Poet Tree: Revisiting the past

Most people use photos to remember the past. I do that, too. For example I remember asking my brother to take this photo of me in early July of 1979. I had just graduated from high school and I was going to be attending Syracuse University's College of Visual and Performing Arts the next fall. They had requested a photo for the Freshman "Face Book." (I don't actually remember what the thing was called, but now the only name for it is ubiquitous.) I look back at this photo all these years later and see the teen I was- a loner- a bit of a weirdo- always hiding behind my hair and my collection of hats. I wasn't very happy either. A photo can tell you some of that, but a journal or a poem tells you so much more.

Since April is poetry month, I decided to revisit my past- and to do that by reading poems that I've written over the years. Someday I'd love to create a collection of them and illustrate it. My working title is: "I Have a Little Poet Tree in Me." But here and now I want to share a trio of poems from a few different periods of my life. It's amazing how you can gauge your own feelings, emotions, life, and the very times around you by the things you write. So without much further ado, here we go:

I wrote this poem just before that photo of me was taken in 1979. Seventeen years old. Full of angst. A broken heart. A girl who loved boys, but also loved language and poetry even more.


If I see you in the present future
I know the past was not too perfect
You can correct me if I'm wrong
I'm feeling tense so I'll move along

Although there was a pause in our stanza
I think we left the line open
We can write more if you care
Or we can punctuate it there

We can have rhythm or flow smoothly
Or perhaps we can be spontaneous
It's hard for me to see
Just tell me if you want to be free.

©Nina Laden 1979

Then in May of 1993 I was very excited. My first children's book, "The Night I Followed the Dog" was about to be published by Chronicle Books. I was sharpening my mental pencils and coming up with new ideas, and the process became poetic... so I whipped out my IBM Selectric typewriter and wrote this:


Sometimes the world is a blank piece of paper and there is no ink in your pen.

Then gradually the clouds part, and in one corner of your mind, the sun gets in and a small shadow grows in the shape of something you've seen before, but never in this light.

As the light seeps in, warm and rosy, you see textures and shapes combining in new ways. The picture is hazy, but if you squint, you can see the edges.

Shapes, forms, colors, all swirling in an electric dance.

You start to recognize the place, the content. You find yourself drawn into the image. You have not seen it before, but you are comfortable and you know where you are.

You are happy, floating, enlightened by your discovery.

The light brightens, the edges define, the shadows lend weight. You feel a sense of solidity.

This feels good, honest, but you let a small cloud in the window.
It does not belong, but still you consider it. Maybe it was sent for a good reason.

You check the corners of your space. You must know it intimately.
You find a small crack. It is nothing, you assure yourself. This is still a fine place, you can fix it.

Meanwhile, the cloud is growing. It is casting a dark shadow.
The shadow dances around, and you are fascinated by it. You stand in the shadow wanting to feel its' motion.

But it takes your energy and grows bigger.

You realize that the light is leaving, the colors, the shapes, the textures, they are all disappearing, consumed by the shadow.

No, this cannot happen. You have allowed this. It is getting darker. You reach for the last glimmer of the light as it tries to take wing.

You catch it and hold it in your hand.
You realize that you must believe in it absolutely or it will not thrive.

You remember it was born in your mind.
It will grow by your hand.
But it will only survive if taken to heart.

You let go, and feel it in every pore of your body.
The light floods in. You embrace it, it embraces you.
The words flow like rivers.
The pictures speak a thousand words.
And there is music everywhere.

You have found the place.
The place in your mind.
The place where ideas come from.

And yet, your journey has just begun.

©Nina Laden 1993

Reading that one now makes me think I was in my New Age Sark phase. I think I was a little too serious about "the process" of creating. But by 2000 I was in a new delirious period. I had five books come out in 2000: I illustrated Walter Dean Myers' book, "The Blues of Flats Brown," then my books: "Bad Dog," "Roberto the Insect Architect," and "Peek-A Who?" and "Ready, Set, Go!" all were published. But the highlight of the year was when I was invited to speak in schools in Cherbourg, France. They used my book, "When Pigasso Met Mootisse" (in French) in their curriculum. My husband went with me and we were feasted and feted in Normandy. My book even won the Prix du Festival and I received a prize from the Mayor of Cherbourg, himself.

I was paid in francs for my speaking in Cherbourg, so my husband and I took the train to Paris after I was done, and we spent it all there. I wrote this poem in my journal on the flight home:

LA VIE DES CHIENS EN PARIS (The Life of Dogs in Paris)

It's the life of a dog in Paris.
You can go anywhere-
In the Metro, in the hotels...
And you can GO on the street.
That's right- do your "business"
-La Toilette-
Anywhere you desire.
La Champs Elysées?
That's okay!
The Eiffel Tower?
They'll follow and scour.
The streets of Paris
On each side of the Seine
Are veritable minefields
Of "Paté de Chien!"

