Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Writing "Four Wheel Drive"

Back in the winter of 1991 we were deep into the nuke dump fight with the State of New York. One evening in February, I was driving home from Dalton, where I’d been working with Kate and Rick Hollis putting together the Allegany! newsletter of the Concerned Citizens of Allegany County. For much of the way, I followed the Genesee river, travelling south on Route 19 as the river wound its way north in all its icy splendor

I am a transplant, who came to western New York from the Boston area in 1991 to go to the art school in Alfred. The jade green of the winter river and the thought of my family waiting for me in our little stone house on the hill in Rexville made me realize how deep my roots had grown into this part of the world. It was six degrees as I passed through Wellsville. A light snow was falling and darkness was coming on. It came to me that there were only four wheels and two wool sweaters keeping me safe and warm, and I began to write this song . . .

Four Wheel Drive                  
God bless four wheel drive and two wool sweaters
They’ll keep me alive and carry me home
God bless six degrees and a wind that’s hard and bitter
And a warm heart waiting for me at the end of the road

God bless white tail deer and a winding green river
And the black bear asleep somewhere in the ghostly hills
God bless winter storm and the red pines that shiver
And a small gray stone house up there in the Allegany hills

So let the sun shine in the morning and the moon shine in the night
With Allegany watching, she’s gonna be all right
And there’s a feeling driving home tonight that makes me understand
I’ve grown roots into this land

God bless family farms, they are truly the survivors
And the weary arms that haul the winter feed
By the grace of God, may they grace these hills forever
Through the turning of the seasons from the harvest to the seed

When the hills go dark and the home lights are gleaming
And the good dogs bark, and he’s standing in the door
Then I’ll kiss the kids in their beds where they lie dreaming
There’s a blessing in a winter storm and getting home once more

Add: Allegany’s home, coming home tonight
Allegany’s home, gonna be alright
Allegany’s home . . .

I think this was taken in West Almond--and hey! that's Deb Kirsch standing next to me and that little bit of blue hood is the top of Fern's head. We stopped bringing the kids to what they called the "No Dumps" (non-violent actions blocking the siting commission's attempts to access the proposed sites) soon after this, when things started getting tense. After the April first confrontation in Caneadea, where six senior citizens chained themselves to a one-lane bridge and were arrested, Governor Cuomo called a halt, ruling that a radioactive waste dump could not be place in an unwilling community. Good man. 

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Deeply Inhaling and Exhaling--Reading,Writing, and Cross Country Skiing.

I'm taking a long inhale after submitting the first rewrite of my middle grade novel, Wolfboy, to my editor, Tracey Keevan at Disney*Hyperion. She had so much good input! I work single-mindedly, can't seem to focus on more than one project at once. I live and breathe it 24/7. With this story, about how a boy adopts a wolf pup, which becomes the first dog, I got so deeply into Kai and Uff's story that I began to believe it was true. It is true--in my head. Maybe Tracey will push me deeper with the challenges of creating language usage that sounds ancient without being hokey. Maybe I will find more things to tweak. But it's in a good place right now.

Not being immersed in a writing project makes me feel uneasy. I can work on a rewrite. That always feels safe and satisfying. I'm dying to start something new, but it's time to inhale--and reading is the inhale while writing is the exhale of a writer's life. I want to do a story about a bear. But even growing up in the northeast with a lifelong interest in all things woodsy, I really know very little about bears. Time to read, and think, and live, and dream--believing that the story will come. It will start speaking to me. And then I will start writing it down . .

Meanwhile the snow is fantastic and we cross-country ski every day. The surface is crisscrossed with tracks of deer, coyote, fox, mice . . . Piliated woodpeckers rummage deep into the trees killed by tent caterpillars a few years ago. The porcupine had made himself a deep rut in his habitual crossing place. I keep my eyes open for signs of nesting owls.

We come inside ruddy-cheeked and drenched in sweat, having greeted Toad Hill's resident red-tails, ravens, crows, and sometimes the young eagle. The bird feeder is buzzing as the tide of black hulled sunflower seeds constantly ebbs. It's full daylight when I feed the horses at 5:00 PM now! The other morning I heard the first chickadee's daylight triggered song. I have a stack of books to read in preparation for the conference next weekend, but mostly I'm looking forward to opening Benjamin Kilham's In the Company of Bears, What black Bears Have Taught Me about Intelligence and Intuition. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Wizard Returns!

