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How to Give Creative Feedback

A friend just joined a writing group an mentioned that feedback can feel so personal. Here’s what I told her:

Writing groups can be so tricky, I think, because English classes teach us that the way to give feedback is through pointing out the problems, but that can be stifling in the early creative stages of a project.

If I’m at the very end or am stuck then I totally want someone to just tell me how to cut it up, but if it’s in a younger stage that feels so harsh and generally not useful.

I have always liked the 4 step feedback method I learned from storytelling coach Doug Lipman. It’s up to the writer/receiver how far to go in the steps. Even if you only do the first one it’s really helpful to hear from multiple people what they like about the story.
*First: reader says specific things they like (might be plot element, language, imagery, tone, etc)
*Second: writer asks questions of the reader (ie, Was it clear that 1 year had passed? What did the main character look like to you?)
*Third: reader asks questions (ie, What feeling for you want the reader to have at the end? How old is the main character?) This step can be tricky because readers want to give suggestions but phrase them as questions.
*Fourth: reader gives suggestions; I think phrasing them as “what ifs” is best (What if you start with a flashback? I think you can cut the part about the dog).

Gardening is Also Digging Rocks

There’s more to gardening than planting flowers.

You can start seeds. You can divide and transplant. But you have to weed, or cover the soil with mulch. And before any of that, you have to work with the dirt you’ve got.

This summer I’ve spent a lot of time clearing wheelbarrow loads of gravel out of two garden beds. (Never will I landscape with gravel and black plastic, never!) I also dug up a pretty massive pile of rocks.

One neighbor shouted across the street, “Rose, what are you doing?”

I shouted back, “I have no idea.” I was making hay while the sun shone, I guess.


I’ve wanted to clear out these beds ever since we moved in six years ago. But the task was always daunting and far less inspiring than arranging peonies or transplanting tiger lilies from my grandma’s garden.

And I had bigger problems than gravel: my main beds were choked with snow on the mountain (impossible to get the roots out!) and lily of the valley (with 18 inch root beds!).

So for a few summers I dug out invasive plants. I shook dirt from the roots. I got the best garden tool ever and twisted the soil until the crab grass and the snow on the mountain roots sifted themselves to the surface. I did some plain old boring weeding.

And this year, all threats to my established plants taken care of, I started the season with an early weeding, and could sit back and let the garden just do its thing.

We’re almost to our sixth anniversary of moving in here— the longest Jay and I have lived anywhere since we met each other almost 14 years ago. And there are projects that continue to arise— not as surprises, but, now that more pressing matters are handled, as the next thing on the list.

I’ve been feeling frustrated with my hang ups about book layout and publishing. I’ve been feeling worried about not really knowing what I’m doing, worried about making mistakes in front of people, and mistakes that cost money to dispose of and/or fix.

I’ve been asking myself, how can making books be like making a garden?

It already is. I’m just in the rock-picking stage.

It’s not hopeless. This won’t go on forever. I know there’s good soil under it all. I just have to stick with it. Keep putting on my gloves and picking up my shovel. It can be tricky, since my flower gardens are in sight all the time— my progress is visible, whereas working in In Design or sitting on hold with Ingram are not.

Maybe I should make a map of my “book garden”— shade the areas that have been cleared, note the skills that have been learned. And maybe I need to cut myself a vase of flowers to put on my desk while I work.

Story Starter Grab Bag

If you’re stuck on a story, or just want to mix things up, try making a Story Starter Grab Bag.

You can be a Plotter or a Pantser (or something in between)– be as structured or as loose as you’d like, but set yourself a timer of 3 minutes for each of the following lists, and write down as many things as you can think of:



What happens

Themes/What the story is about

Postive moments

Negative moments

Images you can picture vividly

Now cut up the lists and mix the slips up in a pile (you can make a separate pile for each list, or mix all of them together).
Then set a timer for 10, 20, or 30 minutes, draw three slips, and write. You’ll discover connections you hadn’t noticed, and see your story from new perspectives– and you just might solve some plot problems or writer’s block.


