Tiny Turtle, Giant Tortoise

Since our return from a recent visit to the Galapagos Islands, where we swam with sea lions, watched the mating dance of the waved albatross, observed a frigate bird high above us show his red throat, and stood within a few feet of a giant land tortoise as she grazed on grass, I’ve come to realize how far I’ve traveled from those days in North Carolina when I was the proud owner of a green pet turtle that I cared for in a small plastic pool.Turtle12(1)

These tiny turtles could be purchased in the five-and-dime stores of my childhood. Such amazing stores for children! All laid out in rectangles of counter after counter: the perfume counter, the hosiery counter, the underwear counter.

Each counter was overseen by a single salesperson, complete with her own cash register. There was no central station to which you carried your merchandise, no credit cards for that matter. In fact it would have been unheard of to carry your merchandise from one place to another in the store. You chose whatever, paid for it with cash, and then moved to the next counter for your next purchase.

It was mid-July, 1950, I was almost eight years old, on the day my mother and I walked by the turtle counter. There they were, turtles. An entire section was devoted to these small green creatures, some swimming in their shallow tanks, others “sunning” on their plastic promenades. My mother, who was probably headed to the underwear counter, paused as I stood before the turtles. “No.” she said. “Absolutely not. No turtles.”

By my birthday in October, I had managed to convince her that a turtle was a small pet: one that would not track mud into the house, one that would be easy to take care of.IMG_8954 (4) copy

Fast forward to July, 2015, when our family of twelve visited the Galapagos Islands where we saw the giant tortoises made famous by Darwin on his visit aboard The Beagle in 1835. During Darwin’s time, these tortoises were captured and eaten by the inhabitants and visitors to the islands. Darwin writes: “It is said that formerly single vessels have taken away as many as seven hundred, and that the ship’s company of a frigate some years since brought down in one day two hundred tortoises to the beach.” The giant tortoises were almost extinct until the islands became protected. Today we can stand by these large reptiles and watch them munch on grass unafraid like most all the animals, birds, fish, and reptiles in the Galapagos. It gives one hope.

From tiny turtles in a North Carolina five-and-dime store to giant tortoises in the Galapagos of Ecuador—from the 1950 to 2015—how far I’ve traveled. Yet these turtles and tortoises still tell me to slow down, to take my time. The turtle has become my totem creature. Can I slowly gain even a little wisdom? Can I carry my home wherever I go? Can I persist? Trust my path no matter what?

Oh yes, I’ve become a turtle. Wrinkled. Shell intact. Yet vulnerable. Like that tiny green turtle that sat in my hand so long ago. And even the large tortoises of the Galapagos. But, good news, turtles and tortoises live a long time. Lonesome George lived to the age of 102.  Plenty of time to do our work—slow but steady within shells/rooms/studies/homes. We write and read and move along.

Lonesome George (1910 to June 24, 2012)

Lonesome George
(1910 ?  to June 24, 2012)


Writing Idea:  Pets–write about your first pet. Or your “totem animal.”  Is there some living creature to which you feel a special bond or identify? Or try to connect a small memory (those little turtles) to a more recent one (Galapagos tortoises). How do animals (birds, reptiles, fish) enter into your writing?

“Having the turtle as totem means that you have an affinity with the ancient wisdom of the earth. You are naturally tuned into the elements, land, plants, people and animals. You carry your home on your back figuratively speaking and feel at ease wherever you are.”   —-Elena Harris from “Turtle Spirit Animal”

“In modern China, turtle is one of the four divine animals along with dragon, phoenix, and chimera.” Turtle Symbolism 


“When we were little,” the Mock Turtle went on at last, more calmly, though still sobbing a little now and then, “we went to school in the sea. The master was an old Turtle – we used to call him Tortoise -”
“Why did you call him Tortoise, if he wasn’t one?” Alice asked.
“We called him Tortoise because he taught us,” said the Mock Turtle angrily: “really you are very dull!”
Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass



The Quest for the Question

My friend, Mary, and I recently took part in a writing retreat at the Madeline Island School of the Arts in northern Wisconsin. We’re both working on book length projects and needed time away to focus.

Madeline Island School for the Arts

Madeline Island School of the Arts

“Write about your dark side,” says Mary one night. We are trying quick writing jumpstarts to make our way into the difficult work.

Earlier that day I said I was going to write about my dark side; and indeed, I had taken a stab at it. Now we laugh.

My dark side seems funny for some reason.

One  morning, the leader of the retreat, Elizabeth Andrew, asked us to frame the central question for our lives. She talked about how this central question will inform our memoir work. It will be the heartbeat.

Tonight, with a stricken look on her face, Mary says, “I don’t have a central question!” And we laugh again.

Mary and I are a little lost in the quagmire of finding our central question.

