median length for all books is about 64,000 words. This would seem to be a good goal for any project, I’d say. Playing it safe.
What’s the long and short of this? Should you concern yourself with size before firing up the word processing program or grabbing that pen? I’d say it’s much like considerations of genre—best to save your decisions for later. Then you can deliberate as I am now, about my project that came in under 50,000 words, which I like to call a story collection but which others think may be a novel (novella?). And which, no matter what I or anyone calls it, is still just what it is. Hopefully, once it’s published, a few readers will be attracted to the look of it, the feel of its weight in their hands. And of course, hopefully, they'll like what’s inside.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Poem for the Weekend: Anne Shaw

Anne Shaw is an artist, a poet, a student of sculpture at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, and the founder of the Twitter Poetry Project. Her latest collection is Dido in Winter, and you can visit her website at

Small Bang Theory

by Anne Shaw
for Glen
He says, You don’t need a religion. Woman,
you are a religion, and describes how the hints of things impinge
pushing their shapes before them as they rise
slowly, as if through plaster, the wobble of an orbit
pressing itself toward sight. This, he says, is science: how data ghosts
        the edge
when the unseen starts to flicker in, trace at the cusp of the mind’s

myopic eye. For a year I went blind as a freight train, thrashed
in a wild grief, because nothing as loud
as my sorrow could be heard. Now, in the formless dark
I can’t untangle my tongue
even to know what kind of help to ask.
But he tells me I’m all flintstrike
deep in the basement’s gut: again, again, again, again

and yes, I am all stammer and all ignition switch
waiting for gas jet, horsehair, lath, for anything to rascal back
the blossom of my blue, incessant flame. Therefore let me pray
the smallest possible prayer. Pinprick
in the darkness. Please. That the ear that is turned
to silence may flick itself awake. And if
it can make no reply, may hear.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Poem for the Weekend - Maya Angelou


Maya Angelou may be our best known modern American poet. Friend of Oprah and the Clintons, writer, professor, feminist and civil rights activist, she exuded a quiet and confident wisdom and her memoirs were influential to most female writers I know (of a certain age). I was lucky enough to hear her speak at the University of Denver while I was a student there. She held the entire auditorium in the palm of her hand. Read her biography here, or view her Life in Photos.


by Maya Angelou (1928-2014)
Lying, thinking
Last night
How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone
I came up with one thing
And I don’t believe I’m wrong
That nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

There are some millionaires
With money they can’t use
Their wives run round like banshees
Their children sing the blues
They’ve got expensive doctors
To cure their hearts of stone.
But nobody
No, nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Now if you listen closely
I’ll tell you what I know
Storm clouds are gathering
The wind is gonna blow
The race of man is suffering
And I can hear the moan,
‘Cause nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Grown-up Dreams


I had a vivid dream the other night. My minivan had broken down, and the repairman told me it would cost $3600 to fix it. I had a million places to be, of course, and there were bags of groceries in the back. I told the repairman all about the endless problems we’d had with this particular van—electrical issues, bad brakes, manufacturer recalls—and about how great our last van had been. And if you're thinking right now: WHAT KIND OF DREAM IS THIS? Well, SO WAS I, when I woke up.

Shouldn’t your dream world be an escape from your real life? I started remembering some other thrilling storylines that have graced my slumber in recent months, sometimes repeating the same themes over and over. I dream that I can’t get to the bottom of a laundry pile, no matter how many times I load the washer and unload the dryer. I dream that I’ve been away from home for a few days and forgot to feed the dogs. And this, a popular one: I dream that I’m taking a trip, my flight leaves in TWENTY MINUTES and I HAVEN’T STARTED PACKING YET! This one always stretches itself out, from the hurried scavenging through drawers, all the way to the crazy run through the airport. It’s always good to wake up completely frazzled, with the bitter taste of failure on your lips, when there will be A MILLION things to do that day, every day, of your adult life.

What happened to dreams about flying? Wind rushing through your hair as you soar over mountains, through the windows of tall buildings, over the hassle of life on ground? What happened to that dream where you’re about to go on stage and sing, because you’re an AWESOME singer??? I’d even take those pulse-quickening dreams where you’re in a car on a tall mountain, about to fall off the side. And when was the last time I had what my grandma used to call a “racy dream,” involving a celebrity?

I suppose this is the divide between childhood and adulthood. A child’s subconscious mind is still heavily involved with make believe and possibility, while an adult’s total mind is addled with reality and responsibility. You don’t have to be psychologist to realize that most of my “grown-up dreams” have to do with dropping the juggling balls of adult life. I do notice a change, sometimes, when I’ve been to a movie, or have read or heard an interesting story. New drama might be infused with the day-to-day. Last night I dreamt that one of my son’s coaches had sent some guys to rough up someone who hadn’t paid their team fees. And there was a scary subplot involving a dog, because we had watched a movie in which a woman had to shoot her poisoned dog. So I still woke up unhappy, but at least I could easily dismiss the plot as implausible. The piles of laundry, on the other hand, are entirely too realistic.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Poem for the Weekend

Lawrence Ferlinghetti has been a student, an expatriate, a political activist, a publisher, a key player in the Beat movement, and he opened the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, where he still lives and works. His life is too full of accomplishments and events to properly summarize, but you can read about him here. For now, one of his poems.  

Retired Ballerinas, Central Park West

by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Retired ballerinas on winter afternoons   
          walking their dogs
                      in Central Park West
    (or their cats on leashes—
       the cats themselves old highwire artists)   
The ballerinas
                leap and pirouette
                           through Columbus Circle   
         while winos on park benches
               (laid back like drunken Goudonovs)   
            hear the taxis trumpet together
               like horsemen of the apocalypse   
                               in the dusk of the gods   
It is the final witching hour
                when swains are full of swan songs   
    And all return through the dark dusk   
                to their bright cells
                                  in glass highrises
      or sit down to oval cigarettes and cakes   
                              in the Russian Tea Room   
    or climb four flights to back rooms
                                 in Westside brownstones   
               where faded playbill photos
                        fall peeling from their frames   
                            like last year’s autumn leaves

Friday, October 3, 2014

Poem for the Weekend


This week's poem is by Li-Young Lee, who is of Chinese ancestry but was born in Indonesia. He and his family emigrated to the U.S. when he was a young boy. You can read about his family's experiences and Lee's career here.

One Heart
by Li-Young Lee

Look at the birds. Even flying
is born

out of nothing. The first sky
is inside you, open

at either end of day.
The work of wings

was always freedom, fastening
one heart to every falling thing.

"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka