The Bared Essentials

October 27th, 2015

WARNING: Anyone with a prudish bone in their body SHOULD NOT watch this video.

So, here’s the story. I’m in Carlsbad, New Mexico, for a cousin reunion and a bit of a vacation. This is an area of the country that has appealed to me forever, but I haven’t had the opportunity to explore it much. In the empty high desert of the Guadalupe Mountains, thirty miles west of Carlsbad, lies Sitting Bull Falls State Park. It came highly recommended by the locals. Several of my family headed out for a hike and a view of the falls. The day was overcast, cool (60º F), and the park was deserted. We hiked a long trail to a spot on Sitting Bull Spring just above the falls. What I discovered there were two stunningly beautiful pools of crystal clear water, an inviting oasis.

Confession: I can’t resist a swim in a gorgeous, natural setting. I’ve swum in countless rivers; the headwaters of the Mississippi, the Snake, the Columbia, the Colorado, the McKenzie, and the Deschutes, to name just a few. I’ve dipped my body in Lake Superior and Lake Michigan, cold mountain lakes in the Rockies and the Sierras and the Cascades, and, of course, an enormous number of the pristine lakes my beloved Minnesota is famous for. I simply have an affinity for water.

So when I spotted these pools, I had to experience them. But I didn’t bring a suit. No problem. I shed my clothes and did what comes naturally. And, oh, was it glorious! Bracing, revitalizing, infinitely satisfying. Another fine memory to keep me warm in my dotage.

In much of my writing, I’ve bared my soul. I figured maybe it was time to bare a little more of me.

Thanks and a tip of the hat to the event’s volunteer videographer, my cousin Paul Krueger.

Failure: The Upside

August 17th, 2015

So let’s talk failure.

10644336_898546006831368_1216796061849542633_oHere’s a photo I posted to both my website blog and my Facebook page last December. I’d just finished the first draft of the novel I’d planned to be the follow-up to Ordinary Grace. It had taken me nearly two years to complete that draft. I thought it wasn’t bad, but I knew it needed work. It had been an ambitious undertaking, dealing with a number of themes that were important to me. They were a rowdy bunch of elements, but I really believed I could corral them.

I labored over the revisions from December until June, three additional drafts, each containing significant changes. Finally my agent and I talked on the phone, and she suggested we meet in Chicago to discuss further revisions. Two days before we met, I sent her an email indicating that rather than discuss ways in which I might continue to revise the manuscript, I wanted instead to talk about how to ensure that it did not get published at all.

I think of myself as an artist. With every composition, I try to challenge myself to do something different from what I’ve done before. I work different themes, different structures, different approaches to language and point of view and even purpose. When you walk close to the edge, and I try to, the risk is that you might fall. Well, folks, I fell. But the real question is, did I fail?

I found it interesting that the moment I decided to pull this project from publication, I felt a great weight lifted from my shoulders. That weight was simply the burden of a lot of expectations. Mine, my agent’s, my publisher’s, my readers’. Admitting to myself that the writing I was about to offer would fall far short of all our expectations was surprisingly liberating. There was nothing I had to protect. And the most amazing understanding in all this for me was the realization that although I’d failed to produce the manuscript I’d hoped for, I was not a failure. I remained simply a pilgrim on this journey that offers many unexpected twists.

I tell my writing students that they shouldn’t be afraid of failure. Or more accurately, I encourage them not let failure, when it comes (and it most certainly will), throw them. They’ll probably learn more from their failure than they ever will from their success.

So I continue this journey. But I’ll tell you something. Before I abandoned the ill-conceived manuscript, I had a vision of another story, one that promised to satisfy me on every level, one that might help me create the novel that was always meant to follow Ordinary Grace. Failure can be like a cleansing rain, emptying the sky of clouds, so that you can see again the horizon. What I see there now excites me no end. And I can’t wait to get started.

Why Libraries?

