Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

The Necessity of Absolute Rubbish

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013


The three weeks I studied directly under the poet and teacher Paul Matthews had a tremendous impact on the way that I think about writing and the teaching of writing. More so than any other writing course I’ve taken at any age, at any institution, including MFA writing courses at the University of Minnesota. Paul’s class turned a lot of my ideas upside down and brought me face to face with myself in a way I hadn’t ever quite experienced before.  It was kind of like magic—interactive magic—but using only words. The work was great fun, but it was also clearly undergirded by Matthews’s extensive understanding of the history of language and many branches of philosophy. In several places here on the Elephant Rock website, I try to describe what is unique and powerful about the way Matthews approaches writing workshops (and, in turn, how I have come to approach them). However, there is nothing like hearing it straight from the source. (more…)


The Bounty and the Wreck

Thursday, February 14th, 2013

Boy with popsicle and toy sailboat, 1920

WHEN MY SON Max was very, very small—with his luminous and still disproportionately large brown eyes peering out from a fringe of dark lashes, his small round face yet unformed and dough-like—he was mesmerized by water and fire. His first words included boat and candle. By the age of four, he had developed a fierce interest in all manner of watercraft, disasters, and horrible combinations of the two—in particular, the sinking of the Titanic. This was well before the movie.

I am nearly certain that he and his sister Sophie were the youngest ever to attend the regional meeting of the Titanic Society. Meetings convened in a dusty town hall in the rural county where we then lived. My children sat at the edge of their metal folding chairs in rapt attention as senior citizens took turns sharing painstakingly dry accounts of wreck-related discoveries and survivor updates. (more…)


Your Fierce Original Voice

Friday, February 8th, 2013
I like the word fierce. Why? Because it means so many things: you can love fiercely, believe fiercely, live fiercely, and write fiercely. It’s not an angry word. It’s a courageous word. Watch a toddler at play, or a child swallowed up in the ethereal underwater world of deep concentration, and you will see fierceness. Fierceness is an essential element of our humanity, an essential element of what some now describe as “flow.
As we grow and adapt to the world, putting on our outer armor, we can lose touch with our fierceness, we suppress our fierce original voice. As adolescents, we do this purposefully, in the most painfully self-conscious way, expressly to blend in with the crowd. Later on, we may even poke fun at teenagers while believing, often falsely, that we’ve outgrown the habit of striving toward invisibility. This, I would suggest, is the most dangerous delusion of all: the drowsy conviction that we’re expressing authentically when we’re not. (more…)

Land of Lakes

Friday, February 8th, 2013

This very special guest post is from my daughter, Sophie, twenty-two, a recent college graduate, and a hopeful MFA applicant in creative writing (currently awaiting responses from her programs of choice). You may have read about Sophie recently in my post Hands Above, Feet Below. Sophie has been writing all her life. This essay was part of her portfolio of work for her senior seminar at Smith College. Enjoy!

Land of Lakes by Sophie Ouellette-Howitz


I live near a pond called Paradise now, but my home is the Land of 10,000 Lakes.  According to the Minnesota Department of Natural resources, we possess precisely 11,842 enclosed basins large enough to produce wave-swept shores. That is my Minnesota: a land of lakes and lighthouses, of shores and skies. Fitting since the territory stole its name from the Dakota word for sky-tinted water. Or is it water-tinted sky? (more…)


The Curve of Our Bodies

Tuesday, February 5th, 2013


This is about bodies. Mine and yours. About flesh and rawness and dirtiness, about throbbing and sensing and sexiness. And brokenness. And heart-stopping sweetness. It’s about our bodies’ betrayals … and their divinities and their astonishing service.

For me, nothing captures all of this more potently than Dorianne Laux’s poem “The Shipfitter’s Wife.” I have been obsessed with this poem since I first read it several years ago. It electrifies me for the way it portrays a woman’s love for her husband, for his whole self, his entire calloused, pulsing physicality:

I loved him most / when he came home from work / his denim shirt ringed with sweat / and smelling of salt / the drying weeds of the ocean. I’d go to where he sat / on the edge of the bed, his forehead / anointed with grease, his cracked hands / jammed between his thighs, and unlace / the steel-toed boots, stroke his ankles / and calves, the pads and bones of his feet (more…)


Strands of Moonlight

Thursday, January 31st, 2013


Lately, I have been waking in the night, something I never used to do. It’s a strange feeling, this coming to alert clarity in the watery dark of my bedroom. I discover things in the night that would otherwise remain cloaked.

