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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Baby's Arrival and More Event Pics

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Hello! I'm sitting here in my dining room, peering out over piles of boxes of dusty books. Usually my desk is in my writing room, which is now full of baby stuff. We're in a transition state now-- the baby will be here in a few weeks, and we're making room for him-- sending bags of clothes to Goodwill, throwing out junk, recycling cartons of old paper (I finally let go of my three file cabinets full of grad school articles taking up space in the garage, and it felt GOOD!) (Hmm, I just reread that and it sounded like we're sticking our baby in the garage. Not so. All his material possessions will go in what was my writing room, and my writing room stuff will go in our dining room and my new old canned ham trailer.) The thing is, our previously plastic-free home is being inundated with plastic baby stuff, and we're making space for it all.

(One more thing about my baby-- a few confused people have come up to me at events, saying, wow, you don't look eight months pregnant! And I realized I mentioned the baby previously in this blog but neglected to mention that we're adopting him from Guatemala-- which explains my my lack of a basket-ball sized belly. He's extremely cute, incidentally, and happy and smart and playful...)

I've been trying to balance my writing time with my getting-ready-for-baby time, although lately the latter has been eclipsing everything. I do feel grumpy and overall yucky if I don't write regularly, though. It's a tricky balance. I've been spending lots of time thinking about how I can make sure I have several hours of writing time every day once he comes. (I keep calling him "he" not to be mysterious, but we're not 100% sure what his name will be yet.) I feel like this gigantic whirlwind is heading toward me and will swirl me up and transport me to another world... and how do you really, truly get ready for something phenomenally huge and life-changing like that?

In case you're wondering what I've been writing lately, mostly I've been finishing up a very rough draft of my next book (and like my baby, the name is still uncertain, so I'll be mysterious about the title.) The deadline in my contract is May 1, which scares me a bit. I've had many years to try to figure out how to be creative on demand, and while it's true that I've uncovered some strategies that work for me, still, creativity is such a mysterious and magical thing. For me it requires lowering to a deeper level of consciousness, to a place of images and symbols, and bringing those back up to the surface. This is not easy to do when you're up to your ears in getting-ready-for-baby-- or whatever life-changing event you happen to be in the midst of. But I think that at the heart of it, writing is, for me, a kind of meditation-- leaving the details of the everyday world for a period of time every day to clear a space inside for more timeless feelings to come. I think the times when I most need to access this timeless place are precisely in the midst of big, overwhelming life changes.

So, I figured I'd post a few more pics of the Maryland book tour and a few local events I've been doing. At the beginning of this entry is one of me and my good friend Todd Mitchell, author of The Traitor King (Read it! It's fantastic!) doing a reading at the Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver-- one of the biggest yet coziest independent bookstores I've had the pleasure of perusing. And here's another of that same reading, with my younger friend who is a brilliant, up-and-coming writer who I met while doing creative writing workshops at his school.

I had a great time one evening hanging out with several fun ladies in Greeley, who read Red Glass for their book club (see the pic of lovely women holding my book!) I've been to book club meetings for What the Moon Saw before, but this was the first one for Red Glass. It's such a treat for me to hear readers' responses to scenes that have existed in my mind for years... It's magical to hear how these scenes and characters touch people in surprising ways... how people connect with characters that have lived in my head with me for so long... and now they're let loose out in the big wide world bonding with perfect strangers!

I'll post a few more Maryland book tour pics, too. Here's one of me talking to my sixth grade reading teacher, Ms. Witt, who enthusiastically arranged my visit to my old stomping grounds, Dunloggin Middle School (see pic below). I had a fabulous time with the students there-- and I got to reconnect with a few old teachers -- and I finally got to see what goes on behind the closed door of the mysterious teachers' lounge (which I can't divulge due to the oath of secrecy I was forced to take...)

And above is another pic from the Maryland tour, from the Howard County Library creative writing workshop (see pic with brown brick wall background.)

Below is a pic of me and my good friend Maria. We did a presentation together as part of the library's Day of the Dead festivities on our book-in-progress (tentatively called The Queen of Water). For several years, we've been writing a book together, based on her girlhood and teenage years in the Ecuadorian Andes. At this point, we have a solid draft done, and are in the process of getting lots of great feedback from writers, and bilingual teachers and librarians. (Note that this is not the book with a deadline in May, so we have the luxury of more time to gather feedback.) Since Maria is headed back to Ecuador for a few months, we figured now would be a good time for a fun photo shoot. When people hear about or read her story, they're surprised at how young she is now. The events of her life are the kind of thing you'd expect would have taken place a couple centuries ago, when slavery was still officially in existence in the Americas. (Of course, her childhood fascination with Bugs Bunny and MacGyver gives away that no, this happened only 20 years ago.)

