A Year Of Notebooks

I filled twelve notebooks and am halfway through thirteen. Filled: I leave several of the perforated end pages blank, tearing them out for the kids to draw on. I write small. It comes out even enough.

I was hoping I’d find some Kuwaiti dinar when I flipped through my notebooks. Instead I found a carrot cake recipe, two temporary tattoos, letter starts, hall passes, a drawing of a saucepan (?), and an illustrated short story by Claire.

When I go through old notebooks, I see the reason why some writers keep their journal separate from their practice and drafting. I tried that once, over a decade ago. Since then, I’ve excused throwing all my writing in one notebook by supposing I’m entwined enough outside of the pages, I may as well play all the parts on lined paper too: prayer and journaling next to fiction next to haphazard poetry. But having all my writing in one place makes seeing me unavoidable. I see the swing of my emotions. Hope and sturdiness of my faith. A prayer of thanks. And a few pages after, paragraphs of insecurity. I interrupt myself with prayers and verses. I turn the page and continue drafting.

I like me, mostly. I want to be Sarah. Looking through my 2014 notebooks I understand that if I quit drafting poetry, fiction and essay to share, I would still journal. The majority of my notebook space is me sorting something out. Some of that sloppy practice informs finished work.

I love that.

Here are excerpts from my 2014 WP. The majority are short ideas I’d circled to go back to, to mine more deeply. Maybe I’ll dig into a few in 2015.


I have this picture of stretching myself out as flat and open as possible, absorbing sun and rest.


I want something beautiful made from my messiness.


I start to live for a lesson. Like I need to name it to pass the level.

Later that month:

I can’t think why I should cover my nakedness. There is no shame in a work being completed.

Later that month:

Naming pain is important. Respect physical pain, learn the intricacy of your form. Acknowledge all pain. Unstop yourself and live in it.

Why is it easier to shove a fear or hurt down than to let pain bloom?

Let pain bloom. Sometimes I walk through a day, cracking. It hurts. I have to keep it together.

I know someone who won’t name her illness because she thinks that gives her illness power.


What I want for my daughter:
Please don’t be angry at yourself
Know you are beautiful
Know God loves you
Please don’t hurt yourself
Let God comfort you
Enjoy your present moment
Sit on the bus
Be kind
I love you
Even when you’re a mess
I’m a mess too
And God is Redeemer


I gave my heart to a spent fantasy. I think of David seeing Bathsheba. I hurt for him too. To doubt your good gifts. Open my eyes to all I have.


I cannot nap. My body hums. I hear my heart and the cars on the street. My children sleep like stones. Claire buries herself next to me. Grant abandons his body for a dream. My children are beautiful: milk cheeks, curled lashes.


In Prague

I think there are no secrets here. I leaned out the window yesterday to watch pedestrians. This is better than TV.

From our flat I can hear cars, music from a radio, a piano, British men talking at a café table under our window, another group of men in a flat across the courtyard, elevator ding, my kids giggling in the next room, a kid yelling, a baby crying, laughter on the street, the clack of heels, the approach and fade of conversation, the front door closing heavily, a cheer.


I have enough.


So much of my twenties felt like play-acting. Like following a script. Now we marry, now we have children. God, let me live unscripted now, free of anyone’s expectation.


Enough is a hard measure.


Keep writing, even the same thing again.


Make me a conduit of grace.

Prompts Page From Prism International

I’m making the rounds of online literary magazines and must share Prism International‘s prompt page. I have my go-to WP books and prompts, but am delighted to work this list into the rotation. One of the reasons I keep writing is it’s fun.* And these prompts look fun! I’ve started one, “Can I Borrow That Line?” Twice, actually.

I’ll post what I come up with, maybe, eventually. Go try something new! Now.

*When I’m not weeping. (That is kind of a joke).


Anthony Doerr

I was a senior in college when I found The Shell Collector by Anthony Doerr, a short story collection I started reading standing next to the new fiction shelf before finding a bench to finish the first couple of stories. I later bought the book and bought it again as gifts. And since reading The Shell Collector, I’ve read Doerr’s other work.