Elizabeth also asked us to think of a central image in our work.

“I don’t have a central image either!” Mary says.

That morning, Elizabeth suggested we dialogue with this central image. “Like Vicky’s telephone poles,” she said. The first day of class I had talked about how my memoir, Long Distance to North Carolina (tentative title), might use the metaphor of telephone poles and lines stretching across the country from Minnesota to North Carolina.

I glowed like a model student—the teacher’s pet—I had a central image!

And I set off writing a dialogue with telephone poles.

Mary’s face was puzzled. I could see her across the room. A little frown on her forehead.

Later as we sit in our cozy apartment, the same frown comes across her forehead as we talk about the day. “I don’t have a central image. Or a central question,” she says.

“We’re poets, “ I say, “Maybe we don’t think this way.” But now we’re trying to step out of our poet minds and write memoir. Maybe we have to go about it—this book creation—in a different way. We can try anyway.

But back to the workshop and the leader’s comments: she was saying, “Write out three central questions in your life. Then choose the one that stands out.” She listed three questions from her own writing as an example. It seemed easy.

I sat there like a lost sheep. My central question? All I could think of was “What will we have for dinner?” It is certainly the one most asked in my house these days. John to me: “What’s for dinner?” Me: Blank look. “Dinner?”

Finally I did jot down three central questions. But even now I have to look back in my notebook to see what they are—that’s how central they must be!

Here is what I wrote:

What does it mean to be here a short time?
What (where) is here?
What am I longing for?

The last one intrigues me because I love to listen to Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison, and especially Leonard Cohen late at night—and go to some funky place—like I’m sixteen again or thirty-two. Am I this age, in a rather old body, still living in the romance of a much younger version of myself? Okay. Move on.

So I chose the first one: What does it mean to be here a short time? The short-time question brings to mind the theme of mortality and immortality, a theme rooted in my spiritual life as well. Life and death. Life after death. Birth and death. In the body and out of the body. Longing for another place and time. Pleasing decay. All big questions to infuse my writing. But what happened to my central impetus to write about my mother and her life? She was here such a short time–even though she lived to be almost 96.

Maybe what I have to say is bigger than her life or mine. Yet I can’t get to the bigger questions without being mired in the details–or enriched by the specific moments we live, even in this moment as I struggle to see beyond myself.

Maybe I’m getting closer–or larger.

Now for my second question: what or where is here? And where or who is she?


Writing Idea: If you’re working on a book-length project (or even a shorter one), what is your central question? Central image? Try a quick free-writing about what you see as possible questions. Even if you draw a blank, write some of the questions you circle around in your work. Or question why you don’t have questions! What about the images that keep coming back again and again as you write? Is there one question or image that stands out above the others?

Thanks to Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew, the leader of our June retreat at Madeline Island School of the Arts not only for this writing idea, but also for an amazing, inspirational week.

Our Group

Our Group                 June 2015




As I watch my hands curl over this keyboard, watch fingers reach and hover above the keys of my laptop, I see hands with a different mission than my father’s whose photograph hangs by my desk.

My father sits in the foreground in a bass fishing boat—most likely some time following his stroke—in his late seventies. His left hand is hidden from view, maybe he is reaching for the tiller of the motor ready to start the outboard and head to a new fishing spot, or maybe he and my brother are just drifting along the edge of this backwater lake in southeastern North Carolina. His right arm rests on his thigh with his fingers lightly twisted around a fishing rod.Carl fishing in Sutton Lake

He sits in repose with the heel of the lightweight rod at rest on the boat’s bottom. His fingers hold the rod as if the whole matter of fishing is rather incidental to the being there—the physical occupation of this space on this small boat on this expanse of water. Since he occupies the foreground, most of the picture is background. It is a quiet sunny day, and there is only a light ripple in the blue water behind him. The trees and bushes stretch out above him receding into the distance. My eye follows where he has been. He is toward the end of his journey. Yet it is his hand in repose that interests me.

His hands were the hands of a workingman. He worked outside almost all of his younger life as a lineman and then as an electrician for the Civil Aeronautics Association and a private electrical contractor, Tally Electric, before starting his own electrical contracting business when I was in high school. By the time he was in his seventies, his hands were crusty and red from long exposure to the southern sun.

The forefinger of his right hand was crooked—bending toward his palm slightly and a bit to the right. He joked and said that when he pointed at something he had to make a slight adjustment because if the viewer followed the angle of his finger, the object would be the wrong one. How did he hurt that finger? Was it in the fight he told me about when he was a young man? Or was it when he smashed it with a sledge-hammer in a construction accident?

One day in Minnesota when I was filling my gas tank on a cold winter day, I banged the forefinger of my own right hand on the gas lid. It was a frigid day—way below freezing–and my hands were numb. So I didn’t realize until several days later that my finger had formed into the exact same tilt as my father’s and never did straighten out.

