We either carry our audience with us or irritate them.

A collection of observations that pertain to writing and writers from Blaise Pascal’s Pensees:

The greater intellect one has, the more originality one finds in men. Ordinary persons find no difference between men.

All great amusements are dangerous to the Christian life; but among all those which the world has invented, there is none to be more feared that THE THEATER.

It is not enough that a thing be beautiful; it must be suitable to the subject, and there must be in it nothing of excess or defect.

Rivers are roads that move, and which carry us whither we desire to go.

The last thing one settles in writing a book is what one should put in first.

Eloquence… it requires the pleasant and the real; but the pleasant must itself be drawn from the true.

When we see a natural style, we are astonished and delighted: for we expect to see an author, and we find a man.

It is a bad sign when, on seeing a person, you remember his book.

A maker of witticisms, a bad character.

We either carry our audience with us or irritate them.

A short lesson on plot...

Snapshot from my house in which we discuss what book my kid should read next, I receive a short lesson on plot, and the child proves that perhaps it is possible to read too much...

Kid: Emmy & the Shrinking Rat. What’s that about?

Me: It’s about a girl named Emmy and a shrinking rat.

Kid: Very funny, dad. But really. What’s it about?

Me: Didn’t I just tell you?

Kid: But what’s the problem they have to solve? Do they go on adventures? Is there a bad guy?

Me: I’m not sure, but I don’t think the rat actually shrinks. I think the girl shrinks so that she can see what it’s like to be a rat.

Kid: Do they know how to make her big again?

Me: Not at first.

Kid: Well there’s your plot then.

Writing day log...

Got in a rare full day of writing today! Kept a log to keep on track. Enjoy:

5:10 Up and at ‘em. Shower. Dress. Make coffee. Breakfast. Write write write.

6:30 Dress the dogs. Let the kids out. Make son’s lunch. (Note: pasta smells bad before dawn, but chili does not. Weird.) Greet teenage boy with a little made up song about chemistry. It’s hard to rhyme this early. Dentistry?

7:00 Check backpack contents: laptop, powercord, notebooks, pens, apples, leftover Halloween candy. Stick post-it notes on manuscript pages that need attention. Check work email. Wish I hadn’t done that. Drink more coffee. Put more candy in backpack. Read a few pages of Sabriel.

7:30 Bring son to school. We listen to a chapter from Harry Potter book 7 (AKA DEAD WIZARD WALKING) on the way. Leave him with some more chemistry rhymes (elementary. Christmas tree. Gadgetry. Them is me… coffee definitely kicking in) Boy asks if I put any candy in his lunch. I tell him that candy’s not good for him. I drink more coffee, eat chocolate and run several errands on way to library.

8:00 Arrive at library. Have to pick library carefully because I am notoriously chatty, and I know librarians in every library within 30 miles. My nature can easily turn writing time into visit-with-friends time which is equally worthwhile – maybe more so – but it’s not today’s goal. I select the library of a local college where I used to work. Parking can be a challenge but doors open at 8. Also, college library more conducive to work/study than the public library. Plus, food and drink are permitted in the building. They actually make and sell coffee in here! And if I want more than candy and apples, I can cross the quad to the cafeteria without having to move car.

8-830 Visit with friends in the library. Did I mention that I’m chatty?

8:30-9:00 Get coffee (pumpkin flavor! yum!) Stake claim to large second floor table with awesome window view and handy outlet. Set up computer, scope out restroom location, quickly browse the nearby stacks. Fill table with browsing material for when my writing brain gets stuck. Never know what inspiration can move me forward. I pick a couple beautiful books featuring the work of artist Joan Miro and also a bunch of academic tomes about women’s roll in popular music. One is called GIRLS!GIRLS!GIRLS! I keep that one under the art books so nobody gets the wrong idea.

9:00 write write write write write…

10:40 I write something that I think is not bad. (yes, this is notable)

11:00 the universal question arises: what do you do with your laptop when you’re alone in a public place and you have to pee?

…write write write write write…

11:25 I write something that makes me laugh out loud.

1:45 a corollary to the universal question: why do I drink so much coffee when I know I’m going to be in the library with my laptop?

… write write write write…

1:55 take a break to wander through Joan Miro a bit. It’s wonderful, but it’s not what I’m in the mood for today. Resist urge to find Chagall books. Check out the women and pop music essays. First random sentence I read in Girls!Girls!Girls!: “you do not notice absence until it affects you.” That’s what I’m talkin’ about.

… write write write

2:40 apparently, the library study room located a few feet behind me is the afternoon location for cheerleading practice or primal scream therapy. I plug in headphones and listen to Neko Case.

2:45 what am I thinking? I can’t write with Neko Case in my head. I keep thinking of questions I’d like to ask her.

