To Make Something Beautiful

Decorative cherry and pumpkin

I don’t know about you, but it’s always hard to see the last leaves fall. Here in Portland, we still have a lot of stunning color, but the winds and rain are here in earnest, and the leaves won’t be around for long. We’ve been taking long walks with Fly, our dog, and when we come home, Fly is ready for a long nap by the fire. ‘Tis the season.

Napping weather

In the spirit of Thanksgiving gratitude, I wanted to share something special. A week ago, I woke at 5:00 am, feeling wide awake and happy. While looking online for some Mary Oliver poems to read, I came across a link to a full hour interview with her. For those of you who know a little about Mary Oliver, you will know that she rarely ever gives interviews, so this is a rare find. The interview is unedited, so you even get to hear some of Mary’s side comments to people in her home.

I took notes throughout the interview and here is one of the last quotes I scribbled on a lined yellow pad while still in my jammies:


“Maybe the desire to make something beautiful is the God inside each of us.”


I was struck by that. And I understand why; because it is my reason too. I want to make something beautiful. I want to connect with readers.

But, yikes, is it ever a lot of work. I had no idea. But then something occurred to me. I can ask you—those of you who want to contribute—what kind of writing you read and most respond to.

Because I’m stuck right now. I write for readers like you, I know that, yet my next essay collection hasn’t yet told me what it wants to be. The writing hasn’t yet revealed whether I can tell my cancer story (my “cancer visit”, as Mary Oliver calls her cancer experience), without my book being labeled “a cancer memoir”, something I reject. I want to write about aging, because I have funny and poignant stories about aging…but it’s not exactly that either.

I’m not a competent enough gardener to write a gardening book, although I am a competent enough writer to use gardening as a metaphor. (it is such a perfect one, isn’t it?)

Overall, I have a mix of so many different kinds of essays, that a clear overarching theme isn’t presenting itself.

The reviews on the first book, the gift book, are coming in and I couldn’t be happier.

“If we are lucky enough to get old,” writes Susan Troccolo in this wise, loving, and funny collection, “this is a good time to give back to the generation of younger people coming up behind us. This is the time to become freer, gentler (and sometimes fiercer), funnier, happier, and deeper as human beings. We can become even more of who we already are.”

“The Beet Goes On” is a slim volume—just 65 pages—in a petite, gift-book size, but the writing is by no means lightweight. Troccolo is funny and also very frank and writes with the kind of wisdom that comes both from experience and from the sort of introspection that is the human mind’s version of composting, where the coffee grounds and banana peels of our experiences are transformed into rich and multi-layered stories able to nurture our growth.

The title of the book, which includes a pun (“beet,” the vegetable instead of “beat,” the rhythm of music and life) is also the title of the first essay, a hilarious and poignant story of Troccolo’s not-always-successful gardening efforts:

From Susan J. Tweit’s review:

Last dahlias of the year with red hypericum berries and roses


Would you be willing to help me think about this in a fresh way? Many of you have been reading my blog for several years now, may I give you a two-question survey?


  • What kinds of books do you read? If several, do you enjoy memoir and personal essays?
  • You’ve read some of my writing over the years, what part of it grabs you the most? In other words, what would you enjoy reading from me? What do you see a book from me looking like?

*Please reply in the comments if you wish. It will help a lot.


In the beginning of her interview Mary Oliver talks very candidly about her terrible upbringing. She was hurt badly by her father. She hated her young life. And she minces no words: “I got saved by the beauty of the world.”

Nothing like that has ever happened to me. But since growing older, I have been brought low twice by cancer, my husband has struggled with a brain tumor, not cancer, but something that has changed our entire life. I have recently lost two young women who were closest to me in my family: my little sister, and my cousin, Jenny.

I have things to say about loss. I also have things I want to say about joy (and pure silliness, because that’s just me.)

What are your thoughts? I value them.

Mature Japanese Maple

Happy Thanksgiving to you and all those you love

May some small measure of peace come to the hearts of all who were effected by the horrific events in Paris.

“Tyrants and murderers never reign for long.”

— Mahatma Gandhi

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  • Happy Thanksgiving.
    I am a beauty addict, and think that those of us who keep our hearts, eyes and minds open will find it everywhere. Which is a huge blessing.
    I do read, and love memoirs. It is the honest connection with someone else which draws me in. The similarities, the differences…
    I don’t think you need to be an ‘expert’ to write about anything either. Your experiences in the garden will speak more surely to us than those of someone who ‘knows it all’.
    Be yourself. No-one can do it better, and we can’t ask for more.