You can take your dog
Who walks on all fours
To La Samaritaine,
Paris' huge department store.
But on the escalator
You cannot take her
Unless you embrace her,
And carry her up and down...
So don't buy a Great Dane,
It's really quite insane,
When there are so many poodles around.

©Nina Laden 2000

There are hundreds of poems in my journals from my past and present life. I find that they are more fun, and more telling than the traditional sort of journal entries- the descriptive narrative form, that most journals are written in. So give it a try. Maybe you have a little poet tree growing in you. Celebrate yourself and celebrate Poetry Month with a little verse.

If you want to share any of your moments of beauty, angst or just plain old playing around- add your poems to the comments.

With Love,


Writing Tools for your Head: My 4 R's

I don't have a writing hat. If I did it might be something like my new ski helmet- the one I just painted and adorned with an Ogden Nash poem. I don't have a special writing pen, or a certain writing chair either, but I do have "writing tools." No, you can't buy them in a writing store. Well, the one exception would be journals. Those are definitely tools I use all the time. But that's not what I'm going to talk about. These are the tools I use almost unconsciously when I'm writing. I've been talking about them in schools and teaching this when I do workshops. 

Now some of you will say, "oh, that's old hat." Yeah, but it fits. And it works. Here it is:

"Nina's 4 R's for Writing"

Every story, every idea, every concept begins with research. Even if you are writing fantasy or fiction. You have to find out the background, the important and pertinent information, the exciting details that will bring your world to life. Nowadays research is a piece of cake. Hello Internet. In the old days I used to have to use a card catalog and the Dewey Decimal System. I still haven't been able to toss my set of Encyclopedia Brittanica's circa 1973, and you should see my wall of yellow: the National Geographics that go back to the 50's. (My mom got me started.)

I love to do research. I love to learn new things. I have this insatiable curiosity that drives my husband nuts. I'm always asking "why" like a four year old. One of the other benefits of research is that you may stumble over tidbits that inspire ideas for other books. Great. Write'em down before you forget, and then get back to your main focus.

After you do your research write your first draft. Just write it. Don't ask questions. Put it all down. It will not be perfect. It may not even be good. But you did it. Have a glass of wine and get ready for:

You have to learn to love to revise. You have to want to make your work better. I revised my book, "Roberto the Insect Architect" twenty-eight times until it was finally ready. That was over a period of five years. Yes, it's a picture book. Yes, I've been asked, "how many picture books can you write in one day?" You don't want to see my face when I hear that question. It's like my first draft- not worthy of publication.

I'm working on a novel now. In fact I should be revising it, but I wanted to get this post up. Procrastination is the enemy of revision. Fight it by setting deadlines. Revising larger bodies of work is made easier for me by annotating notes in my text and saving it as a separate copy.

But what really helps me revise is:

It's not a baby thing to do. I read my writing out loud while I'm working all the time. It helps me hear my word choice. We have a tendency when we speak to use the same words over and over. I know I use the words, "really," "actually," and "very" too much when I speak. When you write you need to watch out for word abuse. Use that thesaurus - it should be on your desktop somewhere- and I don't mean some dusty old volume. Jeez, what did we do before computers? Also, if you can't take a breath at the end of a sentence, you wrote a run-on sentence. Make it into two smaller sentences. Maybe even three if you are looking for a clipped tone. Listen for rhythm. Make your prose resonate like poetry. Two words next to each other that are hard to say? Tongue twister. Hello thesaurus.

Now my fourth "R" is a little unusual.

That doesn't mean "get a good night's sleep," although that is very important. (Just ask my cat, Cali- she is a professional sleeper. She makes me jealous.) Rest is for your manuscript. Put it away for as long as possible and DON'T READ IT. If you can let it rest for a month or more you will be surprised to find so many things that need fixing when you come back to it with fresh eyes. We writers are all guilty of this at some point or another: we write something and we are so excited that we send it off to our agent or to our editor, or to a reader friend- and then three days later we think of a better ending- or we realize we left out an important transition. Let your work REST! If you still like it a month or so later- then send it out to see if it is worthy of publication. 

Then if you are really lucky, the 5th "R" will be ROYALTIES. 

In addition to my 4 R's- I also offer some other writing tools for your head: Classes and Conferences. There are so many available across the country and the world. I highly recommend the SCBWI Annual Conference which is held in Los Angeles every August. 

For something closer to home, if your home is in the great Northwest in the vicinity of Bellingham, WA, I personally will be teaching and participating in my own workshop and at a brand new Writer's Conference. 

First the workshop: I will be teaching a very intense seven-hour class called "Creating Children's Picture Books" on Saturday May 21st through Whatcom Community College Community Ed. You can read about the class here. You can register online here. The cost is really reasonable.