All right, that's all for now. I'm off to donate some old books to Matter Bookstore (which you should check out if you live in Fort Collins-- a great non-profit used bookstore and literary mag.)

I'll be in Arizona for a few days next week to accept the Arizona Young Adult Award-- which I'm super-excited about-- and then, probably a week or two later, we'll head down to Guatemala. I'll try to send an update in a few weeks from the midst of the whirlwind....

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Colorado Book Award for WHAT THE MOON SAW...

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So, last week my father-in-law and husband and I were in Denver for the Tattered Cover reading, and we passed the beautiful and enormous Denver Performing Arts Center-- a sparkly, oddly-angled silver-and-glass structure-- an ultra-modern fairy palace. I mentioned I'd never been in there before, but would welcome an excuse to go... then lo and behold, yesterday, as I was doing some last minute map-questing to figure out how to get to the Colorado Book Awards banquet, I discovered that it's held in that very building!

I was one of three finalists in the young adult category (the lovely Hilari Bel, author of the Farsala Trilogy, which I've just started reading-- it's wonderful so far, and T.A. Barron, who I've never met, but heard he's a great guy-- author of the Tree of Avalon books) were the others. The whole event was lots of fun-- Ian was there, of course, along with my writer friends Leslie Patterson (and her hubby Dave) and Teresa Funke and Karla Oceanak and Laura Pritchett came down from Fort Collins to celebrate. My friend Denise Vega, last year's winner, was there too, along with the fabulous women in her writing group.

The first winner announced-- in the picture book category-- was Kathleen Pelley, a delightful Scottish-born woman whose trilling, dancing voice you want to listen to forever... she wrote Inventor McGregor, which is a fantastic picture book for all ages-- a story about how the creative spirit blossoms best in cheery, higgledy-piggledy places. I'm going to reread her book whenever I need a snippet of a song or a whirl of a fling to get my creative juices flowing...

And next came the young adult category-- that's the category for What the Moon Saw. As the mc was announcing the winner, my heart was actually making an extremely loud boom-boom-boom sound, to the point where the booming was drowning out what she was saying, and when she said my name it sounded far away (seems like that kind of thing happens in books all the time, but once in a while it happens in real life, too...) So, I managed to make my feet move and walk to the stage without tripping, and meanwhile, Ian and the other folks at my table were cheering and whirling their napkins with abandon, which made me happy.

As the evening went on, I was extra-happy that my table-mates Ben Fogelberg and Steve Grinstead won in the non-fiction category for their book Walking Into Colorado's Past. Ian and I are already planning out which hikes we want to do this fall.

The whole evening made me very grateful to be in the community of Colorado writers-- they're a fun, generous, talented, friendly bunch of people. It was truly a huge honor being part of last night's festivities and surrounded by so much great energy and warmth.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Maryland Book Tour for RED GLASS

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Just got back this morning from my mini-book-tour in my home state of Maryland. It was a fun ten days jam-packed with events and get-togethers with family and friends. The plane trip there was unbelievable horrendous-- a long string of mishaps including running into a bird (which required the plane to be checked before we could take off from the Pittsburg airport where we were forced to refuel after circling near Baltimore because of storms...) I could have traveled to Paris in the time it took to get to Baltimore. So, eventually, I got there.

The next day I headed down to St. Mary's, where I went to college-- a breath-takingly gorgeous campus on a peninsula in between the St Mary's River and the Chesapeake Bay. Here's a pic of Catherine Carter, another alumna, who wrote the lovely book of poems, Memory of Gills. To my right is my good old friend Peter, another alumnus and writer, and to the right of him is Michael Glaser, my creative writing teacher from way back when, and the Poet Laureate of Maryland... quite a fun crowd! Michael put me up in the alumni lodge, right on the water-- here's the view from just outside the back porch. The weather was deliciously perfect-- gentle sun, gentle breeze. After the workshop and reading, we went for a moonlit swim in the river-- something I loved to do when I went to college there.

