Missing Something?

April 21st, 2014


In case you’ve been missing my Facebook page updates since the latest algorithm scramble, all are now welcome to follow public updates on my personal Facebook page, by choosing the button that looks something like this:


Or just click the widget in the blog sidebar.

I really enjoyed chatting with readers on my author page before the changes, and I hope this solution will allow us to continue those conversations. Maybe see you there!



I’m a Page Turner, are you?

April 16th, 2014

Two years ago this month, my mom messaged me on Facebook with the news that my late father, poet and playwright Al Pittman had been selected as an honoree of Project Bookmark Canada—the eleventh Canadian writer to be so honored. A ceramic plaque, printed with an excerpt of his poem, The Sea Breeze Lounge, would be permanently installed near its geographical setting, in Woody Point, Newfoundland.

The news was thrilling on two counts. First, that the plaque would be a visible affirmation of Dad’s literary legacy, his work memorialized as a physical landmark (one of thirteen Canadian writers to have been so honored so far, including his dear friend Michael Ondaatje). Second, HOW COOL is it that such a project exists anywhere in the world, with a mission to put “stories and poems in the exact, physical locations where literary scenes are set.”

Pretty damn cool.

The Al Pittman Bookmark was unveiled in August 2012, eleven years after my father died. I wasn’t able to be there, but I think you can tell from the photo what a happy day it was for our family:


(From l-r, my nephew and niece, my little sister, my moma, and Dad’s big sister. Oh, and Kanani, my American girl doll niece. )

But how much more important is what each Bookmark means to the person who happens upon it in its place. Like finding a window that opens upon a whole other dimension—the one written in words.

Project Bookmark Canada intends to create a cross-country network of hundreds of plaques, with your help and mine. I’m donating $20 to the project, and hoping many of you will do the same.  Being part of something so wonderful is its own reward, but each person donating $20 today will be eligible to win a signed, hardcover copy of my book, Planting Dandelions.

Please consider a donation and do share the word about this great project. I’m hoping it spreads worldwide.

Score! ACT results and TestRocker giveaway

April 15th, 2014

Sponsored by TestRocker, an online SAT/ACT preparation program

waiting for act

TestRocker is giving away six months of online SAT or ACT test preparation to a Planting Dandelions reader (a $699 value)! Details at the bottom of this post.

My ninth-grader wrote his first official, on-the-record college entrance exam last month. As we drove to the testing site that morning, I contemplated saying something like, “Remember you’re a few years younger than most people taking the test today—don’t be discouraged if you find it difficult this time.”

At the last minute, I decided not to adjust the bar for him, but to let him locate it for himself. “Do your best!” I said, and wished him luck.

When he reported that the test was “easy,” I chalked it up to teenage insouciance, and didn’t put too much weight on it. Either way, I was proud of him for sticking with the study program for nearly six months.

I didn’t expect to be able to view his score for a month or more, but when I logged onto his ACT account a few weeks after the test date, it was ready.

Now, I went to high school in Canada, a thousand years ago, and we didn’t write standardized entrance exams for college. So I had no clue what the number I was looking at meant. But after consulting Patrick, and poring over the percentile tables for both the composite score and individual test sections, I can tell you I was one very proud and happy mama.

This kid doesn’t need the bar lowered. In fact, it’s tempting to raise  it by speculating what his ACT scores might look like by the time he’s a senior and has written the test two or three times. But those are chickens yet unhatched and best uncounted.

As for the scholar, he’s happy with the results. Though he may already regret his spectacular score in one particular subject for which he’s been bringing home unspectacular grades from school. So much for excuses.

It’s hard to say whether the test gave him a confidence boost, or made the prospect of college seem that much nearer and more real, or he finally felt the nip of my tiger mother teeth, but I see him working harder on all his grades this last quarter. Even after he’d cashed his subcontractor check from me, and bought the well-earned longboard of his dreams.

So, big thanks to TestRocker, for sponsoring this experiment, and big thanks to you for following along.  The future looks bright.
2014-03-24 10.52.29

To enter to win a $699, 6-month TestRocker program for a student in your life,  please follow this step :

  1. Tag TestRocker’s  facebook page in a Facebook post, telling them why you and your child want to study with TestRocker. Your post must be set to public, and it must include both @TestRocker AND  #testrocker  in order to qualify. (Yes, it’s a little more involved than usual, but this is a much bigger prize than usual.)