And now the conference...

I am thrilled to be participating in this incredible inaugural conference taking place on the gorgeous campus at WCC this June 24th and 25th. The inimitable writer Tom Robbins is coming out of retirement to grace us with his insane and talented presence. Jim Lynch, who I personally got to hang out with when he came to Lummi Island, is giving a keynote. (He even stayed at my place because his sailboat had engine failure on the way and had to go in for repairs.) The line-up at this conference is stellar and if you sign up before May 1st there is a discount.

You can read all about the Chuckanut Writers Conference here, and sign up as well. It should be a wonderful way to get inspired, meet authors, agents, editors, and book lovers- and hopefully it should add some new tools for your head.

I hope this is helpful. Happy writing- and use those tools!

With Love,


The Essence of Happiness: or "Me in a Bottle?"

Last fall I put up a post about winning the Fresh "Eat, Pray, Love" essay contest. If you haven't read it, you can read it here. It was a prize beyond what I had imagined. In many ways it was a SUR-prize because not only did I get to have a bespoke fragrance created for me by Fresh co-owner Lev Glazman, but I was treated like family by Lev and all of the Fresh employees. On top of that I learned so much about fragrance - and by proxy, about myself.

Who are we really? Are we what we do? What we look like? What we say? Think? We are a collection of cells, nerves, genetic material, and senses. They say that vision trumps all senses, but I don't believe that. I watched this video yesterday about a young man named Patrick Henry Hughes who was born without eyes, but when you hear him play piano- you can feel the beauty of his soul. He can see. It's just not the same way we do. 

Lev Glazman can see just fine, he is not visually impaired like Patrick. But his sense of smell is not like yours or mine. His world is multi-layed with bottom notes, middle notes and high notes. Yes, that sounds like music, doesn't it? Every fragrance has those layers. Every person has those layers- some of us are more deep and earthy and heavy on the bottom notes. Some of us may be as fragile as a cherry blossom, light and airy, and bound to fly away. We all have a unique signature just like we have a scent.

It was my great fortune to have Lev "find my scent." Ironically, I've never been a big commercial fragrance user. My mother loved her "Y" by Yves Saint Laurent. My paternal grandmother was rather fond of Chanel. I can't remember which number. Maybe it was #5. For a brief period I tried Ysatis by Givenchy. Lev told me that is an "oriental" fragrance. My husband liked it, but it didn't really suit me.

This suits me. This is me in a bottle. I know that makes me sound like Barbara Eden in "I Dream of Jeannie." That's actually an apt metaphor. Everyone knows that if you rub on the bottle the genie comes out and makes your wishes come true. In this case you don't rub- you open it and dab... and you know what? My wish came true. 

I won an incredible contest based on my writing. I met and became friends with a fascinating man. I already had loved his company, Fresh and their products which I use daily. I had a gorgeous fragrance designed for me that is the essence of ME. And the label- it's me, too- designed by co-owner of Fresh, the lovely Alina Roytberg. I have not met her, but someday I hope I do. 

...and the wish? When I open the bottle and inhale that fragrance and put it on me, I feel happy. I always wish for happiness. What else is so important in life? This gift will make me happy every day. Thank you Lev, Alina and Fresh for this amazing gift.

I also wish you could experience this, but sadly there is no scratch and sniff on the internet. (At least not yet. Mark Zuckerberg what are you waiting for? Invent it!) But I hope you find that essence of what makes you happy. We all need to practice the art of happiness on a daily basis. 

Writing is what led me to that bottle of happiness. I won't forget that.
And I'll keep writing, too.

With Love,


Mental and Visual Gymnastics

I don't know if you can read what Howard Finster, the late, great folk artist, wrote on the forehead of this self-portrait of him as a young man. It says, "mY. BRAINE IS COMPUTERISED FROM GOD. IT COMES DOWN TO MY. RIGHT HAND IN TO MY BRUSH. RIGHT.ON THE WOOD." 

Years ago when I lived in Atlanta I used to make many pilgrimages to Paradise Gardens, the incredible and very surreal home of the Reverend, himself. I own two of his pieces, including this one, above. He even signed it to me on the back. (and I have a photo of him doing that...) I loved (and still love) Howard for his fearless ability to create and turn everything into art. He even numbered each piece he did with his own crazy numbering system. The self-portrait is number: 29.000. 344 (which means number 29,344) and he created it May 14, 1993. 

I have never numbered my "works." Nor have I saved my dried up pens and worn out brushes to repurpose into "new art," like Howard did.