The Wizard Returns: Candle Wizardry is Once Again Part of the Allegany Artisans Studio Tour

A conversation between Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf:
“I beg your pardon, but I had no idea you were still in business.”                                                            “Where else should I be?” said the wizard.  
J. R. R. Tolkien, THE HOBBIT

Like Gandalf from Tolkien’s immortal Middle Earth stories, our local candle wizard, Ken Reichman, is back. After taking several years off from his Whitesville based Candle Wizardry business, Ken has re-opened his studio and is once more creating his beloved, hand-sculpted candles. Inspired by Tolkien’s books, Ken makes wizard, dragon, and fantasy creatures as well as a host of seasonal and animal themed candles, hand-dipped tapers, sand, pillar, and “glow candles” which burn down illuminating the exterior pattern.    

Along with Walker Metalsmiths in Andover, Candle Wizardry is a charter member of the Allegany Artisans. Ken, Steve Walker, and several other local artists, helped form the group in 1988.  Ken started making candles in 1972 but got his start making character candles in 1975 when he realized that by gently heating sheets of specially formulated wax, he could mold it with his hands like clay. He created and developed the method of hand sculpting fantasy figure candles. At the time, Tolkien’s books were very popular. The candles were a hit and for the next 31 years, Ken took them to the Philadelphia Folk Festival and craft shows all over the northeast.

Visitors to the Candle Wizardry shop at 562 Main Street in Whitesville can watch and learn about the process. Ken first makes sheets of wax which is specially blended for just the right balance of malleability and rigidity. Concentrated dye is sprinkled into the hot wax for multi and solid colors. These sheets are later re-warmed in water and the magic begins as Ken deftly folds and twists the wax into his original and constantly evolving designs. Most of his figures have wicks, but occasionally he creates a more elaborate sculpture not intended to function as a candle.

Children especially love to watch the characters come to life—Oh my gosh, a unicorn!  For many area kids and adults, the whimsical creations lining the shelves of the Candle Wizardry studio, have been a long-standing birthday and holiday institution. The LORD OF THE RINGS film series has helped to nurture a new generation of Middle Earth fantasy fans. Ken now works at the David A. Howe Library as an IT technician, but he’s managing to find time to get back into the shop. “I’ve always liked the characters. I don’t want to give up making them,” says Ken. He’s back in business--where else should our wizard of wax be?

For more information on the upcoming 27th Annual Allegany Artisans Studio Tour, log on to or pick up a brochure at a local business.


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Made in these Hills: Allegany County’s Living Treasures

What is handmade? Why do we care? Why would I pay X amount for a handmade item when I could just shop at Made-in-China-Mart and get “the same thing” a lot cheaper?

Manufactured might perform the same function, but it is not “the same thing.” It doesn’t give joy. I have a hand-woven dish towel which I use daily. It cost more than the others in my drawer, but I don’t give a damn about the others. I suspect I will be enjoying this particular, beautiful, sturdy little towel long after my machine-made ones have worn out. The pinks threading their way through the lavenders brighten my life. It pleases me. I don’t know how to weave, nor have I a loom—but I’m glad the maker of this bit of fabric does. I think it’s worth every penny she asked.

I take my favorite mug down from the shelf. It has classic proportions and feels good in my hands. I run my fingers over the subtle rings left by the maker’s finger tips, the dent left at the base of the handle by his thumb. I think of the impressions left on a treasured pot in our collection by an Iroquoian maker centuries ago, and I get chills. This mug used to hold my morning coffee, not just because it is the perfect roomy size for my java addiction and has a beautiful slate-blue speckled glaze, fading into white over the rim—it also has a story.

Fred and I gave mugs like this to all the gents at the rehearsal dinner for our wedding thirty-five years ago. But now this mug, made by one of Allegany County’s Artisan’s, is retired and resides on a different shelf with our permanent collection of local pottery for which this area is so famous. Its maker, Bruce Greene, has passed on. It’s irreplaceable. I could have bought, smashed, and swept dozens of mold cast, manufactured mugs into the dustbin with nary a pang. But not this one. It is handmade. I knew the maker and saw his shop. He didn’t learn his craft overnight. It has character, beauty, quality, or as another Allegany Artisan, Pete Midgely puts it, “honesty.”