This contest ends April 25th and the winner will be announced on TestRocker’s facebook page onApril 26th.

BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE. Skateboards for everyone! Kidding. It’s cooler than that: everybody gets access to an exclusive offer for TestRocker’s study program (and a generous one). Simply email contactus@testrocker.com and mention Planting Dandelions for a special discount on the program.

Thanks again, and good luck!

 I’m very happy to disclose that TestRocker provided my son with six months of access to a customized ACT study plan, and sponsored a series of posts about the experience. All opinions are mine and his. Sign up here for your free TestRocker trial, and learn how it can help your child.

Wednesdays on Writing: Carried Away

April 9th, 2014

Why getting caught up in your story is both necessary and dangerous.

2014-03-30 20.29.18

I remember the day I first fell in love with my story. I had been flailing around for the narrative theme that would tie my proposed memoir together, trying to answer the same riddle put to every author before crossing the publishing gulch: What’s This About Anyway? 

I had the raw material for a memoir about motherhood, and a few ideas were coming into focus, like belonging, and extraordinary ordinary, but I couldn’t see the whole outline. I didn’t quite believe in it yet.

Then one day, a line came to me. “I jumped the white picket fence.” I sat down, and typed what became the introduction to Planting Dandelions in one sitting, carried along by the swell of story. As if I’d been paddling along a trickle of  ideas that suddenly spilled into the ocean. From then on, I knew what my book was about, and I believed in it. I still do.

I think I’m almost there with my second book. I’ve begun the shitty first draft I’ve been avoiding with dread. After months of filling journals and index cards with back story, character sketches, and plot points that no one will ever see, I can feel the current picking up. I’m done with outlining, populating and furnishing my story.  It’s time to get in the boat, pull the oars up, and hope I get carried away.

A writer needs to be carried away when she’s writing–infatuated, even. She needs to be carried away when she’s trying to get agents, publishers, and readers to believe in her story. It takes that momentum to bring a book into the world. Like any act of creation, really. Look at motherhood. There’s a kind of delirium that gets you through the the first year. There has to be, or our species would have died out eons ago.

But there’s a downside to the delirium. You can be carried too far away. Passion can tip over into grandiosity. Enthusiasm can veer into hyperbole. Self-affirmation can start to look like self-congratulation. When writers get carried away, they can become this person, as hilariously described by author Rebecca Makkai:

He deserves good things. He’s worked as hard as anyone else. It’s just that sometimes, you kind of wish he’d get a little bit smooshed by a bus.

I know that guy. At times, I’ve been that guy. And speaking from experience as an author and a follower of many authors, I can almost guarantee that everyone who publishes a book will be that guy to some degree, at some point in the process. I hope they have friends as patient as mine.

It’s good and necessary to get carried away by your story. For a little while. But you need ballast. I had it in my agent and editor, who bore the frothiest waves of my exuberance, and kept the worst of it out of the public eye. Four years later, I still blush to remember some of my more over-the-top gems, and give thanks that it’s unlikely anyone will ever collect my manuscript drafts and letters.

That kind of professional ballast is built into traditional publishing, where the work has to get past multiple eyes before it’s released to an audience. It’s not idiot proof, but it saves some of us from ourselves. As legitimate and wonderful as I think self-publishing is, it’s missing that critical test. We’ve all had occasion to shake our heads at someone’s very public misfire and wonder, what were they thinking? 

I think a lot of the time, they simply got carried away by their story, and there was no one to pull them back.

Whatever story you have to tell, however you tell it, I hope you fall in love with it and let it carry you away. Writing a book is far too much work and risk for the half-hearted. Just be sure there’s somebody standing by with sharp eyes watching out for you, and a gentle hand to bring you in.


Kiss me, I’m 42 per cent Irish.

March 31st, 2014

Enter to win a DNA test from Ancestry.com


Ancestral DNA, the bonds of blood, and what any of it means today.

