Afterthought #65 – Better Than Liking

cwcYou know that feeling when you return from a conference (probably on any subject, but for me, it’s usually one focused on writing) with notes scrawled all over handouts and your program? And your mind swirling with new ideas? That happened to me earlier this month at the Chuckanut Writers Conference. This was the second time I attended this annual event, and it was every bit as good as the previous one. Knowledgeable presenters, inspiring topics, innovative approaches, and thought-provoking conversations.

eaOne session I’ll be sharing with my writing group was led by former Washington State Poet Laureate Elizabeth Austen regarding critiquing others’ writing. I’ve re-blogged her post about references to help in Getting Beyond “I Like…” As much as we writers might think we want to hear those words, I agree with Elizabeth that, if that’s all someone says, “It’s sweet but has no nutritive value. It’s like giving someone who craves protein a gumdrop.”

In addition to Elizabeth’s post, here are a few gems she spoke about that I’ll draw on to give meaningful feedback:

Praise what’s vital, vivid, alive, and evocative.
Switch from “I like” to “I notice.”
Comment on what stays with you and what you remember.
Avoid saying, “this doesn’t work for me,” or “if this were my piece I’d…”
Critiquing someone else’s work develops skills for your own revision.

And I’ll remember her advice when receiving critique:

Take the comments and allow them to metabolize before revising.
What we make is not us.
Precise critique conveys a sense of having been read deeply.

Thanks for the protein, Elizabeth!

*Afterthoughts are my blog version of a practice followed in some Quaker meetings. After meeting for worship ends, people continue in silence for a few more minutes during which they’re invited to share thoughts or reflect on the morning’s worship. I’ve adopted the form here for last-day-of-the-month brief reflections on headlines, quotes, books, previous posts, maybe even bumper stickers.

Elizabeth Austen


This morning I’ll give a talk on workshops and critique groups at the Chuckanut Writers Conference. Here are some of the resources I’ll cite and recommend, plus a few extras:

Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, David Bayles and Ted Orland

Searching for Our Mother’s Gardens, Alice Walker

Simone Weil on Attention and Grace

Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process (pdf)

Interview with William Stafford on workshops (among other things)

The Writer’s Portable Mentor, Priscilla Long

Writing Alone and With Others, Patricia Schneider

The Writer’s Companion, Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux

In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poet’s Portable Workshop, Steve Kowit

“In the Workshop after I Read My Poem Aloud,” Don Colburn

Next Word, Better Word, Stephen Dobyns (esp. the chapter on revision)

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Woodland Force

heidi-barr-cover-250These days, my reading alternates between strategies to resist President Trump’s malevolent policies as well as to promote political change and writing that prompts reflection, grounding, and hope. A title that fits in the latter category is Heidi Barr’s forthcoming Woodland Manitou: To Be On Earth. Scheduled for release by Homebound Publications in September, this collection of essays is rooted in the rhythm of the natural world. Through the turn of the seasons, Heidi demonstrates that the cycles of the earth inform her everyday life. She paints a picture of how remaining close to the earth provides a solid foundation, even as the climate changes and the story of the world shifts.

Part stories, part wonderings, and part call to act, Heidi’s words invite reflection, encourage awareness, and inspire action. Once I have a hard copy of Woodland Manitou, I expect it will live on my nightstand, like a book of devotions I can pick up when I need wise words, sustenance, and comfort. Heidi’s writing is rich with nature and farming images that serve as metaphors for the seasons of life and big questions that are part of the every day—loss, control, change, transformation, fear, hope. These short essays require only a few minutes to read, but they lead to many more moments of reflection and looking inward.

HBblackwThough we have yet to meet in person, I’m getting to know Heidi through her writing, our association with Homebound (the publisher for my forthcoming memoir Hiking Naked), and this interview. She lives near the St. Croix River Valley in Minnesota with her husband and daughter. They tend a large organic vegetable garden, explore nature, and do their best to live simply. Heidi works as a wellness coach, offers retreats and teaches online courses through Wildfire Wellness, writes books, and strives to give voice to stories that need to be told.

Although Woodland Manitou is available for pre-order through Homebound Publications, you’ll have to wait a few months to hold it in your hands. Until then, enjoy these thoughts from fellow writer, Heidi Barr.

Iris: Woodland Manitou is rich with nature and farming images that serve as metaphors for the seasons of life. When and how did you first recognize the importance of the natural world for you?