Japan calls its working artisans “Living Treasures.” Tucked away in and inspired by these beautiful Allegany hills, are the studios of dozens of artisans, working in a wide variety of materials. Some are preserving vanishing crafts and traditions, from timber framing, to letter press type setting, to precious metal working and gem cutting, to antler and wood carving and joinery, or tile and cook-ware making from local clay. Others express their personal vision in media like watercolor, printmaking, fiber art, or stuffed animals. There’s a world-renowned stone and metal sculptor, a glass blower, a stained-glass worker, and a candle maker extraordinaire. There are people branching into new media, upcycling, playing with whimsy, color, and pure silliness. Sure they use power tools and machines, but the concept, the designs, each little business, is unique and their own. Their creations have the stamp of the maker.

When I visit another Allegany Artisan’s home I am struck by the many handmade things that she and her husband surround themselves with. Marsha Van Vlack is a ceramic artist. She makes much of the art which decorates her home, the tile work in the bathroom and kitchen, dinnerware on the shelves, but she also collects the work of others, cherishing pieces she admires. “Using a unique thing of beauty that someone has made, makes me happy,” she says simply.

Me? I’m a word-wright, writing mostly for kids, trying to get it right. Is what I do handmade? My brain does the molding, machines do the word processing and printing, but it’s definitely original. The only trouble with being part of this remarkable group of artisans is that I can’t leave our own Irish Hill studio during the upcoming Allegany Artisan’s 27th Annual Tour (October 18th and 19th) to see what the other artists are up to this year and do a little shopping for myself and those I love. For one thing, I need a new and special coffee mug. 

To check out the Allegany Artisans and their work, go to and pick up a brochure at one of your local businesses. Don’t forget to sign in at each location you visit for a chance to win prizes donated by the artists. See you on the tour!   

Monday, September 22, 2014

A Writer in Love with Words and Life

Here's another flea market find from this summer, a 1943 War Economy Standard edition of A.A. Milne's Autobiography. I had no idea that he wrote so much other stuff: humorous essays and verse for Punch Magazine (he aspired to be editor), and plays (he was friends Barrie). I remember that my grandparents took Punch and also the London Illustrated News. I guess being New Englanders, they thought they should be a little English, but my grandfather did travel there to sell lumber, so maybe he read and liked those publications. I was disappointed that Milne spoke so little about the writing he is most famous for: Winnie the Pooh. He did talk about writing When We Were Very Young as a sort of obsessive test of himself, in a summerhouse, when feeling oppressed by too much company, after saying he couldn't write such stuff. The childhood memories of his relationship with his brothers and parents are delightful. I'm curious to learn more about his wife (and "collaborator," Daphne). Christopher Robin was more often called by the name he gave himself at an early age, "Billy Moon." Milne came across as charming, brilliant, funny, self-deprecating, and a tad egotistical at the same time.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Wrap-up for Chautauqua East 2014: What will you wrap up in your radish leaf?

When Larry Rosler, editor of Boyd's Mills Press, asked me to contribute a few words for the wrap-up session Friday afternoon, my busy, obsessive brain went into over-drive. Images popped into my head: holiday gifts wrapped up in beautiful paper; fish 'n chips wrapped up in newspaper; pharaohs wrapped  up in endless yards of crumbling linen; silk moths wrapped up in delicate strands of their own making; Cruella de Vil yearning to be wrapped up in Dalmatian puppy fur; the Christ child wrapped up in swaddling clothes; wrapping a child against the cold; Bob Cratchit's scarf; the Big Game wrap-up of plays and scores; a director shouting, "It's a wrap!" after filming a perfect scene; a swagman's meager possessions wrapped up in a handkerchief tied to a stick; Charlotte dropping swiftly to wrap up a fly entangled in her web . . .