Hey, it’s the end of March! Let’s giveaway another AncestryDNA test! But first, let me tell you about my own experience with taking this kind of DNA test and the illuminating results.

The test kit arrives in a little box which contains a specially designed plastic vial, a plastic bag, and a prepaid envelope for shipping your sample to the lab. Each kit has a serial number, which you register online. Then you spit into the vial (gross), seal it, shake it (grosser still), and send it off. Then you spend the next 6-8 weeks obsessively checking your account every day, just in case you missed the email alert that your results are ready.

Then one day, you get a message that says they really are ready. You click on your name, and you see a pie chart, telling you what was found across 700,000 locations in your genome.

Or rather, who was found. In my case, my DNA pie is divided among people who most likely called these places home up to 1,000 years ago:

  • Ireland 42%
  • Great Britain 34%
  • Iberian Peninsula 11%
  • Europe West 6%
  • Scandinavia 6%
  • Finland/Northwest Russia< 1%
No earth-shattering surprises for a person whose father came from Newfoundland (there’s the English and Irish), and whose mother’s great-grandparents were Danish immigrants to New Brunswick (there’s the Scandinavian and probably the Finnish). But that wedge of Iberian heritage is intriguing (explaining my father’s black hair and dark brown eyes?), and the big slice of Irish is more than I’d have guessed from looking at my family tree, by half (it also makes a sketchy legend of native blood look very sketchy indeed).
So what does it mean? Well, according to Ancestry, a statistically average native of Ireland has about 95% “Irish” DNA. So, genetically speaking, I’m about half as Irish as the Irish. I think that should get me discounts on Waterford crystal and Aer Lingus fares, don’t you?
Okay, but what does it really mean? Why is the ethnic component of DNA analysis so fascinating and thrilling for me, and for so many people? Why on earth does it matter “what” we are?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot. For me, it’s a link to the unknown ancestors, the ones whose names will never turn up on a parish register or land deed.  Those pins on the map are clues to their stories. As incomplete as a faded photograph, or a fragile remnant of wedding lace, but a kind of relic nonetheless, handed down in molecules. I am bone of their bones, flesh of their flesh. And while my genealogical pursuit has taught me that family trees are made of much more than flesh and bone, genetic analysis can bring light to the dim or forgotten reaches of our roots.
But the ethnic pie is only the starter course.  Whether you have a family tree on Ancestry or not, you’ll receive ongoing reports of genetic matches found in the database, anywhere from one to eight generations removed. Those can be enlightening all by themselves, but when you’ve linked your DNA results to your own Ancestry family tree, things start to get really interesting.
I’ve mentioned that my husband’s family has been in the USA for a long time. When his DNA results came back, he immediately had pages and pages (and pages) of matches. In dozens of instances, it was easy to compare family trees and pinpoint the common branch (Ancestry makes it easier by highlighting locations and surnames shared by both trees). Not only did this confirm his genealogy along numerous lines, it helped us locate missing ones. Sometimes I’d find a genetic match who had information that we didn’t, or I was able to share my research with others. It’s like a giant recovery operation between distant kin, sharing gravestone photos, scans of family bibles, ancestral lore, and transcripts of wills. 
My expectations weren’t quite as high for my own matches, because Ancestry is based in the U.S., and I’m an immigrant from Canada. Even though Ancestry keeps global records, I thought the odds were less in my family’s favor than Patrick’s would be. But the first time I clicked on “see matches,” I found myself looking at cousins only a couple of generations removed. 
One of these, I’d already discovered when his wife read my bio in a magazine article I’d authored, noticed I was a Pittman from Newfoundland, and rightly guessed there might be a connection between her husband’s family and mine. His grandfather, my great-uncle, had been lost at sea as a young man. I knew that story, but not that he’d left behind a wife and child. No one living in my family had any knowledge of them. Not every long lost cousin is someone with whom I necessarily want to open a relationship, but this one was, so it was wonderful to find our kinship confirmed by DNA. If we hadn’t already found each other, our tests would have done it for us.
My second closest match was a complete surprise–one to be saved for next month’s Ancestry report. I’ll tell you this much: it involves an adoption story, and the discovery that my roots in this “new” country of mine may go back even further than my husband’s!
Until then, please leave a comment (or a question) to win a free AncestryDNA test and learn your genetic history! See details below. 