My hands also show the effect of a childhood spent in the sun—the skin is wrinkled. Even when I was in college they had already begun to age. I remember a boyfriend holding my hands and saying, “What’s happening to your hands?” Yet mine are not the hands of a workingwoman—at least not those of someone who worked as my father did outside. Mine are the hands of a teacher, a mother, and now a grandmother. As a mother and teacher, my hands were sometimes covered with eczema—a red rash from the chalk on the blackboards aggregated by dishwater from cleaning up after our family of five. Then there was a callous on the inside of the middle finger of my left hand—a callous from holding the pen and writing comments on thousands of student papers.IMG_8653

Years ago when I lifted my new granddaughter, Ella, out of her high chair, she wrapped her hand around my bent finger. Her fingers were small and perfect and as smooth as the inside of a porcelain teacup. Mine are puckered with veins covered by loose crepe paper skin. Yet still these fingers of mine are agile enough to stretch over the black and white ivories of my new piano and to move across the letters of this laptop.

As my hands float over the keyboard, they seem to be a direct link to a stream of images. They are being asked to transform pictures from the past into meaning. They form words to reflect on the moving water of time—a different, more abstract place than the one my father’s boat rests upon in that lake where he fished.

In the picture of my father, I see that he wears the navy blue coveralls that were his signature attire and a beige fishing hat with a back flap to keep the sun off his neck. He has a look of readiness as if he knows that with the next spot on the lake and the next cast he will catch that bass. But if he doesn’t, that’s okay too because at the bottom of the picture is a big red ice chest full of cold drinks and maybe a cheese sandwich. There’s a lot of space behind him—and time—but he’s at peace it seems. I like that in the photograph he is up close and that if he put down the fishing rod, he could reach across and take my hand.


“Stretch forth your open hands,/ Take all the gifts that Death and Life may give.”                                                                      –William Morris, The Earthly Paradise. March.


Writing Idea:  Many artists practice sketching hands. Each person’s hands tell a story. Try a word sketch of your hand or someone else’s. Maybe you can use a photo and do a word sketch of the person and his/her hands.  Go where it takes you.

Aunt Clarissa’s Pound Cake

In the last blog, I promised you a recipe. But first my story:

The children were tired after spinning around on the State Fair rides. We had toured the animal barns and seen the Big Pig, filled up on cold milk at the twenty-five-cent-all-you-can-drink milk stand, and climbed on the huge green tractors on Machinery Hill. It was late afternoon on a hot August day at the Minnesota State Fair, and the streets were a mass of people. A strange mixture of corn dogs, cotton candy, and human sweat filled the steamy air.

“Can’t we get our ice cream now?” asked Susan, my daughter, who was maybe nine or ten years old that summer. She was ready to head to the agriculture building where we always saw the bees and devoured huge cones of sunflower honey ice cream. “No. Not yet,” I said, “We’ve got to go this way to the creative activities building.” I pointed in the opposite direction.

The boys were still little—both squirming in their double stroller. My parents, Ruth and Carl, who came every summer from North Carolina for State Fair, were with us too.

On this particular late August day, we were all together as we made our way to the creative activities building to see the cake display. “We have to check it out,” I said as we pushed the boys in the stroller through the crowded aisles around displays of quilts, handmade baby sweaters, carved duck decoys, and stamp collections towards the cakes.

Every year Gloria, my neighbor across the street, entered her bagels in the state fair baking competition. Each summer she encouraged me to enter my pound cake. She kept telling me that my pound cake might win a ribbon. I thought that Aunt Clarissa’s cake was much too ordinary to win anything in a cake contest. Of course, we all loved it—with its fine buttery texture and tender crust. But to me, it was just an everyday cake, one that my Southern relatives would serve at any meal—no icing, nothing fancy. When I was a girl, my mother’s favorite sister, Clarissa, baked it every time we visited her in Mt. Olive. Later Mother made it when I came home to North Carolina. And now, I had made it so many times I knew the recipe by heart. images

“Oh come on,” said Gloria. “You have to enter it.” So a few weeks before my parents’ visit, I spent a steamy August day in the kitchen baking. I made two cakes that day because the first one looked a little flat. I dashed up to Milt’s Grocery and bought fresh baking powder, butter, flour, and eggs and made it again. Our house had only a couple of window units to air-condition the bedrooms, so the kitchen must have been a hundred degrees by the time I finished. My friend June’s daughter from across the alley came over to watch the children. I jumped into the car, my wet hair clinging to the back of my neck, and took the cake over to the fairgrounds in St. Paul to be judged.

By the time my parents arrived for their August visit, I had almost forgotten about the cake. But now, here we were, our entourage, approaching the glass-enclosed display in the creative arts building.