But The Shell Collector remains important to my writer self. Sitting in the library reading the first couple of stories, I found something I wanted to do. His stories travel. I love that. I want my writing to travel.

So when Doerr published another book, I’d buy it and save it a bit before reading. I didn’t want it all over at once. I’d read it and think I could take this route as a writer. Put a book together every few years. A good book. An overlooked book. I could do that and be pleased with my art. (I still could do that, and be very pleased). But I also read Doerr and wondered why no one was noticing him.

I haven’t read All the Light We Cannot See yet. But I’m so happy this author is getting a little (lot) light. He’s deserved the wider recognition for a long time. From the NYTimes:

Perhaps no one has been more stunned by the novel’s success than Mr. Doerr, who lives in Boise, Idaho, with his wife, Shauna Eastman, and their 10-year-old twin boys. “This book has trigonometric equations in it — it’s really dense,” he said. “The kinds of readers I’m writing for, I thought they would like it, but I didn’t think that Aunt Judy would read it.”

It’s not as though Mr. Doerr, 41, has been laboring in obscurity. His previous four books were met with largely positive reviews, and he’s won around 20 literary awards and honors.

Mr. Doerr started writing when he was 8. Growing up in Cleveland, he would play around on his mother’s typewriter, writing stories about his Legos and Playmobil pirates. He studied history at Bowdoin College, then took odd jobs to support himself while he wrote, working as a cook in Colorado and on a sheep farm in New Zealand.

He got his masters in fiction at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and wrote a few of the stories that would appear in his first book of short stories, “The Shell Collector” (2002), which Scribner bought for $15,000.

Though he’s gained a devoted following, Mr. Doerr has struggled to support himself with his fiction. During the decade he spent researching and writing “All the Light We Cannot See,” he patched together a living by teaching writing at Boise State University and other programs, writing for travel and science magazines. While he was writing “All the Light,” he also published two other books with Scribner — a memoir about living in Rome and another story collection; they sold around 70,000 copies combined.

“Tony has been scrappy for 12 years,” Ms. Graham said. “He would drive 10 hours to teach some workshop for a weekend, for $2,500.”

The narrative threads in “All the Light We Cannot See” took years to assemble. Mr. Doerr started with a single scene: A trapped boy listens to a girl tell him a story over the radio. He eventually developed the two main characters, Werner, a German orphan who gets swept up in the Nazi movement, and Marie-Laure, a blind French girl who flees Paris with her father, a museum locksmith who’s hiding a diamond from Nazi looters. Mr. Doerr studied diaries and letters written during the war and traveled to Germany, Paris and St.-Malo, the port city in Brittany where much of the story is set.

The story unfolds in short chapters that switch between the two young characters’ perspectives. Weaving together the parallel story lines was tricky, but it injected the narrative with suspense and gave it the feel of a page-turner.

“There’d be moments where I’d be like, why am I being so ambitious, why can’t I just tell one of their stories?” Mr. Doerr said. He said he felt free to experiment because he was expecting a limited audience of literary fiction readers. It may be harder to indulge those impulses when writing his next novel under the weight of expectations that come with being a best-selling novelist.

On that last comment, I hope not. I hope Doerr continues to work out his art, unburdened.

For the full article, go here.

Valleys Of The Shadow Of Death

One of our pastors, Doug, died this week. He had back pain last spring. Doctors found a tumor wrapped around his organs. They guessed it’d been a slow growth for seven or eight years. Maybe it was already too late but Doug and his wife, Bia, went to the States for treatment. As a church, we prayed. Some prayed fervently for a wild miracle. Doug and Bia walked in small miracles near the end of his life.

On Friday, the message included  Psalm 23.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
    He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
    He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
    for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
    I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
    your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord

At first, I thought the psalm was a response to Doug’s death, a pat reminder to us living believers that it all goes okay at the end. I think of Psalm 23 as great for the emergency room. It’s that bit about the valley of the shadow of death. I’ve read it in that light, dismissive of the passage’s succinct truth about God’s full care for his people. I’ve read it thinking that my valleys are not so shadowed as those walked by others. And so, I’ve read it feeling undeserving of the promises too.

