Tag Archives: Nan Lundeen

the power’s in the details

By Nan Lundeen

The power’s in the details whether you’re writing poetry or prose.

Carolyn Miller describes women who wore white wool sorority blazers and “white bucks with white crew socks rolled down once” in her essay, “Arts and Science,” published in The Missouri Review.

Miller gives us one enormously telling detail—that the sock was rolled down once. She manages to paint an entire milieu with that one detail. Woe to the sorority girl who rolled down her socks twice at the University of Missouri in 1959.

In her poem “Eggs,” Sharon Olds describes her daughter cracking shells, sliding three yolks into the bowl, “slit them with the whisk, beat them till they hissed.”

The power of Olds’s “Eggs” lies in the sound, hissed. The reader understands that those eggs were being thoroughly beaten!

Charles Dickens regales us with his usual brilliance as he describes a moment during Scrooge’s tour of London with the Ghost of Christmas Present. Here are food descriptions: “great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts,” and “ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish onions.”

Reading Dickens is like smelling and tasting Victorian London.

Eudora Welty begins her memoir, One Writer’s Beginnings, with a memory of the house in Jackson, Mississippi, where she was born in 1909. “We grew up to the striking of clocks,” she wrote. She describes a “mission-style oak grandfather clock” that stood in the hall and “sent its gong-like strokes” throughout the house even to the sleeping porch where “midnight could wake us up.”

Welty’s striking clocks place you in her childhood home.

Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk juxtaposes details of the mundane with a dramatic moment in his novel, Snow. An exiled poet traveling as a journalist visits the town of Kars, Turkey. He is researching suicides of girls forbidden to wear head scarves and describes how a sixteen-year-old girl had eaten an evening meal with her family. She cleared the table with her sisters, “giggling and tussling,” and went to get dessert. She then went into her parent’s bedroom and “shot herself with a hunting rifle.”

Pamuk’s matter-of-fact details contrasting with the suicide not only places the reader in the scene, but feeds our curiosity just as it feeds the exiled poet’s. The scene is powerful.

Sandra Redding describes the death of a husband in her story, “Tin of Tube Rose.” A couple are sitting in their living room watching “Charlie’s Angels” when “an empty can of Budweiser came rolling right over to my foot.” When the narrator looks over at her husband Ed in his recliner, she sees him “slumped down just like all the air had been let out.”

I’m not sure what to make of Redding’s rolling beer can, perhaps like Pamuk’s writing, the juxtaposition of the mundane with the dramatic creates a memorable image. Her simile “like all the air gone out of it,” is so apt it hurts.

Have fun choosing potent details for your writing!

Nan Lundeen

The author is grateful to the SCWW’s Quill for first publishing this column.



honoring our mentors

Eternity by Nan Lundeen
Eternity by Nan Lundeen

Who is your mentor? Message me on Facebook or contact us through the “contact us” link on this site to let me know if you’d like to share thoughts about your mentor on MooingAround.

Jenny Munro honors her mother in her poem, “the typist.” I love how Jenny uses sound—the tap, tap, tap of her mother’s typewriter. Jenny draws a word portrait of her—”Concentrating, with her tongue caught between her teeth,” and shares a few things she learned from observing her role model.

My mentor, Sylvia Barclay, whom I knew in the 1970s in Muskegon, Michigan, generously shared writing wisdom. Whenever I asked how I could repay her she would say, “Pass it on.” That’s what I aim to do with my handbook, Moo of Writing. I was in Muskegon’s library on a hot July day when the sky turned dark. Solar eclipse. I discovered, Sylvia had passed away about the time of the eclipse, which her students found appropriate. A day or two later, I took a yoga class and meditated for the first time. Sylvia stood in my mind’s eye, her mouth pursed in a familiar expression under one of her offbeat hats. Oh, an opportunity to learn what was on the other side. “What’s it like there?” I asked. “Love is all you need to know for now, Nan.” I thought she meant I’d learn more about the afterlife in this lifetime. Hasn’t happened yet. What a gift she gave me. Love really is all I need to know.


hot first lines

Contemplating great first lines of literature
Contemplating great first lines of literature.
Photo by Nan Lundeen

Hey! Grab me by the throat and throw me down. Is that an irresistible first line? Again and again we have read writing advice that the first line must grab the reader. But how? Click “what makes a grabby first line?” to gather a few tips. You make us happy when you register and comment on our site because we’re all about building a creative community. Please join us. Welcome!

what makes a grabby first line?

by Nan Lundeen

Whether writers of poetry or prose, one challenge grins at us like the Cheshire Cat—now you see it now you don’t—the arresting first line.

What makes a line that’s memorable in the best of times and the worst of times?

