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Tuesday, September 28, 2010


I have been in a tizzy these last days, thinking about and managing logistics for the upcoming Mother Words reading (Oct. 7 at the Loft—don’t forget!) and I’ve also been writing writing writing away, trying to finish the memoir.

Well. I just typed the last sentence with tears in my eyes, and then I turned to the woman, a perfect stranger, next to me at the coffee shop and said, “I’m sorry. I don’t know you, but I have to tell you that I just finished my book.” She was gracious and polite and lovely.

Now I’ve just emailed all 345 pages to myself in case my very old laptop explodes on the way home from the coffee shop today.

I’m not completely done, of course. I need to go back over the last fifty pages, which I’ve written in a rush, and tweak and tighten. And then I’ll send the last chapters to my amazing writing group and then to my amazing agent. And then. And then. And then. Please.

But for now, I’m going to celebrate. It’s taken me a year and a half to rewrite this book, and it’s something of which I’m proud, really really proud.

This goes out to my Stella, of course. And to D, without whom I couldn’t have written a word. And to all of you for your cheering. Thanks, y’all.

Monday, September 20, 2010

3rd annual benefit for hunger

I have never gone to bed hungry. My children have never gone to bed hungry. But countless children in the United States do go to bed hungry, every night. What are we going to do about it?

September is Hunger Action Month.

Here are the facts:
* 50% of the households that benefit from food shelves have at least one child under the age of 18.
* An estimated 1 in 10 children in Minnesota lives in poverty and 1 in 3 qualifies for free and reduced lunches, based on low income guidelines.
* Children who suffer from poor nutrition during the brain’s most formative years score much lower on tests of vocabulary, reading comprehension, arithmetic and general knowledge.
* The fastest growing group of food shelf clients is the working poor: 47% of households using food shelves in our local service area report paid employment as their major source of income.
* There were more than 1.8 million visits to Minnesota food shelves in 2006, up from 1.7 million in 2005.

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.

Award-winning novelist Charles Baxter is determined to see this tradition continue. On Wednesday, September 22nd Baxter will host the 3rd Annual Benefit for Hunger featuring readings by University of Minnesota Creative Writing Faculty, including Charles Baxter, Regents Professors and memoirists Patricia Hampl and Madelon Sprengnether, poet Maria Damon, novelist M. J. Fitzgerald, and poet Ray Gonzalez. Proceeds will go to Second Harvest Heartland.

When: Wednesday, September 22, 7:30 - 9:30 pm

Where: University Hall McNamara Alumni Center

Cost: Free with a suggested donation of $5.00.

(You can read my interview with Charles Baxter about the event here.)

If you’re here in the Twin Cities, please come down and listen to these wonderful authors read their writing. If you’re not local, please consider donating to or volunteering for your local food shelf or to donating to Share Our Strength. Ending hunger in the United States is possible if we all give a little. What can you do?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

blogging is writing

I mentioned in my last post that I spent Saturday at the MN Blogger Conference, and I need to do a recap of the day here because it was such an amazing event. The space—CoCo MSP—was lovely and intimate (which was perfect for the conference, though I know many people who wanted to be there couldn’t because attendance was capped at 150.)

I took away something from each of the sessions, but one of the highlights of the conference for me was the opening keynote, in which a panel of Minnesota’s pioneering bloggersNancy Lyons, James Lieks, Teresa Boardman and Patrick Rhone—talked about how they got started and why blogging is an important part of their lives. Many of them have been blogging since before “blogging” was a term. Nancy mentioned that she loves the humanity of blogs, how they “connect us to one another.” Patrick mentioned how writing a blog can help you develop your unique writer’s voice. He also said that he prefers be called an “online writer” rather than a blogger because the term blogger “reduces the respect and credibility of those who write and publish online.” I couldn’t agree more.

My break-out session was “Growing as Writers: Taking Your Blog Posts to the Next Level,” which was basically a mini crash course in creative nonfiction. Echoing what Patrick Rhone said, I talked about how important it is to think about blogging as writing.