And then oddly, I thought of Chibi, the hero of Taro Yashima's exquisite 1956 Caldecott Honor book, Crow Boy, bringing his simple lunch to school day after day: a rice ball wrapped up in a radish leaf.
(Sorry folks, I remembered it as a cabbage leaf and Amazon wouldn't let me refer to that page to confirm it.)

Over all, the concept means to keep and protect something precious. (With the exception perhaps of of Cruella de Vil!)

A lot happened during our week at The Barn in Honesdale, experiencing the offerings of the faculty of Chautauqua East 2014 (see So I asked those who attended to consider what they would wrap in their radish leaf, what morsels of writing wisdom would they take home to place by their desk? What might sustain them later on their long, sometimes difficult and lonely writing journey? What might help us spin SOME words, SOME HUMBLE words, SOME HUMBLE, RADIANT words? Here's what we came up with:

I started with Patti Gauch's mention in her opening keynote of the concept of Ley Lines which invisibly connect places of inspiration and sanctity, of letting one such line connect us, like Charlotte's silken thread, to this children's writer's haven: The Barn at Honesdale. Here are the others:
Be outrageous
Don't be afraid of breaking rules
Jump with heart into your characters
Find a writing community
Availability--make it understandable
Short, punchy sentences (when appropriate!)
The hero's journey
Discovery of craft and self
Solid core of inner strength
Make time
Try doing the hard part first
Poetry is not impulse, it requires study and craft
Read it aloud
Use concrete images

What's wrapped in your radish leaf?


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Why do I Write for Children?

     There's an interesting blog post going around this morning by Marion Dane Bauer, Why Write for Children. Occasionally I ask myself the same question. Did I get stuck in some sort of developmental Never Land? Am I not a good enough writer to write for adults? Is juvenile literature somehow less valuable?
     Those who think it's easy or trivial, have probably never tried it or written anything memorable. I can't say exactly why, but the books I love best to read--and to write--are mostly intended for young people. Once, a writer I truly respect and admire, actually told me that my writing was being wasted on kids. I felt cut to the bone. It was all I ever wanted to do--my personal Olympic quest.
     "Did you like to read when you were a boy?" I asked him.
     "Oh yes, I was a passionate reader!" he assured me. He went on to tell in great detail how much he had enjoyed the works of Twain, Ernest Thompson Seton, Jean Craighead George, and E. B. White. He could recite long verses of Kipling.
     "And do you think your reading as a child had anything to do with the person and the writer you are today?" I asked.
     He paused. "Well, yes. Absolutely."
     "I rest my case." But I couldn't help adding, "You wouldn't have story, language, and the means for putting it together if you hadn't grown up on great literature. What if, like a diet of white bread and sugar, you had grown up on junk? Do our children deserve anything less than the best?"
     I was a shy, sometimes lonely kid. For the most part, my childhood was safe and wonderful, but there were undercurrents of unhappiness, anger, even some bullying. Books meant everything to me, not just as an escape, but as a parallel world every bit as true as this one. I know there are kids out there who feel the same way.
     Maybe, like James Barrie, children's writers are really children who never entirely lost the magic--who never quite grew up. I love to stop and listen to kids and to look at the world as much as I am able to through their eyes: the newness, the moment-to-moment discovery, the joys and tragedies big and small, the funny stuff, the spurts and bumps and metamorphosis of growth! How I loved the man who took time from my parents' cocktail party to teach Cathy and me the dot and line game and tell us a story. Maybe he was one who never quite grew up.
     On rare summer afternoons, our big brother, Ted, who now writes for Audubon and Fly Rod & Reel, told us "badjagerag" stories evolved from Hugh Lofting's Dr. Doolittle tales. There was magic! How I believed in Ted and Dave's adventures in Africa and those glowing green eyes in the hot jungle night!
     These days, Ted's five, grandchildren cozy up next to him at the camp in New Hampshire or call "Pop" on the phone for Crackling Geese, Young "Sloppy," and a fountain of other stories that he has never thought worth writing down. A loss to the world. Ted Williams is an award-winning, fine and respected environmental journalist. He cooks sunfish fillets for the kids, calling then "children's perch" to stretch out a family fish-fry. But actually, the sunfish are entirely delicious too, just a different species. Maybe one day he'll write some of his stories down. It would be a great contribution to the world of literature--juvenile and adult.