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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

looking up

Things have been hard around here, which you've probably gathered from my last few posts. It's amazing how easy it is not to think about money when you have it, and how it's all you can think about when you don't have it. Ah.

But things are looking up. I hope. I'll keep you posted on that front when I know anything for sure. (Sorry to be so vague.)

For now, I'm trying to stay focused on the classes I'll be teaching this winter and spring, and on my revision, which is moving along and with which I'm actually quite happy.

And I want to let you know about a two-hour workshop I'll be teaching on November 14th. I'd be grateful if you'd pass the word. Here are the details:

Memoir for Mothers

In this workshop, you’ll learn how to capture your funny and heartbreaking motherhood anecdotes on paper and bring them to life with sensory details and strong characters. In addition to in-class writing, we will spend time discussing how to fit writing into your busy lives. You will leave the workshop with a page of exercises to try at home.

When: November 14 – 10:30 am – 12:30 pm

Where: Mother’s Day Inc., 521 Lake Drive, Chanhassen, MN

Cost: $32

For more information, visit Mother's Day. To register, contact Mother’s Day at 952-937-8200 or

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


“What are we going to do?” Cooper said to his wife. They were lying in bed at sunrise, when they liked to talk. His hand was on her thigh and was caressing it absently and familiarly. “What are we going to do about these characters? They’re on the street corners. Every month there are more of them. Kids, men, women, everybody. It’s a horde. They’re sleeping in the arcade, and they’re pushing those terrible grocery carts around with all their worldly belongings, and it makes me nuts to watch them. I don’t know what I’m going to do, Christine, but whatever it is, I have to do it.” With his other hand, he rubbed his eyes. “I dream about them.”

“You’re such a good person,” she said sleepily. Her hand brushed over him. “I’ve noticed that about you.”

“No, that’s wrong,” Cooper said. “This has nothing to do with good. Virtue doesn’t interest me. What this is about is not feeling crazy when I see those people.”

“So, what’s your plan?”

from “Shelter” by Charles Baxter

These are the facts:

36.2 million Americans - including 12.4 million children - don’t have access to enough healthy food to thrive. They are food insecure and at risk of hunger.

In Minnesota, an estimated 1 in 10 children lives in poverty and 1 in 3 qualify for free and reduced lunches.

Since 2000, food shelf use in Minnesota has increased by 70%.

I know people are struggling right now. Hell, we’re struggling. But this is the truth: I can’t imagine having to put Stella and Zoë to sleep hungry. I can’t imagine telling them that there is no more food in the house, that there is nothing left to eat. I can’t imagine listening to them cry because their stomachs are empty.

But it happens every day across the country. It happens every day in Minnesota.

In 1984, an organization called Share Our Strength (SOS) was started by Bill and Debbie Shore with the belief that “everyone has a strength to share in the global fight against hunger and poverty, and that in these shared strengths lie sustainable solutions.” Working with Share Our Strength, creative writing programs at universities across the country began to give readings to benefit the fight against hunger. One night a year, hundreds of writers shared their words and raised money for Share Our Strength.

Twenty-five years later, there are only a handful of writing programs still hosting readings to end hunger. Some still raise money for SOS, some raise money for local food shelves. But for the most part, these readings have disappeared.

Charles Baxter, author of novels Feast of Love, Saul & Patsy, The Soul Thief, and numerous collections of stories (and whose writing I’ve discussed here and here), was the national Co-Chair for the SOS reading initiative at one point, and he wants to continue the fight against hunger here in Minnesota with the second annual Benefit for Hunger Reading at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, October 27th at the University of Minnesota Coffman Memorial Theater.

Host Charles Baxter will be reading with Michael Dennis Browne, M. J. Fitzgerald, Ray Gonzalez, Patricia Hampl, and Madelon Sprengnether, all University of Minnesota Creative Writing Program faculty.

It’s free, with a suggested donation of $5 (or more or less, whatever you can afford to give), which will benefit the Second Harvest Heartland foodshelf.