Pastor Alan read Psalm 23 as truth for each of us. My valley of the shadow of death is not a too-short stay in a cancer ward or the loss of a partner. My valley is tired, discouraged, doubting, sad, wounded. My valley of the shadow of death is not wanting to get out of bed in the morning.

I get out of bed anyway

for you are with me.

Psalm 23 is rich. It’d taken a worn hue after decades of hearing it, not for me, not really. Ask for new comprehension. Read it slowly.

Flash Fiction From Old Postsecret

Here’s an old Postsecret I wrote down

I keep myself incomprehensibly busy so I never have time to feel unwanted.

I wrote around the line a few different times. Again, last week and this. What I ended up with is a piece that doesn’t feel directly tied to the secret but works okay on its own. Worth a later revision at least.

I run a nonprofit. I believe in the work. Promoting girls’ literacy in underdeveloped nations. I have spools of statistics and anecdotes in my mouth. I could go on and on. Anyone listening hears about these village girls prohibited from going to school, married at the age of thirteen or fourteen. Anyone listening hears the turn in the story –

Girls learned to read. That’s the short end of it. That’s what people like to hear, that their tax deductible money gives words to girls who read by candlelight after their old men husbands are sleeping. No one likes the old men husbands. Everyone thinks these girls would be brilliant if not for the old men husbands. That might be true.

The girls hide their literacy. It’s like secreted candy in the top cupboard or in a wooden box under the bed. Some girls never get to say what they know to anyone but the babies breaking open their hips. This wasn’t our plan but this is what’s happened. We aren’t sure what will come when the babies are thirteen or fourteen, if they’ll have more words than their mothers. Believing is more work now. A decade ago I thought it’d be a wildfire: words and poetry sweeping through villages. The women negotiating life with men, the men realizing the beauty of a wise woman. All this wisdom brought in crates of elementary readers, blank notebooks and weekly lessons.

I need the busyness. I might believe in that more than the girls now. The girls aren’t saving me. The busyness is. I have three smartphones, a tablet and a laptop with me. Something is always dinging or buzzing. When I was a kid I played office with a JC Penney catalog, filling in the order form stuck in the middle, flagging pages with post-its, answering a dead phone with authority. I wore my mom’s heels and clicked across the floor. Striding through an airport I get the same high. My staccato heel strike, phone at my ear. At the airport bar, one glass of wine and a fan of devices in front of me. I’m doing good work.

I am doing good work. I miss Christmas. I forget my mom’s birthday. I don’t date anymore. Shortly after I joined the nonprofit, I loved explaining the cause to men. I felt hot, forgoing self for these girls living in countries that had just sent a wave of terrorists to our city. We were all looking for a reason. Something. I found these girls and wouldn’t let go.

I started off low. Standing at a folding table, passing out brochures with our periwinkle logo. Cold calling for donations. I might have quit after a year, except I took a plane to Afghanistan and spent a week in a bare apartment where girls came to read and write. We weren’t in villages then. But that week was my conversion. I gave my body to the cause. I went back again and again.

The busyness is killing me. I don’t know who I am. I can’t say that over a glass of wine. All I talk about are the girls. I win commendation for my dedication. I’m on NPR, talking about these girls. The nonprofit is huge. Our outreach includes elders. Some fathers and brothers are allowing the girls to learn in daylight. I hear occasional news of a delayed marriage because a girl wants to finish school. I used to cry when I heard things like that.

I get my hair highlighted on stopovers in Paris. You need something if you’re in this work. Booze, women, an expensive pair of shoes, God. I have highlights.

A decade ago we were all hot for each other. All of us doing good work, earnest. We wavered, resolved. We missed Christmas together, made crude paper chains and toasted each other in a cold apartment. I can’t get a date anymore. I can’t find someone who believes as much as I do. Sometimes I’m in the middle of talking about the girls and literacy rates and I go out of body. It’s like a near death experience except that instead of looking down at a surgery and tubes, I look down at the clicker in my hand, the nodding heads in the conference room. I keep talking, floating.