Over the next week, I participated in a panel discussion at the Baltimore Book Festival with some great young adult authors-- Brad Barkley, Laura Bowers, and Melissa Marr. I went out to eat at a yummy Afgani restaurant afterward, with my favorite librarian ever, Ms. Selma Levi. She was my librarian (and heroine) when I was a kid in Baltimore City, and she's still a librarian (and oral storyteller-- a skill I want to learn), only she's downtown now and a big library star!

On Sunday, I did a reading at Borders and had the joy of seeing lots of friends and relatives who came from all over Maryland.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, I did school visits at my old stomping grounds, Dunloggin Middle School. Being in that school again didn't feel too weird-- it regularly appears in those anxiety dreams I STILL get where I forget my locker combo or I've forgotten to attend class for months and suddenly realize I have a giant test coming up... This was a purely delightful visit, though. I saw some old teachers-- Science and Industrial Arts and Reading-- and it seems they've hardly changed.

I did a workshop at the Howard County library on Tuesday night-- a small but super-creative crowd showed up and wrote some darn good stuff.

Thursday and Friday were my days to relax. I took a nice long walk around Centennial Park lake with my father-in-law... I worked there during a couple summers in high school, supposedly making myself available to save lives in the event of a man-overboard paddle boat situation, but mostly working on my tan, eating free crabcakes and peanut butter M-n-Ms from the concession stand next door, and reading lots of Milan Kundera.

On Saturday morning I went to the Americas Award Program (What the Moon Saw is an Honor book this year). The winning authors and illustrators gave fascinating talks-- the books are The Poet Slave of Cuba (told in verse-- powerful, beautiful language, deeply moving) and Josias, Hold the Book (a picture book set in Haiti-- great message about the value of books).

In the afternoon, I met another writer friend named Peter and felt decadent wandering around DC, having wine with lunch in the sculpture garden cafe, going to the Edward Hopper exhibition (I can't get over how the museums are all FREE!) I like his quote about wanting to paint sunlight on the side of a house. And that's what he did-- painted sunshine. I like that idea of not setting out to paint the house, but the SUNSHINE on the house.

That evening, I ate a scrumptious salmon dinner with my in-laws and got up at the crack of dawn the next morning (today). Everything went unbelievably smoothly with the flight this time-- we even got to Denver EARLY! (And this after I brought along a big sandwich and entire carton of emergency granola because I was determined not to be stuck with only a measly snackbox to eat like the last flight. ) And now I'm home and my husband is telling me it's bedtime... and it is.

I'll post more pics over the next few days, as my friends send them to me...


Sunday, September 16, 2007

RED GLASS Release Party!

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Hi! I had my book release party for RED GLASS last night. I felt overwhelmed with gratitude for all the people who came out to celebrate with me!

A good friend of mine, Gloria, did some amazing dancing and singing. She was raised in Mexico City, and her husband and father and many relatives are from a Mixtec village in rural Oaxaca. She sang a song in Mixteco called Yucu Ninu-- about a sacred mountain-- a hauntingly beautiful melody. Then she sang Paloma Negra, an old Mexican tune full of longing and passion. Then she did a lively, wild traditional Oaxacan dance, swirling her huge skirt all over the place. Her performances gave me goosebumps, they were so stunning.

Three of my brilliant writing group members-- Carrie and Sarah and Lauren-- pitched in to help with the food serving, along with Ian and his sister Stef and brother-in-law Brantley. It was a thrilling experience to have all my favorite people together in one place-- kid friends, grown-up (in theory) friends, students, neighbors, teachers, artists, writers, musicians, the odd computer scientist here and there...

On the big screen there was an ongoing loop of photos of my friends in Mexico who inspired characters in the book and who helped me with different stages of the writing process-- people I wish could have been here to celebrate with us.

I did the reading and managed not to trip over any cords or drop any papers or lose my place in the book... and people laughed at my jokes and asked questions afterward and everything-- what more could I ask for?

Monday, August 20, 2007

My Vintage Trailer Oasis!

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I've always been intrigued by vintage trailers-- the small silver fifties kind. Finally, I got one, since I'll soon be booted out of my writing room by my baby, who will be here in November and will want a room of his own. He'll be getting my former writing room. I'll have to paint over the blood red paint currently on the walls, since that's not exactly the most calming color for babies, I hear. I think we'll go with bottle glass green and give the room a coastal Oaxacan village beach treasure theme.