Heidi: It’s hard for me to pinpoint a certain time when I realized nature was important in my life, but I think I noticed its absence during my years in graduate school—living in a very urban area was difficult, and I often felt cut off from what was important to me, even if I didn’t always realize it at the time. As a young child, I spent hours outside in the huge vegetable garden my parents kept, and my family’s vacations were to wild places. We’d load up the family van and the camping gear and head out to Acadia National Park, or the Black Hills of South Dakota, or the Colorado Rockies for a week of hiking and exploring. And growing up in a rural area, out of town, everyday playtime meant running through prairie grass, picking vegetables, or finding enchanted groves in the shelterbelt. Nature was just a part of life. Now, as an adult, and especially as the parent of a five year old, I recognize the gift of those opportunities: to know nature as a regular part of life. These days if I’m feeling cross, my husband just says, “Have you been outside yet today?” Being connected to the earth in a fundamental way is what keeps me feeling balanced and in tune with myself.

Iris: What’s something that surprised you as you worked on this essay collection?

Heidi: Before I started collecting these essays into a cohesive work, I don’t know that I realized how much the seasons impact my life! Only in sifting through old blog posts and journal entries and musings did I come to truly acknowledge the importance the changing of the season has in my life and in how I operate in the world. It was fun to see the themes come out as I worked on it, and it felt good to be continually reminded why I have chosen to live as I do.

 Iris: I’m always fascinated by how writers work. You obviously have a full life and juggle many roles. What’s your writing process?

Heidi: I’d love to say I sit down every morning and write for an hour, but I don’t think I’ve ever done that. With a full time job as a health coach, a huge garden, a young child, and plenty of side projects going all the time, I weave writing into the fabric of the days.   I’ll think of an idea while out for my morning jog around the lake, and then later I’ll type out a few sentences while waiting for a meeting to start, or while the casserole is in the oven, or while my daughter is winding down for the day with a book. It can feel like writing happens in the margins of “real life,” but when I really think about it, sometimes it’s almost like writing is the thread that connects the dots. Because after all, a lot of the writing process is experiencing life, being present in the ordinary, reflecting on it, musing over why something impacts you like it does…..the actual act of writing sentences is just the outcome of all of that.

 Iris: Woodland Manitou is your second book. Tell us a bit about your first book, Prairie Grown.

Heidi: Prairie Grown: Stories and Recipes from a South Dakota Hillside is a cookbook that walks through a year of life on my parents’ organic vegetable farm, the homestead where I grew up. It includes seasonal recipes for each month of the year, tips for putting up produce, really lovely photographs taken by a few different people, and stories about life on the farm.

Iris: What are you writing now?

Heidi: I’m currently co-writing a book with author Ellie Roscher (her new book, Play Like a Girl, comes out in August). Our book is about tapping into the root “tiny thing” of twelve different areas of life—everything from home to food to sensuality to style—and figuring out how to be intentional about incorporating these small practices into one’s daily practice.   It’s been a really life-giving project, and I’m pretty excited to get it finalized and on to the next step of the publishing process! We have a couple chapters to go before the first draft is complete. I’m also working on another essay collection that may or may not turn into a book. We’ll see what happens there.  

 Iris: What are you reading now?

Heidi: This is a great question, the answer to which changes daily, some weeks. Sometimes I feel like I read WAY too much, but then I think, na….not possible. I just finished Alice Hoffman’s The Dovekeepers, Francesca Varela’s Call of the Sun Child, and the latest issues of Orion and The Sun magazines. Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer is up next, I think.

Iris: Thank you, Heidi, for our virtual chat about your book, and for posting our conversation about my book on your blog. And Happy Birthday!

In “Waiting for the Sacred,” one of the last essays in Heidi’s book, she advises,

“It might be harder than we thought to stay awake. We can listen and let the ancient become new again, just like the sun that rises and sets. We can step outside the illusions of our time to be in what we know is real. And we can stand in solidarity with those who are experiencing hardship and keep our eyes open to what we are being called to do in the world.”

Woodland Manitou will be a valuable guide in this demanding work.




Historic Day on Lopez Island

2017 grads.jpg

The second Saturday of June comes close to being a Lopez Island holiday. That’s high school graduation day, and it’s a community event. This year was no exception, but the celebration was exceptional for at least five reasons. That’s the number of graduates in the Class of 2017, the smallest class in nearly fifty years.