At some point I have to get out of this. There’s this woman named Marcy who’s been doing this kind of work her whole life. We may as well be nuns, she said once, and at least get heaven. We were all together a few months ago, Marcy and me and a few others. We forget what the other side feels like. We all have old friends, siblings with mortgages and children. We go home and see nieces and nephews with more toys than whole villages. If we wanted that, we should have left sooner. Getting any of that now would kill us.

We wouldn’t stay dead. We’d like making box mac and cheese for our seven-year old. We’d like complaining that was all she’d eat.

I don’t know if anyone wants me anymore. No one tries. Sometimes we fall against one another and have a warm week. But I’m beginning to think I’ll never be always warm. I’m not sure what I’m doing this for. I’m doing this for the girls.

Why The Freakout?

Every few months I reexamine my entire life and crawl into bed midday. Okay, every few weeks. And if not a midday nap, then an afternoon picking scabs in my notebook. I wait for the day introspection offers immediate pleasure rather than paralyzing regret. I get to the pleasure eventually, humbly, in the truth of the Gospel and my identity in Christ. And then I’m chastened to realize that

once again

I freaked out about stuff that isn’t worth worrying.

I’ve been thinking a lot about publishing. This is because I’m submitting a trickle of work to online magazines. I’m reading these magazines and thinking if my pieces would fit, what would my fiction look like in that font, how I’d word my brief bio. This is more modest daydreaming than years past when I pretended I was running the Olympic marathon on a ten-mile route through rural Wisconsin and, on that same run, designed the book cover for my first collection of fiction. The title was a toss-up: either Call It Fiction or Broken Plate Mosaic. I don’t think either are taken yet. Mine.

When I reread my last post: thank you for putting up with me. This blog is a place to chronicle process. So. Even when it gets whiny or a little too pep talky. I think about publication. I fantasize validation. When most of what I do every day is so incremental, I crave a giant whoop.

That whoop a ways off. I need to be okay small. I need to be okay with mundane practice. And in this moment, my words are not for an imagined bestseller, but for my drafts, notes, revisions, composts, weeps, whispers, arguments, prayers.

Why I Write: After The Usual “For Myself” Answer

Why I write rarely changes. My notebook is honest. Unflattering. Observant. Thoughtful. Sad. Desperate. Fun. Hopeful. Pleading. Knowing. Secure. Insecure. My notebook is instant reflection. I interrupt myself. I pour out. I am so fine with keeping a writing practice. I think I may be dead or unbelieving if not for a lined place to set ugliness and beauty side by side.

My writing practice is meditative but also generative.

I cried about generation on Thursday, to my husband. I want to know why I bother spending hours on stories and essays kept on this computer, occasionally shared with friends but largely unread. Sometimes there is no comfort saying I write for myself first. No comfort pretending the meditative or creative benefits of practice are their own end. No comfort acknowledging the necessary stretch of practice preceding good work.

I am not quitting my practice. But I’m asking why I write anything with the thought of a reader.

I heard back about two essays I submitted. Declined. This is fine. It’s what I expected. Not in a self-pitying way but because this world is full of writers, many better than myself. I am small. And I beg to know small is okay.

I have no conclusion.

When I sat down with my notebook on Thursday and again today to ask why I want readers – what am I supposed to say? I want the community of readership. I want to know I’m not alone. I want the performance of sharing art. I want validation. That’s it. I want readers to tell me I am not wasting my time revising four-year old drafts for the fifth time. I want readers to tell me they like me enough they want more, even if some of what I write is uncomfortable, unvarnished. Even if some of what I write lacks a tidy end.

I am not quitting this.

One day other readers I’m already writing for will find me and we won’t be so alone. Stick with me. Keep reading me. I’ll keep writing for you.

Long Sentence Short Story

I am making use, after Raymond Carver. I’m using what I see. I’m using what I’m in the middle of. I’m not electric about anything new. So lately my writing has been the very prompts I give my students. That’s fine. I’ll take the practice.

Another What If? goodie. Write a short story that is one long sentence. Three years ago I had a student do this very well. I made him reread the story. It was about a businessman on a beach. He hadn’t written much all semester and I loved this glimpse of his imagination. Since then, whenever I write long sentence short stories (usually alongside students) I think of this kid leaning back in his chair, casually writing.

There is no race to the end-stop. Take as much sentence as you need.

