Feed the Lake: Write Your Teeny Weeny Little Trickle

Blue Lakes, San Juans CO
Lower Blue Lake, San Juan Mountains

The Paris Review can’t get rights from the interviewer to print in its entirety the Jean Rhys interview, regrettably, so I’ll just have to quote from dear Madeleine L’Engle Herself.

“If the work comes to the artist and says, ‘Here I am, serve me,’ then the job of the artist, great or small, is to serve. The amount of the artist’s talent is not what it is about. Jean Rhys said to an interviewer in the Paris Review, ‘Listen to me. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.'”

This blog post is not my trickle. I fuel my trickle in the margins, when no one is looking or paying attention or reading or critiquing or praising or liking or RTing or sharing. Keep feeding your trickle, sweets.




Inspired by Koreanish, My Year in Review: 2014

I’m no Alexander Chee, and by comparison my brushes with achievement are mere crayon self-portraits on the fridge. Chee’s are more Matisse in the MoMA, with categories such as “Best of Me on NPR” and “Best idea I had in public where people could hear it.” You know that whole Amtrak residency thing? Yeah, that was Alexander Chee’s idea. My big NPR and rail travel accomplishments of 2014 involved listening to Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me and watching Hell on Wheels, but the year in review Mr. Chee offered on his blog, Koreanish, inspired me to take stock. “It’s good for perspective,” he said on Twitter.

And so here we go, for perspective:

Surprising Career Development: After a few years of writing and editing consulting-only while chipping away at my MFA, I went to work for a publishing company that hired me as copy wonk for a newly created content marketing team. Best. Boss. Ever.

Meaningful Day: Butler MFA grad ceremony. Toasting and roasting with friends and writing compatriots after years in the workshop trenches, it was nearly as sweet as my wedding day on the Gunnison River.

Prescient Failed Blog: I started 2014 with a verse and then began a blog, “To Number My Days,” to keep that verse in mind and try to abide by it. I didn’t promote my posts much—they were more for me. Then life got busy (see Surprising Career Development), I forgot the blog, and the verse took on uncanny meaning (see Exciting Medical Event).

Exciting Medical Event: On July 23, the morning after spinach enchiladas, margaritas, and much laughter with best friends at Buen Tiempo, our favorite Ouray, Colorado eatery, I survived a heart attack, my second. After three days plugged into the ICU at the hospital where I gave birth to my daughter fifteen years earlier, I spent one week admiring deer and Grand Mesa vistas from the deck of my dear friends’ home before flying back to Indiana. I spent the next six weeks sleeping before heading back to work. Five months post-MI, I’m feeling 100%.

Visible Changes: two dress sizes dropped in an effort to prevent a third heart attack. Here’s to staying a 6 in ’15. I can’t afford another wardrobe makeover.

Biggest Writing Accomplishment: my thesis revision, wherein I murdered about 40 pages of darlings with the ruthless help and incisive input of advisor Andy Levy and reader Lili Wright.

Best of Someone I Know on NPR: The latest book by my dear MFA thesis advisor just dropped. Read what Linda Holmes had to say about it on NPR — “In ‘Huckleberry Finn,’ A History in Echoes.” And, from the buy page:

An eye-opening, groundbreaking exploration of the character and psyche of Mark Twain as he was writing his most famous novel, Huck Finn’s America brings the past to vivid, surprising life, and offers a persuasive—and controversial—argument for why this American classic deserves to be understood anew. See more at: http://books.simonandschuster.com/Huck-Finns-America/Andrew-Levy/9781439186961#sthash.VekSn1Tg.dpuf

Best (only?) Publication: an essay selected for the Brevity-promoted American Vignette. Wordpress Freshly Pressed it. I suppose submitting more than one or two essays to five or six publications in 365 days might improve my odds in 2015, because math.

Personal Best: stopped dogging my senior about homework. In direct proportion to grades slipping peace in the home increased.

Second Personal Best: unfriended Facebook. I’ll get back on when I secure an agent for my MS. Maybe. I’m enjoying the fresh air.