My trailer will be my new writing room, my little casita. It's twelve feet long, which is about two of me lying down stretching out my tippy-toes. I plan to get lots of colorful Thai silk for the curtains and red velvet for the seats and floor. I had a cool red velvet sofa when I lived in Oaxaca, which I had to leave there, and from time to time I remember it wistfully...

When you walk inside the trailer, on the right is a table nook, where I'll bring my laptop. I have a great view of the end of the driveway where I can watch people pass by-- we get lots of nice dog-walkers and bikers on our street. There's a mini stove and fridge and sink just in front of the door, all in working order so I can prepare cups of tea at half hour intervals. On the left is a bed nook, which is going to be my pillow paradise area where I'll lounge around and read (which counts as working, I've decided.)

My trailer is silver colored on the outside, and looks like a large canned ham. I'm going to stencil its name on the back window flap. I have a few ideas of what I might name it, but I'm not telling yet. One thing I've learned about naming things (babies and trailers mainly) is that you need to just pick a name on your own but keep it quiet until you're totally decided. If you tell people what names you're thinking of, then you run the risk of having someone shoot down the name that you love best of all. And it's hard to resist the urge to people-please, for me at least. So, one day soon, I'll announce it, once I've already stenciled it on there. Check back later!

CAPTION TO TRAILER PICS: These pics were not taken in my driveway, in case you're curious, and the trailer is no longer for sale as the sign indicates. I took this pic in Loveland, in the driveway of the nice people I impulsively bought it from. At that time I was snapping photos and trying to decide if I should follow my impulse to get it...

I have no idea how that merry-go-round picture showed up here! I must have posted it accidentally. But that reminds me of some good news-- I just got offered a contract from Delacorte (which I happily accepted) for two more books-- one will be set in Ecuador, and the other in the Southern French town of Aix-en-Provence, which is where this lovely merry-go-round is located. I think I'll mention it in the book, since it seems to want to show itself off...

Monday, July 30, 2007

Under the Apple Tree and Thinking of IT

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So much for blogging once a week. Once a month is my new goal. This summer's been super-hot, almost too hot to write-- in the upper nineties pretty often, which makes it upper eighties in my un-air-conditioned house. When I'm writing and my brain feels overheated, I just jump in a cold shower for thirty seconds to revive myself.

The past few days, though, have been cooler and a little rainy. Last night I sat outside in the rain, in the dark, under the apple tree in my back yard, and listened to the raindrops and savored the smell. My dog thought I was weird, kind of like the horse thinking his owner is weird in that snowy woods poem. "My little horse must think it queer/ to stop without a farmhouse near/ between the fields and frozen lake/ the darkest evening of the year." Or something like that.

I remember in a high school English class we had to take a multiple choice test about what stopping in the woods on a snowy evening symbolized. Apparently, the right answer was death, but I remember thinking that whoever wrote that question was just plain wrong (and especially wrong to impose his or her wrongness on someone like me who genuinely connected with the poem). I think that stopping in the woods on a snowy evening-- or sitting alone under an apple tree at night in the rain-- has more to do with wanting to feel a sense of timelessness, of being outside your self, taking a break from the you who lives in the mundane world, whose minutes are chopped apart by clocks and schedules. It's about savoring the feeling of just hearing and seeing and smelling and observing the world... it doesn't matter whether you're old or young, or who you are really, because you're simply existing.

I hope no one is ever forced to take a multiple choice test on the symbolism in my books. I'll say now, for the record, that if you've read one of my books, and thought honestly about it, and if something-- the moon or the glass or the waterfall or whatever-- makes you feel a certain way, then that feeling is what it symbolizes.

Let's see, now I'll fill you in on what I've been doing apart from things like sitting under my apple tree. I went to a fun retreat with my agent and a bunch of other authors she works with-- a zany, friendly, brilliant medley of people. We took over a cool bed and breakfast in Santa Fe for the weekend, where we talked about writing and revising and reaching toward little goals and big dreams and balancing the creative parts of life with everything else.

Here's a pic of me and my lovely agent, Erin at the bed and breakfast.

One thing that really inspired me was Ruth Barshaw's fantastic little notebook that she seems to carry with her everywhere. In it, she sketches quick, amazing drawings of what's going on around her. She has this talent for recording all that is quirky and wise and funny. It made me realize that the bits of life that happen around us every day have the potential to be endlessly fascinating, if only you keep your eyes open and take notes. (The lovable character of her book, Ellie McDoodle, has a similar drawing habit...)