July 19th, 2015

Tomorrow, I’ll drive almost three hundred miles to present a program at a library in Ponca, Nebraska, a town with a population of less than a thousand people. At a recent signing, a guy who’d seen the event calendar on my website asked me, as if I was crazy, “Why would a New York Times bestselling author bother to go to a small burg like that?” The line of people waiting to have books signed was long, so I gave him a quick, rather flip answer: “Because they asked me.”

Ponca Library

Really, it’s a question that deserves a more considered response.

These days I do about a hundred book events every year. A very large percentage take place in small libraries in rural communities. Towns with names like Vinton, Black River Falls, Spirit Lake, Eagle Butte, Hallock. Places most of you have never heard of and most generally with populations less than five thousand. Places that take me several hours to reach, often by backroads. Although I have a pretty good following and reputation, it’s not uncommon to discover that some of the folks who are there have never heard of me before. They come because having a real live author at their library is an event as rare as a two-headed calf.

So why spend all this time and energy, which might be channeled instead into writing more books, visiting places that are barely even dots on a map? Part of it is, in fact, the flip answer I gave the guy in the signing line: I do it because I’m invited, and I have a difficult time saying no. Part of it is that I usually ask for an honorarium. It’s a pretty modest amount, all things considered, and I donate every cent of it to the Native community in Minnesota. Part of it is that I can never resist an opportunity to talk about myself. But at heart, the reason is that I believe there’s no better mechanism for ensuring a free and democratic society than our public libraries.

Libraries are nothing less than the archives of our culture. These are the places that house the books that guide us to an understanding of who we were and where we came from, help us make sense of who we are now, and maybe point the way to who we might become. When our libraries and librarians are gone, with them goes everything we are as a people.

Free and open access to knowledge is an essential right in a democracy. Keeping our libraries alive and vital is as important to our freedom as anything spelled out in our Constitution.

So I drive thousands of miles every year and hope that in this way, maybe I’m helping the health of libraries, maybe giving back a little of what, over my lifetime, they’ve given me. But I confess, that another reason I go is that an event at a rural library is often accompanied by a potluck supper. And who can resist a good Midwest potluck?

Read “The Snake in the Well”

March 6th, 2015

You may recall that I spent an afternoon last week with a class of second graders, and together we shaped the outline for a mystery story, which I proceeded to write. The outline came from the elements the children chose for the story, and we did it this way: I gave them the particular element (for example, “We need a name for our hero and heroine.”) I took a number of suggestions from the class and then we chose the winner in a random way.

So, here are the essentials that the children chose for the story:

The title is “The Snake in the Well.”

Our main characters are twins named Gavin and Christiana. They’re eight years old.

They live in Fridley, Minnesota.

They have a pet rattlesnake.

His name is Bob.

The mystery: Bob has gone missing (and is at the bottom of a well).

The children investigate Bob’s disappearance and find these clues:

1. An open door
2. A snake skin that has been shed by Bob
3. A snaky trail in the dirt
4. They hear a rattlesnake rattling

The sad ending chosen for the story is that Bob does not survive. Although he’s brought up from the well, at the story’s end, he rattles his last rattle.

However, I’ve given the story a little bit of an upswing at the end. When I asked the kids for suggestions about the kind of pet that’s gone missing, these were the suggestions they gave me that we didn’t use:

· A green snake
· A giant ant
· A scorpion
· A dragon

At the end of the story, all these suggestions come into play, with one very surprising result.

I hope you enjoy this collaborative effort. Me, I’ve never had so much fun.

The children will be creating some of their own artwork to accompany the story. When they’re finished, and with their permission, I’ll share that with you.