Feats in TV Viewing: I mentioned Hell on Wheels, but it was also the year of recovering from Breaking Bad with my Mr. Bates, with a little help from Frank and Clare Underwood.

New Cyber-Friends: It was a good year in friendships with imaginary people, all of whom made my life a little less confusing (Heart Sisters), richer (Coffee), lovelier (Butterfly), and a whole lot weirder (Shouts). By far, Greg Adam York takes all, though: I don’t know how he’s surviving his life at the moment. Thank you, fairy godpeople.

Reading That Stuck: I can’t keep track of all I read—I’m a bad Goodreadser—but the stuff still lodged in the brain folds came from Goldfinch, Orphan Master’s Son, Unbroken (finally), TMR, Harpers, three volumes of Creative Nonfiction, and issues of CNF Magazine (thanks again, Lerner, for the subscription).

Writing: back to the novel, half-written over a year ago and patiently waiting for me to finish my essay collection. On to act 2.

Peace and health to you and yours in 2015. I’m going to keep on numbering my days. How about you?

  1. And what did you read that most stuck with you in ’14?
  2. What are your 2015 reading plans?

Which reminds me, writing plans for the new year. That’s next.

So long, 2014. (Thank you, A.C., for the idea.)

Guest Post From The Tolkien Scholar In My House: English to Orc (Orkish?) and Back

Since the thesis gods have smiled upon me and I’m finally churning out chapter intros, I’m pleased to share the blog today with my resident Tolkien Scholar, JPC. Enjoy.

an Uruk, by the author
an Uruk, by the author

For those of you who wish to learn Orkish, a less-pretty language spoken by Orcs, Trolls, and some Men in Middle-Earth in the Third Age. Orkish dialects were usually vulgar forms of the Black Speech of Mordor, the language written on the Ring. These words are scrounged from what little Tolkien wrote of the Orkish language as well as some reconstructions by Tolkien linguist David Salo.

An example of formal Black Speech as written on the One Ring:

“Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatûl,
ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatûl”
“One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them”

Some examples of colloquial Orkish written by Tolkien himself:

Improper Nouns



“old man”

“slave” (lesser Orc, common Goblin)





“Noldor” (Golodhrim, Exiled Elves)

“Man of Gondor”


“Dark Tower” (Barad-dûr)

An actual quotation, from the books:

“Uglúk u bagronk sha pushdug Saruman-glob búb-hosh skai…”
“Uglúk to the cesspool, sha! the dungfilth; the great Saruman-fool, skai!”
– Grishnákh, an Orc from Barad-dûr, Book III of The Lord of the Rings

A Few Helpful Phrases in Orkish (courtesy of this website)
“Ashdautas vrasubatlat” — “Someday I will kill you” (a standard Orkish greeting)
“Nar udautas” — “Not today” (the standard reply)
“Nar mat kordh-ishi” — “Do not die in bed” (This has several meanings.)
“Ang gijak-ishi” (Angijak)– “Iron in the Blood” (a high compliment)
“Lul gijak-ishi” (Lulgijak) — “Flowers in the Blood” (usually in reference to Elves)
“Amal shufar, at rrug” — “Where there’s a whip, there’s a way.”
“Snaga nar baj lufut” — “Slaves don’t make war.”
“Ambor mabas lufut” — “Liquor after war”
“Vras gruiuk” — “Kill the women”
“Mabaj nar armauk” — “I have no enemies” (an Orkish lament)
“Mabaj bot ob armauk” — “I have a world of enemies”
“Mirdautas vras” — “It is a good day to kill”
“Vrasubatburuk ug butharubatgruiuk” — “We will kill all the men and take all the women” (the Orkish equivalent of ‘cheers’)

Orkish Oaths
“Afar angathfark” — “By the forge of my soul!”
“Afar vadokanuk” — “By all the dead!”