I’m pleased to say that Charles Baxter is here at Mother Words today to talk a little about the benefit reading:

KH: Can you tell me a little about Share Our Strength (SOS) and the involvement of writing programs across the country in the fight against hunger?

CB: I don’t know whose idea it was to come up with autumn harvest readings for hunger relief, but I DO know that at one time there were upwards of eighty readings nationwide for this particular cause. And there was even an anthology of stories, the proceeds from which went to SOS. (These anthologies are titled Writer’s Harvest and are available, used, from Amazon.)

KH: Can you talk a little about why this issue is important to you?

CB: In my third book of stories (A Relative Stranger), there’s a story called “Shelter,” about homeless people. For some reason—who knows why?—I’m particularly disturbed by the sight and the fact of homeless people and people who are hungry. There’s so much wealth in this country, you’d think these problems wouldn’t exist at all. But they do. The main character in “Shelter” is named Cooper, and even Cooper’s wife isn’t sure why he is bothered so much by the existence of misfortune in others. Sometimes I think: well, it could have happened to anyone; it could have happened to *me*.

KH: You mentioned that a few creative writing programs are still doing benefit readings to help end hunger, but that the coordinated effort has dissolved. What made you want to renew it here in Minnesota?

CB: A couple of years ago, I was constantly angry at the state of affairs in this country, and I realized that I could remain angry or I could DO something.

Hunger in this country is a huge problem, but people don’t like to talk about it. In Minnesota, more than half the people who benefit from food shelf donations are children, 15% are senior citizens, 35% of Minnesotans report that they or someone in their family has visited a food shelf, and 15% of Minnesotans report that they or someone in their family went to bed hungry during the previous month.

Part of the problem with the readings in the 1980s was that all the money went to the national organization, which then distributed the money to places in the US where hunger or malnourishment were worst. But this reading will benefit local organizations.

On the 27th, I’ll introduce the event, speak about 2nd Harvest Heartland, and introduce the speakers, each of whom will read for about 5-7 minutes. We’ll also have a speaker from 2nd Harvest Heartland. My goals are to raise consciousness of this problem among the U of MN student body, and to raise money for hunger relief.

KH: I’m curious about the connection between art and social justice. What obligation do you think we have as writers to make a difference in the world, either through our writing or other community service initiatives?

CH: Well, that’s a tricky question, because I’m not sure that artists are obligated to do anything, as far as their art is concerned, except to create the best art they can. But as human beings, we are all obligated to each other, and if I can use what I can do, or show, as an artist to raise some money for a good cause, then that’s what I’ll do. If you’re a bricklayer, your only obligation is to do a good job, but in the rest of your life, all the great wisdom literatures say that you should practice charity in your life and hospitality toward the stranger. Artists don’t have any greater obligation than anyone else, but they surely don’t have a lesser obligation, either.

Thanks for talking with me, Charlie!

If you’re here in the Twin Cities, you can come out to this wonderful reading, and have the chance to put food in a child’s stomach. If you are outside of Minnesota, maybe you could think about donating to your local food shelf or to Share Our Strength.

So, what’s your plan?

Thursday, October 15, 2009


Last week I was reading Elizabeth Alexander’s The Antebellum Dream Book, a stunning collection of poems about race and gender and identity and motherhood. Alexander is really brilliant—she’s brilliant in her poetry, but she’s also clearly brilliant in person, in interviews. (You can visit her website if you’re interested in reading some of them.)

On Friday afternoon, after my book group’s discussion of Alexander’s collection, my mind was buzzing, and in my head I wrote a companion post to my post last week about seeing. If you read Alexander, you’ll know why I wanted to post about her ability to see, about the necessity of seeing clearly.