The Snake in the Well
Mrs. Haggar-Olson’s Second-Grade Class

Christiana and Gavin were twins. They lived in Fridley, Minnesota, in a big house with a big yard and big shady trees. Before the city grew around it, the house had been part of a huge farm. Even now, there was still a garden and lots of room where wild things grew. There was even an old stone well that had once supplied water for the farmhouse.

snake photoOn their eighth birthday, the twins received an unusual present from their mother. It was—I’m not kidding you—a rattlesnake! Now, most people would think that a rattlesnake is the most terrible, horrible gift anyone could get on their birthday. But not Christiana and Gavin. And here’s why: Their mother was a herpetologist, which is a big word that means a scientist who studies snakes and other scaly creatures. The twins were used to things that slithered and hissed and felt cold to the touch. Their mother explained that this rattlesnake was a very special one. It was the last of its kind, a snake that had been part of a very top secret government experiment many years before. The government wanted to increase the intelligence of some rattlesnakes so that they could be used as spies in desert countries. The experiment worked—sort of. The snakes became very smart and could communicate with humans using their rattles as a code. One rattle meant yes. Two rattles meant no. Three rattles meant, well, it could mean many things. For the twins, it would come to mean something really important, which I will tell you about later.

There was one big problem with that government experiment years ago. When the rattlesnakes became smart, they also lost their poison. They could no longer defend themselves against the other creatures of the desert. Those that were released into the wild were never heard from again. And now there was only one very old, very smart rattlesnake left.

The twins named him Bob.

Bob lived in a large aquarium that the twins kept in their bedroom. The first thing they did every day when they came home from school was run to their room and say hello to Bob. They would find him coiled up, his little forked tongue flicking the air, his black eyes eager to see them. They would ask him about his day.

“Have you been lonely?”

One rattle. (Yes!)

“Did any bad animals try to eat you?”

Two rattles. (No!)

“Would you like to play?”

One very excited rattle.

Hide-and-go-seek was their favorite game. Bob was very good at it. He could hide in places the twins would never look, and he was so smart he could always find them in the places where they hid. They only played the game inside the house, because outside there were hawks and foxes and dogs who would love to eat a rattlesnake that couldn’t defend itself.

After they finished playing, Bob would give them three rattles. And do you want to know what those three rattles meant? They meant, “I love you.”

One very sunny spring day, the twins came home from school and ran to their bedroom. But to their surprise, Bob was not in his aquarium. They looked everywhere for him. They looked in all the places he hid when they played hide-and-seek. They even looked in all the places he was too smart to hide, like the stove and the microwave and the dishwasher. They couldn’t find him anywhere.

“Bob!” Gavin called. “Bob, where are you?”

But he heard no rattle in reply.

Then Christiana noticed that the back door was open, just the littlest bit but wide enough for an old rattlesnake to slither through. The twins ran outside into the bright sunlight. Because it was spring, everything was growing big and green and wild, and there so many places for a snake to hide, if that’s what a snake wanted to do.

“Bob,” the twins called. “We can’t play hide-and-seek out here. It’s too dangerous.”

No rattle-rattle-rattle to let them know Bob had heard.

They peered under the steps. They crawled through the garden. They dug among the shrubs. They even looked up into the branches of the oaks and the elms, although rattlesnakes are not very good at climbing trees. But they could not find Bob anywhere.

Then a shadow appeared on the ground, circling and circling. The twins stared up into the sky. Above them flew a hawk, a deadly enemy of snakes everywhere.

“Oh, Gavin,” cried Christiana. “If that hawk sees Bob, it will snatch him up with its talons, and Bob will become hawk food. We can’t let that happen.”

“We have to find him,” Gavin said. “And we have to find him now.”

“How?” Christiana asked. “We’ve looked everywhere.”

Gavin said, “This is a mystery. To solve a mystery, we need to find the clues.”

Now, instead of looking for Bob, they looked for clues that might lead them to Bob. And do you know what they found? First, they found a snakeskin. All snakes shed their skin so that they can grow larger. Even an old rattlesnake like Bob could still grow. And that’s what he’d done when he’d slithered out of the house, grown just a bit and left his old skin in the grass of the backyard.

Next, they found a long, slithery line in the dirt of the garden. That was another thing snakes sometimes left behind, a trail made by their wiggly bodies as they wove across the ground.