Austin Kleon writes about “A Bag of Words” in his blog post (referencing Linda Barry and Ray Bradbury). When I lead the Grand Marais Writers’ Guild each month, we always start with a free-association word list based on an image, choose from the list, and use those words in a couple writing exercises. I liked the idea of a Bag rather than a list– it reminds me of the party game, Popcorn, that’s sort of a cross between Charades and Twenty Questions. And I like the randomness of drawing slips of paper, like drawing cards from a fortune teller: I like trusting my subconscious or some other unseeable force to point me in the right direction (and you can’t be blocked about what words to choose when you don’t get to choose them).

For longer writing projects, like novels, things can get stuck in a rut: write chronologically, figure out the problem in Act 2 before moving on to Act 3, is this a single novel or a trilogy?, etc. Using slips and words/phrases brings us back to seeing the story; when you can see it, you just have to write down what’s in front of you.

Roald Dahl & the Writing Shed

When I was a kid, Roald Dahl was my favorite author. I loved “James and the Giant Peach,” and thought of it every time we flew to England to visit my grandparents. I looked for cities in the clouds, for the people who painted and hung rainbows. I imagined the BFG gathering dreams, though I couldn’t picture him coming to my rural Minnesota farmhouse to blow them into my bedroom; but in England on narrow streets between small brick houses, it seemed he was real.

When I watched “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” I felt betrayed— how could Roald Dahl have made Charlie and his grandpa behave so badly? It didn’t feel like his other stories— and sure enough, when I re-read “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” I discovered my hunch was right: Charlie was the only child who didn’t act selfishly (and Willy Wonka wasn’t creepy).

Maybe because I had British grandparents I read more BritLit as a child, or maybe that was just what was good. (“The Chronicles of Narnia,” everything by Enid Blyton, the many adventures of “Dr. Doolittle”). I felt drawn to Roald Dahl not just because his stories were so fantastical— a grandmother who smoked cigars! a girl who stood up to her horrible principal! a giraffe with a telescoping neck!— but also because he and my grandad blended together in my mind. My grandad wrote me airmail letters on thin blue paper, always with a fountain pen in all capital letters because otherwise, he said, I wouldn’t be able to read his “poor penmanship.”

Getting a book by Roald Dahl was like getting to be with my grandad, though I don’t recall him ever reading any of them to me.

When I was about nine I told my mom I couldn’t wait for his next book (I’d read everything for kids by then). “When do you think it will come out?” She had to tell me that he’d died a few years ago. In my memory, that was around the same time as other blows: my parents’ divorce, my grandad dying suddenly of a brain tumor (and us not flying over for the funeral).

Roald Dahl was an adult, but he wasn’t like any adult I knew. He was wicked and weird, and he had gone to boarding school in England (worse, even than going to my small town school and not really feeling I fit in).

As an adult he is still one of my most favorite writers. I aim to write books that could be the children of his and Astrid Lindgren’s work. I’ve read his adult short stories. I’ve read his twelve month memoir of a year, and I’ve thought off and on about how he had a little writing shed on his property, and the marvelously odd assortment of things he kept on his desk (including the head of his own femur after he had it replaced!).

But it had never occurred to me, a child of the era when tvs still had clunky knobs that turned with a chunk chunk, that I could search for videos of Roald Dahl on the internet.

… They exist! He only died in the ‘80s, so there are BBC clips and whole documentaries! I watched a short one today in which he walked us out to his shed! It was cluttered and the plaster was peeling in a way very reminiscent of when my studio was bare sheetrock with so many black screw heads they made a constellation! He sat down in his armchair, put a long packing tube across the arm rest, laid a large writing board on that at an angle, sharpened six pencils (“always six”), and began to write. In a voice over, he described what he was doing and how the whole process went, which was, of course, fascinating. But what made me shout with delight and surprise was he said he always sits in a sleeping bag, pulled up to his chest! I was, at that very moment, in my own backyard shed (wearing a big fur coat), with my own sleeping bag pulled up to my chest!