    • I sure could have guessed that you are a beauty addict! I’m glad to hear that you like memoirs, that means you may read the occasional personal essay collection too. No question about being myself–it won’t work otherwise, that’s for sure. I already tried being *just* a humor writer once for a traditional publisher, it didn’t fit. The agent had sold me as such…) Being an essay writer is challenging, but I love a good story. I believe that stories are universal. But how to wrangle a bunch of stories into a cohesive whole?!? Ah, that is the hard part. I really appreciate your comment Soosie.

  • I couldn’t agree more with Elephant’s Child. But then you know how important it is to write from your heart. My favorite books are fiction, but I enjoy a good memoir from time to time, too. Good luck!

    • Thanks Beth! I appreciate the encouragement. Hope you enjoyed the interview–we got into the subject of traditional publishing vs indie publishing, which is a hot topic.

  • Dear Susan,
    Mary Oliver inspires me.
    Her book “New and selected poems” volume one, is always on the shelf in the kitchen, accessible at any time. Her poem “Wild geese” has been the source of the last chapter of my last book and her familiarity with the foreshores of Nantucket makes of her a dear sister.
    The Paris events occurred while I was driving home from the office and the ongoing threat is not over. Many friends across the world asked me about the situation and the carnage was revealed to me by an email of a young Japanese friend on Saturday morning: she inquired from Japan whether I was safe or in trouble, I had no idea what she was talking about until I began to read the news on Internet.
    After a couple of years of mourning practice it became clear that the best antidote to sorrow is joy and beauty, goodness and truth. Once I got launched on that path there is no return, no way to stop the momentum, it will go on till our last breath. Two men helped me in the aftermath of that barbaric Paris attack: Montaigne and Andreï Roubleff.
    Montaigne was the Mayor of Bordeaux while the religion war was raging across France during the 16th century. Andreï Roubleff is considered today as one of the most revered icon painter. Tarkovsky, the Russian film maker tells us the story of Roubleff going through the horrors of the Tartar invasions and fulfilling his vocation of icon painter till the end when he completed the most achieved artworks in the midst of a slaughtered village.
    Although less dramatic, our path as seekers of beauty, is no different. To answer more specifically your questions I must say that I have almost completely given up reading essays a few years ago, I now read exclusively memoirs, biographies of remarkable men and poetry. I dropped entirely the world of ideas to explore more in depth the world of visions (poetry).
    The death of Susie and Colin’s demise has shaken my usual relationship to time. I feel the urge to use my time left to the best: poetry is like the calvados, apple brandy, while essays are apple juice. In the death row I would no doubt chose apple brandy if I were given the choice.
    I have no idea whether my writing experience may help yours in any way but from what I have experienced writing comes to me, even wakes me up in the middle of the night; it never happened in the other direction (me going toward writing). The visits of the muse make of me a beggar since the muse has no obligation to knock at my door; when she does I am overwhelmed by joy and excitement and when she is busy somewhere else I have no choice but pray and wait for her return.
    I wish I could be more serving of your quest but being a lonely beggar is not a choice, just a fate I have to endorse joyfully. When I published my first book I asked Christian Bobin (the French Mary Oliver) if he would write a foreword. His answer was very gentle and clear:
    “I never write foreword, I think a book must walk alone in front of his public”.
    It was such a joy, dear Susan, to spend a few moments with you.
    I send my love to you and Patrick,

    • Merci Marc, It is an honor that you would take the time to write me. We have shared many of these people in our lives, not only Montaigne, but Colin. We were with him at the hospital the day he died. (I wish I had met your Susie.) We tried writing, but heard you wished to be alone. I understand your desire for poetry, especially in a state of grief. Poetry is like a microchip of emotion that explodes in your heart and mind with pages of memory and detail brought to you on a single dot. So, I understand your analogy to the depth of Calvados. Yet, I wonder if you are speaking of Michel de Montaigne? He is the originator and master of the essay! He explored it as no other, even in the verb, essayer…which I gather is “to explore, to discover.” Correct me please. I find the essays of Joseph Epstein, M.F.K Fisher, Mark Twain (my favorite), Bertrand Russell, Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Eudora Welty, Doris Lessing, James Baldwin, Oliver Sacks, Annie Dillard…I could go be much more than apple juice. This is work of exploration and this is what I write about, often after a night of little or no sleep waiting for an absent muse. Sometimes I write with a light touch, but it is never lightweight as Susan wrote in her review. Life is too important to me. I LOVE your quote from Christian Bobin: “I think a book must walk alone in front of his public.” That helps me tremendously. That tells me a great deal about the questions I ask of the friends who read here. I’m so grateful to hear you are safe in Paris. Our hearts and those of all the world are there in Paris with you in these uncertain days. Blessings, Susie T.