2:50 I’m stuck. I review editor’s notes and divide them into two lists. List 1 contains things like: HA!/VERY FUNNY!/NICE!/LOVE THIS! List 2 contains things like: WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO DO HERE?/IS THIS NECESSARY?/YOU’RE GOING TO HATE ME FOR SAYING THIS BUT... I am pleased to see that list 1 is longer than list 2.

2:55 Okay. Who swapped my brain with Joey Pigza’s? I seem to have lost focus. Get up. Walk around. Wait a minute. I have apples and Halloween candy in my bag! Fuel in the tank!

Write write write

3:30 Stuck again. Okay. I can’t resist. I go and find the Chagall.

3:50 Still stuck. Time to outline. I only outline when I’m stuck. I think this counts as writing, but it’s not nearly as much fun as writing writing. It’s the difference between planning and doing.

4:00 Write write write write

4;15 l laugh out loud again. I love it when that happens.

4:25 Writer hat comes off in five minutes. I write the first few sentences that will open section I’ll be working on tomorrow.

4:30 Pack up. Drive home. Dead wizard walking.

Best description of elephants ever

Best description of elephants ever...

"They're just this group of normally abnormal creatures going through the ups and downs of life with big hearts, mood swings, and huge, swingy-assed togetherness."

From Deb Caletti's "The Nature of Jade"

Thank you Eunice Kennedy Shriver

Sometime in 1977 or 1978, Donna Smith, the prettiest girl I’d ever seen up to that point in my short life, approached me in the hallway at St. Paul Catholic High School. Donna was tall and athletic with a sweet, round face like a ragdoll cat’s. Her hair was long and brown, and she looked a lot like Susan Day in the Partridge Family. Unlike Susan Day, Donna also had really cute ears. I’d never noticed anybody’s ears before.

Donna asked me if I could help her with something. She could have asked me to leap in front of a snow plow, and I would have said yes. In fact, I think I said yes before she even made her request. And that’s how I ended up becoming a volunteer for the Special Olympics.

Looking back, it’s possible – even likely – that I was hoping and wishing that Donna Smith might be the girl who changed my life. Did I mention that she looked like Susan Day? And the ears? In my own defense, I had not yet learned about the be-careful-what-you-wish-for rule. In any case, my wish came true, but not in the way I thought it would. Donna Smith recruited me to volunteer for the Special Olympics, and then the Special Olympics changed my life.

I’m thinking about this today because of Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s passing. Mrs. Shriver founded the Special Olympics in 1968. Her obituaries are taking great pains to talk about the millions of Special Olympic athletes whose lives have been touched because of the games, but the story is not complete without mentioning the millions of “able” people touched by the Special Olympics over the years. For me, it was my first volunteer experience. It was the first time I discovered that helping a stranger is not a difficult thing to do. It was the first time I really understood that just showing up means a lot. At the Special Olympics, I learned quickly and clearly that who I was did not matter. It only mattered what action I took in the moment. I learned that when you put other people’s needs first, you almost always get more than you give. These are still lessons that still ring true for me today.

As a result of my experience at Special Olympics, I ended up building a career (maybe two or three careers) helping people (at least on my good days). In elementary schools, nonprofit organizations, colleges and volunteer organizations, I discovered that you can actually earn a living by doing good. Of course no job I’ve ever been paid to do has been as rewarding as the volunteer job I got at my first Special Olympics. I was an official “hugger.” My job was to stand at the finish line and give each athlete a hug as they crossed the finish line. I can’t say I’ve had many more important jobs than that. So thank you Eunice Kennedy Shriver. And thank you Donna Smith wherever you are. I hope good things are in store for you both.

“My mom never ran for office, and she changed the world. Period. End of story.” – Robert Shriver.


I try not to worry about things I cannot control. For the most part, I'm almost too good at it. But there has been something that's been worrying me for many months now. It's the movie version of Where The Wild Things Are. Why do we need that? Why would we want it? Now I understand why. And I am totally counting the days till it gets here!

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I wasn't sure how I was going to start my observation of this year's DLAW -- DAVID LUBAR APPRECIATION WEEK -- until I read David's thoughtful "Surivivor, Cancer Island" note this morning.

Cancer has been a member of my family for many years. We know it well. We don't like it. But the fact that so many of us are able to stand around grinning like fools these days is evidence that regular check-ups, quality healthcare and medical research really works. I'm very glad that cancer is no longer a part of David's life. And not just because I want more weenies books and can't wait to read more about the boys from Edgeview Alternative School.

So, with no further ado, it gives me great pleasure to kick-off my personal celebration of DLAW 2009 by dedicating my recently completed colonscopy to David. Three cheers for being cancer free! Huzzah! Huzzah! Huzzah!

In case you're interested, my results were clean. Very clean. Let the celebration continue!
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