Here’s my latest try, brought to you by the countdown to winter break:

I keep forgetting what I’m supposed to do in which class and it’s gotten so bad I have a rash like a paint swipe across my belly that Mom blames on gluten and I call junior year; it starts itching at the end of the weekend when I look at my backpack and remember I completely forgot my history homework (summary of chapter five) which takes an hour because I have to read chapter five first (I mostly skim, but still!) and then when that’s done I find a crumpled biology worksheet assigned two weeks ago due tomorrow and my stomach gets really itchy filling out the Genetic Traits worksheet – I close my eyes and remember my Mom’s natural hair color and the color of Dad’s eyes –  and finally that’s done and I’m about to zip the bag when I see my Creative Writing notebook and the skin on my belly turns to fire because I have two poems to write – “About anything,” she said but I know she really means about something poetic or deep and I’m no good at that (slit your wrist stuff makes me ill and mushy stuff makes me gag) and I’m about to put the notebook back, no new poems, no new thoughts when I decide to try writing what I really want to say which is I hope this is all Good Enough For Now:

I am at the edge of dying
On a cliff called school
Built of rocks called
Biology, Human Geography
Algebra, American Literature
Intro To Art, Creative Writing
Graphic Design, Office Aide

I am at the edge of falling
I am at the edge of quitting
I am scratching my way to the end
Of this poem I hope is
Good enough for now

and after I finish writing that sloppy mess I close my notebook, shove everything in my bag and decide to find that cream Mom bought at the pharmacy and maybe quit eating so much bread (I love it too much to quit it all at once) and then I go upstairs and have a good cry when I set the alarm and calculate my sleep and realize I have five days of itchy belly ahead and countless things I’ll forget until the end of next weekend.

5 Situations: A Student Is Late To Class

The prompt from What If? by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter:

Write five mini-stories (limit: 200 words each) to account for a single event of circumstances, such as a man and woman standing on a city sidewalk, hailing a cab. Each story should be different – in characters, plot, and theme – from the others.

My modification: come in under 500 words each.

This is one of my favorite flash-fiction exercises. It scratches the itch. It allows for quick, messy experimentation. I like to revise and re-order the five parts to read as one work. That said, what follows are very light edits and no re-ordering. The situation I chose is: A student is late to class. In the order I wrote:

Sophomore Chem Lab Partner

Krissy is a senior. She is always late to first period. I think it is because she smokes. She looks like she might. I think that most of first quarter until she shows me a picture on her phone of baby with dark hair. I ask if that’s her niece. She laughs and says it’s her baby, Lake. That’s a nice name, I say. Maybe she’ll have a brother named Tree one day. Krissy looks at me like I’m crazy and I think she might never talk to me again but she does, the next day, when she shows me a picture from Lake’s first birthday party.

It was fun, Krissy said. Later she takes her phone up to Mrs. Schwartz and shows her Lake’s birthday party pictures too. Mrs. Schwartz gives Krissy a giant mom hug.

We usually finish our labs before the rest of the class and take out our phones. I have a driving game. Krissy scrolls through pictures of Lake. Sometimes she leans over and shows me: Lake tasting orange for the first time, Lake in a pile of leaves, Lake dressed like a pumpkin. I think Krissy must be a good mom and tell her that. She gets real quiet. Then she says, I used to be good at a lot of things. If I get this right.

She doesn’t say anything else.

The Color Of Hope

Do you know how many tardies you have? Ms. Jacobs answers her own question. Twenty-nine. You have twenty-nine tardies in this class, this quarter. Do you know how many days are in this quarter? She answers herself again. Forty-three.

I nod.

She puts her hands on her hips. I don’t know what to do. You’re serving detentions?

I nod. She doesn’t know where. I serve with Mr. Thayer. I have his class before hers too. I’m working on this oil painting the size of a door and it takes a lot of time. Mr. Thayer tells us to clean brushes five minutes before class ends but I work up to the bell and a little into passing period. It’s on you, he said in September when he quit writing me passes to math.

This painting is supposed to be about hope. I keep getting the color wrong. Last year I had two watercolors in a student art display in Milwaukee. One was chosen for a show in Chicago.

