The People Who Learned to Hide

snowmageddon-3Minneapolis has just lived through the fifth biggest blizzard of all time. “Lived through” is something of a misnomer; many streets still haven’t been plowed, and once we’d finally unburied the garage (a two-day endeavor), the car got stuck thirty feet down the alley, requiring the assistance of five Good Samaritans to become unstuck.

But they were there, those Good Samaritans, and later in the day we returned the favor to three more cars. That’s what happens, at least sometimes, when a bunch of human beings are facing something bigger than any one of us, or any all of us.

This blog entry made me think of all those in my city, my country, my own block, who feel themselves alone. Every entry on this blog –Your Man for Fun in Rapidan– is a keeper, but once in a while he hits one out of the park.

And now I’m going to call my 86-year-old neighbor, who has been snowed in for the past four days, to see if she might like a bit of toffee, delivered to her back door.

"The Bluebird Carries the Sky on His Back"

min-watertowerSomeone told her once that everyone corresponds to an element, and that all you have to do is ask yourself the simple question, “Which element am I?” and the answer will come to you.

She loves simplicity – “simplicity is complexity resolved” after all – so she asked herself the question. Even though she didn’t need to. She already knew she was air.


Closely followed by water.  Air with a rising water moon, or however the astrology people would term it.

She might like to be fire, because she thinks it’s beautiful, and she’s always cold, and she might like to be earth, because then she would be solidly held to this planet, but the elements are not to be argued with, so she doesn’t bother regretting that she is neither fire nor earth.


She has a friend who at times believes himself to be in danger of floating off the planet. Yet when she asks the question “What element is he?” the answer is immediate: fire.

She has another friend whose laugh she loves, the kind of friend she wishes lived on her block. It seems as if this friend should be air, like her, but ask the question and the answer that comes back is water.

Her son? Air. Double air. Triple air with an extra scoop of air.

Her older daughter? Water with a rising air moon.

Her younger daughter? Earth.

Her mother? Water.

Her father? Earth.

And on and on it goes, some more intensely so than others.

If you’re air, you have to work to stay on the ground. Breathe in and push that breath out down through your feet. Imagine your feet growing roots down through the earth. Imagine that every breath you take, every step you take, stitches you to the earth so that you can’t just float away, the way you dream of doing.

Literally dream, at night. Her dreams are filled with air. She drives a car around and around and around a road of hairpin curves that leads up and up and up a mountain until suddenly the car, with her one hand on the wheel, is airborne. She’s floating above, looking down.

Air people need to eat a lot so that their bodies don’t turn themselves back into air.

When air people think hard they can feel themselves evaporating. This is why she shovels spoonfuls of peanut butter into herself on a daily basis. Things like sweet potatoes are important for air people to eat.

ADD and ADHD are most prevalent in air people. (She just made that last one up.) (She’s kind of making all these up, but they all feel right.)

It is hard for air people to focus on one thing for a period of time. Activities such as knitting, quilting, washing dishes by hand, folding laundry and vacuuming slowly all help to keep an air person from floating away.

Long-distance walking, running, hiking: these are good activities for air people. Rhythmic motion that helps keep their thoughts from spiraling up and away.

Heavy blankets and quilts are important, especially in winter.

Whiskey is better for air people than wine.

She’s rocking on the porch swing as she writes this. Her dog, who is a fire creature if ever there was one, is perched at the door, crying for the neighbor boy. The neighbor boy is earth, as is his father.  His mother is water with an earth moon rising.

Her cat, who is an air creature, just leaped from the open window to the ground below, there to prowl about before skittering up the steps and yowling to be let back in.

It does not surprise her that in all the accounts of near-death experiences she knows of, the near-death people rise above their bodies and survey the scene below. It does not surprise her that long ago, at the moment her grandmother Reine died, her mother sensed her flying above and away, calling her name in a young and happy voice.

When she was little, maybe five, the sky outside her house up there in the foothills filled with a wild wind. She ran outside with an umbrella and stood on the top of the small hill that she’d learned to ride a bike down. She opened the umbrella and held it above her head and the wild wind lifted her off the ground an inch or two and she dropped the umbrella immediately.

She has wondered ever since if it might actually have carried her off.

Eagles and hawks can carry off small animals, and back then she was a smallish animal. So it seems entirely possible that she might have been carried away that day, up into the dark and wild sky.

Here on her porch swing, in freakishly warm weather for October, she’s wearing a t-shirt. She can see the bones of her rib cage, expanding and contracting. The air smells like leaves and grass and dust and heat. She is in her element.