It reminded me of the many times I’ve thought of printing off portraits of writers and others I admire: Roald and Astrid, of course, Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman, Lorna Landvik, comedian Maria Bamford (the newest addition), and marketing and business genius Seth Godin.

There have been days when I lugged Stephen King’s “On Writing” around and then held it to my chest. Or I propped it up on my writing desk next to Anne Lammott’s “Bird by Bird” and Amanda Palmer’s “The Art of Asking.”

Why does this matter? Why does it help?

Though I live in a very creative community with a higher saturation of artists than your typical small town, I am still so alone. I’m alone in that the norm is still to have a Regular Job or a Professional Career— the kind that you don’t have to provide a definition for at parties when someone asks what you do. Even in the arts community I tend to feel alone: it’s not like traditional oral storytelling is part of the Academy Awards and in the public eye. I’m alone because that’s just the general background music in my life— it’s not as tragic as it was in my teen years, and it’s a feeling I expect to have my whole life. How could I not? I’m a pioneer, an explorer gazing West. All the things that interest me require me to go where I’ve never gone before.

Being alone like this is both wonderful (I am an introvert, after all), but also a little crazy. I recently visited my alma mater, an arts high school in the Twin Cities. I was nearly floating off the ground with happiness by the time I left (rather like Charlie and his grandpa in the erroneous film adaptation, before they realize they’re going to be sliced to ribbons by the ceiling fans). Why was I so elated? Because I was reminded that for two years, Monday through Friday, I lived in a community of artists. Everyone was there to explore, to be creative, to learn, to practice a craft, to try weird stuff. And, as my theatre teacher so off-handedly commented, it was an ensemble program; there were no divas or super stars. We did three months of improv before moving on to other subjects. I dream sometimes of what it would be like to be surrounded by other middle grade writers— how much more I would be likely to write if every casual conversation at the coffee shop or grocery store was about word count and trying to figure out just what the protagonist wanted, and how cool but complicated it was to invent a language for pixies.

Seth Godin talks often about marketing as “People like us do things like this.” As in, you speak to your tribe, to your niche, to your tiny, specific, weird corner of the world. And I thought, “But what if there aren’t ‘people like us’ around?” What if I’m not bumping shoulders with 299 other people pursuing a life built on art, because at least in my physical, everyday life, I’m not.

I suppose that’s why I watch actors interviewed on late night shows, or watch the Oscars. It’s why I listen to Seth’s podcast. It’s why I watch Maria Bamford’s comedy. And it’s why I want to put those portraits up in my studio. I want to remind myself, This is where I come from. This is my family tree: Roald and Astrid, Uncle Lewis and his magic wardrobe, the next door neighbor who writes about daemons and parallel worlds, even Stephen, whose books are too creepy for me, because he flies so far past “normal.”

So I was delighted, I felt Roald Dahl was visiting me, having a chat in my garden shed when I came across his interview. I ask myself, “What would Roald do? How would Philip say it? Would Astrid be worried what people think?” I line their pictures up in my mind; I know they would root for me, nod in approval, tell me to keep going, because though it is frightening to step into the unknown, it is also marvelous.



What is Magic?

photo by John David Dela-Peri

What is Magic?

It is fierceness and generosity. It is one hundred children sitting cross-legged on the floor of the gym. It is six children in the corner of the library.

For me, Magic is Story. Or, Story is the vehicle I know how to navigate.

Magic is a feeling, an energy. There is mystery to it: I don’t know what will show up. Right now, I don’t know what I will say, though I feel many pressing, urgent things.


Magic is the sound of gold coins in a bowl, paying the fine for stealing a whiff of bread.

Magic is the cloak of the storyteller who clothes the naked truth so that the villagers can stand the sight of him and hear the wisdom he has to share.

Magic is a woven basket, the white necklace of the loon, the way pussy willows look like cat paws.


Magic is the connection, the unseeable, the divine. It is what makes us not feel we are alone. It is a lineage, an inheritance, an ancestry. It is the future, it is visions, it is dreams.