Orkish Insults
“Lul gijak-ishi” (Lulgijak) — “Flowers in the Blood” (literally “bloomblood”) (interchangeably “Elf” or “Wimp”)
“Zanbaur” — “Elfson”
“Nar thos” — “No Sack”

Some Orkish Names

Enjoy croaking in the foul tongue! –JPC

Maud Newton Is a Nice, Selfish Reader

Maud Newton doppelganger
Maud Newton doppelganger, Source: deviantart.com

Maud Newton is a peach. In person she is lovely, gracious, soft-spoken, petite, bookish, and adorable in round glasses. Her skin is porcelain. She reminds me of a silent movie star—moon-faced, brunette, demure. And she’s so gosh darn nice.

As I drove to hear her address the MFA students in the Butler University Efroymson Center for Creative Writing the other evening, I formed a question to ask during Q&A. I can never think of an original question at these things or have burning curiosity about anything I haven’t already read about an author in an interview, but there was one thing I really wanted to know from this Rebecca “Maud” Newton, who has been a champion literary blogger since before blogging was even a word. What I wanted to ask her was,

“You have reached a level of writerly acclaim I can’t even imagine aspiring to. You’re prolifically published, religiously followed and emulated. The Paris Review even calls you ‘Necessary Reading.’ My question is this: How are you not a d-bag?”

But as Maud spoke, and from the moment she greeted me in the entryway with a warm smile, firm handshake and sincere “Thank you for coming!” the answer became apparent, negating my need to ask. She’s just naturally, well, nice.

Maud Newton is one of the good guys, and why is this trait so surprising? It may be the prevailing tone of snark sweeping the lit-mag-osphere, or the soaring popularity of wittily written, if profane, blogs that are equal parts hilarious and mean-spirited that make a writer think, “Well, I’d better get busy cussing and jabbing others with clever jokes at their expense if I want to find success in the literary realm.”

Another reason “nice” strikes me as such an anomaly may be that I’ve experienced enough visiting writers to be jaded by the colossal egos. Oh excuse me, Lorrie Moore, but you could take a lesson from Ms. Newton in the art of graceful celebrity. And, b-t-dub, you’re not as widely read or admired as you think you are. And, Walter Mosley, you are a tres debonair, wildly articulate, killer crime novelist, but take some notes from Maud Newton on humility. And did Paris Review ever recommend either of you people as necessary reading? I think not.

[Which reminds me of an important piece of advice Ms. Newton offered bloggers, namely to be really sure of what you want to say before you say it; consider your message and be careful what you put out into cyberspace, because once your words are out there, you can’t get them back.] Well, Maud, I have looked within, and I am sure. I don’t need those words back. Even if they do border on snarky.

Highlights and Quotes from an Evening with Maud Newton

  • Maud Newton doesn’t have a staff. Stacks of some 300 books clog the limited space in her Brooklyn apartment, so if you’re an author or publisher and want a book reviewed toute de suite, get in line. She’s just one person with one pair of eyes.
  • Blogging did not kill long-form literary criticism, which she points out “is flourishing on the internet.”
  • Have faith in your voice, your own perspective. It’s what distinguishes you from all the other writers.
  • “It’s okay if crazy people hate you.”
  • “Express yourself sincerely.”
  • Beware: blogging can reinforce an insidious desire for instant gratification.

On reviewing books:

  • A reviewer has the duty to be honest and “not bore the reader of the review.”
  • A reviewer should look into herself and be honest about her reactions to the book. “I won’t review books I don’t have strong feelings about,” she said. And she tends to avoid the negative review these days. (Oh how I wish I’d asked a follow-up about why that is. Maybe it’s a function of her inner goodness.).
  • As a reviewer, Maud Newton asks herself, “Does this book feel like it will be for me; will it be edifying to me in some way?” If the answer is “no,” she puts it down, never to pick it up again. “I’m really a selfish reader.”
Mind-blowing Tidbits
  • Maud Newton has a full time job, some legal publishing gig where coworkers—”fellow refugees from the law”—call her “Rebecca” and don’t necessarily know from Maud Newton.* It is no wonder she’s no longer a lawyer. Lawyers make lousy nice people.**
  • Maud Newton doesn’t think your blog has to be focused on one, specific thing to be widely read or followed. “(A personal blog) can be a great repository for the things you like to write about and things that interest you,” she said. “People like complex people.”