Ancestry.com is kindly sponsoring a series of posts on my incredible Ancestry journey. Leave a comment below to win an Ancestry DNA test (available to U.S. residents only at this time). Winner will be randomly selected on Friday, April 4 at noon CST (and congratulations to Anita, who won the one-year world explorer subscription to Ancestry.com in February’s giveaway)!


Don’t hate me because I’m in Florida.

March 27th, 2014

Navarre Beach Spring Break

All my life I’ve watched other people go on spring break beach vacations without me, so I wasn’t going to feel one bit sorry about posting updates of me basking in the Florida sun and surf this week while 90% of my friends and family are living above the new North American permafrost line.

Though spring temperatures had finally arrived in Arkansas last week, I drove to the gulf coast as if a blizzard were at my back, eager to discard as many garments as local law permits and let the full UV spectrum soak into my bones.

Except that spring must have gotten pulled over for driving drunk somewhere around the Louisiana state line, or else we lost it when my mom’s GPS navigator detoured us to the not-so-scenic scenic route of backwoods Alabama for two hours. Either way, spring has been nowhere to be seen since we got to Navarre. If I knew where to direct my irate and indignant tweets, #WTFsunshinestate would be trending right now.

Good thing I packed all these breezy skirts and summery tops.

Photo Mar 22, 8 40 39 PM


On the bright side:

The beaches aren’t crowded.


The drinks stay cold.

beach bag

We need less sunscreen.

buried in sand

The bikini diet has been abandoned for the who-the-hell-cares diet.


 (Related: I would endure any kind of weather for another lunch at Joe Patti’s in Pensacola.)

I don’t feel quite as bad that Patrick couldn’t join us. Though I still feel guilty for having to leave this guy:

 rosco in the car


I’m with my mom.

mom on the beach

I’m with my boys.

jonah at navarre

alden at navarre


 It’s not snowing.


In fact, the sun just began shining, so we’re off to carpe the crap out of this diem.

to the beach

Before the rain that’s forecast for the next two days rolls in. 

Wednesdays on Writing: Tame Your Beasts

March 12th, 2014

2014-01-22 18.03.17-2

On the bad days, when nothing–not even crappy writing– makes it onto the page, I take consolation in the thought of someday telling the hilarious story of taking ten years to write my first novel, and making countless hung-up writers feel better by comparison.  There are no ifs, I tell myself, only when. Every day is an act of suspending my own disbelief.

To those writers who think finishing/publishing a book will vanquish their beasts for once and for all, I’m sorry to tell you that my doubts and self-sabotage still circle and growl. But I’m better at taming them. I can’t always make them go away, but I can usually make them sit and lie down.

Here are some things to help you tame your beasts:

HumorThe Twelve Types of Procrastinators  by Angela Liao of 20px 

I’m a chronic List Maker, a hopeless Side Tracker, a compulsive Social Sharer, and a dedicated Internet Researcher — what about you?

Habit: Content, Creativity, and the Role of Habit by Jason Konopinski

Familiar advice about cultivating good creative habits, but I need reminding over and over again. As the world’s slowest writer, I was especially comforted by this anecdote:

James Joyce famously labored over every single word, sentence, and punctuation mark. It was a process that took days. In an oft-repeated story, Joyce encountered a friend on the street who asked him if he’d had a productive writing day, to which he happily replied, “Yes, I wrote three sentences today.”

I wrote three sentences yesterday afternoon. It took me only two hours, but then, I’m not writing Ulysses. 

Journaling: A New Way to Think About Journaling  by Karen Walrond

My friend Karen showed me her “global capture” approach to keeping a journal during break between sessions at a writer’s conference where we were presenters a few years back. It was a game changer–like installing an overflow valve for my brain. I’ve adapted the practice to suit myself (including a switch from an unruled Moleskine to a similar notebook with heavier paper, so marker ink doesn’t bleed through), but the basic concept of putting it all between the covers remains the same. It’s sort of like dumping your handbag out so you can sort the trash from the useful things you carry around all day. 