Jane Austen launches Pride and Prejudice with a summary sort of line that also hints to the reader of her acerbic wit to come: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Sometimes the quirky suffices. For instance, “Bird-watching can be dog-eat-dog.” Who could resist reading that? The profile of a bird watcher extraordinaire by Karen Uhlenhuth was published in the Kansas City Star Magazine and compiled in an anthology of the best American sports writing of 1992.

I’m a huge fan of the late Robert B. Parker. Here’s his first line from Small Vices: “The last time I saw Rita Fiore she’d been an assistant DA with red hair, first-rate hips, and more attitude than an armadillo.”

A scene can entice you as in the first phrase of Maxine Kumin’s poem “Cross-Country Skiing.”

I love to be lured under the outstretched wings

of hemlocks heavily snowed upon, . . .

And what of a simple, rhythmic line demanding attention such as Longfellow’s, “Listen, my children, and you shall hear…”

On a dark and stormy night particularly, a spot of humor can reel a reader in, as in Amy Tan’s memoir that begins, “Soon after my first book was published, I found myself often confronted with the subject of my mortality.”

OK, I guess that qualifies toward a curiosity quotient, which I confess is my favorite lead into anything. Another example that rings my curiosity bell—George Orwell’s ” It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

In the Amy Tan example, humor enters with her next sentences: “I remember being asked by a young woman what I did for a living. ‘I’m an author,’ I said with proud new authority.

“‘A contemporary author?’ she wanted to know.”

Perusing first lines, I came upon one that tops my list. Holden Caulfield begins straight off with, “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

It’s the voice. And that may be the bottom line for me in exploring what makes a great first line. Whether it’s exposition or first-person or whatever, it’s voice that hooks me. I realize that here’s a writer I’d like to sit with awhile.

What’s your favorite first line?

The author is grateful to the SCWW Quill that first published this column.

memorable rejections

After five years of continual rejections, Agatha Christie lands a publishing deal. Her sales now number $2 billion. Only Shakespeare has sold more.

J.K. Rowling’s literary agent receives 12 publishing rejections before the eight-year-old daughter of a Bloomsbury editor demands to read the rest of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The editor agrees to publish it but advises the writer to get a day job.

“Too different from other juveniles on the market to warrant its selling”—rejection sent to Dr. Seuss.

“Anthologies don’t sell was the gist of 140 rejections sent to authors of Chicken Soup for the Soul, which sold 125 million copies.

“I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years,” was advice given to Vladimir Nabokov whose Lolita has sold 50 million copies.

“The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the ‘curiosity’ level,” reads a rejection of The Diary of Anne Frank.

All of these stories and more are found at literaryrejections.com. The site is a fun read.

I like author May Sarton’s advice to writers: “Hold on, trust your talent, and work hard.”

Here’s another quote, this one from 64-year-old Diana Nyad who conquered the 110-mile swim from Cuba to Florida on her fifth attempt: “We should never, ever give up.”

And a Nyad quote for those of us still writing after “all these years,” –”You never are too old to chase your dreams.”

Nyad said that swimming “looks like a solitary sport, but it’s a team.”

You could say the same about writing. Writing buddies are invaluable, especially when the rejections roll in. Believe in yourselves, writing buddies. We believe in you.

How do you handle rejections? Please register on the site so that you can comment below. If you have trouble registering, please contact us. Thanks and happy writing!


call of the wild rose

by Nan Lundeen

Rose by Ron DeKett
Rose by Ron DeKett

Inspiration or perspiration? Perfection or wild and free?

Thomas Edison’s quote that genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration is good news for those of us who slog away day after day hoping to unearth gems of inspiration. I’d venture to guess that most poetry and prose writers know that if you want to be a writer you can’t wait for lightning to strike. No, you have to sit down and actually write.

We also know that once we’ve ridden the waves of creative juices and produced a manuscript, even more perspiration is required to edit, rewrite, and polish. But how much to edit, rewrite, and polish? When is it done? I’ve heard writers say when their books were published, they felt relieved because they could stop rewriting.

The other day, my husband I and went to a flower show. There we saw the most perfect white rose in the entire universe! No, really! It was a Mozart symphony all by itself, every petal harmonious with the others. Homogenous perfection, it stood in a glass vase bedecked by a blue ribbon.

Later that day as I remembered the perfect white rose, a wild rose memory washed over me, a childhood memory of pink wild roses tumbling down the shoulders of Iowa gravel roads, perfect in their disarray. A few details, a metaphor, and a simile gave me a poem. Then the pruning began. But not a whole lot. As much as the perfect rose stirs my heart, the wild roses stir my soul. I can breathe near them; the perfect rose makes me nearly hold my breath.

How much do you strive for perfection as you write? As you edit, rewrite, and polish?

