You Can Say That Again

One afternoon in July, my Grandmother and Auntie Babe decided to take me and my cousin, Beth, for a hike up Blue Hills. We were ten or eleven. I’m not sure. It was one of those memorable days, not because of the weather (hot and sticky) or the scenery (I remember watching for rattlers someone reported). No, it was because of our silly commentary. My cousin and I sounded more senior than the seniors we were with, as if we’d stepped off the nursing home bus.

“My legs are killing me,” I said.

“You can say that again,” my cousin chimed in.

With that my Grandmother and Aunt howled. We weren’t even a quarter of the way up the hill. And this became one of those legendary family stories. How wimpy the next generation is, or something like that. Doesn’t take much, does it?

Getting up that hill took quite a bit of effort. Needless to say we were pooped after the first few switchbacks. This was quite a surprise to us. We had our walking shoes and sticks. We were young and energetic. We thought we could beat our relatives to the top, no problem. Boy did we have a few things to learn.

So too with writing, and more so with publishing. I thought writing came easily. It was natural, a gift. After all, this is where I excelled. Chemistry was a natural disaster. Economics ruined my first semester in college, but give me an article to write, a short story to create, and I was golden.

Or so I thought. But when I began to submit my poetry for publication on a cold day in 1999, I got a reality check. My first rejection letter appeared in the mail. Soon I was keeping a pin cushion by my desk. I stuck red pins in for all of my rejections. Now and then I’d add green for a meager acceptance. I was starting to see this took leg work, and my legs were killing me.

You can say that again! It wasn’t as easy as whipping out a poem one night and seeing it in The New Yorker the next month. This was a climb. Allowing your work to be workshopped and critiqued is never easy, but for most of us, it’s the only way to perfect your art.

With picture books, it’s the same story. I can work and rework a story. I can revise for editors and agents, change my characters from boys to ducks. I can add words, subtract metaphors, and editors will claim to love it. Still, the Big Kahuna editor who sits on the top of Blue Hill may decide it’s not quirky enough or too quiet. *)(*^%&)_4%# So I rework it, and send it out again.

So when is it done? I have two answers. Ellen Bryant Voigt is famous for telling one poetry student, “Honey, it’s all draft until you die.” Certainly this is one thought, but I have another. When I received a phone call announcing my grand prize from Writer’s Digest, I was on a mountain, literally. I was attending the Frost Festival of Poetry in Franconia, New Hampshire. The poem (White Birch) that won the prize was being critiqued when I received that famous call. Some people had no idea what the poem was about. Some people suggested fewer words. Others thought I should expand it. And many had valid points. Still, in the middle of all that, several editors at Writer’s Digest thought it deserved grand prize.

My point? Work hard. Rewrite, and rewrite some more. At some point it will be a winner in an editor’s mind, even if “it’s all draft until you die.” Someone will always have another criticism to add to the pile. Only you, the author, can decide when it’s done. But it’s worth the back-breaking climb and then some. “You can say that again!”

The Art of Generosity

A few weeks ago I was dining at one of our favorite restaurants. Our friendly waiter told us that he was exhausted. His wife’s family had immigrated from Shanghai and he had 17 people living in his tiny house, including one very bossy two-year-old. We marveled at his generous spirit, having put aside his own comfort for the needs of many. But his story is my husband’s as well. Without the generosity of his Aunt Sally, he would have never escaped from Communist China to a better life.

For several summers I was privileged to attend the Frost Place Poetry Festival in Franconia, New Hampshire. We were poets on the move, upwardly bound. We had talent, by God. Soon our words would be found in the likes of Poetry and the Atlantic Monthly, if only the famed guest poets would escort our poems to another level.

One man challenged our outlook with a gentle daily reminder. Donald Sheehan was the Director of the Festival and the embodiment of humility. I’ll never forget his understated wisdom: Take care of each other. Listen carefully. And if it comes down to heart vs head, sympathy vs intelligence, choose heart. While you are here for this week, it is your job to make one other person’s work stronger.

Whether author or artist, teacher or student, we are called to have a generous spirit. Yes, we want to make it in the world of publishing. Yes, we want others to fall in love with our work and to fall asleep with our words on their tongues. But to give back to another—whatever your talent, there is nothing nobler than this. The generous artist works to make another person’s work stronger….at least those are my words for today.