We saw a big group standing around the cakes. My husband peered over the crowd as I tried to jockey the stroller in closer to the case. Susan slipped between the adults and pressed her nose against the glass. Finally we all managed to crowd around the cake display. At least a hundred cakes were arranged on shelves behind the glass—brightly frosted layer cakes with heaps of red, yellow, and blue flowers, all-chocolate cakes, yellow cakes with fluffy vanilla frosting, pineapple upside down cakes, every cake imaginable.

In the center, on a pedestal, surrounded by half-a-dozen ribbons, sat Aunt Clarissa’s plain pound cake with its sprinkle of powdered sugar. One huge blue ribbon said, “Grand Cake Sweepstakes.” On the card next to it, I read my name and the carefully lettered words, ‘Best Cake of the Fair.’ ” I was stunned. We crowded in front of the cakes and took photos and acted goofy. “Well, what do you know,” said Daddy.

“Mom’s cake won! Mom’s cake won!” said Susan to her two little brothers as she jumped around their stroller, pointing to the cake. I just stood there, shocked to see Aunt Clarissa’s ordinary cake taking its place so proudly among all the fancy cakes. Mother’s eyes were a little moist. “I can’t believe it,” she said.

Later as we headed over to buy our honey-sunflower seed ice cream cones, I was thinking, No, it’s not my cake. It’s Aunt Clarissa’s cake. She deserved that moment of glory.

Her pound cake pops up at most every meal at our house when my now grown children with their children come home. I take it to people when they have lost someone, the way I have now lost Ruth and Carl and Aunt Clarissa and all my many aunts and uncles. I take it to people in the neighborhood who are sick. I bake it when I need a lift.

I’ve tried to branch out and make other kinds of cakes. But I’ve made this cake so many times now that I can whip it up quickly. In a little over an hour, we’re poking toothpicks into its center to check if it’s done. We’re cutting into the moist steamy interior even before it has cooled. Aunt Clarissa’s pound cake never disappoints. All those memories are baked into its warm center.

Daddy an Me  State Fair 1982

Daddy and Me                                   State Fair 1982


Writing Idea:  Do you have a story about a recipe–a story about a certain food that just keeps popping up again and again in your life–and in the lives of others?

After writing this piece about the pound cake, I see that the one I really must write is about Aunt Clarissa, my mother’s favorite sister. Maybe your recipe and story will unearth another one.


Here is the recipe for Aunt Clarissa’s Pound Cake. I’ve always said that I give this recipe and the cake itself only to people I love. I hope you do the same.

Aunt Clarissa’s Pound Cake

3 cups sugar
2 sticks butter
1/3 cup shortening (Crisco)
1 cup milk
5 eggs
3 cups flour (cake flour works well, but any kind will do)
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla

Bring milk, eggs, and butter to room temperature.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease (using Crisco shortening) and flour a large Bundt pan. See note.
Blend together butter, shortening, and sugar.
Add the eggs, one at time. Beat each one into batter.
Mix together the flour, baking powder, and salt in a separate bowl or large measuring cup.
Add flour mixture and milk, alternating—end with flour.
Add vanilla.

Bake at 325 degrees for one hour and ten minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Let the cake rest for 10 minutes before turning out on cake plate. Sprinkle with powdered sugar.

You can use Bakers Joy spray, which has oil and flour together, for preparing the Bundt pan. Be sure that all areas of the pan are covered with shortening and then flour to prevent sticking. Use a very heavy-duty Bundt pan (Nordicware), rather than the lightweight ones. Also be careful not to over-beat as you add the flour. If you use the large Kitchen Aid mixers, beat for only a short time—just enough to combine the ingredients, during the flour adding stage.







The Joy of Writing

We are in our final week of the Joy of Writing workshop here on Sanibel. I’ve appreciated the energy and enthusiasm of this group of writers as we explored the similarities between cooking and writing. Along the way, we definitely cooked up a good stew of writing.

Remember Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking—that classic cookbook from the 1930s?joy_stack_web

During the class, we talked about how this same joy can be found in writing. We’ve tried to counter the doubts, the fears, the negative emotions that sometimes creep into our writing lives. This is not to say that the writing itself need always focus on happy topics, but that even writing about pain and difficulty can lead to moments of joy.

We’ve talked about ingredients (telling details), recipes (structure/shape/form), heat (suspense, emotional sub-context, characters). One participant asked, “So if we have broth, soup, and stew, as a sort of continuum of complexity, when do we know to be happy with the simple broth?” When does a simple poem (that one delicious creme brulee), say all that needs to be said? Another writer asked, “How do we keep writing when no one is reading what we write?” Why do we cook when no one is there to eat the meals? Jan, who admitted she didn’t like to cook, responded, “I write for myself. I enjoy it. Besides, we never know who will read what we write.” Emily Dickinson comes to mind–or my mother, who along with her paintings, left me a huge stack of her journals.