Those five (and their families) organized the celebration, maintaining many of the ceremony’s traditions—and adding a few twists. smiles.jpgAs usual, the students wore black caps and gowns as they entered the gymnasium. More than one mortarboard listed to the side as the graduates strolled through an arbor, a local bagpiper setting the pace. And as always, the audience remained standing through the Star Spangled Banner, this year played by one of the honorees on an electric guitar, Jimi Hendrix-style.

While there might be disadvantages to such a small class size, a number of benefits were evident. Instead of just one student speaker, all five addressed the crowd. Each of their short speeches included gratitude for feeling part of this community, whether they’d lived here since infancy or arrived in the past year or two. As one newcomer said, “I felt this was home.” One of the teachers spoke about each student as well, identifying their individual strengths and growth, as well as their commitment to question and understand. Two of them want to become carpenters, two plan to study engineering, and one hopes to work as an EMT or paramedic.

I sat near the back of the audience, watching family members nod their heads and smile, just as I had done seventeen years earlier for my own kids. I could tell that a man sitting in the front row was listening intently, jotting notes, and reveling in the celebration along with everyone else. The student who had written him to ask if he’d give the graduation address said, “Please welcome Governor Jay Inslee,” and the audience rose to their feet and applauded as he bounded up the steps of the stage.

Governor Inslee is no stranger to island communities; he’s from Bainbridge Island, and his father spent much time in his final years on Lopez. The governor expressed his pleasure at being invited and then made a claim that is hard to dispute. “Pound for pound, this is the best class in history,” he said.

Evidently, the governor likes making history. He did so recently when he joined the governors of California and New York to form the U.S. Climate Alliance to uphold the Paris Accord. As of June 7, twelve states and Puerto Rico have joined the alliance, and ten more governors plus the District of Columbia have expressed support. This Washingtonian appreciates Governor Inslee’s leadership on climate change and many other issues. From the cheers and whistles from the crowd, many of my fellow Lopezians do, too.

But he received the most thunderous applause for his follow-up to the historic nature of the small graduating class. He stood a little straighter at the podium and looked out to the crowd. “I’m the first governor in history,” he boomed, “to speak at a graduation wearing a shirt I picked out at the Take-It-Or-Leave-It, thirty-five minutes before the ceremony!” The crowd’s reaction made it clear everyone understood that the Washington governor had gone to our local recycling center at “the dump” to find the blue-and-white-checked shirt he wore under his navy blue suit jacket.

gov at tioli
courtesy Lopez Solid Waste Program

He showed further knowledge of the island when he spoke about waving to all cars, a practice that’s earned Lopez the title of “The Friendly Isle.” He urged the Class of 2017 to use that Friendly Isle awareness to go out to “create a Friendly World.”

The tone grew more serious, though, as the governor reminded us all, “This class faces a threat no other generation has.” He then offered a mini-lesson in what some call climate change’s equally evil twin—ocean acidification. The release of carbon dioxide from industrial and agricultural activities has changed seawater chemistry throughout the world. Inslee’s message included the sobering fact that over the past 200 years, the Salish Sea that surrounds our island has become 30% more acidic. According to the Smithsonian, that’s faster than any known change in ocean chemistry in the last 50 million years.

It will take more than wearing recycled clothes to restore the ocean’s chemical balance (though every effort helps). I suspect that these five graduates will be among those of their generation working to make the sea—and the world—more friendly. THAT will also make history.

grads w gov (1)
Photo courtesy Lopez Island School District

*Afterthought #64: Protectors of the Salish Sea

Photo from Protectors of the Salish Sea Facebook Page

In February this year, I wrote about standing up for the Salish Sea with the Friends of the San Juans at the Washington State capitol. There’s still much standing up—and protecting—to do, and I’m grateful to the opponents of the Kinder Morgan pipeline who recently marched for four days in the Walk 4 the Salish Sea in British Columbia.

I couldn’t join these protesters in person, but my heart was with them. Now I’m catching up on news of this latest effort to stop the expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline.

This is just one more issue needing our attention. If it calls to you, please add your voice.


*Afterthoughts are my blog version of a practice followed in some Quaker meetings. After meeting for worship ends, people continue in silence for a few more minutes during which they’re invited to share thoughts or reflect on the morning’s worship. I’ve adopted the form here for last-day-of-the-month brief reflections on headlines, quotes, books, previous posts, maybe even bumper stickers.