In memory of my mentor, Donald Sheehan

“To Pay Attention, This is Our Endless and Proper Work.” Mary Oliver

As a visiting author I often talk to students about the art of writing. I include this quotation by Mary Oliver in my Storing Up Treasures presentation. This is what is required of writers—to pay attention. We observe the tiniest details in life, things that others may pass by or over, and we hold onto them, treasure them, until we find the perfect place in our stories, poems, essays, where that detail will shine. Often I ask the students about their busy after school activities. They play soccer, basketball, baseball; they are in girl scouts or boy scouts. Then I ask who goes home and does absolutely NOTHING. A few raise their hands. They are reticent to let their classmates know that they “don’t have a life.” I surprise them. I tell them they are the perfect candidates for being great writers. Not that writers don’t have a life. Not that we shouldn’t be out there doing and observing and journaling. But sometimes we need quiet time. What are words without reflection? And when we have these still moments, we can pull out our journals and begin to put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard. As Mary Oliver said, we cannot help but to “pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.”

Library Column

Just thought I’d share the article I wrote last week for the Norwood Transcript. I know some of you can relate. You can also find it here:

M is for Mother’s Day – by Nancy Ling

Posted on May 5, 2011 by MZlibrary

Nancy Ling is an Outreach Librarian at the Morrill Memorial Library. Read her column in the Norwood Transcript & Bulletin.

Somehow it seems fitting that my debut article for the Norwood Transcript falls around Mother’s Day. While some folks love the treats and tricks of Halloween or the long stem roses of Valentine’s Day, I’d trade them all for a simple homemade card on Mother’s Day.

Like many of you I feel a special something for all the wonderful mothers out there. My hat goes off to them: working moms, stay-at-home moms, retired moms, adopted moms, foster moms, two- in-the-morning-wake-up-moms. Still I have a special place in my heart for the woman who is often forgotten this time of year—the not-yet mother. It’s during those waiting years that the not-yet mother wonders if her deepest desire will ever be fulfilled.

I’ll never forget the despondency a woman may feel when faced with a future without children. For five years I was that not-yet mother and Mother’s Day was one of the hardest holidays to endure. It became one of those dreaded Sundays when I felt surrounded by beaming parents who couldn’t relate to a childless couple. There was one Mother’s Day that stands out, however.

Fearing the typical church service paying homage to motherhood, while at the same time overwhelmed with guilt for such resentment, I hunkered down in the pew next to my husband. I knew what was coming.

That’s when Reverend Robert Davidson began preaching about Hannah—another not-yet mother. I was shocked. Someone had actually noticed my pain, and that someone had put aside the needs of the majority for the needs of one. It was as if a floodgate had been opened. My situation wasn’t new. There were women centuries ago who’d also endured the same.

It is sometimes in the darkest moments of life that rebirth comes. I had always loved to write, but suddenly I found a new voice. I didn’t have the energy for short stories or novels, but poetry poured from my soul. Writing became healing. While there was much I couldn’t control, I could write. My thoughts. The pen. The paper. Those were under my influence. I was so consumed with writing that before I knew it I had two births…one to a beautiful baby girl, the other to my first collection of poetry: Laughter in My Tent.

Peggy Orenstein can relate. In her memoir, Waiting for Daisy, she poignantly addresses the topic of infertility. Orenstein’s subtitle says it all: “A Tale of Two Continents, Three Religions, Five Infertility Doctors, an Oscar, and Atomic Bomb, a Romantic Night, and One Woman’s Quest to Become a Mother.” That title alone beckoned me to read this true to life love story. At times humorous and wrenching, Orenstein takes her readers through the courageous account of her journey to motherhood.

And no, after this long wait, none of us becomes perfect mothers. But hopefully, we become appreciative ones. There are things we’ll never forget: first steps, first teeth, first silly giggles at the water swirling down the drain, or bubbles in the sand box. Through a collection of essays Because I Love Her highlights the bond between mothers and daughters. These personal stories reveal life lessons imparted by mothers. One of my favorite essays is by Katherine Center. Entitled “Things to Remember Not to Forget.” These first lines will give you a taste of her humorous voice: “At our house, for our kids, who are two and five, everything is better with a big side order of Naked. Jumping on the bed is good, but Naked Jumping is better. Hiding in the closet is good, but Naked Hiding is better….The only thing, in fact, that’s not better naked is bathing, which is far better done with socks on.”