Some places I like to visit

still-lifeThe web is large and intricate, and completely beyond my comprehension – how do these words get to you, anyway, you whomever you are and wherever you may be? – but most things are beyond my comprehension, and I do them anyway.

Take driving, for example. I have no idea how my car works. Here’s what I can do: put in gas, check the oil and add more if necessary, check the tires and add more air if necessary, wash it, vacuum it, and speak to it encouragingly. Yet I zip around in it as if I were fully in control.

Which I’m not. Of much of anything.

But back to the web. Like most of you, I have my favorite sites bookmarked. Here are a few that I particularly like. I offer them to you in case you might like them too – and if you have one to suggest, please send it my way.

Here is a tiny story, the sweetest story I’ve read in many a day (and by sweet I mean tender and lovely, as opposed to saccharine). Enjoy, and if you like, sign up to follow the blog itself, as it’s quite a wondrous, ever-changing creation.

This is an entrancing site, well worth the few seconds it takes to download Google Chrome so that you can use it. Type in a childhood address, sit back, and wait. Indescribably moving.

I tend to follow the same orbit in my circlings of the web, and sometimes I want to be surprised, taken out of myself and faced with something new. If you are like me in this way, click here and go where it takes you.

Do you love poetry? Then you are a person after my own heart. There are many sites devoted exclusively to poetry, and I follow a bunch of them, but this one combines personal narrative with poems chosen by the writer, most of which I already know and love. Enjoy.

And finally – for today, that is, because I’m just setting down a few of my favorites – this site belongs to one of my favorite authors. Funny and sharp and cool, with an enviable design.

Have fun.

From the land of enchantment

ball-of-twine-5Do you have a few minutes? If so, click here and read the first story.

Why aren’t there more stories like this anymore? So beautiful.

If, at first glance, that particular story looks too long for you, scroll down and read something shorter. I highly recommend “Some Things I Say to My Dog” and “Lost Ghost in the City of Light,” but I highly recommend many entries in this particular blog.

It’s enchanting.


Prompted by a line from a poem by Wyn Cooper

“The stars have fallen onto the sheets, fallen down to sleep with me.”

Lines from poems scroll continuously through me. Beginning at dawn, when I wake up, and throughout the day, lines from poems come to me, recite themselves silently in my head, in my voice, like song refrains spoken not sung.

Without poetry I would be a lost person. Remembered lines and fragments calm the wildness of my heart, absorb it into their own wildness and wilderness, translate it into words, corral the inner chaos and make it bearable.

Without poetry I might have to set fire to myself, to make the fire go away. Bless you, you poems, you tiny mantras placing slender arms around the day: I care. I want you.

Which is itself a fragment from a poem. Like all the below, which have been through-threading themselves throughout my mind ever since I woke up today.

* * *


I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. What I do know is  how to pay attention, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be  idle and blessed.  . .

Whatever leads to joy, they always say, to more life, and less worry.

It is difficult not to love the world, but possible.

The life I didn’t lead took place in Italy.

But one man loved the pilgrim soul  in you, and loved the sorrows of your changing face.

Come up to me, love, out of the river, or I will come down to you.

Sweetcakes God said
who knows where she picked that up
what I’m telling you is
Yes Yes Yes

What will you do with your one wild and precious life?

Today would be your birthday, and I send my love to you across the bridgeable divide.

Sometimes it is necessary to re-teach a thing its loveliness.

And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?

Last night as I  was sleeping I dreamt – oh marvelous illusion – that I had a beehive here inside my heart. And the golden bees were making white combs and sweet honey from my old failures.

At night we consoled ourselves
By discussing the meaning of homesickness.
But there was no home to go home to.
There was no getting around the ocean.
We had to go on finding out the story
by pushing into it —

The sea was no longer a metaphor.
The book was no longer a book.
That was the plot.
That was our marvelous punishment.

I am not done with my changes.

Join us for a one-day creative writing workshop!

typewriter-have-a-wonderful-dayDo you want to jumpstart your writing? Try a different approach? Lift yourself out of your rut (not that I’m assuming you’re in one)?

Fellow writer Brad Zellar and I will be teaching two one-afternoon creative writing workshops in Northfield, MN on Saturday, April 10.  We’d love to see you there. Here are the details.