    • I meant to add Marc, that Patrick and I were so deeply struck to hear that you lost your beautiful girl, your love. We didn’t know her, but we are so very sorry and wish you peace at heart. There really are no words.

  • Elena Caravela

    I love memoirs. I can’t imagine reading any of your personal experiences that would’t be interesting and inspiring.
    Write and publish more!:)

    • I’m thinking now of your painting Elena–how individual it is, how vital the people, almost as though you could see the life blood in them. It is no wonder then that you love memoir. I do too. I love to read about the lives, the sorrows, the triumphs of the individual soul on this old spinning ball. I remember reading something you said on your blog one time–that you struggled with pain in your hands. Yet you continue. That was encouragement to me because I have pain in my hands too. Sometimes it is important to know that someone else is out there making art with the same challenges. Thank you for writing Elena.

  • I’m waiting for my muse to return too, Susie. After two books, I can’t seem to muster the creativity to do any more writing, except what I have to do meet my obligations and my writing blog sits idly by. … I think, like the tides, we ebb and flow and like a sturdy vessel, we have to just float along and enjoy the journey. At least this is what seems right to my 55 year old self. (My younger self would furiously paddle towards some ideal.) Memoir is my genre of choice but I haven’t even been reading lately. … I’ve never read Mary Oliver but from what you wrote, she and I are a lot alike. My childhood was terrible and nature is what has saved me and still saves me. Great post, my friend.

    • Gracie, do you know the new book just out this year: “The Spirituality of Age: A Seeker’s Guide to Growing Older” by Robert Weber Ph.D. and carol Orsborn, Ph.D. I had a chuckle reading something from that book today and thought of your comment. Carol said: “Enough with the Be All You Can Be!”…”Too much of the “You Can Be Anything You Want to Be!” already…so funny, you can almost hear your Jewish grandmother speaking. Sometimes a body gets tired, you want to quit pushing. Anyway, this is only one side of the equation, as you know. We also want to bring forth what is inside of us. But I love your “float by and enjoy the journey.” That has got to be a big part of this, I won’t make myself nuts anymore with pushing to succeed at something. Thank you for bringing that up. It is a factor.

  • Barbara H.

    Not too much to contribute, but it struck me as I read your post that you are talking about LIFE. Life is all things – cruelty, abuse, unpleasantness, challenges of all kinds, beauty, peacefulness, gratitude, love, loss – there is no end to the words used to describe our individual journeys through it. Write from your heart, whether it is gardening, loss, love, appreciation. I believe there will be gems to be shared with whomever is reading you. Sometimes the things we readers personally do not have experience of can be the brightest moments of revelation. Okay, getting a little overwrought here. But I think you know what I mean.

    • Hi Barbara, your thoughts didn’t feel overwrought to me, but maybe that is because I understand what you mean. The last part of your comment seemed to me to have to do with trust. Trust that something a person might read on any given day might (just might) be what they need to read on that day. I know that happens to me all the time with books. Even with the same book, I may read something new each time. I really like the idea that it is the “things we readers personally do not have experience of”…that can be a bright moment. Great thoughts, thank you.

  • Susie, I understand your wish for an overarching theme that ties your work together and am impressed that you turn to readers for help finding it. That said, in my view you already have a theme: Beauty From Compost. You are taking all the rich compost of life experience–illness, sorrow, laughter, silliness, gardening, love, friendship, aging and more–and turning it into a garden of beauty. And then you generously share it. Your readers get the immense pleasure and privilege of stepping into the garden and enjoying each flower, each written piece, with its own quirks and message. Your writer’s voice is as individual as your gardening style, and that’s enough for me. As for my reading preferences, I read anything as long as it’s a good story, whether memoir, essay or fiction. Poetry has its own honored category. Finally, if you’re casting about for a subject, I’d love to see essays/memoirs on what you see, get and give the various flowers and plants in your garden. I’m sure each one has a story it is yearning to share with you, and we’d like to read it. Happy Thanksgiving to you and all your devoted readers. PS. Essayer in French means ‘to try.’

