Tuesday, December 31, 2013

7:30 BELLS: Let the Bells Ring Out! An Artist's New Year’s Manifesto

All artists want their creative bells to ring out—want to create stories, music, poems, art. To do that, an artist must protect the creative "sensibility" that makes art possible. In other words, you must protect the bell. So build a bell tower and built it strong—to house the bell, to allow it swing, and most importantly, to guard it.

Mary Oliver writes: “Athletes take care of their bodies. Writers must similarly take care of the sensibility that houses the possibility of poems.” (A Poetry Handbook)

Tell me, when you do creative work that requires reflection and presence of mind, do the following things shrill for your attention: The ringing phone? The beeping Facebook or Twitter update? The pinging e-mail? Other people’s urgent needs? YES.

Now tell me, when you answer that phone or respond to that Facebook update, etc, does quiet reflection interrupt and shrill for your attention? No. Quiet doesn’t clamor. Because of this, creative time requires far more protection than other parts of our lives.

So be vigilant in creating concrete structures and rituals to protect your creative sensibility. Guard it as zealously as you would a young child venturing out alone in the world.

This will be hard. It will require constant practice. Other people will chip away at your bell tower, and you will, too--at first. For we haven’t been taught to value the creative time and space that “houses the possibility” of art, that allows it to arise. We haven’t been taught to shepherd our lives to foster the ringing bell. In fact, we’ve been taught the opposite. When I shared these ideas with a writer friend, she said that quiet creative time is a luxury. That answer, from a working artist, shows how truly indoctrinated we all are.

For artists, creative space/time space where we can ring is no luxury. It’s ESSENTIAL for art. And I tell you this: You may think the ringing bell will patiently wait, but that’s not true. The ringing can die in the face of the shrilling forces ranged against it. And sometimes, if the creative force inside you is thwarted  too long, it twists your life in unpleasant ways. Like depression. Malaise. Fatigue. Rage. Illness.

Remember that scene in the Planet of the Apes where the hero discovers the top of the Statue of Liberty poking out of the sand? Don’t let your bell be buried and silenced by sand.

So this New Year, I challenge artists everywhere: Build a bell tower in your life to house your creative sensibility, to foster and guard your ringing bell. And watch in joy as your creative power rings out across the land.
Build a bell tower to
"house your creative sensibility"
and hear the bells ring out!

Thursday, December 26, 2013


I am so happy that my middle grade verse novel, After the River the Sun (2013 Atheneum) is featured in A Year of Reading blog for the final Poetry Friday of the year. So I offer the excerpt below from the book.

Inspired by his love of the Arthurian Legend and a video game called The Green KnightEckhart is climbing Heaven's Gate Mountain in Eastern Washington on a quest for home.

Despite his sunglasses,
his baseball cap,
and his long-sleeved T-shirt,
Eckhart began to feel
as though he were made of sunlight--
carried up the mountain by sunlight--
forged by sunlight,
as a knight's sword
is forged
by fire.

After the River the Sun (page 297)
Dia Calhoun

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

7:30 BELLS: Chisels of Light

On the Winter Solstice, the sun filtered through my curtains, sculpting the light. Usually, when fall darkness descends, I start counting the days until December 21. I long for the Return of Light.

My bipolar brain chemistry makes me exquisitely sensitive to seasonal shifts in light and dark. I was born for summer. I come alive. Bloom. Creativity dances from my fingertips. How the bells ring! In the winter, I use a dawn simulator to cajole my bio-rhythms. Winter has always been something to be endured.

But this winter has been different. Somehow I’ve embraced it. Somehow I’ve learned that the bells ring in many different ways. The quiet ringing of a snowfall. The considered ringing of a sodden, cloud-shot sky. The elegant ringing of tree-bones against twilight.

In these dark days, I am tuned to anything that sculpts the light. Like poems. Stories. Art. Music. Kindness. Maybe, winter itself is nothing but a great sculptor of the light. Maybe that’s why at last I’m able to embrace it, take up the chisel of light, and ring.

Closing with this stanza from Tennyson:

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.


Take up the chisel of light and ring.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

730 BELLS: The Gossamer of Possibility

Art that resonates with you can set the bells wildly ringing. That happened to me this week when I saw the exhibit, A World of Paper, A World of Fashion: Isabelle de Borchgrave Meets Mariano Fortuny, at the Bellevue Art Museum.