Ms. Jacobs sighs. Her face gets quieter. She says she saw my painting in Mr. Thayer’s room. It’s amazing.

I look down at my hands. My cuticles are rimmed violet. Ms. Jacobs touches my shoulder and I look up. You have to pass this class, she says. You need a C for your GPA. Talk to Mr. Thayer. Talk to Mrs. Rutledge. You need to show up. I want to you get into art school.

I almost don’t believe her. But she looks tired.

Stone Cold

The halls smell like rock salt and wet down. Janitors wait for first bell so they can mop the melted snow brought in on boots, shaken from hats. Everyone complains it should have been a snow day, all the other districts have the day off. There’s five inches on the ground already. They’re gonna have to do an early release. Home by lunch.

During second passing period a freshman named Annabelle slips while crossing the foyer. Her books fly in the air like a cartoon. Her arms pinwheel and she lands on her back. A few upperclassmen nearby laugh. Annabelle isn’t moving. Travis is a trained lifeguard and kneels down, shouts. Can you hear me? Are you okay? She doesn’t flinch.

Oh shit, says one of the boys and runs to the gym to get Coach.

The principal comes. Travis is leaning close to feel for Annabelle’s breath. He knows her from his street. He’s never seen her this close though. Her lids are dusted with silver. She has tiny gold stars in her ears. The bell rings and the principal tells the kids get to class. An ambulance is on its way. Travis backs away and his place is taken by Coach who places two fingers at Annabelle’s neck.

Is she okay? Travis asks.

Go to class, the principal says. Now.

Coach leans over Annabelle, tilts her head back, places his mouth on hers. Travis can’t move. She can’t die like this, can she, from a slip?

Travis, the principal says, Go to class. You don’t need to see this.

But that was all he saw, sitting in the back row of biology. Annabelle’s silver eyeshadow and gold star earrings. The ambulance came and went. Everyone’s phones were vibrating and dinging with messages about Annabelle. By eleven, school was called for the day. Eight inches on the ground, another five to seven on the way.

Yousef Cuts

Yousef leaves through the side gate. He’s tall for his age, and graceful. Last summer he spent six weeks in Paris not speaking a word of French but sensing the assumption of those around him, that he belonged there anyway. Since that revelation, that people take his height and ease as age and purpose, Yousef quit worrying about getting in trouble. He smokes in front of the security guards at the Avenues, cuts the line at the bank, snaps his fingers at waiters, speaks without making eye contact. His grace is wearing into arrogance but he’s never behaved like this before and it’s too fun to quit.

He doesn’t talk to the gate guard when he leaves and doesn’t say a word to the man in the tiny bakala. Yousef buys chips and Red Bull. He’s ten minutes late for history but Mr. Gartner doesn’t pause the lecture. Instead, he looks past Yousef.

For the next week, Mr. Gartner looks at the air above Yousef’s head. He won’t say hi to Yousef in the hall. He doesn’t take any of Yousef’s questions. Yousef boils, cuts an entire class. Then one morning, Mr. Gartner dismisses class but asks Yousef to stay.

I liked you better last year, Mr. Gartner says. Yousef can’t think what to say. Mr. Gartner shrugs. That’s all. Go.

From One End To The Other

You can’t stop. Stay to the middle of the hall, keep your head down. They get you anyway. A kick to your shin, a thump on your arm, a yank of your backpack. Sing a song in your head. Chant a rap. Find a chorus to loop. Avoid the bathrooms in the senior wing. If you have to go, ask for a pass next period.

Sometimes they make a barricade in the hall. Twenty of them with classes two feet away stop up the hall. The bell rings and one of them says fuckers and laughs. They run into class and you’re left in the middle of the hall with five or six others just like you, scrawny or fat with bad hair. You all have to run down the hall. You’re all late.

You can’t say what happens. There’s cameras. The office could look if they want. Teachers see sometimes. But you can’t say. You close the door quietly and have your book out of your bag before you sit. You smell your fear. You feel your heart. It’s like a nature show, the gazelle that keeps up with the pack. But every year, one of you runs too wide. Every year one of you doesn’t make it from one end to the other.