    • You may find this of interest Marilyn: over lunch yesterday (at Nostrana,yum) with Hannah , the Writer/Editor who is helping me, I shared your theme: Beauty from Compost. She got this great look on her face and said: “Yes! Not for a title…but that is it, pulling all these human experiences from the composting of life.” She loved it. Intentional gardening. I love what you’ve written and thank you very much for the *way* in which you’ve written it. Oh, the other thing that Hannah said was that it might be becoming “a distraction”….this needing to have a construct. She’s right, darn it all. Essayer–to try! Of course. I forgot! Somehow in my mind, I took that “trying” in essay writing and ran with “exploring, seeking to understand,” which is not precise, but maybe in the spirit of the thing. That is what I see in the essay–a seeking to understand. Thanks for giving me the right word. Happy Thanksgiving to you too Marilyn, blessings to you, John, all your clan.

  • I love your bittersweet cherry and pumpkins….warms my heart.
    And Fly:) What a gorgeous creature and so sweet to see animals well loved:)
    Your book, The Beet Goes On, is a treasure.
    I love your voice. Felt like I was hanging out with a good friend.
    I love the rhythm and easy company of the book.
    I’d love to see you write more of exactly that.
    It was a comforting companion.
    I appreciate the time and pluck it took to put your stories
    out there for the rest of us. A real gift.
    From a real writer:)
    Love and happy Thanksgiving,

  • Hello Jenn, I read your note late last night (at the same time as I read your blog post and poetry: “Dive deep, little pepper flake, where the grateful waters flow.” This is now the third bit of your poetry that I have taped to my computer! Soon I will have a bulletin board entitled Jennifer’s poetry out in the world. I think you will be changing the world one reader at a time. Mutual admiration society, okay yes, and what is wrong with that? You told me just what I needed to read: that you wanted more of what the first book is. It doesn’t get better for an author that to hear that. “The book was a comforting companion.” I can’t imagine anything better than that! It is an honor. Thank you so very much for taking the time to tell me. Love, a pepper flake

  • I love Mary Oliver as well, she has such a gift for a turn of phrase. Plus, I share her love of nature. What a difference my daily walks make to my mental and physical well being.
    Even though I am just finding your blog, I can answer one question of yours…I like to read fiction mostly, or for non-fiction, ones that are ‘illustrated’ by anecdotal stories, which make them so much easier to read, in my opinion. Who doesn’t love a story? I think we are hardwired to learn by stories, which is all we had before we became a literate race.

    • Hi Eliza, Thank you for visiting my blog and welcome! I liked what you wrote about “story” because that represents, as you say, our very beginnings as human beings. I have a powerful memory of visiting Chaco Canyon not many years ago and studying the petroglyphs that represented the “stories” of the Ancient Pueblo Peoples who lived there. Those were stories in stone. There is an incredible pictograph at Chaco Canyon depicting the supernova that took place in 1054 AD, showing a picture of the exploding sun and a hand print. The artist just wanted to say “I was here. I SAW THIS.” Beautiful. Yes, Stories. That is really all I want to do is tell stories. I believe it is what links us together more than anything else. Thank you for saying that and for writing in.

  • The vivid brightness of the pepper/cherry and the pumpkins is really striking, Susan. Such a lot to read and think about in the rest of your post. I do enjoy memoirs and diaries of all sorts – there is much wisdom and insight to be had from an individual’s perception of everyday events, whether humdrum or life changing, when they have an eye for detail, a questioning mind and way with words

    • Hi Cathy, thank for your comment. I’m glad you like the pumpkins and my cherry or pepper plant! I have a funny story about that. I also thought it was a pepper and I kept going back to the nursery where I found it. Finally, they ordered what they thought I wanted and when it came in, it looked like miniature red peppers–with that distinctive pepper shape! I told the botanist that this was not what I wanted and dredged up an old picture on my phone. She said:, Oh! You want a something something Cherry. (You see that I didn’t write down the precise name.) So, it is definitely a little confusing. Thanks for telling me what you like to read and why you value it. That is my feeling too–I love how good memoir takes very personal events and makes them come alive with universal feeling. “A questioning mind….” Oh, yes. I have a feeling that may help us stay young more than anything else.