Using the exquisite dresses designed by Fortuny (1871-1949) as a point of departure, Isabelle de Borchgrave concocted other-worldly dream dresses out of paper—painted, glued, torn, crumpled. A few have backdrops made entirely of paper, like the tent pavilion pictured below. Some of the other-worldliness comes from surprise and fascination—full size dresses fashioned of paper instead of fabric. Tissue thin veils sway in the breeze. Some of the other-worldliness comes from the evocation of the legendary past—Moorish, Arabic, Persian, Coptic, Japanese patterns painted in tromp l’oeil on the paper.

But for me, most of the other-worldliness comes from being cast into a realm of fantastic imagination. Some of these dresses had presences. Standing before a tent pavilion, watching gossamer paper drapes ripple, I rang with possibility. Lines of poetry filled my mind, ideas for stories, and shapes for a sculpture project I’m working on.

You never know what will make the bells ring and bring you alive. Never know what will converge with your current creative tuning and set you on fire. So seek things out. Fantastic worlds of imagination await, if you make time to open yourself to the gossamer of possibility. 

Seek experiences that ignite your imagination,
and the bells will ring.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Poetry Friday: ALWAYS WINTER

This is a poem by twelve-year-old Eva Dehart, from my novel, Eva of the Farm. Eva's parents have to sell the apple orchard where she lives, called the Farm, due to the bad economy and the fire blight that destroyed the crop.


Yellow school buses squirt
down the snowy road
like Twinkies on wheels.
I wait for mine to gobble me up--
wait beside the "For Sale" sign
swinging in the wind.

I want to stay home on the orchard
instead of sitting
packed like a sardine in school.
I want summer--
     crickets rampaging
     hammock swinging
     skylight shining
     fish biting.

My bus screeches to a stop
to pick me up.
I stomp up the steps
into a stink like the inside
of an old man's boot.

Through the steamy window
I see Dad pruning the apple trees.
See scraggly branches
littering the snow like giant antlers--
and know that it is still winter
and probably always will be--
because there will never be
another summer
at the Farm--
because I will no longer be
Eva of the Farm.

--Eva of the Farm

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

7:30 BELLS Guest Post: ASKING QUESTIONS by Nina Laden

Author NINA LADEN inspires us with what makes the bells ring for her
in this month's 7:30 BELLS Guest Post.

The secret to writing for me, perhaps even the secret to life, is asking questions. You have to maintain a child-like wonder, even in the face of adversity. By being curious you will continually learn, open doors in your mind, and you will hear those bells ring.

I went through a very dark period of my life with one family crisis after another and it took the literary wind out of my sails. I couldn’t write the clever and funny picture books that I was known for and I worried that I never would get out of the hole I was in. However I kept journaling and writing what I could here and there. I also kept taking my long beach walks, looking for treasure, looking for answers, and asking questions.

One day, I found an eagle feather on the beach. Eagles live near our home on Lummi Island and their feathers fall on the beach all the time. I have always loved the delicate nature of feathers and the majestic beauty of eagles. I picked up the feather, tested it in the wind, and felt the power that it had to be able to carry the weight of such a big bird, and how it could allow it to soar so smoothly. My own life was not soaring at that time.

I held that feather and I asked myself, “does a feather remember it once was a bird?” Wondering, possibly subconsciously, “do I remember I once was an author and illustrator?” I also started thinking about the Native American legend that eagle feathers must stay where they land so that they can return to the creator, so I photographed the feather and put it down.

As I walked back home, I started asking myself more questions because of that first one: “Does a feather remember it once was a bird? Does a book remember it once was a word? Does a chair remember it once was a tree? Does a garden remember it once was a pea?” I had started writing a poem and I had to run up the hill to my cottage to write it down before I forgot it.

All of those questions eventually became my new book “Once Upon A Memory” which just came out with publisher Little, Brown and Company. Renata Liwska did the gorgeous illustrations. Now the only question that I have is “what will be the next question that starts me down the road to a new book and lets me hear those bells ring again and again?”

