Polka Dot Penguin Pottery

It’s usually a good sign when the cover of a book on creativity is oriented so that it opens bottom to top rather than right to left. Once I opened the cover of Polka Dot Penguin Pottery by Lenore Look/illustrated by Yumi Heo, I kept waiting for the page where the text would shift to traditional format, but the entire book continues in this way. And what a testament to the creative process it is. And how refreshing that is addressed in a picture book for children.

Though it’s been floating around our house for awhile, I read it for the first time to my six year-old last week – a day or so after reigniting my love affair with writing my young adult novel. How fitting that I should find this story at that moment in time. The “author”, an eight-ten year old girl, introduces herself by her nom de plume, Aspen Colorado Kim Chee Lee, stating that she writes stories “about monkeys and elephants, aliens and robots, and sometimes, about me.” She goes on to elucidate the writer’s process in the way only a child can. I sniggered to myself that I could’ve used this book a few days previous; if only I’d had the secret to finishing a story!


Illustration by Yumi Heo; image from George Shannon 

Alas, even with this fail-proof plan, Aspen Colorado Kim Chee Lee falls prey to the dreaded writer’s block. Her grandparents suggest some ‘chill-out’ time and take her and her baby sister on an outing. On the way to Polka Dot Penguin Pottery, Aspen continues to make lyrical observations despite her writer’s block. “The wind lick[s her] nose and whistle[s] in [her] ears.” Once she enters the shop, [her] words are swirling around . . . and [she] cannot catch them.” A potent reminder of the fact that we are always writing – even when we walk, stare, converse, dead-head blooms in the garden – not just when we sit at the keyboard.

Unfortunately, the crippling malaise of writer’s block transfers to Aspen’s pottery painting project. Luther and Ivy, who sit nearby, tell her “you have to stay super-still and wait for something to happen.” The shop owner suggests she relax and have fun. When she makes a blotch on her ceramic egg by accident and thinks the project is ruined, her creativity soon blossoms because she realizes she has nothing to lose. “You can only make a masterpiece if you’re willing to make a mess,” says Ivy.

Taking risks and keeping at it are the true key to the creative process. Following your monkey mind even if – perhaps especially if – you don’t know where it’s leading.

“And this is the story that began with just hanging out,” Aspen finishes her narrative with.

All too often, I think writers, at least me, are crippled by the blank page or screen. I may have ideas zipping around my head like crazy, but once the word processor loads that blank screen, I feel a constricting band around my throat. Unless I can ‘not think’ like Aspen in this story. When she wasn’t looking for it, the story found her.


Some additional notes about this book:

  • While the format is landscape, find the spreads that have different views depending on which way you turn the book. For instance, the page where Aspen and her family walk the street; her family in relation to the words and the shops and other people on the street.
  • Search for whimsical details like the squirrel 🙂
  • Consider sharing this with other writers in your life – especially those who have trouble living the simple truth it conveys!
  • Expect to enjoy it perhaps more than your children. I don’t know if I love its value to children or the fact that it’s a kids’ book that introduces the concept of the creative process. I sometimes wonder if authors create some picture books with the adult who will be reading it aloud in mind. (Thank you!)
  • Another picture book I’ve come across addressing the creative process is Begin at the Beginning: A Little Artist Learns about Life by Amy Schwartz
  • It is not a coincidence if you find parallels between the creative process and life.  We could all adapt such useful lessons to our benefit.




I’m in Love – Again

You fall in love and you can’t get enough of your heart’s desire.  Every waking moment is spent thinking of, studying, obsessing over, and drinking in all that he or she is.  He or she loves every bit of you in return and all is right with the world where birds chirp and the sun shines everyday.

And then the shine wears off.

Suddenly, endearing quirks become irritating.  Spending so much time together becomes smothering.  Familiarity may eventually breed contempt, but at the very least it keeps you from recognizing what it was that made him or her special in the first place.  You can’t really even see the person at all.

Now before you think I’ve lost sight of our relationship, this is not about my husband and me.

This is about the cast of characters, particularly a young man named Dmitri, in my young adult novel.