Another thing that led me to a revelation was a question Susan Vaught (author of the stunning novel Trigger) asked about finding IT. My understanding of what she calls IT is the thing that turns a collection of words strung together into a breathing, pulsing, living story with the power to make you lose sense of time and care so deeply that you go where ever the story takes you-- you smile and get teary and experience the story almost as if you're living it yourself. So her question was, can you give your story the IT, if the IT is lacking-- and if so, how?

I don't know the answer to her question, although I do like the question. I think it's a really great way of conceptualizing the spark that gives life to a story. I guess if I had to try to answer the question, I would say something about letting yourself, as a writer, be a conduit for the story, letting it pass through you, rather than trying to consciously control it too much. I think the IT comes from a very deep, mysterious place, like the bottom of the ocean where glow-in-the-dark creatures and giant squid live. I think you have to dive down very far to retrieve IT-- which can be a scary thing. I am discovering that for me, finding the IT might mean letting my rational self dance with my dream self... with the dream self taking the lead.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Lila Downs Concert!

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Last night I went to an amazing show in DenverLila Downs, a phenomenal singer who you might know from the Frida movie soundtrack. My friend Gloria gave me one of her CDs last year because Lila sings in Mixteco and some other indigenous languages from southern Mexico (I speak a little Mixteco …) Lila was born in Tlaxiaco, Oaxaca (near where What the Moon Saw is set, in the Mixteca Alta region) to a Mixtec mother and an American/Scottish father. I knew I liked her music and her voice, but last night completely blew me away.

She was truly stunning—jaw-droppingly stunning-- wearing traditional Oaxaca clothing with a twist—embroidered huipil fabric from the Istmo (Isthmus) of Oaxaca with giant (and I mean giant) colorful flowers— tailored into a sexy, fitted strapless top and a low-waisted, angled skirt… and cowboy boots, which added a certain playful toughness. And her hair in two braids woven with satin ribbons and braid extensions that reached nearly to the floor—in the style of Oaxacan Guelaguetza dancers.

She danced onto the stage and kept dancing the whole time—beautiful dancing—a blend of traditional Oaxacan dances and merengue and cumbia moves and a bit of belly-dancing gyrations and some fabulous modern dance moves and animal imitations (mainly an iguana when she sang the song about the iguana. And what a convincing iguana she was, throwing herself into it, crouching low on the stage …)

And her voice! Her voice was other-worldy at times and earthy at others—her voice range was amazing—high pitched—a tone I thought only birds could reach-- at times, and at others, whispery low and resonating and deep. It amazed me that she could sing so dazzlingly and dance so dazzlingly and simply look so dazzling all at one time… and how she filled everyone in the hall with elation, put an ecstatic smile on every single face.

She was this exuberant embodiment of creative energy. I want to remember this when I’m writing—how wildly fun and colorful and sensual any creative endeavor is—whether music or dance or writing or wearing your own eclectic outfit. She also made me desperately want to go to Oaxaca soon—for a visit, but hopefully to live there again for a year or two (… it all depends on what my husband will be able to work out with his job… cross your fingers.)

I’m going to try to write more frequently on this blog. Problem is, on days I feel down, I don’t want to impose my blah-ness on anyone else, so I wait ‘til I’m in a good mood to write. But maybe I’ll write blah entries but make them as short and sweet as possible… and linger a bit longer on the happy ones, like this. Ciao for now!

Thursday, May 24, 2007

My Maryland Book Tour

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Hmmm... my Maryland book tour was a full month ago, but still recent enough that it's reasonable to write a bit about it, I think. Maryland is where I was born and raised, and where most of my extended family lives. So, at the end of April, I spent a week there-- had some lovely school and college and bookstore visits, but spent most of the time driving around, somewhat lost, in a silver economy rental car.

At home in Fort Collins, Colorado, it's easy to get around-- most streets are fairly flat, straight, and on a grid, with neat ninety-degree angles, going directly East-West or North-South. You can never get hopelessly lost, because the mountains are always to the west, which helps you orient yourself. The sky is big and open and the trees aren't dense enough or the buildings tall enough to block your view of the mountains.

Maryland is a different story. It's like a thick green jungle compared to here, lots of lush foliage and springtime rain and clouds to utterly confuse you. And the roads-- hilly, winding, completely nonsensical-- and me, in the rental car, with my stack of Mapquests, trying desperately to figure out where the %&$! I was.