Where does it come from? Or, do we come from it? Are we the props, the puppets, the shadows on the wall as Magic tells itself a story about life?


I have always wanted to know what is Beyond. Where do children come from? Who are we before we exist and have mortal memories? Where is the doorway to Narnia? What must I learn to be able to speak the language of animals? How does cardamom raise the spirits of my long-dead relatives and transport me across oceans and centuries? How do plants grow?


Curiosity must be Magic’s lover, then. He would be a good one; attentive, delighted, asking questions that expand, unfold, reveal. I think this is my job, and I hope it is everyone’s job: to be the companion and lover to Magic. To ask the questions. To squint and sniff and listen for the answers, the clues, the hints, to go on that wild goose chase and in the process discover that not only can we fly but we are also swans.

That, yes, there are castles in the air, the stars can talk (and they do care about us), and all troubles and seemingly wasted journeys are, in fact, taking us home. Home to ourselves. Home to the Magic. Home to the beginning of everything, changed, sloughed smooth, worn by time, deepened, opened, made whole by being broken open.


This is my wish: to go where Magic calls me. To make my marks along the way so that others may take comfort, trust the compasses within their heart, and carry on.

I will see you there, on the journey, through the door, on the other side, back where it all begins again.

The Pocket Watch

Photo by Niklas Rhöse on Unsplash

Hailey had a magic pocket watch. The thing was, she didn’t know it was magic. She only knew it was old, and it felt nice in her hands.

“Grandpa, can I get this?”

He was looking through a stack of records.

He looked up, eyes blurry through his thick glasses. “Hmm?”

“This watch. Can I get it?” She held it out.

He came over to her, tucked the album he held under his arm, adjusted his glasses, and looked.

He had wavy white hair (not bald like so many other grandpas, which made Hailey feel proud, even though she knew it was unfair)— and he moved slowly through the world. She had asked her mom about that once.

“Is it because he’s old? Is that why he’s forgetful?”

Her mom had laughed. “No, your grandpa is just always somewhere else, and it takes him a while to get back.”

Hailey had been puzzled.

“He’s some other place in his mind— he’s a great thinker, your grandpa, and he travels far away without going anywhere at all.”

“Oh! Like Narnia,” Hailey had said. And after that she always liked to watch him come back to this world. It reminded her of a video she saw on the Discovery Channel once about a whale coming up from deep water.

Grandpa gave the little knob on top of the pocket watch a turn and held it up to his ear, cocking his head to one side.

“Does it work?” Hailey asked. She knew it wouldn’t’ matter— he’d let her get it anyway, not like if she was out with Nana and Papa, her other grandparents. They were practical. They had been farmers all their lives, and Hailey figured you couldn’t go traveling to Narnia if you had to plant corn and milk cows. She knew Grandpa would be able to tell the pocket watch was special.

“Hmm,” he mumbled. (He always mumbled— unless he was reciting Shakespeare or Longfellow or one of the other poets he liked so much— then he was “a great orator,” as Mom said.)

“Something’s loose inside— hear that rattle?” He held it out to her. In the stillness of the dusty old shop, she could hear some small piece sliding against the casing. She nodded.

“But you can fix it,” she said. It wasn’t really a question. Grandpa was an engineer. He had worked on building rocket engines for NASA long ago. Mom agreed that Grandpa’s Narnia was probably full of gears and gadgets and inventions.

He shrugged and handed it back to her, which was Grandpa-speak for “yes.”

Hailey held it close and turned the dials, feeling the now-smooth filigreed case, enjoying the click of the hidden gears as she adjusted the time.

Half an hour later, Grandpa said, “Now, then,” and Hailey knew that meant he was done looking. He gave the man at the register some cash and they left the store, treasures in hand.

First draft, timed writing, Stories for Dreamers

Mantra Pages

Mantra pages image

#mantrapages :

After years of faithfully writing Morning Pages (and loving it), I quit (to my surprise) last spring.

As I’ve returned to the practice it’s been slushy and unpleasant, and full of avoidance.