Workshop #1: Writing from Place
Date and Time: Saturday, April 10, 1-5 p.m.
Location: Northfield Public Library, Division Street, Northfield, MN
Cost: $50 (includes all materials)

Recall some of your favorite books. What part did the setting and landscape play in making these books unforgettable? Is there a place in your own life that haunts you, that is inextricably bound with your memories and the experiences that made you who you are? All writing, no matter the subject or genre, is made more powerful by a powerfully-evoked setting. This oneday intensive class will help you conjure places of great meaning to you, whether beautiful or ugly, real or imagined, and translate that power onto the page.

Through a series of guided writing exercises, discussion, and analysis of both published and peer writing, you’ll come away with insights and techniques for conjuring place, whether from your own life or a fictive world. This workshop is designed for writers of fiction, memoir, poetry and essays. Open to anyone, all experience levels welcome.

Brad Zellar, a writer, editor, photographer, and former bookstore owner, is the recipient of a 2010 Minnesota State Arts Board grant. His journalism, fiction, poetry and photography have been published in a variety of newspapers, magazines, journals, and anthologies. He is the recipient of awards from The Society of Professional Journalists, The Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, and the Minnesota Magazine Association. Zellar is the author of “Suburban World: The Norling Photos” (Borealis Press, 2008), which the Coen brothers used as a primary setting reference for their most recent movie, A Serious Man.

Workshop #2: The Order in Which It’s Told
Date and Time: Saturday, April 10, 1-5 p.m.
Location: Northfield Arts Guild, 304 Division Street, Northfield, MN
Cost: $50 (includes all materials)

Our clocks and calendars say we live our lives in a linear fashion, but certainly not our hearts and minds. How can you use different chronologies to create the strongest possible story? A story told from the point of view of an eighty-year old man recollecting his twelfth birthday could begin in the middle of the birthday, then flash forward sixty-eight years. Or, it might start on the old man’s deathbed and work backward. An entirely different tone will be set in the story, depending on where in time the writer places the narrative and emotional emphasis.

Through writing exercises, published examples, and discussion, we’ll work with the role of chronology in structuring a piece of creative writing. This workshop helps writers clarify how they want to use time, and the sequencing of key events in their prose writing.

Alison McGhee is a #1 New York Times bestselling writer and Pulitzer prize nominee who writes novels, essays, picture books and poems for all ages. She is the recipient of many awards, including four Minnesota Book Awards, a Best Books for Young Adults award, and three Booksense 76 picks. She is also a professor of creative writing at Metropolitan State University.

To register for either class, please email me at Each class limited to 15.

Two one-day creative writing workshops, Northfield, MN, 24 January 2010

typewriter-have-a-wonderful-dayI’m pleased to announce two one-day creative writing workshops, Writing from Photographs and The Art of Writing Picture Books, to be held in Northfield, MN on Sunday, January 24. Fellow writer Brad Zellar and I will be teaching the workshops concurrently. See below for details, and please forward this email to any friends and writers who may be interested. Thanks!

Workshop #1: Writing from Photographs: Inside and Outside the Frame
Date and Time: Sunday, January 24, 1-5 p.m.
Location: Northfield Arts Guild, 304 Division Street South, Northfield, MN
Cost: $50 (includes all materials)

It’s said that every picture tells a story, but that’s only true if we apply our memories and imaginations to reconstructing or re-imagining the constellation of circumstances and details that literally frame all photos. In a sense, then, a photo is actually a mere scene from a story –a beginning or an end, perhaps, or a mysterious, poignant, or telling incident that unlocks the story’s secrets.

What would the complete picture have shown that the photo does not? What happened just before the shutter was snapped, and just after? Time is forever frozen in the image, but life went on before and after that particular moment, and that life, and those details, are the proper story of the most evocative photos.

Bring in three photos of your own, ones whose largely untold stories fascinate or resonate on some imaginative level, and we’ll provide others. Through a series of guided writing exercises, discussion, and analysis of both published and peer writing, you’ll come away with insights and techniques for character development, scene setting and storytelling, both real and imagined. All experience levels welcome.

Brad Zellar is a writer, editor, photographer, and former bookstore owner. His journalism, fiction, and photography have been published in a variety of newspapers, magazines, journals, and anthologies. He is the recipient of awards from The Society of Professional Journalists, The Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, and the Minnesota Magazine Association. For as long as he can remember he has used found photographs as inspiration for fiction, poetry, and essays. Zellar is the author of “Suburban World: The Norling Photos” (Borealis Press, 2008), which the Coen brothers used as their primary reference for their most recent movie, A Serious Man.