Open doors in your mind
 and hear the bells ring

Thank you Nina, for sharing this inspiring essay and making me wonder what I am that I might have forgotten. 

Nina Laden is an award-winning, bestselling children's book author and illustrator who lives in Seattle and on Lummi Island, WA, but mostly she lives in her imagination. She grew up in the New York City area, the daughter of two artists, and received a BFA from Syracuse University's College of Visual and Performing Arts. She has over a dozen books in print including The Night I Followed the Dog, When Pigasso Met Mootisse, and Roberto: The Insect Architect.
Learn more about Nina Laden and her books at her website and blog.

7:30  BELLS Posts runs every Tuesday. Guest Posts run on the second Tuesday of every month. Join me next month when author Laura Kvasnosky shares what makes the bells ring for her.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Librarian Kathleen Dale brings books alive for kids

As part of the Smack Dab in the Classroom series,  I am so pleased to offer librarian Kathleen Dale's imaginative ideas for engaging kids with middle grade books.

Dia Calhoun: How do you engage a group of kids with the same book?  Kids who might have different interests?

Kathleen Dale: It is always difficult to find one book that 100% of the kids will love.  Motivated students will read anything, so I try to get my students motivated by doing a classroom/library setup for the book.  Here is an example of how I got all the kids on board reading the following books:

Revenge of the Whale by Nathanial Philbrick
I hang fishnets from the ceiling, a calendar of whales and dolphins (picture side out) laminated together and dangle them on strings, small fish dangling around the classroom, a sailors uniform, a giant wallpaper map of the world covering the back wall, an outline of a boat on the floor when students come in with a life-size skeleton laying on it with blood dripping around it, and lots of fog when students arrive.   I set up eight different stations around the classroom or library. At each station is a dictionary and laminated vocabulary words I think students will struggle with during the book.  Also at each station I have a variety of items to go with the story, such as music at one station, of songs of the sea, cake donuts and water to represent hardtack and the lack of fresh water, rough oyster shells to represent barnacles, etc. After going to each station, their task is to write a short story of what they think the book (our class novel) is about.  During the book we track, on the world map with pins, the route of the whale ship Essex.
I have done this with Beowulf, A New Telling by Robert Nye, Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman, Whirligig by Paul Fleischman, Peak by Roland Smith and lots more.

In the library, I do the same set up and then display alike books.  I hang the vocabulary words in the library along with the display, and then have a writing contest about the sea to go with the display.

Dia Calhoun: Do you remember a specific activity with a specific book that really set kids’ imaginations on fire?

Kathleen Dale: Reading the book Night by Elie Wiesel, I covered the back wall of my classroom with white butcher paper and divided it into four sections with marker.  I labeled each section: poetry, articles, comments and thoughts.  After reading the book for that day I allowed approximately seven minutes for students to take markers and fill up the sections.  Under comments, students were allowed to draw a line and make a comment on another’s comments. I even had teachers coming in and commenting on some of the things the students wrote.  We did this each day until we finished the book.  Here is a poem one student wrote, “I have been warned once, but I did not pay heed. I have been warned twice, but I did not believe. I have been warned thrice but will only ignore, I’ve been warned once again only to close the door.  And now before me is a horrible fate, I cannot turn back, it is too late.”

Dia Calhoun: Have you ever done something “outside the box” that worked really well?

Kathleen Dale: Yes, the book club I started eight years ago has expanded from thirty-six to over 100.  We hold our book club four times a year before school.  As a teacher I taught Literature Circles and loved giving the students choice.  For my library book club I choose and read thirteen to fourteen different selections of books.  When students arrive they sit at the table that is marked with the book they read, discuss that selection, eat breakfast and listen to the book talks for the next book club. 

Dia Calhoun: If you could give teachers/librarians one piece of advice for engaging kids with middle grade books, what would it be? 

Kathleen Dale: Give students all the prior knowledge they need to help them understand the book.  Too many teachers just plop a classic in to a students’ hands and expect them to love the book as much as the teacher. Before giving students To Kill A Mockingbird, read aloud Mississippi Trial 1955, and then as you read aloud this young adult novel, bring in articles about the Jim Crow Laws, the facts about the south during the 1950’s, have them read articles, and show them pictures/videos about the courthouse where the trial took place.  The students’ love of literature is directly related to the understanding the student has prior to reading.  Make reading fun and motivate them to read.