**I have to interrupt myself here and admit that I’m a Neanderthal. During my session, people were snapping photos and typing away, and I kept thinking, Are they bored? Are they texting their friends? What’s going on here? It was only after the session that I realized they were tweeting. I was probably one of three people at the conference who isn’t on twitter. (Thank you, Monika, for your patience and graciousness in showing me how it works!)

I was also one of the only people there who was taking notes throughout the day using an actual pen and paper. (At one point I pulled out my phone to check the time, and I was thoroughly embarrassed to be holding such an antiqued piece of equipment in my hands. It takes me about forty minutes to send one text message.) Note to self: Get up to speed.**

So I learned a ton about the business of blogging. (Though I wish I had been able to attend the sessions on analytics and SEO—I’ve no idea what SEO even is.)

But the biggest message I left the conference with was the way blogging can effect incredible change in people’s lives.

Heather of The Extraordinary Ordinary was amazing as she talked about finding one’s authentic blogging voice. You must read her story if you don’t already follow her. And her blog even looks great. What a lovely banner. (Note to self: Get up to speed.)

And of course, the final keynote of the day was delivered by Matt Logelin, who started to blog when his wife, Liz, was on bed rest awaiting the birth of their daughter. I’m sure many of you have been dedicated readers of Matt’s blog, where he’s written about his grief in the wake of Liz’s death, the day after their daughter, Maddy, was born, and where he continues to write about raising Maddy as a single dad. Even if you don’t read his blog, you’ll be moved to tears by his keynote, which is funny, heartbreaking, and down-to-earth. (And he swears a lot, which I love.) You can listen to it and a few other sessions from the conference at The Uptake.

You can also meet Matt this weekend if you’re in the Twin Cities. He’s doing fundraising for The Liz Logelin Foundation, which provides financial and material assistance to grief-stricken young families. A Celebration of Hope will take place Friday night, September 17th at 6:30 pm at Solera in Minneapolis. And walk run hope, the foundation 5K, will take place on Saturday the 18th at 6 pm at Minnehaha Park in Minneapolis. You can register the day of the event, so don’t worry if you haven’t signed up yet.

Thanks so much to Missy, Arik, Suzi, Katie, and Lindsey for making this such an incredible day. Now I better get my a** over to twitter and Get Up To Speed.

Monday, September 13, 2010


The weekend was a blur. I spent Saturday at the first Minnesota Blogger Conference, which was a tremendous success thanks to the countless hours that went into planning and executing the event. (A huge thanks to Missy Berggren of The Marketing Mama and Arik Hansen of Communications Conversations for all their work.)

And yesterday, we had two birthday parties for Stella—a kid and a family party. She was buzzing around all day, unwrapping presents, giggling with her friends, unwrapping more presents, eating cake. (And of course talking to Nibbles, who has recovered nicely from The Incident. Thanks for all your well wishes.)

This morning, my alarm went off at 6:15. I quickly turned it off so I wouldn’t wake Zoë, who was in our bed because she wet her crib in the middle of the night (which happens at least four times a week because she refuses to wear diapers at night. “I’m not a baby!” she says adamantly when I try to convince her of the merits of diapers at night.)

I snuck out of the room and I slipped into Stella’s room, where she was sprawled across her bed, sound asleep. I sat down on the edge of her bed, and just stared at her, marveling at the fact that she’s seven, a first grader. I brushed the hair from her face and whispered, “Happy birthday, sweetie.”

Her eyes opened a little. “I’m so tired,” she said, stretching her arm.

“I know, honey.” I was tired, too, and I wanted nothing more than to climb into her bed and fall back asleep with my birthday girl. I kissed her temple and wrapped her into my arms.

And as happens every year on Stella’s birthday, I’m pulled back in time, to the day she was born. I go back to the magnesium sulfate, the vomiting, the suffocating heat in my veins. I go back to my supersonic hearing, the twisted sheets, the tests, the tests. I go back to the fear, the not-knowing, the eventual C-section. I go back to my three-pound daughter being whisked away as soon as she’s pulled from me.