So I had this post in my head, but I never sat down to type it up because everything—the weekend and the weather and my continued cold—got in the way. And now it’s no use; the post already feels worn, old, and it doesn’t fit in with the thoughts and worries that have been churning in brain for the last few days. I suppose that’s the problem with blogs; in order to provide a true reading of my state of mind, my ponderings, I would have to post every day. Of course, that’s never going happen, which is probably a good thing; you’d get really sick of me.)

But today—after a hard couple of days, the kind of days when tears are near the surface, when it feels as if any moment I’ll crack open, when it seems impossible to put a thought down on paper, impossible to string together words to make a sentence—I went back to the Alexander interview I read on Friday afternoon, and the quote that most interested me then isn’t what caught my attention today. (A good reminder of how much we bring to what we read.)

I didn’t even notice these words on Friday, but today they made me nod my head, and think yes, yes. Alexander says:

I wasn’t able to write prose for several years, right when my children were being born. I found that that took a space that was just too wide, and I couldn’t find it, and it also distracted me for too long. I’m interested in how poets like Lucille Clifton, who had six children, talk about having a room of one’s own. She says, “For me, the ideal circumstances for writing a poem are at the kitchen table. The kids have the measles, and everything is going around.” What I love about that, and what I think is really useful and important is that idea of being porous. How can you stay porous at the same time that you have your bubble, in which things can exist or stay safe?

Maybe I’ve been too porous of late. Maybe I’ve forgotten about the bubble.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

my yaddo

Last weekend I went to see one of my oldest friends, Claire, who recently had her first baby. I developed a bad head cold just before I left on my trip, and though it was a drag to be snuffling and coughing, and I wasn’t as helpful with the baby as I wanted to be, the trip was lovely. Claire and I talked and talked and talked, the way you talk when you’re reunited with a long-distance friend. On the phone we give updates, cover the big stuff, but we miss out on all the little details of each other’s lives. So it was a treat to immerse ourselves in each other’s stories, in the little things.

It was also a lovely trip for the writer part of me. I had grown dull, had let the stresses of life press on me so much that it had become difficult to see. And seeing, for a writer, is key, isn’t it?

As I waited for the train into the city, and people began filling in the space around me on the platform, I thought, Oh my God, all these people and their stories are right here, in front of me. I stared at the security guard who leaned against the window in the stairwell across the platform, and I was struck by the sadness and boredom in his eyes. I stared at him, and all of the sudden, a short-story unfolded in my mind. I pulled out my teensy weensy notebook and scribbled it down on those tiny pages. I noted the slope of the woman’s shoulders next to me, the way she kept tucking her brittle hair behind her ear.

There is something about riding public transportation and being in the same space with so many people from so many different backgrounds that jump-starts my senses.

Natalie Goldberg has the short chapter in Writing Down the Bones about being a tourist in your own town. She describes the need for a writer to look at her life and everything in it with fresh eyes, the eyes of a tourist. But between dropping the kids at daycare and the school bus, making grocery lists, constantly picking up of toys, trying to fit work into the two hours Stella is at school or Zoë is napping, making dinner, and paying bills, this is challenging. And do I even want to look at my day-to-day life with fresh eyes? What would I see that I hadn’t already seen?

Sometimes I actually need to be a tourist in someone else’s town in order to see again. And I did see, took in everything—the people, the noise, the way the pigeons on the roof of the building next to Claire’s pecked at the dirty puddles, groomed themselves on a bag of abandoned garbage.

And in the mornings, before Claire and baby Agatha were awake (they slept incredibly late), I made coffee and snuggled into my bed, reading over the first hundred pages of my manuscript. Reading in the morning in bed! It was heavenly. I mentioned to Claire how decadent it felt, and she said, “It’s like your own version of Yaddo.”

I can’t ever imagine applying for a residency that would mean a month away from my kids. Even a weekend away from them was hard. (All weekend I kept thinking, oh Stella would love this! Or when I saw a toddler who walked or laughed like Zoë, I missed them both desperately.)

So I’ll take a few mornings in bed in a different city, reading and editing. The real Yaddo couldn’t have been better.