I had sensed the growing frustration between us.  I tried doing things differently to liven up the doldrums into which we’d wandered.  I gave him space.  None of this worked.  In fact, the extra space felt surprisingly refreshing.  Too freeing.  I didn’t know if I’d ever want to return to the constraints of our relationship.  Though I didn’t know how to fix it, I always felt guilty when he came to mind because of our unresolved issues.

Then one day, I opened a book.  The voice on the page, the way the girl told her story reminded me of my Dmitri.  I thought, if only Dmitri could be freed like that to tell his story.  I opened my laptop and Dmitri spoke to me in ways he never had.

I’ve spent the last four days cavorting with him.  In a blissful sort of oblivion, we’ve reunited, he reaffirming all I ever loved about him.  I can’t catch my breath.  I’m positively vibrating with excitement.  When I’m forced to perform one of my daily obligations, I can’t wait until I can return to him.

So sorry I haven’t posted lately – I’ve been falling head over heels in love – again.

Anybody Know Where I Can Score Some Good Plot?

My name is Jen and I have a problem with plot.
It swirls around my head in a haze, but I can’t quite pluck it out of the air.
I’m hungry for more.
I can’t get enough – tension, conflict, action.
I stare into space and giggle uncontrollably, my fingers hovering helplessly above the keyboard.
My cast of characters sit around and do nothing, munching on cheesy puffs, waiting for me to supply more.

But I can’t.

I haven’t got any more.

I don’t know where I can acquire more.

I wrack my brain and roll the ideas around,
but I still have a problem with plot.

Somewhere Out There

I write best when in my car.

No, I’m not one of those people you see mouth agape going eighty miles an hour applying mascara.  I’m not reading the map spread across my dashboard as I try to maintain lane (disregard the fact that ergonomic dashboards and GPS have made this point moot).  I’m not even trying to eat a sloppy sandwich as I steer with my elbows.

I have both hands securely planted on the wheel, watching both the speed- and tachometer, the radio adjusted to a safe level so as not to cause distraction.  My youngest daughter is safely secured in her five-point harness in the backseat.  My eyes are on the road and what the traffic ahead of me is doing.

Some part of my mind, however, is in the hills lit by sunlight on the horizon.  The clouds sweeping across the crest of the hill.  That part of my mind is parsing words and phrases, building them up and fine-tuning them.

the roadInto poetry.

Into a thousand different perfect prompts for this blog.

Into the character quirk I’ve been needing for Dmitri.

Into metaphors and images, symbols and signs –

all of which leave me when I sit down hours or days later at the keyboard.

There are times it’s happened in the ether just before sleep.  When the body has relaxed just enough to quell the mind’s obsessing, but not it’s creative processes.  Perfectly formed paragraphs gather and congregate.  Teasing me to remember them, knowing I won’t fight the exhaustion to lift a pen and record them in the notebook on my bedside table.

In the morning, the memory of them remains but not the perfect manuscript.

A voice to text application would probably help.  But I have such a nostalgia for and dedication to hand- and typewritten words.  I’m searching for a place to display the ancient Underwood typewriter my father’s holding for me now.  It would feel disingenuous somehow to speak my words into thin air and have them magically transform to text.  Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment.  Maybe I just hate to hear a playback of my recorded voice.

I’m hopelessly devoted to forming the perfect mental manuscript and promptly forgetting it when my hands touch the keyboard.  If only mental memory would transfer to sense memory in this one instance.  Just another form of writers’ block, I suppose.  Or another rationalization for not writing what I’m supposed to be.  It’s much easier to lament the perfect lost words than write the imperfect permanent ones.

So I’ll take leave of you now.  Perhaps to go for a drive.  Perhaps to build on the momentum I finally reengaged in my book yesterday.  Or maybe to go stare out the window and dream of the perfect words floating somewhere out there.


Words haunt me in my dreams, in my waking hours

They carve themselves in my grey matter

They pull my hands in loops and lines

The click of keys, the satisfying clunk of return

Bits and pieces of phrases and lyrics

Familiar yet fleeting

Disparate yet part of my collective consciousness

Inspiring love, eliciting hate

Droughts or a copious spate

A blank screen, a taunting cursor

Time to sit, reflect, create

A swirling maelstrom in my brain

I cannot settle on a name

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