Endurance: Surviving the Myths of a Writer’s Life

This is a wrap-up of a talk I gave last month to creative writing students at the University of Central Arkansas. I was surprised and happy to be asked to give a craft workshop, but a little perplexed about what to teach, since I’ve never actually been in a writing workshop myself. I thought about what would have been most useful to me as a young writer starting out, and decided to leave the teaching of writing to the writing teachers, and pass along some endurance skills instead — approaches that have helped me navigate the personal hazards of creative work. 

This far, anyway. 

What are some of the beasts that stalk your work lately?


Writing the ACT with TestRocker

March 7th, 2014

Sponsored by TestRocker, an online SAT/ACT preparation program


I’m so proud of my high school freshman–last Saturday, he took a seat among students who were mostly juniors and seniors, and wrote the ACT for the first time, for real (he got to give it a test drive in seventh grade, as part of a program for gifted students, but it wasn’t graded “for keeps”).  


 It won’t be the last time he takes the test. I hope he scored well, but the main goal at this stage was to get him familiar with the testing  process and get his (and my) head in the college admissions game. The experience has taught both of us what it takes to prepare for the ACT: serious commitment and planning. The TestRocker program provided a structured study plan and progress report that kept him on track and on pace. Maybe there are other students and other parents who can keep up with self-directed test preparation while juggling regular studies, but we aren’t them.  It was so helpful to be able to pull up his progress with a click, and see exactly how far along he was. 

Sometimes he was behind, and had to put in overtime to catch up. Listen, it’s hard to find time for extra study when you’ve already had  full day at school, have regular homework, and want time to skateboard, practice guitar, hang with your bros, and text your girlfriend. I’d never cut it as a tiger mom–I have too much sympathy for the complexities of adolescent life. So it’s a sincere and significant endorsement when I say that TestRocker was blissfully nag-free. I braced myself for protest when he had to cancel plans last Friday night after I reminded him that it was his last night to study, but there wasn’t a single groan. He camped out on my bed, fortified by his favorite junk food, and did the three hour practice quiz without complaint.  


 Here’s what the scholar had to say when I asked him about writing the ACT with TestRocker in his corner:

Q. How prepared did you feel going into your first ACT?

A. I felt fairly prepared and confident. 

Q. What was the testing experience like? Were there any big surprises?

A. It was easy and relaxed. There were no real surprises.

Q. How would you approach the study plan next time?

A. Stay more devoted.

Q. What did you like about the TestRocker study program? 

A. It was easy to follow, with lots of reinforcement.

Q. Was there anything you would like to see changed?

A. I would love to have a paper version of the study program to follow along with.

It will be at least another two weeks before we have his score. I won’t be sharing any numbers, and I’m scaling my expectations to his grade level, but I’ll let you know if his perception of the test matches up with the results. 

Thanks for following along on this whole new set of “baby’s firsts,” and please share in the comments if you’ve got questions or helpful advice to give.

 I’m very happy to disclose that TestRocker is providing my son with six months of access to a customized ACT study plan, and sponsoring a series of posts about the experience. All opinions are mine and his. Get a sneak peak of TestRocker’s SAT & ACT programs by taking a free Diagnostic Test, previewing your study plan, and attempting some of the free questions (no credit card required).


March 3rd, 2014


I’m looking out my window at a blanket of sleet that fell last night, wondering if we have shifted into a Game of Thrones universe, where winters are counted in years. I’m so tired of complaining about the weather, but I don’t seem to be able to stop, either. I’m starting to take it personally. In the last couple of weeks, the birds had begun nesting, and the bulbs have been blooming around the yard. The winter weather alert on my phone Saturday afternoon felt like a slap in the face.

So when the ice started raining down yesterday, I took up arms. Kitchen scissors, to be precise. I threw on my hooded parka, grabbed a bucket, and marched outside to liberate every last one of the daffodil blooms from the oppressor. 



Do you hear the people sing?




Climbing the family tree with kids

February 28th, 2014

Another fantastic giveaway sponsored by Ancestry.com

The other night, my fourth grader got out his homework, and handed me a worksheet.  “Can you help me with this?”