The events of my preeclampsia and Stella’s birth follow me around all day in such clear detail that it feels as if I could step back in time, as if I could leap into a parallel universe in which all of those events are still happening.

But then Stella reaches her arms around my neck and says, “I love you, Mama.” And I’m back where I belong, with my seven-year-old clinging to sleep in the early morning on her birthday.

I love you, too, Stella. Happy Birthday, big girl!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

the gerbil diaries, part I

Perhaps for some of you the word “gerbil” brings to mind a somewhat hazy (and disturbing) rumor involving Richard Gere, an emergency room, and an unfortunate rodent. Even I experienced a vague sense of discomfort when, last week, the word started being bandied about our house casually and with some frequency.

But you must banish those unsavory images (which were solidly debunked as urban legend) from your imagination, just as I have. You must do this because, you see, the newest member of our family happens to be a gerbil, and I’d like you to welcome her with a clear heart and a pure mind.

Friends, meet Nibbles. Nibbles, meet my friends.

I never thought I’d be a gerbil owner. I actually never thought we'd have rodents of any kind in our house, even though as children, my sisters and I had guinea pigs and mice (and ducks and a chick and salamanders and a snapping turtle and two parakeets and a cat and two dogs).

My parents were very tolerant of pets, and owning pets seemed to teach us responsibility. Which is why I caved. (Who doesn’t want their kids to learn to care for an animal?)

Or at least it’s part of why I caved. Here’s the rest of the story:

Last year, Stella got in her head that we should have another baby. “Let’s get a baby,” she said at least once a week.

“Oh no,” I said each time, “we’re done having babies.”

But this explanation wasn’t satisfactory, so I was forced to go into more detail, explaining that me and pregnancy don’t really mix (to which she responded, “adopt one!”). I explained that we didn’t really have room in our house for another baby (to which she responded, “You can fit a bunk bed and a crib in our room! No problem!”)

But I just kept saying, “No sweetie, we’re not having another baby. I feel so happy and so lucky to have you two girls.”

Finally, she said, “Well then how about a dog?”

So we started talking about dogs—a lot. We talked about a timeline (after Zoë turns 3) and a plan for a non-shedding, hypoallergenic dog (so D’s not miserable). We talked and talked and talked about dogs, about breeds and sizes and possible names.

And then a few weeks ago, my sister adopted the nicest cocker spaniel from the Human Society. Patch is calm and adorable and great with kids. So when Rachel said they couldn’t take Patch on their vacation, we quickly agreed to take care of him. It was the perfect opportunity to see how we would do with a dog.

Well, Patch is perfect (except for his separation anxiety and penchant for shredding things when he’s anxious) and having him was great (except for the late-night and early morning walks and the fact that Zoë kept trying to ride him and smother him in blankets). He was perfect and overwhelming, and D and I quickly realized that if this sweet dog was too much for us, we definitely weren’t ready for a dog of our own.

So imagine my delight when, last week, Stella said, “I think I want a hamster instead of a dog. Can I get one for my birthday?”

“Great,” I said. “Done.”

But after research about the frequent biting and completely nocturnal habits of hamsters (not to mention the hamster salmonella outbreak I read about online), we decided a gerbil (a creature that is slightly less nocturnal and tends to be more social) would be a better pet.


Friday, September 3

2 p.m.—Stella and I visit PetSmart and look and hamsters and gerbils. The staff reinforces our decision about gerbils.

2:30 p.m.—The begging begins: “Please, please can we get it before my birthday? I need it. I need it.”

3:00 p.m.—Names are discussed: Peanut or Nibbles?

3:30—7:30 p.m.—The lobbying for a pre-birthday gerbil begins in earnest. We finally agree that sometime the next day, we will go get the gerbil.