The most severe getting-lost episode occurred when I was driving from my friend Andrea's bachlorette picnic-yoga extravaganza at an arboretum (tree place) somewhere in northern Baltimore to a party at the Candlelight Inn, just outside of Baltimore in some other direction. There was no reason for me to go through a fairly sketchy section of downtown Baltimore, but I found myself driving around aimlessly there, with no gas stations to stop at for directions, or even convenience stores (there were a few, but they were boarded up.) I was supposed to be at the party in five minutes (did I mention the party was for me and my book? that my parents invited the whole extended family gang who drove from all parts of Maryland to get there on time?) I was utterly lost, fallen off all of my Mapquest maps.

And then I remembered my brand-spanking new cellphone!

I pulled over into a weedy, trash-strewn dirt lot and tried to remember how to turn off the locked keypad and find the address book and then dial the number. (Luckily, the night before, my two good friends, the Amandas, had given me and Andrea a crash course in Cell Phone 101 as we were waiting for a seat outside a happenin' Thai restaurant in DC.) So I called my dad (he was at the restaurant, waiting for me along with all my other relatives) and blubbered for a couple minutes and then he calmly directed me out of the boarded-up liquor-store neighborhood. Within twenty minutes I was in the parking lot of the Candlelight Inn, only about a half hour late, drenched in nervous sweat and looking pretty darn haggard when I arrived at my party. (Things got much, much better after a few crabcakes and a glass of wine...)

So, as much as I'd feared my cell phone was the beginning of the end when I signed that contract at the mall before my trip, I must admit it did come in handy. I haven't used it since except once at Safeway to ask Ian if we needed barbeque sauce, and maybe one or two other times, but I feel a special fondness for it now, since it saved the day (with my dad's help.)

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Letting Dancing Bananas into my Writing Life

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Last week was the fourth and final creative writing workshop I did with a fun group of six fifth and sixth graders. For the past four Tuesdays we got wildly creative in their media center. They learned about developing setting, characterization, suspense, and story openings-- along with a bit about the publication process, writing as a career, and the inspiration for my books.

I learned from them, too. They reminded me about an important thing about writing. It's something easy to forget once you grow up and start dealing with bills and car maintenance and other boring stuff. It's something that fifth and sixth graders naturally excel at: Having fun. Pure, goofy fun.

So here's the lesson I learned/remembered: Let yourself giggle hysterically as you write. Take deep, hilarious pleasure in telling a story. Be playful and spontaneous with your words, and remember that laughter loosens up our imaginations.

The earliest creative writing I did was in mid-elementary school-- a series of "Bottlebug" stories full of humor and magic and adventure. I wrote them for my friends, and we giggled and acted them out and made up a dance and a strange language to go along with the stories (which really annoyed our teacher-- "No more Bottlebug talk in school!" she'd snap.) It was fun!

I promised this group of students (who are brilliant writers and will no doubt be publishing their first books within a few short years...) that I'd post their comments on my workshops. Here goes:

"I like the Jimmy /World Travel prompt. It let us laugh and write a lot. You taught us to use all the senses. Next time put a banana in the mystery bag."

(Note: The Jimmy prompt refers to a scenario we developed for a group writing activity about a boy who eats a magic almond that gives him the ability to instantaneously appear in different parts of the world... and what we eventually came up with was a story that could have been called "Jimmy and the Dancing Bananas." The mystery bag refers to a bag of mysterious objects that the students had to incorporate into story openings... and lamentably, I forgot to put a banana in there, although there was a coconut ape.)

Okay, to continue:

"Fun. Interesting. 2 words or 5 syllables, Dancing Bananas!"
"I liked the dancing bananas with rocket launchers."
"It was fun and funny and interesting."
"Loved everything. Everything was very fun. Nothing was boring. Great advice. Fun fun fun."
"It was a really good time. I learned a lot. Laura was a big help to my writing."

Hanging out with these imaginative, fun kids was a breath of fresh air into my writing life. Every Tuesday I drove from their school back to Fort Collins with a smile on my face.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

My Embarrassing Anaco Adventure in Ecuador

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Brief Background to my Anaco Adventure:

In January, I went to Otavalo, Ecuador on a research trip for my next two books. I stayed with my friend María and her husband and son. Maria’s a beautiful woman-- inside and out—who spends part of the year selling crafts in Colorado, which is where I met her. María and I are writing a book together about her amazing childhood and teenage years.