We can always invite people over for a meal–which is what we will do on March 2 when some of us will read at the Sanibel Library and invite family and friends. Or maybe we write a letter to a person in our past, present, or future–the way we take soup and fresh bread to a neighbor.

We studied a short story, several poems, and an essay to see how other writers have cooked up a sort of meal or dish for us the readers. We talked about the opening or beginning of a piece of writing as the first taste we give our readers; and how as writers, we may have made that special sauce (the opening) much later in the preparation. We looked at the final arrival of the guests (our readers) when we put the meal on the table and remembered how the people at a dinner party are happy to enjoy the meal even if it’s not perfect.

Writing, like cooking, can be messy and creative. The meals we cook don’t always turn out the way we thought they would. Yet there is often pleasure and surprise in the process and the chance that a truly great dinner or that one amazing dish will make it worth all the effort.

And when all the work of cooking is over and the guests have gone home, we can sit back and enjoy a taste of coffee or a little brandy and reflect on what a good time we all had. What a relief that with writing, unlike cooking, we don’t have lots of dishes to wash!

In my next blog, I’ll share a recipe.


Good news!  Red Bird Chapbooks has published my little book of poems, What Can Be front coverSaved. I’m so grateful to Dana Hoeschen and all the folks at Red Bird. This is a limited edition (100 copies. 44 pages, 8.5″ x 5.5″ single signature with hand sewn binding. End Paper and Cover Images reproductions of paintings by Vicky’s mother, Ruth Bethea Hodges).

Go to the Red Bird’s website to order and to see all the delicious chapbooks created by the amazing Red Bird press. If you’d like a signed copy, contact me.

Stop by Red Bird’s booth if you’re at the AWP conference in Minneapolis (April 8-11). I plan to be there some of the time.


Here is a sample poem from the chapbook:

My Mother

So many doors to walk through
each a little smaller
than the one before,
each asking that she leave
something behind.

First her coat
then the suitcase
finally her shoes.


Writing Idea: Do you have a cooking story? Does it relate in any way to writing?  Stir it up for ten minutes and see what you can make. For another take on writing and cooking, check out this blog entry from Ploughshares.


“I am more modest now, but I still think that one of the pleasantest of all emotions is to know that I, I with my brain and my hands, have nourished my beloved few, that I have concocted a stew or a story, a rarity or a plain dish, to sustain them truly against the hungers of the world.”
― M.F.K. Fisher

Confessions of a Workshop Junkie

In a few days, I’m taking the boat to Key West to attend “How the Light Gets In: Literature of the Spirit,” the 2015 Key West Literary Seminar. I’m looking forward to sitting at the feet of some great writers, a privilege no matter what my age. There is so much to learn about writing, our world, and the life of the spirit from reading and hanging out with writers, so I’ll settle back in the red velvet seats of the San Carlos Center on Duval Street and listen to Coleman Barks, Billy Collins, Mark Doty, Patricia Hampl, Jane Hirshfield, Marie Howe, Pico Iyer, Wally Lamb, Barry Lopez, Robert Richardson, Marilynne Robinson, and Steve Stern.kw_beach

“Our hope,” writes program co-chair Pico Iyer about the 2015 seminar, “is to talk about essentials—what lasts and what is at the heart of us—through poetry, essay, fiction, and even silence; to push words as far as they can go and then to respect what remains when they give out.”

These Key West seminars are immensely popular and sell out right away. In fact, the 2016 seminar (“Shorts: Stories, Essays, and Other Briefs”) is already sold out with a waiting list. So I’m must not be the only one who enjoys the literary treat of listening to writers, who have worked hard at their craft.

Following the seminar, my friend Mary and I will participate in Jane Hirshfield’s poetry workshop. Jane is a rock star in the poetry world and someone whose work I have admired for a long time, so again I’m so happy to have this opportunity to stretch my poetry wings in new directions, as I get to know Jane.

Rebecca McClanahan

Rebecca McClanahan

Last summer, Mary and I signed up for Rebecca McClanahan’s literary nonfiction workshop offered by Hamline University on the St. Olaf College campus in Northfield, Minnesota. Again what a pleasure to absorb what Rebecca had to say and to try my hand at many of her writing challenges.

Besides my poetry, I’m attempting to write a family memoir. “Now why I can’t I just sit at my desk and write the dang thing,” I ask myself. “Why am I always going off to hang out with these other writers in workshops?”

My mother was a good role model for me in this department. She continued to study art and learn from other artists right into her nineties. It kept her going. Art was her passion. So I’ve made writing mine. These other writers inspire me and give me great pleasure. They send me back to my desk with new ideas and with writing that I would never have done without them.