Thank you so much for these wonderful ideas, Kathleen Dale! 
Kathleen Dale is a Media Specialist at Riverview Junior High School in Utah. 

My Smack-dab-in-the-Classroom series first runs on the 23rd day of each month on the Smack-dab-in-the-middle blog. Then it is re-posted here.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

7:30 BELLS: Cathedral of Winter

In the rain and wind that followed Thanksgiving, the last leaves fell. On my walk, I was transfixed by this tree, by its dark branches spiraling against the sky. I felt as though I stood in a Cathedral of Winter looking up though the stained glass window of the world.

Most years, I count down the dark days until spring comes. But this year, winter speaks to me of its sanctity, maybe because I’ve embraced it, instead of only enduring it to get somewhere else. And I wonder, what else in my life I might embrace instead of endure?

Winter is Treebone Time. What sun there is can reach the bone.

Embrace where you are, and the world reveals its sanctity

Monday, December 2, 2013

Seattle Times calls AFTER THE RIVER THE SUN a "don't-miss" offering

I am so pleased to have been included in today's Seattle Times article
recommending AFTER THE RIVER THE SUN as a holiday read for kids and teens.

Head into the holiday break with NW books for kids and teens
Kids, teens and young adults in need of a read over the holiday break will be absorbed in these new books by Northwest authors, including George Shannon, Kelly Milner Halls, Patrick Jennings, Kirby Larson, Dia Calhoun, April Henry and Patrick Flores-Scott.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Poetry Friday: WHITE SAIL


White sail cleave
     grieving skies,
     iron seas.
Silken scimitar—
     tack for light.

Dia Calhoun
Commencement Bay

Friday, November 15, 2013


Today feels like winter, so here's a poem from twelve-year-old Eva DeHart, from Eva of the Farm.


Old Man Woodstove
chortles and snorts
belching heat
from his hot full belly
that steams wet mittens
hanging on hooks--
that steams the wet dog
snoring on the rug--
that steams wet me
bringing in more wood
from the snow
to stuff in his greedy belly
that keeps us warm
all winter long.

~Eva of the Farm
p 125

Wednesday, November 13, 2013


Listening to The Record on KUOW as I drove home last Friday, I was wonderfully surprised to hear Nancy Pearl review After the River the Sun!

Two quotes:
"[this book] reads so fluidly, and it's just so lovely."
~Nancy Pearl

"I think this is an excellent book . . . a wonderful novel."
~Nancy Pearl

Click here to hear the entire segment from Nancy Pearl's Book Picks with Steve Scher.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Classroom Guide for AFTER THE RIVER THE SUN

I am so pleased to share a free, professionally prepared Classroom and Reader's Guide for After the River the Sun. It includes new Common Core state standards. Click Here for the pdf.

Here's an excerpt about quests from pages three and four:
“Eckhart had read/that turtles liked to bask in the sun./This one might die from the cold … /A knight would rescue it.” [Page 19] Eckhart looks at challenges that come his way through the lens of the knights he wishes to emulate, especially Sir Gawain. Like those knights, he is on several different quests throughout the novel. 

Discuss with the class Eckhart’s many quests. For each one, have students identify the goal, his method for achieving it, and the ultimate resolution. Be sure to include the following and go as far beyond this list as your class takes you: 

 The quest for home 

 The quest to win the game of The Green Knight

 The quest for courage 

 The task of clearing, then replanting, the orchard 

 The quest to atone for his parents’ deaths 

Which other characters have quests (or goals)? Have the class name them and talk about how  they go about achieving their goals. 

RL 6.1, 6.2, 6.3; SL 6.1

Thursday, November 7, 2013

"I send all the Greater Powers to you"

A writer has no greater happiness than receiving a priceless letter like this one from ten-year-old Linnea, thanking her aunt for sending her EVA OF THE FARM.

My thanks to you, Linnea, for lighting stars in my day.


Tuesday, November 5, 2013

7:30 BELLS: Carillon of Revelation

The bells rang rang this week when I discovered the poet Mary Oliver. Stunned and filled and fed, I sat reading her New and Selected Poems, the collection that won the National Book Award. I’ve been thinking for some time of writing poetry more seriously, but my poems seemed too simple and narrative, not complex or abstract enough. Reading Mary Oliver was not only a revelation, but permission to be the poet I want to be.

