Category Archives: Writing & Books


I learned a new word today: Howdah. It’s a carriage or seat in which people ride on the back of an elephant. It’s not one I’ll use often, but wish I could! 

Not howdy. Howdah. I was at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco with my East Bay College Fund mentee, scholar Emely Srimoukda. There was an actual howdah exhibited, as well as howdahs pictured in art on the walls. You could yell howdy! from your howdah if you had one perched on top of your elephant as you swayed down the road.

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Filed under Creativity, Painting & Design, Writing & Books

Pen Pals: Gratitude & Obama

In my first writing group years ago, eight of us sat circled on couches and chairs, pens in hand, filling our notebooks with free writes. Now keypad clicking replaces ballpoint scratching and there are three in the group—Ann, Gillian and I. We check in with life’s anticipations, new chapters of our big stories and small. We write, read aloud, and check out, confirming our next date. We’ve written through joys and sorrows, births, deaths, teething, teen angst, breakups, heartbreaks, breakdowns and breakthroughs. It goes without saying that we appreciate one another, but I want them to know how much those few hours every other week matter to me.

From across the country and through cyberspace, other pen pals check in. Yesterday, my friend Jordan Rosenfeld emails about her new blog, book tours, interviewing, editing. She’s a wonderful writer, inspiration to others, and a new mother. I also want baby news. Her check in won’t be complete without the details. In her blog she says, “I’m grateful to all those people who’ve contributed to my journey as a writer.” As I am grateful to her.

I heard from a woman who bought a copy of A Painter’s Garden a decade ago. On November 4, she took it from her shelf and read it to comfort her through the anxious hours before she knew for sure that Obama had won the election. Sylvia tracked me down to order a book for a friend in Canada. The two have been best pals since age five; they are now seventy. She told me that, coincidentally, her sister had just received a copy of my book from a woman who said that it had changed her life. A “your book changed my life” email had landed in my inbox a few weeks previously from Diane, whom I’ve never met in person, though we’ve shared many phone calls and emails on projects related to my design business. Yes. As it turns out, she is the one who gave the book to Sylvia’s sister.

Today is brisk and sunny in Northern California. Over a lunch of warmed-up leftover tomatillo chili, I click on the television, looking for breaking news. I’m not normally a daytime TV watcher, and am trying to disengage from the habit formed during the Presidential campaign. I couldn’t get enough of Barack Obama then or now. I crave the optimism and intelligence after the past eight years of the current administration, which set a dangerously low bar for a dumbed-down, fearful political agenda. I want to write to my President-elect and tell him that that he and Michelle are changing our lives for the better. In spite of all the bad economic news, there is hope when they check in. I’m eager for details, but still basking in the joys of anticipation. They have a handle on what needs doing, but they can’t accomplish it alone. I’m going to tell them that I’m grateful for the journey we’re about to begin as a nation. I’m going to thank them for re-inspiring those of us old enough to remember Kennedys and young enough, as is my 20-year-old son, to become inspired for the first time by a man and woman who honor the office of President and role of First Lady, a man and woman whose gratitude is heartfelt and contagious.

The website lists a snail mail address: Obama for America, P.O. Box 8102, Chicago, Il 60680.

Pick up your pens.


Dialog, oil on canvas

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Inventing characters

When writing a novel, you want to know your characters. To help with imagining them and propelling the story, make scrapbooks for each fictional person. From magazines, catalogs, newspapers and other photo sources, snip visual detail to cut and paste onto pages dedicated to each character. What did your adult characters look like when they were children? Where do your characters live? Who are their friends, relatives, pets? What foods, fashions, and fetishes do they enjoy? How might color palettes convey their personalities? Does your protagonist wear an old t-shirt or negligee to bed? Is her lover a man of mismatched socks? Most of what you discover won’t end up in the prose, but it will deepen your characters and their story. Books on the craft of writing  suggest making lists of character attributes, but I find the visual prompts to be richer. In the example below, I knew enough about a minor character in the story to recognize him at eight years old painting a watercolor at his living room coffee table. I knew he had protruding ears, so I recognized him in a photo as a baby. I was surprised to see him as a teenager with his recording equipment, yet his look of focused attention was familiar and right. All of this was used, not only for his character development and scenes, but also for that of his mother, who was a main character, his father, and his friends, who are prominent in the story.   

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Starting to write

How to begin? The question shouts from the blank page. The mind may also be blank, or it may be glinting with ideas and images, blinding in the way the sun’s reflection obscures vision while driving east in the morning or west in the late afternoon, especially when the windshield is streaked with dew or dust. You lower the window visor or salute hand to forehead. You fumble for sunglasses and put them on. Now there’s just the road ahead, stretching out flat.

You pick up the pen or put fingers to the keyboard. The mind numbs, then chatter begins: there are already too many blogs, an abundance of books. Who needs yours? You think of deadlines to meet, calls to make, dishes to do, a dog to bathe. You’ve heard it all before, so you silence the chatter, slapping it away as you would a mosquito, and missing. His buzzing annoys. You quickly type “How to begin?” There. You’ve marred the page. Now what about caffeine? Coffee or tea? You become the mosquito, darting here, landing there. A pot of tea, trip to the bathroom. You circle back to the target. Two paragraphs in there’s a pulsing in your temple—that body awareness. You breathe deeply and smooth the keys, feeling your fingertips, their bulbous bounciness against the concave plastic.

You have so much to tell. The TED videos you watched online this week: Ken Robinson’s humorous and dead-on talk about how schools kill creativity, Jill Bolte Taylor’s passionate story about her stroke of insight. A revisiting of Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts” based on Raymond Carver stories and the Carver extras sandwiched with the DVD. Your own wrestling with creative process, with reclaiming joy. Conversations with friends and strangers. Work unfinished in the studio. Hand goes to head again, this time as the Thinker. You see clearly the road you want to travel. Miles to go.

See you there!

Christine Walker

© Christine Walker 2008. All rights reserved.

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Filed under Creativity, Writing & Books