As I prepare to teach my own workshops here on Sanibel in late January, I hope that I can bring some of the same inspiration that these writers have given to me. We’re all great writers, each in our own way. The words we put upon the paper express our deepest desires, our unique histories and experiences, our longings, our loves and our losses. They record a moment in time that comes along only once.

Our words connect us to each other—the famous and the not-so-famous—we’re in this game together. So onward to the next workshop!


Writing Challenge: One of Rebecca McClanahan’s writing challenges for those of us writing nonfiction is to “create a self on the page.” She says, “Part of what draws a reader into a nonfiction work–in particular a memoir or personal essay–is the sense that a flesh-and-blood character stands behind the words. Use the first person “I” to introduce and describe the person behind the words. To do this, you’ll need to acquire enough distance so that you can present yourself as a character on the page.”

Give this a spin to get yourself into your 2015 writing chair.You can refer to yourself as “he” or “she” and describe yourself as if you were a character in a story. A good experiment in humility–not a bad way to start the year.

P. S. See my earlier post, “The Size of My Life,” for a wonderful poem, “My Life at Sixty,” by Mary Junge, in which she creates “a self on the page.”


I hope 2015 yields much good writing for you! Or I should say just “writing”—don’t worry about the “good” part. Put some words on paper—and feel good about that. Or take a class; attend a workshop. Try sitting at the feet of those writers who have honed their craft and gained some recognition in the process. Remember they got there from time spent at their desks, laying words on paper, like bricks in a wall. It’s never too late. Forget the fame part. Listen. Learn. And write. That’s my intention.

Happy New Year!


“Our task as writers is not only to pay attention to our world but also to use the materials of the world in extraordinary ways. To do this, we must uncover the subtle design, the “figure in the carpet” that is woven into even the most everyday events. Often we must proceed without knowing what form the work will finally take. We write our way into the question, into the mystery. Writing begets more writing; meaning grows on the page.”   Rebecca McClanahan  (from her website).





My Love Affair with W. B. Yeats


I had not heard from Mr. Yeats in years. He was buried in my bookshelf with other old friends, tucked away in closed pages, long gone. Or so I thought–until this past October when I visited Ireland, a country in love with writing and with its writers–especially with William Butler Yeats.

In the interest of compression, the story goes like this: My husband and I were leaving the National Museum of Ireland where we saw the Cashel Man preserved in the Irish peat bogs. He was buried during the early Bronze Age, 2,000 BC, making him 4,000 years old!  (They had bogs; we have blogs.)

"The Lake Isle of Innistree"As we left,  we saw a notice for a Yeats exhibit next door at the  Irish National Library. “Oh my gosh,” I said to my husband, “we  have to go in.”  And there, as if Yeats too had emerged from the bogs of my memory, I found him still alive.  I heard his sonorous voice reading  “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” His words were music. The images of Innisfree were projected onto transparent screens:  the bees, the clover, the land. I listened as  other Irish poets read more of his poems. I was transfixed. One of my favorite poets, the complicated William Butler Yeats, whose poems sent me spiraling as a college student, was here alive and well. For the next hour, we made our way around the exhibit, visiting smaller rooms with multiple inter-active exhibits that captured his loves, his marriage, his politics, his interest in the occult, his writing, and finally his death and re-burial in Ireland. As we left, I knew that my love for Yeats had never really been lost.

If you won’t be making a trip to Ireland anytime soon, you can visit the Irish National Library exhibit and take a virtual tour. Go to The Life and Works of William Butler Yeats.

A few weeks after we returned from Ireland,  I opened my e-mail to find  that Yeats was still speaking to me. There in my mailbox was his poem, “Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” (Poem-a-Day, Academy of American Poets). Go to a Video Homage to “Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” for a lovely reading of this poem.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve met many times with my friend, W. B. Yeats, reading his poems and biography and tracking him down on the internet.  I discovered a favorite poem, “When You Are Old,” one of his best-loved poems, written when he was quite young. As an extra bonus, I found a wonderful love story related to “When You Are Old”  from the Favorite Poem Project (founded by former Poet Laureate, Robert Pinsky) about a young woman, her grandfather, and her husband-to-be. The lovely video shows how one poem can connect several people and give meaning to each of their lives. Click here to watch it:  “Yeats, When You Are Old,”  Favorite Poem Project.


When You Are Old


When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.



Writing Ideas: Take the phrase “My Love Affair with _________.” Try out different words to fill in the blank: “My Love Affair with the Ocean,”  “My Love Affair with My ’62 White Buick Convertible,” “My Love Affair with Chopin or Elvis.” Don’t think too much about it. Just write for at least ten minutes. There’s passion there–and longing. I know.