This 7:30 BELLS series came from my solo trip to Italy in the late spring of 2012, where I was on fire to the bone and dashed out poem after poem. (more on that here). I came home determined to Vivere e Scrivere—to live and to write. When I read Oliver’s poem  SOMETIMES (in the collection RED BIRD), she stated that so beautifully and succinctly.

     “Instructions for living a life:
            Pay attention.
            Be astonished.
            Tell about it.”

That's  exactly how I want to live. You’ll notice Oliver does not add, “Have a multitude of readers, ” after "Tell about it."

So I will be writing more poems, telling about what astonishes me. Whether anyone ever reads them has nothing to do with living.

Vivere e Scrivere

Monday, November 4, 2013


SCBWI's Inside Story event last night was a wonderful celebration of new books by Washington state authors. Below is the presentation I gave--about the "inside story" of After the River the Sun. Thanks to the kind and energetic author Deb Lund for organizing the event!

Writing After the River the Sun started with a dream and ended with a fire that came too late. In the dream, I wandered through a barren desert. I had to plant something to turn the desert green, had to fight so I could rise from tragedy and shine again. That began the story of Eckhart Lyon. A boy who looses his home and his courage after his parents drown in a river. A Seattle boy exiled to live with his uncle on a dead orchard in Eastern Washington.

What a grand creative adventure writing this book was! I created a video game based on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Watched as the game and Eckhart’s story blended one into the other.  Watched as Eckhart and Eva, from my book Eva of the Farm, became friends. I even fell in love—with Bach’s famous violin piece—the Chaconne. After playing it Eckhart’s mother sweeps her bow upward and says: “And that is the cry of a shining soul as it rises, fighting its way toward heaven.” 

Eckhart climbs Heaven’s Gate Mountain on a quest to regain his courage. High up, he spots
a wildfire burning straight down toward the new orchard he has planted with his uncle, the orchard that has helped them both begin to rise from tragedy and shine again.

Forward to the morning of September 10, 2012.

The book had just gone to press. I drove toward my father-in-law’s orchard--the inspiration for both After the River the Sun and Eva of the Farm. The night before, lightning strikes had started over one hundred wildfires in Eastern Washington. From ten miles away, I saw smoke rising from the low mountain above the farm. The road turned into a ribbon of dread.

Like Eckhart, we went into fire-fighting mode. Like Eckhart, I feared for a place I loved. Imagined the hills blackened, the trees scorched. Even as I helped rig sprinkler lines, though, I wished I could rewrite those wildfire scenes in the book, experience telling me I didn’t get them quite right.

Night fell. Each orange spot burning on the mountain burned my heart. I feared what the morning would bring. Then I remembered how Eckhart had faced his fire. As I stood in the dark staring up at the burning mountain, I knew that Eckhart was braver than I‘d ever imagined. Knew that this boy, fighting to rise from tragedy with his dreams of knightly valor, was my best work ever. My manifesto on shining. I got that right.

Friday, November 1, 2013


A poem by twelve-year-old Eva DeHart from my middle grade novel, EVA OF THE FARM.


Wood crackles the dawn,
and I know the same old bear is feasting
in the same old plum tree again.
Every year he swipes off whole branches,
gorging on glistening plums.
Does he dream of plundering our orchard
all winter in his stuffy den?

The tree looks worse every year--
mauled and broken--
but keeps bearing plums
as fat and red as a baby's cheeks.
The bear looks worse every year too--
muzzle grey, fut matted, one ear missing--
but keeps looting.

I keep expecting one of them to die--
the tree or the bear--
but they seem to need each other.
Which just goes to show you
that sometimes things work out fine
for everybody.
So long as that old bear
leaves a few plums for me.

--Eva of the Farm
page 55

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Smack-dab-in-the-Classroom Interview with librarian Katie Mitchell

Teen librarian KATIE MITCHELL from Saline Library shared some wonderful ideas when I asked her how to use middle grade books in the classroom. From Book Blind Dates to Reader's Response Journals, read on for ways to engage young readers.