  • Maud Newton the novelist keeps a book she calls “horrible,” a book “a lot of people really like,” on her desk to keep her working on her own novel. She says, “If someone can publish that book with a straight face, there is hope for mine.” (She was too gracious to name said horrible book publicly.)
  • Maud is blogging less these days, primarily because of the time-drain. “Blogging won’t help you finish your novel or memoir,” she said, which was, to me, the best advice of the night for a roomful of writers who are limping along toward their first novels.

Stop blogging, Maud, because I can’t wait to read your novel. I’m a selfish reader too. If only I were as nice as you.

ASIDE: The sunny spring evening of Ms. Newton’s visit marked the death of two other literary giants: Adrienne Rich and Newton’s mentor, Harry Crews—a blow that rattled me with the realization that my writing mentors might one day perish. Sincere condolences to you, Maud.
*(My friend Jamie says, “Of COURSE she has a job… Publishing doesn’t pay much these days. And she’s competing for book dollars with The Greek Seaman.”) I have no idea what she’s talking about, do you?
**I know. I was married to one. Nice people make miserable lawyers, and vice versa.

Hell Has Frozen Over…

Happy Birthday, darling

…and I’m in it.

Happy Birthday, darling
What a mom won't do for her kid

After a gloomy weekend of rainy weather, it’s Monday, the kids have a Flex Day, and the sun is shining. The sun is shining bright like a blue sky day on the beach, it’s 75 degrees, and I’m in the Carmel Ice Skadium writing a Bosma internal newsletter on my laptop while my daughter skates stumbly laps for two-and-a-half hours with four other 11-ish buddies. It’s her birthday, and spending three hours in a cooler was her choice.

And since Grace really is the best girl who was ever born, truly, I didn’t hesitate to oblige her. But between you and me, I appreciate this opportunity to complain. Not that I didn’t spend hours in this very place after school and on weekends when I was her age, learning spins, jumps and spirals. Like with so many other haunts in this town I left in ’83 never to return, I’ve had enough of this particular locale. I never needed to see it again. Or smell it. It still smells like feet, sweat and dirty frost. The steel rafters, wooden stands carved with marks from a million blades, and cinderblock bathroom walls painted yellow remain as they appear in my memory.

A change in ownership a few years back, though, and an accompanying infusion of capital have resulted in some significant improvements. Topping the list is a new manager—a friendly, helpful guy they hired away from a rink near Seattle. (The old guy was aloof, loud, and rude. And I’m not saying the year, exactly, but it was earlier than 1980.) Mr. New Manager says they brought him on to “fix” the Carmel Ice Skadium, specifically the facility and programming. (“We sell ice. Ice and fun.”) When I asked him to pinpoint the most critical fix, he said, “Customer service.”

Friendly, helpful help goes a long way, sure, but so does a new and improved snack bar that sells hot Starbucks beverages, Tazo teas, bagels, breakfast sandwiches, pizza, and…BEER! (Mommy needs a beer, but nothing makes a responsible adult wait to drink at home more effectively than four little girls who depend on said Mommy to provide safe return to their mommies and daddies.)

One girl left because she was bored (a wrist injury prevented her from skating-???); another sulked by my side, slurping her blue slushie in my ear for fifteen minutes trying to annoy me into giving her money for a snack (I resisted), but the other three party girls skated and fell and skated some more until it was cake and present time. After the girls slimed a tabletop with their blue and red slushie juices, I offered to wipe it down. The new manager smiled and said, “We’ll take care of that. You just relax. Is it going okay?”

Grace is having a blast, it seems. And it’s not too bad for me, really. The prices are reasonable – $5 for kids, $3 for rental. I’m picking up someone’s internet signal. And the new manager, with his efforts at creating a tidier facility and a better experience for kids and parents, has made this afternoon’s warm weather deprivation a little less hellish.