Workshop #2: The Art of Writing Picture Books
Date and Time: Sunday, January 24, 1-5 p.m.
Location: Northfield Arts Guild, 304 Division Street South, Northfield, MN
Cost: $50 (includes all materials)

Anyone who has ever read a book to a child over and over (and over and over) knows the power of the best picture books, those astonishing collaborations in which illustrations and text both reflect and deepen each other. Text and art are inseparable; two halves make up a greater whole. “Goodnight, Moon,” anyone? “Where the Wild Things Are?”

How does a writer approach the telling of a book in which the illustrations are half the equation? What sorts of subject matter are possible, and how best can you present them? What are the central questions and tension of your story? What’s the best pacing for such a compact (thirty-two pages) book? Through a variety of in-class writing exercises, discussion of published materials, and lecture, you will gain an understanding of the questions, challenges and delights of picture book writing. Instructor will also explain the submission and publishing process of picture book writing. All experience levels welcome.

Alison McGhee is a Pulitzer prize nominee who writes novels, picture books and poems for all ages. She is the recipient of many awards, including four Minnesota Book Awards, a Best Books for Young Adults award, and three Booksense 76 picks. She is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of several picture books, including “Someday” and “Only a Witch Can Fly,” which the New York Times recently named one of the Best Ten Illustrated Books of 2009.

Each class is limited to 20 students. Please email to register. Looking forward to seeing you in January!

Manuscript Critique Service Available


Are you a serious writer looking for a careful, devoted reading and critique of your manuscript? We are senior editor-writers with many years’ experience in both writing and editing books of all kinds. Our specialties: novels (adult, young adult and children’s), memoirs, short story collections, essay collections, general nonfiction, mysteries, thrillers and noir.

Critique services

1) an extremely careful reading, followed by 2) a summary critique letter, usually 3-5 pages, detailing the editor’s overall sense of your work and what sort of revisions would make it the best possible manuscript, followed (if desired) by a telephone consultation.

$600 for a book-length work of up to 60,000 words.
$800 up to 80,000 words.
$1000 for 80,000-100,000 words.

Line-editing and margin notes are also available for an additional charge of $60/hour.


“Brad Zellar is a writer capable of conjuring character, situations and images that shift fluidly between the painful and the hilarious, always in a way that gives me a jolt of recognition. I love so many of his stories. I treasure his opinions on literature, on music, and on film. As for his editorial skills, the fact is that my graphic memoir Stitches would not exist if it were not for Mr. Zellar.  He recognized in me an ability and a strength that I thought I didn’t possess. He took me (figuratively, of course) by the collar, stared me in the eye, bared a single glistening fang, and dared me to write and draw what turned out to be the book of my life.”
David Small, Caldecott Award winner and author of Stitches (W.W. Norton, 2009), which Kirkus Reviews, in a starred review, called “Emotionally raw, artistically compelling and psychologically devastating graphic memoir of childhood trauma. . . . Graphic narrative at its most cathartic.”

“Brad Zellar is as precise and economical an editor as he is a writer. He read my novel, The End of Baseball, helped me to see and, more importantly, understand, its strengths and weaknesses – without excessively finagling with the plot. If you want a professional who can help make your prose clean and your characters real, Brad Zellar is your man.”
Peter Schilling, author of The End of Baseball (Ivan R. Dee, 2008) which the Baltimore Sun called “the best baseball novel so far this century.”

“Thank you for introducing me to Mr. Zellar. When I first read his critique, it was evident he knew exactly what I was trying to do, and say, in my novel. I knew before I went into the critique that I had major issues with a certain area of the manuscript. Mr. Zellar immediately noticed and identified the problem. Through his critique and our subsequent conversation, I came up with a great solution to my problem! What’s funny is that I had strayed far from the course, and he led me back to where I originally began. His advice is invaluable.” – M. Longstreth

“I have worked with Mr. Zellar for almost one year now. In that time, he has edited and made suggestions for revising seven of my short stories and a novel manuscript. He reads everything at least three times, comparing notes he makes with each reading so that his final review is particularly well thought-out and consistent. For some of my shorter pieces he recommended very little change, and for others major reorganization–in other words, he doesn’t use a script.  The scope of his editing services has included suggestions for reading certain novels and short stories to help me understand a suggestion, e.g., a subtle change in a narrator’s voice. I wouldn’t think of sending out a submission of any kind without the advantage of his remarkable critical eye. Please feel free to contact me with any questions (contact info available upon request). – Donna Trump

Payment (via Paypal or personal check): Two-thirds upon manuscript acceptance and the last third upon completion of the edit. Turnaround time is approximately three weeks, often sooner. For more information, email You may send your work as a Word or WordPerfect attachment.