DIA CALHOUN: What tips do you have for getting a group of kids actively engaged with the same book? Kids who might have different interests?

KATIE MITCHELL: As a librarian in a public library, this has been an area that has been very challenging. The kids in my teen book group often ranged in age from 11-15. That’s an amazing time of growth and the levels of maturity are all over the map. Knowing your group is the first main step. I would always emphasize to the kids that all opinions were valid, all feelings to be respected. And I would tell them that if they *didn’t* like a book, I really wanted them to feel welcome, because figuring out what you don’t like in a book helps guide you to genres and writing styles that you like.

Reader's Response journals are great; as they help young teens make strong connections between their lives and the lives of the characters. Another great connector is having the kids themselves booktalk the titles. If you do rotational reading with your class, you can have the group that just finished the book talk it up to the next group to get it.

Finally, this is a group that still really enjoys having people read to them. Reading aloud, or having the audio book playing as they read can help your auditory learners and connect the students who have more challenges with reading. (But, please don’t make kids read out loud if they are uncomfortable. I know adults who stopped reading for pleasure in middle school due to extreme embarrassment in English classes.)

DIA CALHOUN:  Do you remember a specific activity with a specific book that really set kids' imaginations on fire?

KATIE MITCHELL:  Book trailers! Particularly 90 Second Newbery trailers. (See this one of THE WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND) I think it’s the blend of costuming, acting, playing together (when “play” time is really falling off the radar for these kids), and using technology that makes this an activity that reaches kids across the board. So many teachers use book trailers, sharing the student produced ones is a fantastic connector!

DIA CALHOUN:  Have you ever done something "outside the box" that worked really well?

KATIE MITCHELL: Book Blind Dates. Our middle school is directly next door to the library. Once a trimester, the Language Arts teachers bring their students over for booktalks and some other activities. One of the best ones is the Book Blind Date. We set up groups of tables for 4-5 students, with 7-8 books on each table (I usually do it by genre, so they get a fuller experience). Then when I blow the whistle (apparently, this is hilarious in a public library), they have to grab a book and just read for 3 minutes. After three minutes, they need to record it on their playlist and write down an few keywords and write it from 1 (it’s a match!) to 5 (see you never!). We usually do about six tables. The kids love it and it’s a great way to push some of the older titles that you still love.

DIA CALHOUN:  If you could give teachers/librarians one piece of advice for engaging kids with middle grade books, what would it be?

KATIE MITCHELL: This is such an incredible age group. While you will have readers who are at both ends of the spectrum in terms of reading ability, these are all kids who can be engaged with middle grade fiction. Always look for the connections. If you have a reader who seems too “jaded” for books about middle grade characters, this can be a chance to give them a time where they don’t have to try so hard to be grown up. For kids who are still finding their place in the middle grades (and frankly, who isn’t), these stories are touchstones for feeling normal. As they are growing and changing and their world is expanding, it is so imperative that they have some books that reflect their experience. We get to bring them that! Don’t ever forget how cool that is!

DIA CALHOUN:  Wonderful ideas, Katie. I want to try Book Blind Dates myself! Thank you so much for taking the time to share your experience. Katie Mitchell works with the amazing AMELIA BLOOMER PROJECT.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

7:30 BELLS: Burano Blues

This blue house on Burano, with its blue sheets fluttering in the wind, enchanted me. When I visited the island, a short vaporetto ride from Venice, I’d wanted to see the exquisite lace in the lace museum. (The island was once a historic lace making center.) But I didn’t know the island was also famous for its brightly painted houses. How simple, I thought, to make something utterly beautiful out of something so simple as paint and bedsheets. The bells rang.

Then, the bells began fading, because I suspected that the blue house with its blue bed sheets had been staged for tourists. That whoever who lived there didn’t really arrange her domestic life with such artistic sensibility.

Then I realized that the intent behind the blue house didn’t matter. Paintings and sculptures are staged in museums for tourists. If I’d seen this scene as a painting titled “Burano Blue House with Blue Bed Sheets Blowing,” I’d had loved it. The scene before was a piece of living art. And I didn’t have to wait in line to see it.

And so the bells rang on.