Or take the lines: “But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you/ And loved the sorrows of your changing face.” There’s plenty there to fill a few pages of your writer’s notebook. Go.images-9

What the Leaves Believe

I was going to write about my rekindled love affair with William Butler Yeats, but he will have to wait. Because today all I can think about are the leaves and Lucille Clifton. I have to start by saying I cannot describe the brilliance of the trees today.the leaves today

We’re lucky to live in a small stand of maples on Gleason Lake about fifteen minutes west of downtown Minneapolis.  I enjoy these trees in the spring when the shadowy green of their leaves emerges after the long winter and, of course, in the summer when they reach their deep glory to cover our lane allowing only a few rays of sun, yet it is now in October when they tell the real story. The trees scream out: “See it only gets better because we will soon do it all over again.”

Yesterday in our poetry class, Deborah Keenan brought in this poem by Lucille Clifton:

the lesson of the falling leaves

the leaves believe
such letting go is love
such love is faith
such faith is grace
such grace is god
i agree with the leavesIMG_7612

A few years ago when I was under the spell of Lucille Clifton, I wrote a poem inspired by her. I bring this poem to you because not only did Lucille Clifton lead the way and help me see the leaves and state my credo, but also because the poem shows how what others write can lead us to what we can write. Without Lucille Clifton, I could never have written this poem. I owe her gratitude–and the leaves too for all their lessons. _______________________________________

What the Leaves Believe

After Lucille Clifton

that they will fall
and wither on the ground

that they will have gone to
all that trouble

to make abundance
to make glory

all that trouble every spring
to fill those branches

so full that a bird is lost
in their midst

and then gone
leaving the bare bones

the bare black bones of branches
what the leaves believe

is what I believe

––Vicky Lettmann


Writing Idea:  What do you have to say about this time of year? about the leaves? Seasons appear in all genres, so if you’re writing memoir, go in your memory bank to fall. Try picking one fall: the fall when you went to junior high, the fall you learned to drive, the fall your father died. Fall on the east coast of North Carolina is not like fall in Minnesota. Give us your fall. Go for ten minutes–just write it out without over-thinking. Smells, colors, sounds, feelings, the light. That kind of thing.


Next blog, I promise: “My Love Affair with William Butler Yeats” (R rated)

Can Writing Be Taught?

Can writing be taught? This question was recently debated in the “Bookends” section of The New York Times Book Review (8/24/14). Both Rivka Galchen and Zoe Heller agreed that, yes, it can be taught. How well or why the teaching of writing is so debated when we accept that we can teach biology, chemistry, history, ethics, music, painting–these are the issues raised by Galchen and Heller.

Since I am an old English teacher, who spent the better part of her life trying to teach writing, or composition as we sometimes called it, to college freshmen, I do believe that writing can be taught. But over the years, I must say I  struggled with the way it was taught–and I frequently doubted my ability to teach people to write.

The Comp 101 classes, still required in most colleges and universities, grew out of the old rhetorical tradition dating back to Aristotle and Socrates. During the Greek and Roman times, rhetoric was a part of public discourse. How do we convince people to see our side of the argument? It grew into a detailed study of sometimes formulaic methods of argumentation and debate.  A quick check of the definition of the word rhetoric reveals the inherent problem with the rhetorical approach to teaching writing:

1 : the art of speaking or writing effectively
2 : the study or use of the principles and rules of composition
3 a : skill in the effective use of speech b : language that is not honest, sincere, or meaningful

Note that this definition begins with the word art, but ends with the more current association with rhetoric:  “language that is not honest, sincere, or meaningful” as in “cut the rhetoric and get to the issue.” In George Eliot’s Middlemarch, the word appears in this sentence:  “No speech could have been more thoroughly honest in its intention: the frigid rhetoric at the end was as sincere as the bark of a dog, or the cawing of an amorous rook.”  

This passage occurs early in the novel and refers to a long speech in which Dorothea’s pedantic future husband, Mr. Casaubon, has attempted to express his ardor for Dorothea. But his rhetoric is frigid. This is a foreshadowing of Dorothea’s and Casaubon’s disastrous marriage. Mr. Casaubon wants to tell Dorothea how he feels, but his brain has become so tangled up with rhetoric that what comes out, while sounding good, is really a mess. Unfortunately, Dorothea is blinded by her idealized notions of love and her own lofty ambitions.

With the classical, rhetorical approach to writing, people often learn the techniques of effective argumentation as a substitute for truth and honesty and real thinking.  It is much easier to teach the structure of the five-paragraph essay (or theme as it was called by my ninth grade English teacher, Mrs. Murphy) than it is to teach how to write clearly and truthfully with insight and even a dash of creativity.  All you need is an introduction with a thesis statement that includes three points that you must develop in three body paragraphs and finally a conclusion to re-state or summarize the three points. And so can begin the death march to disastrous writing.images

Dorothea, because she is young and wants to be in love, makes Casaubon’s speech mean what she wants it to mean. Mr. Casaubon’s life work is to write the great book, which never gets written. No wonder. He can not be true to himself. How to teach a person like Casaubon to write? There is no easy, fill-in-the-blanks formula. That is why we can keep telling budding writers to read, read, read great writing. But it is deeper than that. Thus the dilemma of teaching writing.