It’s a happy mother who embraces a sock bath. Eww. I believe pediatrician Meg Meeker, M.D., would approve. In her book The 10 Habits of Happy Mothers, Meeker encourages mothers to reclaim their passion, purpose and sanity. Is that possible? By the end of the book, you’ll be a believer too. As my wise Uncle Norman used to say, a habit is hard to break. If you take away the “H,” you still have “a bit.” Take away the “A,” you still have a “bit.” All the way down to the “it.” But Meeker delves into habits that are worth keeping. From faith to solitude, friendship to finance, Meeker shares practical steps to becoming a fulfilled mother.

And for all of those mothers who are able to find pockets of solitude, how about a light mystery? Mother’s Day Murder (a Lucy Stone mystery), by Leslie Meier, might be just the right read to keep in your back pocket. According to Library Journal Review, “Small-town life in Maine should be quiet and safe, but feuding families, high-school bullying, and the murder of a missing 16-year-old girl makes Tinker’s Cove residents overprotective of their children and suspicious of one other. Another murder places Lucy Stone, part-time reporter and mother of four, in the thick of things.”

As for me, I’ll be reading The Night Before Mother’s Day, by Natasha Wing, to my two daughters. You’re never too old for picture books, right? In this sweet story, a mother finds all she needs for a perfect holiday right at home: a homemade cake, a homemade spa treatment and lots of love. That is, after all, what I’m wishing for all the moms and future moms out there…a chance to stop, pause and embrace those moments in life worth treasuring. Happy Mother’s Day!

In Memory of Phoebe Prince

I read a story today in the Boston Herald about a 14 year old girl named Justine Williams. She is a cancer survivor. She is also a survivor of horrific bullying which she had to endure while going through her cancer treatments. I can’t think of anything more vile than a person preying on another human being while they are enduring a life and death situation. It’s unthinkable, and yet this is evil if ever I saw it.

It reminded me of Phoebe Prince, a kind-hearted girl who committed suicide over a year ago after being subjected to such cruel bullying. Shortly after her death I wrote this poem. To those who tormented her, and to all those who think bullying is an option, it’s not.


(for Phoebe Prince)

So you welcomed her—

the new girl from County Clare,

taught her how little things—

wide smile, plaid scarf,

Irish lilt—keep a girl down,

never mind an untouchable who steals

the heart of your star line man.

There’s no room for a swan

in a piranha pool, and so

you strip her flesh with lies,

tear her face from a class photo,

submerge her under your words.

Irish slut . . . skirt’s too short . . . hair’s too curly.

You couldn’t let it go—

this gentle threat,

those tender eyes.

How she longed to just get by;

how she prayed for something,

anything to change before another day.

But someone had to lose.

On the day she left this world

she walked past the bottles

hurled from the window

of a whizzing car, past

the white picket fence

frozen in New England snow,

into a closet where she wrapped

life’s horrors around her neck.

But you weren’t done.

There were new girls

to slam into lockers,

punch in the head.

You returned to what

you’d left behind,

typed one word—


under your Status Update.

The Irony

It happened again tonight. I went to feed our parakeets and fish and frogs, started a bath, decided to make pancakes ahead for tomorrow’s breakfast, put away the dishes, forgot all about my bath water getting cold. You know how it goes. Writing always takes a backseat to life. And yet that is the irony, isn’t it? Without that every-day nitty-gritty stuff of life, we would have little to say as writers. In 2006 “Literary Mama” published this poem of mine. I think it sums up tonight’s feelings. I know it has struck a cord with other writers, especially mothers, because we are sometimes too tired to even “dream a poem.”

Why I Didn’t Write a Poem
By Nancy Tupper Ling

January 15, 2006

Cream of tomato soup singed the sides of the double boiler. I bathed the girls,
bubble smiles on their tummies, zebra fish on the walls. I dressed them in pink pajamas.
dried their hair; it curled under dark like violet petals. I read Moo, Baa, and Laa,
Laa, Laa. One last water call. A prayer. A kiss. A favorite blankey lost, then found.
I followed crumbs down the hallway, under the table. Imagined Gretel, the witch,
her graham-cracker shingles and jelly bean path. I scrubbed the pan: its liquid sienna
mess, its sweet acidity. Lined chopsticks, knives and spoons in the washer rack.
Thanked God for gas and light when cold pushes hard on night’s black sills.
I paid the bills, arranged sandwiches in boxes: triangle shapes with carrots and chips.
I phoned Kate in Orlando. She holds her baby near her black eye — her lover leaves her
every five months. How to make it right? Come home. Come home to this place.
It’s 12:27. I’m gathering batiks and teacups for tomorrow’s workshop. I’m slipping

into bed. My husband turns. Groans in his sleep. I want to dream a poem.