Embrace the enchantment that comes

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

7:30 BELLS: A Challenge from the Bell Tower

As part of the 7:30 BELLS series, I will occasionally write about the essential Bell Tower. For without the Bell Tower’s support, the bell couldn't ring ring with life.

I need two seemingly contradictory things in my Bell Tower to produce my best creative work, to allow the bell to ring most beautifully.

First, Concentrated Sustained Attention: time each day to focus on my story, time sustained over months. This may be only two hours a day, but it must happen nearly every day.

The second thing is Creative Drift: time each day for my mind to play with my story. The best place for this is the hammock at the Farm under the maple tree, or in the winter, a rocking chair facing a window. I swing or rock, proposing questions like . . . what happens when Eckhart is halfway up the mountain? Possibilities drift through my mind. The trick is to be directed enough to keep my thoughts from drifting away from my story altogether, yet loose enough to allow in new images and ideas. Creative Drift is the most important  practice for producing good work.

My best work comes from combining Concentrated Sustained Attention and Creative Drift. However, when the inevitable vagaries of life intervene—crisis, illness, other business—the first thing I abandon is Creative Drift. Why do I abandon it first if it’s the most essential element for good work? Because Concentrated Sustained Attention gets the pages written, the project DONE. To many people, Creative Drift doesn't seem essential.

I forget that getting the project done has no relationship to how GOOD the project will be. Creative Drift does. Our culture has conditioned me to believe that getting something done, is more important than how it is done, or even its result. This is a blind, wrong following of the Protestant Work Ethic that haunts me from cold, northern climes. It’s the idea that the hours spent working are more important than what the work produces. A story that takes ten years to write must surely be better than one that takes two. Every artist knows this is false.

Remember too, Creative Drift can actually save time by leading down better roads.

So from the Bell Tower, I challenge myself and all writers out there: The next time your writing time is pressed, prioritize Creative Drift in your Bell Tower. See if that results in not only a better, but even a more swiftly completed, work of art.

Allow creative winds to drift over the bell
and hear what beautifully rings.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Poetry Friday: THE DEMON SNAG

This poem by Eva Dehart, the hero of my middle grade novel, EVA OF THE SKY, was inspired by a snag in the canyon behind my father-in-law's orchard in the Methow Valley. This is an extremely zoomed in photo of the snag, which is high on a hill above the canyon.


Halfway up the canyon,
the blackened snag on the hill
looms like a demon,
conjuring and cackling
evil dreams of the wild--
cougar teeth and bear claws and being eaten alive--
until fear cripples my heart.

I sharpen Dad's ax--
but a demon felled would be a demon still.
I call for a wizard,
but they are too busy fighting dragons.

If I were Joan of Arc,
I could defeat the Demon Snag myself
with a shining sword.
But I am only Eva of the Farm,
armed with a shining imagination
that makes me run home fast.

--Eva of the Farm
(This poem can be found on page 20 of the novel)

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

7:30 BELLS: At the End of Wilderness--New Bells

Hearing author Jane Kirkpatrick speak at PNBA (The Pacific Northwest Bookseller's
Conference) inspired new insights on the bells. Kirkpatrick said that after bad news--an accident, diagnosis, loss of a friendship, loved one, or beloved place--we long to go back to life as it was. In my terms--we want the bells to ring as they did before.

But they don't. And we can't. Our life becomes about how we move through the "wilderness state"--the unknown that our life has become, usually against our will. 

So I wonder. If the bells can't ring the old melody, can they ring a new one? Finding the new melody is the process of moving through the wilderness--clanging discord, false starts, and sudden stops--before we find a new melody that makes us feel alive again.

Move through the wilderness to find a new melody

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

7:30 BELLS Guest Post: Listening for Birds by Kirby Larson

I am so pleased to offer a 7:30 BELLS guest post by Kirby Larson, lovely person and fabulous author of DUKE and HATTIE BIG SKY, awarded the Newbery Honor Medal.

Dia listens for bells; I listen for birds. I’ve been blessed to luck into a cozy Washington beach house near the Canadian border, and I take myself there as often as I can. It’s a tall, skinny place and my office is on the 3rd floor, eagle eye view. Literally. 

On occasion, I’ve flinched as a bald eagle seemed to aim its talons at me, while I was sitting at my desk. So grateful for the window! From my perch, I hear owls hoot, loons wail, belted kingfishers chitter, gulls bark and herons squawk. 