Still I bow down to my English teachers–especially the great ones, who tried their best to help us see the light. How can I ever forget thin, waif-like Miss Walsh, my eleventh grade high school English teacher. Or my ninth grade English teacher, Mrs. Murphy, who was sturdy as a fire plug, and a formidable opponent to those in her classes who could not, or would not, learn all the comma rules or how to diagram sentences. My brother did not have the same high regard as I for dear Mrs. Murphy. “She ruined my ninth grade year,” he said recently. There again the predicament of teaching writing–how not to kill off any love for the written word that might be trying desperately to blossom. I know too many people who hated their English classes and can only remember their red-penciled essays.

That’s why I never used red pens: only blue ones.



This image was from a home-school teacher, who teaches the “Five-Paragraph Theme”  as a monster. Truly scary! Oh, well.


Writing Challenge: What do you have to say about your English or writing teachers?  Go for ten minutes in your writer’s notebook. Can writing be taught?


In my next blog, I’ll talk about my recent visit to Ireland–and my emotional moment with William Butler Yeats. Also I still want to tell you about the workshop I attended this summer with Rebecca McClanahan and what Rebecca, a master, taught me about writing.

In the meantime, let me hear from you. I always enjoy your comments and e-mail.


Time and Hallelujah

Where did the time go? I sometimes ask at the end of a day as I pour myself my inch of brandy and settle into my chair to read another chapter of Middlemarch. (See last blog entry. Yes, I’m only half-way through and the book group meets in less than a week!)

Reading in the Courtyard

Reading in the Courtyard

And then I think of the beautiful day I had last Friday with two of our four granddaughters. First we found a garage sale where we nosed around the left-overs of old computers, shoes, baby clothes, books, CDs, and dirty garden equipment to find treasures: two flowerpots, a spiked-fur cat, and a penguin with sequin-covered flippers who went to lunch with us.  We also visited the library, checked out a million books, and then read them in the library flower garden–followed by a granddaughter gymnastics show of cartwheels and somersaults and backbends.

As I pulled into the garage later that day, I experienced one of those driveway radio moments: Renee Fleming’s rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” I could not move. And as I sat there, time elongated itself. Dissolved. I have plenty of time, I thought. More than enough. Music and a day with your granddaughters can do that.

I’ve started piano lessons here in Minnesota. I stumble along on the piano. Yet every now and then, what I’m doing actually sounds like music. My fingers forget they are attached to my hands and somehow link directly to some other melodious place that is still controlled by time, the beat. I can keep the time and be out of time at the same time. If only for a moment.

But back to Middlemarch, this novel has placed me in another time, the 1820s. George Eliot is writing about this period in England from fifty years later, the 1870s. So I am in three times: the present (my chair), George Eliot’s time (she enters the story to comment and guide us), and the actual time of the novel–when people rode horses and carts to get places, when there were no televisions, computers, and cell phones.

So what I’m trying to say is that time is not something I can find more of or even lose–although it is true that things can become lost in time if not recycled in garage sales.The clock and the calendar are helpful for telling time and making appointments, but not so much for dreaming. Time is the steady beat of my metronome, back and forth, keeping time. Time is the ticktock of my heart. A living beat. That beat is within music and poetry and Middlemarch. Hallelujah–repeated and repeated.


“The golden moments in the stream of life rush past us and we see nothing but sand; the angels come to visit us, and we only know them when they are gone. ” 
― George Eliot


Writing Idea/Prompt:  The subject of time–how do we write about such an abstraction? Give it the old one-two (start with this minute) and see what you come up with in ten minutes. Or use George Eliot’s quote and go for ten minutes. Or listen to Renee Fleming or Leonard Cohen, himself, sing “Hallelujah” and see if the lyrics inspire you. (Click here for Leonard’s version of “Hallelujah” with lyrics.) The best version of “Hallelujah” is kd lang’s. Now she really sings it!


News: After sending out poems last February to over seventy publications, I was pleased that “The Remorse of Herod” was chosen by “Forge” journal. Why this one? Random. Someone was looking for a poem about Herod–maybe? Click here to read it. Also these editors were great to work with, so give them a try.  They adjusted the lines in the print version–which loses the idea of John the Baptist’s head being chopped off, but looks better on the printed page.

Also Redbird Chapbooks (Minneapolis) is going to publish my chapbook, What Can Be Saved: Poems. Yay!

Let me know if you have any publication news. I always enjoy hearing from you!