“He went that way,” Christiana said, pointing toward the far side of the garden.

Above them, the hawk flew lower and lower, looking for an old snake to have for its dinner.

In the tall grass and wild flowers on other side of the garden, the twins lost Bob’s trail. They startled a rabbit that went hop, hop, hopping away. They spotted a squirrel that chattered at them furiously from a nearby oak tree. They scared up dragon flies and butterflies and bumble bees, but no Bob.

Christiana began to cry. “Oh, Gavin, we’ll never find him. And this sun is so hot I’m roasting.”

Gavin said, “Let’s get some water from the well and cool ourselves off. Then we’ll look for more clues. Don’t worry, Christiana. We’ll find him.”

The twins walked to the old well, which stood in the middle of the tall grass and the wildflowers. There was a wooden crank built above the well’s stone wall. A rope hung from the crank and disappeared into the well, and the twins knew that at the other end of the rope was a bucket for hauling up the cool water. The well was so deep and so dark that the twins could not see the bottom or the wooden bucket there.

Gavin began turn the crank. The rope began winding around the crankshaft. The bucket began to rise.

Then Christiana heard a familiar sound.


“Bob!” she cried, looking all around her. But she couldn’t see Bob anywhere.


The sound came again, but faint and growing fainter.

“Bob!” Gavin and Christiana yelled together. “Where are you?”


Finally the twins realized that the sound was coming from inside the well. Gavin cranked faster, and the bucket rose into sight. And there, in the bottom of that old wooden bucket Bob lay curled. His forked tongue flickered weakly. His black eyes seemed a little glazed, even for a snake. His rattles hung limp at the end of his tail, barely making a sound now.

They lifted him and held them in their hands together, and they could feel that Bob was almost at the end of his journey as a snake. He gazed up at them. His tongue eased from his mouth, and, as if waving goodbye, gave a final flicker. With his tail, he gave one last rattle-rattle-rattle.

And then Bob was gone.

With tears in their eyes, they carried him to the house. Their mother was waiting for them on the back steps. They laid Bob down gently.

“He’s dead,” they said. “He died because he got out of the house.”

“No, children,” their mother explained. “Bob lived thirty years. That’s very old for a rattlesnake. It was just his time to go. Bob knew this. When it’s a rattlesnake’s time, he likes to find a quiet place alone.”

“There will never be another snake like Bob,” the twins said.

Their mother nodded. “That’s true. But we can always get another pet. How about a puppy this time?”

“Or a green snake?” Christiana said, brightening. “They’re pretty and only a little poisonous.”

“No more snakes,” their mother said.

“How about a scorpion?” Gavin said.

“No,” said their mother.

“Or a giant ant,” Christiana said.

“Children,” their mother pleaded. “Be reasonable.”

Christiana and Gavin both thought awhile. Then Gavin looked at Christiana, and Christiana looked at Gavin, and together they said, “We want a dragon!”

And that’s how the twins ended up with Kyle, the Komodo dragon.

komodo dragon

“The Snake in the Well”

February 24th, 2015

Snake in the WellSo here’s the next great mystery I’ve had a hand in producing: “The Snake in the Well.”

I spent yesterday afternoon in a classroom full of second-graders, talking to them about the importance of stories—in my life, in theirs. They were the most unabashedly enthusiastic audience I’ve entertained in, well, maybe forever. The last part of my time with them was spent in constructing a mystery together, the story of a beloved pet rattlesnake named Bob which has gone missing from its aquarium. The kids suggested and then chose the plot elements—the names, the setting, the kind of pet at the story’s heart (some wild suggestions there!), motives, clues, and finally the title. And now I’m going to take all this information and write the story. I’ll send it back to their teacher, Mrs. Haggar-Olson, and the kids will create the accompanying artwork. Then we make the book.

I’m betting both my Edgar and Anthony that the story these kids have given me is a winner. I’ll keep you posted on the progress.