Kinship Writers

For any writers in the area, I’d highly recommend the Kinship Writers. Here’s my article on that experience.

Nancy’s Story

Some things don’t go as planned. When I showed up at the Armory in Somerville one Sunday morning last June, I was surprised to see the Kinship Writers coordinators, Jessica and Erin, standing outside of a locked door. I was already nervous about this session with agent, Ammi-Joan Paquette (of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency). At the last Kinship workshop, I’d felt a bit like a fish out of water. After all I’d been the sole picture book author in a room full of Middle Grade and YA writers. Not to mention navigating my way into the city from the sticks had been a bit of a challenge. But this looked like a great group of fellow writers gathered outside the Armory’s door, along with an agent who actually represented picture book authors (a dying breed). The only real problem was the locked door.

About this time a few of us noticed the Little Sisters of the Poor conveniently located across the street. Erin bounded over to the Sisters and came back with good news. Not only did they have room, but the facility was an even better fit. As it turned out, so was my experience that day. Immediately, I felt drawn to Ms. Paquette. She had a graceful and generous spirit, and her critique of each person’s work was truly insightful. Since we were a small group, Ms. Paquette spent plenty of time with each person and her work.

Still, the process of “hooking” an agent felt like dating at this point in my writing career. One has to experience a whole lot of toads and polliwogs before discovering “the prince.” I’d almost given up hope before taking Erin and Jessica’s workshop. After my first book (My Sister, Alicia May), I’d assumed it would be easy to find a publisher for my other manuscripts. Instead I’d spent years researching publishers and waiting for their reply. I was in need of an expert, and that’s exactly what I found in Ms. Paquette. Thankfully the Kinship Writers helped me to reach the castle’s drawbridge.

As I sat at the round table that day, I could tell I’d found “the one.” But as with all relationships, the question was whether it was mutual admiration. At the end of the day, I found an invitation on my stories to submit my revisions to Ms. Paquette’s attention. The tiniest spark of interest is, of course, a cause for celebration for any writer. But I had been down this road before, having spent a year revising for an agent in NYC-only to be let down in the end. So I revised and wrote and revised again. Basically I held my breath until February 3rd, 2011. That is the day I received a call from Ms. Paquette asking if I’d be interested in working with her. By then I’d witnessed her wonderful critique skills up close and there was no way I’d turn away from such invaluable advice. Just like the famous insurance company says, it’s really nice to have someone “on your side.” And it all began with a small step, and one very special workshop.

If you are searching for an intimate setting in which to hone your craft, or a chance to meet face to face with an editor or agent, I wouldn’t look any further than the Kinship Writers.

Gordon College, April 30th

Sue Persenaire kindly invited me to visit the Children’s Lit class at Gordon College this evening. I spoke to her students about the Incredible Journey of getting a book published. Comparing it to a hike up a mountain, I discuss the three P’s that lead to publication: passion, persistence and patience. 

I was truly inspired by their own work as future educators and I took notes during Sue’s discussion on multiculturalism. Always learning!
I’ve been invited back for a book signing during Homecoming. But hey, it’s almost summer. I don’t want to rush into fall.

Republican-American Interview

Shennen Bersani and I took a drive to the Farm in Roxbury, CT. The last time we drove this way together was when she was preparing to illustrate my picture book. She wanted to meet the girls behind My Sister, Alicia May. 

This time we headed down for an interview with Tracey O’Shaughnessy from the Republican-American newspaper. This is Tracey, Cheri, Grandma Barb and Shennen. We had such a great time reuniting with the girls and my childhood friend, Cheri (their Mom). Tracey asked some difficult questions, but with each interview we draw closer to each other. It’s been an amazing bond.
Thanks to Bob Falcetti, too, who took some awesome photographs for the article.