What I do have are journals. Piles of journals. They will never be "wore out," and at this point there are over five thousand-four hundred pages of my brain scatterings in them. If I didn't have these journals I would not be grounded. My ideas and thoughts would swirl around in the ionosphere and then disappear. I keep telling kids when I visit schools to "save everything" because you never know when something old will inspire you to create something new. 

I work out mentally and visually in my journals. I write whatever "comes down to my right hand in to my" pen. Some things are good. Some things are bad. Some things the jury is still out deliberating.

I wrote this poem the other day. I woke up and it was in my head, so I wrote it down. If you can't read my sloppy "inspiration" writing, I'll translate:

Do bats need batteries
Or else they won't run?
Do cats cause catastrophes
When they're out having fun?
Are bees unbelievable
When they're telling a story?
Are dogs doggone cute
When they find something gory?
Can fish be official 
When decisions are made?
Can ducks clog up ductwork
When they need to find shade?
Will ants be antagonistic 
If they go on vacation?
Will bears be unbearable
After hibernation?
Do cows kowtow
When they're feeling their oats?
Do sheep act sheepish
When missing their coats?
Do goats grow goatees
So they can look cool?
Do lions get lionized 
So they can rule?
Will cheetahs cheat
If they're taking a test?
Are gulls gullible
When choosing a nest?
Can families be familiar
Even if they are new?
Will you be unique
Because you are you?

I don't think this is worthy of publication, yet it's still fun. It's mental exercise, and good old word-play nonsense. I have a strong vein of Edward Lear running through me that my mother injected when I was a wee lass. I find that poems sprout unexpectedly like surprise Irises in my garden. You have to capture them before they fade into compost. Some of them have even worked their way into picture book potential. I nailed one recently with the help of a wonderful editor in New York. (yes, I'm being vague on purpose.) That poem is called, "Does A Feather Remember?"

One of the other many uses of my journal is also to work out my ideas visually before I head into my studio and start working with my "life:time art supplies."

This is where I play with thumbnails before they go to sketch dummies. Sometimes I cut and paste things, too. I'm never 100% certain of where I'm going until I get there, but with inspiration from artists like the "fearless Reverend Finster" I know that I have to just put it out there and see if it can have a life of its' own. 

I feel that my books are "my children," and I think that Howard Finster must have felt a similar kinship for each piece he created, otherwise why would he have numbered them? My journals themselves are numbered. This current one is number 28. The contents of each journal is my creative DNA- some strange code that eventually produces a book- or a work of art of some sort- or it just lets me do my creative exercise and keep that "braine computerised from God." 

Kids ask me if I write in my journal (or draw) every day. I wish that I was that disciplined. I'm much more of a "when the muse strikes" kind of artist. There have been stretches when the well is dry, and then there are single days that I've written 80 pages. The good news is that there are tons of seeds that I've planted in my journals over the years. The stories/ideas that start to blossom always let me know- and then I get down to business. 

It's the same for my real garden. In fact I'm finally heading out to plant peas. If I'm lucky they'll feed us in a couple of months. Meanwhile we'll eat the last of the beets, carrots and parsnips that I should have dug up a while back... somehow they've kept growing.
Not to be too cliché, but you can't reap if you don't sow. 
Pull out that journal and get going.

With Love,


Stinging Nettles

The time is nigh for stinging nettles. They are best picked before they flower. To avoid being stung, long sleeves, pants and gloves are recommended. My husband and I (heretofore referred to as "we" or "us.") wore the proper attire and went into the woods this morning, bucket and scissors in hand.

The woods looked like this. Moss was having a field day. We were too. As we approached the edges of a field, we spotted our prey. Beautiful, young nettles were growing next to blackberry, salmon berry and trailing native blackberry vines. Wearing gloves, we clipped about four quarts of loosely packed nettle tops. For us, harvesting wild food is one of our favorite things to do.

Nettles have been used by First Nations people for centuries. They have been reported to be a tonic for lung issues such as asthma and bronchitis. They also are said to help clear skin conditions and help hair grow stronger. In Great Britain they even have nettle eating contests where they eat them raw- and see who can handle the terrific pain of masticating all of that formic acid in those needles.

Fortunately cooking nettles removes the sting. And soup cures all ills. So we made soup. It's really quite simple: you just cook a chopped onion in some butter and olive oil until it's soft. Then add two teaspoons of chopped garlic, one third of a cup of raw rice, four cups of chicken or vegetable stock, and using tongs- pile in the nettles. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer for twenty minutes, or until the rice is soft.

Then you puree the soup in a blender and add salt and pepper to taste. Spring in a bowl. Without the sting. Some fresh chives chopped on top would also be a nice addition. We are happy to report ours are growing like crazy next to our raspberry canes- which are leafing out. Now if only the morels would show their pine-cone shaped heads we'd head back to the woods... 

When the world hits you over the head- head to the woods- that's the best cure! And make soup, too.

With Love,