During part of her youth, she wore traditional indigenous clothes daily. In Colorado, María wears her traditional clothes only on special occasions, like parties and potlucks and nights on the town. In Otavalo, she seems to wear them whenever we go downtown, to the market or shopping. The clothes are beautiful—a black anaco (wrap-around skirt), a white flower-embroidered blouse with lacy sleeves, and a faja—a wide, thick strip of fabric wrapped around the anaco’s waist. I’d always thought that the faja was just decoration, but it turns out, that fabric is what holds up the entire anaco... and if the faja is too loose, well, the whole thing falls off... (maybe you can see where this is heading...)


The Actual Adventure

So… it’s one of my last evenings in Otavalo, and we’ve planned to go out to eat with our good friend Alex, another beautiful Ecuadorian woman-- inside and out-- who I met years earlier in Colorado.

Alex bursts into the guest room. “Laurita! María said she’ll dress us up in her clothes tonight!”

I’m excited. Not only will this be a fun girly bonding thing, but it will help me get inside the head of María’s character in our book— to know how it feels to wear these clothes, so that when I’m writing about it, it’s more real to the reader. I’m a little worried that people will think I’m a poser… but María assures me that it’s fine, that Otavaleñas feel proud, or at least entertained, at a gringa running around dressed like them.

So I’m standing half-naked in María’s room, wishing I’d worn less ratty underwear. She wraps the anaco around my waist, over the poofy blouse. Actually, it’s not exactly my waist—more like my lower ribcage. My ribs creak and groan as she winds the cloth tighter and tighter.

“Suck in your stomach, Laurita!” she commands.

I hold my breath. This thing is a corset! I had no idea! In rural communities, women and girls wear these all the time—as they’re cooking and cleaning and washing clothes and taking care of pigs and cows. Even in the city, girls wear them to school and around town and in Internet cafés.

“There,” she says, proudly, tucking in the end of the fabric. “Perfect.”

“Uh, María? Can we loosen this thing a little? It’s strangling me.”

“No. If you loosen it, the anaco will fall down.”

“I don’t think I can wear this,” I say. Panic is rising.

“It’s only for a few hours,” she says. “And you look beautiful!” She fastens a necklace of about fifty strands of gold-coated glass beads around my neck, and wraps long ropes of tiny red coral beads tightly around my wrists, up my forearm. I walk to the mirror, gasping for air, my pulse struggling to keep going under all the beads on my neck and wrists. And not only does my ribcage feel bruised and perhaps slightly fractured, but my other internal organs are squeezed so tight, I wonder how I’ll get any food in there at dinner.

I look in the mirror. The gold beads make my face look extra pale and clash with my blond hair that has been pulled back into a slick ponytail. The iridescent blouse with sequins and gold thread makes me look peaked and a bit sickly, truth be told.

Alex looks much better—her skin is golden, a shade between mine and María’s. She’s considered mestiza, which is a class/ethnic distinction that means she isn’t indigenous, although she clearly has some indigenous blood in her ancestry. The gold and red beads suit her, and the shimmery blouse makes her face glow. She admits the outfit is somewhat constraining, but it doesn’t seem to be damaging her innards the way mine does. Or else I’m just a wimp. Unlike me, she’s used to wearing sexy jeans and squeezing her toes into pointy high heels and wearing pantyhose on occasion and suffering a bit for beauty. Alex has often complained to me that Ecuadorian society expects this from women. Yet she embraces it to some extent. In Fort Collinsland of Polar Fleece and Tevas-- she could breathe a bit easier, but at the same time, she missed getting all decked out for a night on the town.

“You look beautiful,” I tell her.

“So do you!” she says, but I suspect she’s just being polite.

We get ready to leave to walk downtown-- María, Alex, me, María’s husband, and their three-year-old boy. On the way out the door, still struggling for breath, feeling claustrophobic in this get-up, I pause, then turn and teeter back upstairs. Secretly, I fetch a shirt and pair of baggy pants and stuff them into my purse. In case of emergency. In case the food goes down my esophagus and finds nowhere to go because my stomach is squeezed so tight.

“Okay, ready,” I say with a strained smile.

It’s about a mile downtown, and every step, every breath is torturous for me. We stop to buy bobby pins at a tiny drugstore, for Alex’s hair, which keeps falling out of her ponytail. She asks the vendor eagerly, “Do I look indigenous? If you saw me, just walking on the street would you believe it?”