    • Yes, for sure. When I was trying to figure out what to name this blog, I came to this same conclusion because there were so many things mixed in, consequently: Life. Change. Compost! I couldn’t find any other way to summarize everything I wanted to write about, which was mainly what the garden has taught me about life. There is something I learned when I was putting The Beet Goes On out into the world that I think you might find interesting as a writer. Most places want to know what your “comps” are. This was completely new to me. It turns out that bookstores, libraries, even online sites like Smashwords, expect you to know which books are comparable to yours, in other words, who are you like? What authors are on either side of you on a bookshelf? I found this a real wake up call in terms of going the next steps with my writing. It has been quite an exercise, harder than I thought. I share that with you because I know you are working on a book too! But you are right, that is a challenge for *after* the hard work of writing is done. Thank you Donna–love and Thanksgiving, Susie

  • Thanks for posting on In a Vase on Monday. I love serendipity, nature, beauty, and finding connections. I have read the books of Tracey Chevalier this year, and enjoyed those.

    • Didn’t Tracey Chevalier write The Girl with the Pearl Earring? I loved that book and I *think* she was the author…Beautiful way to put it: “serendipity, nature, beauty and finding connections.” Those are all wonderful things to write about. Welcome to Life-Change-Compost..I write about those things all the time! Cheers, Susie

  • Hi Susie,
    I read a book recently entitled “Delight” and it comes to mind as I think about your writings, which are most always delightful to read. Maybe not this exact word, but some one word (or phrase) that captures what moves you to write about something — brainstorm: reverence, joy, the brave and the quirky, times out of time, prayers to my life, devotions, everyday delights, musings on time passing…
    Naming/finding a title is a tough job, great idea to ask others. Also how about a FB poll once you get down to a few possibilities?
    Sending love for the holidays to you and Patrick and Fly, Sandy

    • I will have a look at that book Sandy–love the title! You are always such a support for me and I thank you. Talking about the process of creating a book has always been helpful with you. When I come to the point of looking at several titles, I think a FB poll would be fun. Great idea. I’m still too far from that now, although I would love to have a title…just for the focus it might give me. But then maybe it would limit where I can go. Who knows huh? Love, Susie

  • Susan, I bookmarked the interview with Mary Oliver to listen to it later, it sounds really interesting. Thank you for sharing the link.

    In reply to your questions I’d say this: I read various kinds of books including memoirs and personal essays but such a memoir or personal essays must be connected with a particular person or period I’m interested in. When it comes to the essays, I’d say that you hit the nail on the head in your reply to one of the comments: such a bunch of stories should make a cohesive whole. In my opinion, the fact that the essays are written by one person that speaks about her or his life doesn’t make the whole cohesive. There must be a red line winding through the stories or a topic putting the stories into one basket. I’ve read just your “Beet must go on” book of essays and as I’ve told you, I love the title interlinked with the first story by means of the pun. The stories that I liked most were “The Beet Goes On” for its humour, “Katie and the Blue Buddha” for its philosophy. That’s what I would enjoy reading more from you. 🙂

    • Hi Petra, Thanks so much for telling me which story you liked, that is always helpful. I’m working with my developmental editor on concept ideas. Yet mostly what I have to do is just write write write. The poem at the frontispiece of the book will be about a “thread” that winds through one’s life, that thread is there at birth, at marriage, at key moments of life… and at death. I don’t think I could write without such a thread. So glad you enjoyed the Mary Oliver link!

  • Susie, I was preparing for yet another journey when you posted this so I missed it!
    “Wild Gees” from Mary Oliver was the first of her poems I read over 20 years ago, it gave me an immediate sense of freedom, here is the famous beginning:

    “You do not have to be good.
    You do not have to walk on your knees
    For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
    You only have to let the soft animal of your body
    Love what it loves. ”

    Oh, how I loved that! What a concept. It spoke to a pernicious guilt, and that it was OK to let go of, but like a deep habit of mind it’s hard even to see it at times, perhaps I need a whole lifetime to unravel it! I grew up with very stern Catholic nuns since the tender age of 2 and spent nine and a half years under their spell before beginning my “civilian ” life : )

    And Susie, I love anything you write, it’s always beautiful even when it is sad or the opposite. Reading you is like entering a room with light and warmth, this feeling is consistent and it is obviously a gift you have, to me at least, that is how I respond reading from you and I always learn something new.

    Sending love to you.

  • You know me well enough, I suppose, Susie, to hear me say to just write what YOU want to write about. That’s what I want to read from you…what makes YOU tick and why you want to share that particular thing in your own way, whether it’s about cancer, joy, humor, music, gardening or whatever. You definitely have a gift for writing. You come up with things I’d never think of…and for that alone I’d encourage you to just trust your muse!

  • I miss you, friend.
    Just checking in on you. Been hoping to see your face pop up on fb or around the blogworld. Just sending love and care and heartfelt concern. And big hopeful hugs.
    Know that you’re much loved,


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