I notice strands of moonlight seeping through the layer of snow on the skylights above my head. I hear, in this resounding silence, the soft steady breath of our dog on his bed beside us mingling in the air with the soft, slower sound of Jon’s breathing inside his chest, both muffled and amplified by his muscles and flesh and skin pressed against my ear.

I discover the tender fact that Jon holds my hand in his sleep. (more…)


Creative Synergy Mini Retreat

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013

Come join us for an afternoon of writing, yoga, and meditation, and get a taste of what you can expect on the Summer Solstice Retreat this June.

At Tula Yoga & Wellness Center in St. Paul

Saturday, February 23, 1:30 – 4

Light your creative fire and liberate your “fierce, original” voice and your deepest truths. You’ll love the surprising writing exercises drawn from the work of poet and master writing teacher Paul Matthews. Matthews uses playfulness as a portal to the profound, based on the wisdom that in silliness we make room for the soul to emerge. No matter your experience with writing—from published author to napkin scribbler—this workshop will lead your inner critic to disappear as you enter the realm of the unknown.  Yoga, meditation, and the power of pranayama (breath work) open you to your truest insights, while writing provides a container for this wisdom.

What to bring: yoga mat, comfortable clothing for movement and sitting, meditation pillow if desired, water bottle, hard-backed notebook, your favorite pen (or two)

Registration fee: $25

To reserve a space: call 612-244-0865 or email And please share this post with friends and neighbors! Maria and I hope to see you at Tula!


Fertile Ground

Sunday, January 27th, 2013


I remember my first flower garden, a thick batch of blooms grown from seeds sown in one ambitious spurt in the spring of my second pregnancy … and then left to their own devices all through the summer. I was twenty-three, married for two whole years already, and had never in my whole life had a real garden. My young husband and I had a one-year-old daughter in tow and had planted ourselves in a pretty old Victorian in a small town forty-five minutes out of Minneapolis, where he taught school. His days as a commuter were long, and my days at home with a baby were hectic in that perplexing slow-fast way that all mothers understand.

Suffice it to say my garden suffered from pathetic neglect, all under the watchful gaze of our easterly neighbor. Both of our next-door neighbors were master gardeners, as fate would have it, but the one to the west was kind, loved children, and leaned toward the abundant chaos of an English garden. Whereas the one to the east preferred all growth in tidy, well-manicured rows, and was affronted by her view of our scraggly side yard. She frequently and chirpily pointed out—from her vantage point in her own flourishing garden, watering hose suspended in her green-gloved hand, eyes shaded by wide-brimmed gardening hat—“Nature does tend to take over when left to its own devices, doesn’t it?” (more…)


Fear and the Search for Bird Island

Saturday, January 26th, 2013


Sleeping birds are vulnerable. This is why the lucky ones flock by the tens of thousands to roost for the night on the low, gnarled branches of the mangrove trees that flourish in the back bay waters of Estero Island, Florida, where I once spent a week with my husband Jon and our kids.

In these quiet, tidal waters, masses of entangled leaves, boughs, and trunks spring out of the sea itself—not a sliver of earth protrudes above the water. On the landless Bird Island, some fifteen thousand birds gather at dusk to nod off in peace. No ground, no predators. These birds are fearless for the night. How I envy those birds on Bird Island. The romance of it makes me shudder: What would my life look like if I erased all fear? 

Fear of failing, fear of wounding, fear of falling short.



On the Run

Wednesday, January 9th, 2013

I’m off to Mexico again soon, interviewing kids who, years ago, received free cleft lip and palate surgeries from Smile Network International. I’m helping Smile with a book, and I’m sure it will be extraordinary to meet these individuals whose lives were changed dramatically by one simple act of kindness by strangers.

Meanwhile, Mexico brings back potent memories. I can’t believe it’s been 28 years since my first trip there. I planned it myself, secretly, with an atlas and a phone book, in the weeks before my sixteenth birthday. When the morning of the big day arrived, I skipped school and hopped an MTC to the Greyhound terminal. I had enough money for a one-way ticket to El Paso and $67 for food and sundries en route. I wore an unattractive light gray Members Only jacket and baggy jeans, and carried a purple tote bag with the word “Ciao!” embroidered on the small label. I had braces on my teeth and a genuinely traumatic hair-do leftover from a perm gone wrong at a discount beauty school. (more…)