The vendor eyes her doubtfully. “Maybe.” And it’s true. The way we walk in these outfits isn’t the way the indigenous women do-- slowly, gracefully, their heads high, their bodies somehow at ease in these cages of clothing.

“What about me?” I squeak.

The vendor bursts into laughter. I want to laugh along with her but it hurts to much to let much air enter my lungs.

We enter the brightly lit restaurant, where a football game is playing on TV and the orange plastic seats are about half full. All eyes are glued to the screen. This has always annoyed me about small-town Latin America—the ubiquitous TV’s in restaurants and cafes. Hardly anyone notices our outfits. And then I smell the food—frying chicken, sizzling plantains, steamy rice, fresh cilantro, grilling steak, and I realize I’m hungry and want to put lots of food in my stomach, but there’s no way of fitting it in there.

I hang my head sheepishly. “Um, guys? I’m gonna go to the bathroom and change into pants and a shirt.”

“What?” Alex asks, confused.

“Uh, I brought a change of clothes with me.”

She gives me a betrayed look.

“I can’t eat with this thing around my waist!” I moan.

Maria clucks and chuckles. “Listen, we’ll just loosen it up for you once you sit down. But Laurita,” she says sternly. “This is important. You must remember to have me tighten it again before you stand up. Or else the whole thing will fall off.”

“Okay,” I say, relieved.

Alex sits down next to me and discreetly loosens it up. We joke a bit about what a wimp I am, which is fine with me because I am in heaven now that I can let my gut hang out. Delicious freedom! I eat my fill of plantains and rice and chicken, enjoying the feel of my belly stretching to capacity, laughing extra hard, savoring the air expanding my lungs. Every once in a while, the other customers cheer for their team’s goal or let out a collective sigh over the other team’s goals.

After the meal, I have to go to the bathroom. I stand up. I slip out from the booth. I start walking across the restaurant. Suddenly, I feel something fall to my feet, something unravel from my hips, and then the air, cool on my bare thighs.

“Laurita!” Alex and María cry together.

I am standing in my grubby underwear. My anaco is pooled on the tile floor beside the uncoiled faja.

In one desperate movement, I crouch down, grab the anaco, and sloppily rewrap it around my waist. Alex’s and María’s hands are over their mouths, in laughter and horror. Feeling the blood rush to my face, I look around the restaurant, expecting all eyes to be on me, hands over mouths in that same expression of laughter and horror.

But no, every pair of eyes is still glued to the soccer game. The blessed soccer game! Even the waiters and cooks stare unblinkingly at the screen. The only stranger looking at me is a young toddler girl in a high chair, still at the age where it’s okay to walk around with no pants. Anyway, she’s preverbal and couldn’t communicate my gaffe to anyone even if she wanted to.

I waddle to the bathroom, clutching the anaco to my waist, laughing now, feeling more than ready to change into my stretchy knit pants and comfy T-shirt.

Now, when I eat in a restaurant with a TV blaring a sports game, instead of annoyance, I feel deep gratitude. And when I see an Otavaleña woman walk by, I gaze at her with a newfound respect and admiration. Then I take a long, deep breath and let my belly hang out in bliss.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

My first blog

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This is my first blog ever. This is a big week for me-- it's also the week I'll get my first ever cell phone. I feel like I'm leaping into the Future. Ack! I'm a little scared of this blog, to tell the truth. I think I'll keep this short and sweet and then look at it tomorrow and see what I've gotten myself into.

I will say that Ocean in a Saucer is a reference to a poem by Rumi, who was born in 1207 in Afghanistan, which was at that time part of the Persian empire. (I just got that from the preface of my Essential Rumi book, which sits at my desk under a sign that says, "When you have the urge to go online, READ RUMI" because I'm good at wasting time online, and Rumi always reminds me what really matters.) His poetry is about reaching that place where you feel the fire and wind and water of existence wild inside you... at least that's how I read it. Once, when I felt this way, before I'd heard of Rumi, I compared the feeling to trying to fit the ocean inside a Tupperware container. Then, years later, I stumbled across this Rumi quote about trying to make a saucer contain the ocean. (And I bet, if Tupperware existed back then, he just might have substituted Tupperware for saucer, like me.) So I decided to name my blog Ocean in a Saucer because I think that writing books is like trying to fit a raging, deep, sparkling, infinite thing like the ocean into a few hundred pieces of ink-spotted paper.

That's all for now. Bye!