At a writing workshop I heard this advice: there’s a time to expand your work and a time to tighten. Sort of like a bellows. Can you visualize them—those contraptions with handles that breathe air onto a fire? Sometimes writing may need a breath of air. Even during editing, rewriting, and polishing, it isn’t always good to tighten, tighten, tighten. A manuscript might need more elucidation, more flights of fancy.

Robert Frost describes beautifully his Faraway Meadow’s anticipated return to wildness after it has been mowed for the last time ever in his poem “The Last Mowing.” He opens the poem by telling us “the talk at the farmhouse” is that “the meadow is finished with men.” He continues to say, “Then now is the chance for the flowers/That can’t stand mowers and plowers.”


The meadow is done with the tame.
The place of the moment is ours
For you, O tumultuous flowers,
To go to waste and go wild in,
All shapes and colors of flowers,
I needn’t call you by name.

 What do you prefer—perfection or wild and free? There is a time, I think, to let our words tumble wantonly down the shoulders of roadsides.


The author is grateful to the South Carolina Writers Workshop for first publishing this column in the Quill October 2012.

a sip from the milk jug

What is Moo of Writing? It’s a method of beckoning the muse that works. Best of all, new scientific research confirms connections between relaxation and creativity. Topics for a handbook, Moo of Writing: How to Milk your Potential, burst into my consciousness years ago on a road trip. I created a first draft, and my sister-in-law Cynthia Morgan DeKett drew delightful cartoon cows to illustrate the concept. Now that I’ve retired from a job as a newspaper reporter, I’ve completed the manuscript and am looking for an agent and publisher. Meanwhile, writers who’ve read the manuscript and thoughtfully advised me on improvements, also have been clamoring for it in their hands. I hope you find this article on a few of its concepts helpful to your writing practice. Please register on our site if you haven’t already and comment in the space at the end of the article. Please share how you use relaxation to tap into creativity. Would you like to see the 100-page handbook in print? Thank you and happy writing! Here it is: what is moo of writing?

counting meditation

An easy way to rest your mind and prepare yourself for Moo of Writing is to meditate on your breaths. Lie down or sit with your spine straight and your feet flat on the floor. Focus on your breath. When thoughts intrude, let them drift by like fluffy clouds on a warm summer day. One, inhale, two exhale, three, inhale, four, exhale, five, inhale, six, exhale, seven, inhale, eight, exhale, nine, inhale, 10 exhale. One, inhale, two exhale, continue counting your breaths, beginning over when you reach 10. Enjoy your meditation as long as you like. When you are ready, come back to the here and now.

dance of the swallowtails

yellow swallowtail by Ron DeKett
yellow swallowtail by Ron DeKett

for Ron

August 26, 2012

 You stand on Lake Placid’s shore
viewfinder framing
clear water revealing
fish just hanging out,
four ducks sailing into what was nothing like
a South Carolina August afternoon
because the sun kisses gentle
while breeze lays ripples on wet
like your fingers ruffling my hair at night
when we’re falling asleep;
viewfinder framing
swallowtails—yellow wings flirting with currents,
they dance
to a sound I am sure
…Nan Lundeen


the nature of writing

Where does your Muse like to hang out? Mine relishes nature. My husband Ron and I hiked around Lake Placid at Paris Mountain State Park, Greenville, SC, yesterday. It was one of those rare late summer days when the light already has dipped its angle and a nip in the air whets the taste buds for fall. A waterfall glimpsed through leaves charmed my Muse. This morning, she surprised me with a love poem. I first thought the poem was going to be about falling water and taking care of our beloved Earth—something like, “We are all falling water.” But when a person fills your heart to the brim, you just gotta write a love poem! I love you, Ron. Here it is with the image that beckoned my Muse: “the wheel turns.” Please comment below to share where you most often find your Muse. Happy writing!

hello, groundhog

For my health and for my writing practice, I walk a mile at an outdoor track five days a week. I greet a triangular-shaped pecan tree at one end of the track. “Good morning, tree.” Pink and blue morning glories peek through the fence. They wend their way into a haiku. One day this week, I am startled to see brown fur on short legs scampering through the grass. The fellow ducked under a storm drain cover and peered at me. It seems he wanted to be in a poem, too. Click here to read “Groundhog Day in August.” Please register at the top, right-hand side of this page if you haven’t already. We promise not to share your email address. Happy writing!

groundhog day in august

I am not a groundhog by Nan Lundeen
I am not a groundhog by Nan Lundeen
Brown fur, legs a blur
scurries through tall
grass, goes to ground—
a hole beneath
a storm drain slab.
Round ears
hug his head
like a teddy bear’s.
He didn’t ask for company
this cool August morning
he stares
cautiously wondering.
We are strange companions.
–Nan Lundeen