Saturday, September 4

1:30 a.m.—Stella is awake, in our room: “Are you sure we can get the gerbil today? Do you promise?” Kate: “I promise. Go to sleep.”

4 a.m.—To D: “Do you promise we can go straightaway in the morning? Do you promise?” D: “Shh. Yes.” (He has no recollection of this conversation.)

6 - 11:45 a.m.—Many tears because “noon isn’t ‘straightaway.’” Me: “True, but deal with it.”

Noon—We all pile into the car, go to PetSmart, sign papers, see Nibbles, decide he is definitely a Nibbles, buy appropriate (and expensive) paraphernalia: cage (check), ball (check), food (check), treats (check), bedding (check), mineral licks (check), chew toys (check). D says I have a deer-in-the-headlights look on my face. I feel as if we’ve just purchased our first house.

1:30 p.m.— Nibbles is home and seems to be adjusting. The rule is this: no hands in her cage for four days (the salesperson recommended this so Nibbles could become acclimated.)

Sunday, September 5
Sometime in the morning while I am at the coffee shop writing—little hands go into the cage and try to hold Nibbles. Nibbles tries to escape. Tail fur comes off in said little hand. There are many tears. There are many different versions of the story.

12:30—I get home from the coffee shop and notice blood in Nibbles’ cage, blood on the exercise wheel, blood on the food dish, blood on the shredded toilet paper roll. I call PetSmart. The vet is at lunch. I am told they will call me back.

2:30—The vet is not a small animal vet. They recommend a different clinic.

3 p.m.—D takes Nibbles to a clinic in St. Paul. A shot is administered. Nibbles is sedated. An amputation of the “de-gloved” portion of her tail occurs.

3:30 p.m.—I get the whole story after I assuage my daughter’s fears (“But I’ll get in trouble! I didn’t listen!”) about telling the truth. Lessons about following directions are learned. Lessons about being honest are learned. Everyone feels better.

4 p.m.—D and Nibbles are sent home to recuperate. Nibbles is tired, but fine. I look at the vet bill and try not to cry. “We have the most expensive gerbil in town,” I say. D has a deer-in-the-headlights look on his face. I pour myself a glass of wine.

The following days are spent cleaning up Nibbles’ droppings to prevent a tail infection. They are spent washing hands and trying to regain Nibbles’ trust. They are spent wondering whether a gerbil is truly less overwhelming than a dog, or even a baby.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

structure, structure, structure

Okay, so I’ve been avoiding posting about the memoir and the deadline because, well, the deadline passed and the memoir still isn’t finished.

There were some distractions in August, some of them lovely (my 20th high school reunion, which brought a few of my closest friends into town) and some of them not as enjoyable (proposals, house projects, etc.) But even without these, I wouldn’t have made my September 1st deadline. I realized, as I was muddling through my manuscript, that I had some structural problems later in the book. I had dropped a narrative thread. I was too tangential. I needed to condense and compress in order to maintain narrative urgency.

And I was feeling panicky because I was trying to rush through the writing, not letting the solutions emerge in the process of writing. So I slowed down a little. I fretted. I woke up thinking about The Manuscript.

Then last week with everyone back in school, I gave myself the space I needed to let the book happen. I wrote and I wrote. And yesterday as I was pulling together the new chapters to send to my wonderful writing group, I realized that I’m actually writing faster than I thought I was. I have written 64 pages in the last month. Not too shabby, if I do say so myself. I’m on 296 and still going. Another two weeks to go? Maybe. I hope.

Structure is such a tricky animal, but it’s critical to a book’s success. Sometimes the necessary structure emerges in the process of writing and sometimes an author really needs to plan out a book. My friend Francine Marie Tolf has an interesting article in A View from the Loft about this very thing. Francine interviewed me and three other memoirists about how we approached structuring our memoirs. Check it out and see what Marge Barrett, Nicole Johns and Vicki Forman, who just won the PEN USA award for creative nonfiction for her wonderful memoir, This Lovely Life, have to say about structure and memoir.

And now I'm back to The Manuscript.