Today I “cheated” and filled pages 2 and 3 with a mantra: I TAKE ACTIONS TO MANIFEST MY DREAMS.

(Because that it was the first thing that occurred to me and it sounded way better than all the grumbling and stumbling).

…And then I wrote a dozen pages of amazing, inspiring, break through ideas of programs to offer!

(Combining storytelling, cookies, yoga, music, and workshops into a marvelous sort of House Concert-Dinner Party!)

I will begin with Mantra Pages for the foreseeable future– moreso because it is a relief to feel my hand move across the page and my mind swept clear than because of any particular mantra’s message.

It is a great gift for the page to be a friend again.

Blackout Editing

I’m editing another middle grade book. It’s about a boy (Jorian) whose dreams and adventurous spirit are sorely tried by his dull, gray orphanage life– Until Ruby shows up and things start to happen. There’s a kidnapping, a gryphon, an escape, a Marsh Witch, and golems.


I wrote the first draft the summer of 2014, shared it with some readers, and let it sit. My first crack at editing was a Question Edit– lots of Whys and What Abouts and Maybes.

But midway through, a pile-up of questions and possible solutions got me stuck. It felt like when I was a kid attempting to read the Choose Your Own Adventure books and not die or be marooned on a strange planet. I marked every “turn” with my fingers and would backtrack over and over again, trying to find the winning path. I always failed.

Tom Guald_hero's journey

So I set the manuscript aside (pretty unwillingly and basically in denial the whole time) for a month– and then remembered Austin Kleon’s Blackout Poetry.

I enjoy doing blackouts. It’s a good reminder that when I write or create I’m not actually making something up. I’m not generating anything– I’m just brushing away whatever is Not It.


I thought, Maybe I can edit the same way: just cross out what’s Not It.

I decided to cross out whatever snagged. Whatever posed a question I couldn’t easily answer. I haven’t stuck with that rule, but it got me editing again. That black marker goes a lot faster than the red pen! It’s even freed me up enough to write some new chapters in a thin spot. (Thanks to The Story Grid for giving me a new perspective on what happens in the middle of a book).

I’m thinking of trying out Beta Readers when I finish this draft. If you’re interested in being on the list, sign up for my sporadic Mailchimp emails (and get a free download of 5 of my favorite oral stories).

In the meantime– grab an old magazine and try Blackout Poetry for yourself. See where it takes you.


The Tweet-Sized Essay

The Copy Cure (Marie Forleo and Laura Roeder) said you can write a blog post with a tweet– that no one ever opened an email and said, “Man, that was too short!”

When I started thinking about life in facebook posts, (as in, “Oh, I’ll say…”) I felt a little worried.

It’s gross to always be broadcasting.

For a w hile I decided if I wanted to post a status, I actually had enough to say in a blog post– and I did.

Now I’ve been cutting way back on online time again– ‘Living Locally’– and I feel the shift happening again: I want to write.

To people.

But I want to write a letter, pass a note– sign your yearbook– not shout in a megaphone.

It feels beautiful to write out compact thoughts, to explore and give value and time to snippets.

And it’s true:  There’s a whole blog post or poem or letter in a tiny tweet.

Evidence: This one is written on two sides of a recipe card.

Why Creative Blocks are a Good Thing

On Writer’s Block jumped into my box at the Friends of the Library Book Sale.

I was wary– I’ve done The Artist’s Way, this could be old territory.

But Victoria Nelson had me Aha-ing with every chapter.

Primarily, she says that a block can be the sign of creative integrity.

It shows up and halts all activity when the Ego is trying to muscle the Soul/Unconscious into something that isn’t quite right.

We should use blocks as guideposts.

Stop and uncover what is at the cause of it.

What is the resistance?

I know this, but it was powerful and helpful to see it all written out so matter-of-factly.

A block safeguards the work until Ego can handle it.

A block stops you from digging around to see if the seeds are actually growing (an act that would kill the garden).

A block is a sign of creative health, not ever of failure.