I looked. “Discover Your Roots” was printed above a family tree chart. He had already filled in his immediate family, but the upper branches were still blank. This was it, my moment. I was being called up from the bench.

Could I help with this? Oh, I DON’T KNOW, how much extra paper do we have?

Except I didn’t say that, because I didn’t want to scare him with my enthusiasm. His older brothers had already sensed the intensity, and were keeping their heads down.


I opened up the computer and went to our Ancestry.com family tree, so he could copy the names of his grandparents and great-grandparents onto his worksheet. As we looked, he was able to see the photographs I’ve saved to their profiles. Like these ones of my grandmothers:

mary and ferne

As he copied their names, I told him how much his great-grandmother Mary loved fly fishing, how good she was at it, and how delicious those trout were. I told him about his great-grandmother Ferne’s gift with animals—what a great horsewoman she was, and how I saw her coax a trapped bee out of our car one time, cupping it in her hand without it stinging her.

After he had all the grands and the first set of greats copied over to his sheet, I zoomed out on the tree, with his name and birth date at the base. We counted exponents. Two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and all sixteen of his great-great grandparents had names and dates. Then some branches stopped, while others scrolled on and on.

I was able to show him things like an obituary for his 5th X great-grandmother, who was born in Germany, and died in South Carolina, “a friend to all mankind.” A few months ago, we didn’t know her name, much less her reputation. But Patrick’s Ancestry DNA matches turned up a distant cousin who was able to extend his branch back many more generations. She, and several other Ancestry members with whom my boys share roots, have been so generous and helpful. Community is one of the greatest resources in online genealogy. Nobody walks the ancestral trail alone for very long.


Photo Jan 26, 6 42 30 PM

One of the homework questions was to find out if anyone in the family tree fought in the Civil War, and on which side. I told my son what I learned from a telephone interview with Ancestry.com family historian Lisa Elzey: if your tree has an American male born in the 1830s, chances are good that he fought in the Civil War (and that one great place to look is the National Park Service database of soldiers). We went across the American side of his tree laterally, looking at candidates. I had already located records for three soldiers – two for the Confederacy, and one for the Union.

“What about him?” my son asked, pointing to a 3rd X great-grandfather who was born in 1845.

I clicked “search records,” and found a pension application by his widow, which told us he enlisted from Missouri, but not which side. We had the name of his regiment, though, so we started googling. By this time, my older boys were fully engaged, looking over my shoulder and scanning through wikipedia entries to see if we could find a mention. I confess I was hoping we would turn up another Union man to even things out, but it turned out that great-great-great grandpappy PJ wore gray.


Photo taken and kindly shared by another of PJ’s great-great-great grandsons, Guy Choate, who I met on Ancestry.com, and who, like his fourth cousins, is a pretty cool fellow.*

“But look,” I pointed out on the next row. “His daughter married a man whose dad fought on the other side.” In just one generation, enemies had become a family.

I printed out the longest branches of his tree to bring to class –one of Patrick’s that goes back to 1666, and one of mine that goes back to 1614. “I know one fourth grade teacher who is going to deeply regret sending home a family tree worksheet,” I quipped to my Facebook friends, who are probably so tired of my genealogy updates, they’ve all got me on mute.

He brought the appended branches home in his backpack the next day. “She only wanted the first sheet,” he reported.

Considering all the history we covered in one night, I think I should have at least gotten a happy face stamp.

“That’s alright,” I told him. “it’s for you to have, anyway.” Which sums up one of the most satisfying things about researching our family tree – the sense of assembling something for the ages, a record that our kids and future generations can look back to, and build on. So that when my 5th X great grandchild comes to his mother with the same damn worksheet that teachers have been xeroxing for 500 years, they can have as much fun climbing the family tree as we did.


*And a writer, whose lovely memoir of his grandparents is published here. 

Ancestry.com is kindly sponsoring a series of posts on my incredible Ancestry journey. Leave a comment below to win a free 1-year World Explorer membership, valued at $299 (international entries welcome). Winner will be randomly selected on Friday, March 7 at noon CST (and congratulations to Brad, who won the DNA test from Ancestry.com in January’s giveaway)!