No matter where my story brain is, my ears are straining to hear the birds. To hear that reminder that flight is possible. I may not have feathers, but I can spread my wings and fly across the page.

Listen and take flight

Kirby Larson is the author of ten books for young readers, including the 2007 Newbery Honor book, Hattie Big Sky, and its sequel, Hattie Ever After. In addition to her historical fiction (The Fences Between Us; The Friendship Doll; Duke), Kirby has partnered with Mary Nethery to write two award-winning nonfiction picture books, Two Bobbies: A True Story of Hurricane Katrina, Friendship and Survival, and Nubs: The True Story of a Mutt, a Marine and a Miracle. Kirby also owns a tiara.

Friday, October 4, 2013


This poem by twelve-year-old Eva DeHart, from EVA OF THE FARM, was inspired by an old abandoned outhouse on our family orchard in the Methow Valley.

Grandma Helen built
an outhouse with a view
of the sagebrush hills.
"Sitting pretty," she called it.
"Why not?"
She slapped white paint
on the boards,
carved a smiling moon
on the door,
and planted violets
on every side.

Last year, Grandma Helen died.

Now the outhouse door creaks
in the lonely wind.
The metal roof rusts
in the weeds
on the ground.

But sometimes,
in the moonlight,
through glimmering spiderwebs,
I think I glimpse
Grandma's ghost--
sitting pretty.


p 14

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

7:30 BELLS: When Falling is Mighty

We’re all afraid to fall. Falling is linked with failure, as in “a fall from grace,” or “how the mighty have fallen.” But standing before this waterfall near Mount Rainier brought new ideas about falling.

Falling makes this waterfall beautiful. Falling water plunging in torrents of grace. Falling water wearing away the very rock that brings about its fall. And who could say a waterfall isn’t mighty? It pounds, roars, rushes. And, as this next picture shows, falling water goes somewhere. Through this canyon it streams, then bends beyond my puny sight.

So I need to trust in falling, in fallowness, in what lies ahead that is impossible to foresee. I need to let my fixation on a pre-determined destination be silenced by the roar and grace and might of falling—and open my heart to whatever waits around the bend.
Fall in might and grace, 
toward the bells ringing around the bend.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

7:30 BELLS: The Golden Hunt

Knife in hand, I prowled the mossy wood, searching for gold. Not gold nuggets, not gold coins, but the golden caps of chanterelle mushrooms. Some hid under Oregon grape, humus, and fallen leaves. Some, like those in this photo, sang out against the green. I walked, scanning the ground, thrilled each time I spotted gold. I knelt, my fingers probing for the stem, sometimes loosening the dirt and twigs around it before cutting. After double checking the species, I dropped the chanterelle in my bucket and began searching again.

Every sense intent on finding treasure, I thought of nothing else. My bucket half full, I glanced up from the hunt. At quiet woods. At streaming sun. At the first day of Autumn. My husband’s bucket clanked in the distance. And I heard the bells ring, slowly, steadily, with the somberness that comes from sanctity. I smiled.

Then I returned my total attention to the hunt, looking for food—and being fed.

The Treasure is the Rapture of Attention

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

7:30 BELLS: If the Bells Fall Silent, Move your Window

What we see depends on where we build our windows--as this picture of the new house going up at the Farm shows. What stunning views we miss if our windows are in the wrong place, or too small.

We grow up in a house with the windows already in place. Sometimes those windows are right for us, but sometimes they aren't. We're born into a house whose windows are determined by our family background, our culture, our education, our religion. This can make it hard to move the windows, because sometimes we don’t even know our view is being limited.

Eventually we may feel unease, realize we can’t hear any bells ring through these windows, or only hear them dimly.

So I ask myself, what am I missing? What can't I hear? Am I looking at the world squeezed through someone else’s determination of what I should see? I want to build my own house, decide where I want the windows to be. 

Sometimes to move the window, you have to start by tearing down the walls that hold it, brick by brick. To have a life that continues to thrive and grow, you have to keep moving the windows.

Whenever I move a window, new light pours in. And I can hear the bells ringing again. 

Looking through the windows you've chosen yourself
makes the bells ring.