Brain Candy Sale

Special Offers see all

Enter to WIN a $100 Credit

Subscribe to
for a chance to win.
Privacy Policy

Visit our stores


Authors, readers, critics, media — and booksellers.


Write How You Must, But Never Touch the Trillium

There seem to be as many books about the writing process as there are memoirs. When I started writing I read a couple: Annie Lamott's Bird by Bird, Margaret Atwood's Negotiating with the Dead — not that I could relate to them at that point. What works for those authors, or what worked for Dickens or Hemingway (writing while standing — as if) doesn't necessarily work for me.

I mostly write at public libraries. The New York City main branch on 42nd and Fifth, the Community Library in Ketchum, Idaho; it doesn't matter where. The bulk of my first book was written at the library in Lake Oswego, near where I live in Portland. I'm working on my second book there, now. Little known fact: LO is Oregon's top-ranked library, probably due to the fact that it has the largest lending DVD collection. It also has the highest volume of screaming children, but noise-cancelling headphones playing a Mahler loop help enormously. There are a bunch of writers who use the second-floor reference section as their offices. I've never said a word to any of them, but we know each other's favorite desks and respectfully adhere to that. Librarians are sages in my opinion; and if they don't know where to find something online or in the library, they will procure it for you — come hell or high water.Librarians are sages in my opinion; and if they don't know where to find something online or in the library, they will procure it for you — come hell or high water. Even if it's something of an overtly questionable nature, like the three issues of Video X I art directed in the late seventies and needed for reference in a story I was writing about working in the porn industry. That sweet little old librarian didn't bat an eye.

The other place I write is in my car while I'm driving. Oh stop; it's not like I'm typing on a keyboard, I have a big pad of paper in my lap and I write as I drive WITHOUT LOOKING. Scared you. I write without looking at the paper, not the road. I won't tell you what kind of a car I drive because you will report me, but as far as I know it's not illegal. I do my best writing this way. Other than when I'm blackout drunk. (I'm lying about the last part — one glass of wine and I'm brilliant. But only for half an hour.)

My work routine starts with a triple Americano to go from Peet's, and then I hit the library just as the doors open at 10:00. After screwing around on the internet for an hour, checking favorite sites like the Sartorialist, or looking at The Daily Squee (link NOT provided, too embarrassing), I get down to work and stay at it until about four. On my way home, I stop at Tryon Creek, which is one of the loveliest of the Portland parks, and go for a run. Tryon has the verdancy of a Mesozoic forest; it's all ferns and sculptural stumps and primordial firs patterned with the curlicued branches of mossy, half-dead cedars. If you close your eyes you can practically smell the dinosaurs.

I usually run on the North Horse Loop and rehash the day's writing, stopping every hundred yards or so to scribble on index cards so I don't forget things, most of which are forgettable. I am not unaware that I look like an idiot doing this; I can read it on the expressions of the other runners, who collide with me and recoil like they think I've been sniffing my Sharpie or something. Maybe the Sharpie does have something to do with it, because I definitely get my best ideas out running.

Along with a lot of runners, Tryon also has a lot of Trillium — Trillium ovatum, to be specific, which is a moderately attractive flower native to the Northwest. Right now it's Trillium season. People here take their Trillium very seriously. So seriously, that on every vertical man-made surface in the park there are signs that tell you — in no uncertain terms — to NOT TOUCH THE TRILLIUM.

I thought the woman who came upon me on the trail while I was taking that photo yesterday was going to stone me. I told her I was just staging a photograph, and that I was a writer and it was part of this blog I was doing about my writing process... But she would have none of that. Reaching for her cell phone she hissed, "And would you pretend to strangle a baby for... for... whatever you called that kind of story you're doing?"


÷ ÷ ÷

The great-great-great-great granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt, Wendy Burden is a former illustrator, zoo keeper, taxidermist, owner and chef of the bistro Chez Wendy, and served as the art director of a pornographic magazine — from which she was fired for being too tasteful.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Dead End Gene Pool: A Memoir
    Used Trade Paper $6.95
  2. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on...
    Used Trade Paper $8.95
  3. Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer...
    Used Trade Paper $9.50

Wendy Burden is the author of Dead End Gene Pool: A Memoir

2 Responses to "Write How You Must, But Never Touch the Trillium"

    Trish March 30th, 2011 at 5:51 pm

    Thank you... I find this interesting. It's fun to know how your process works. And you are a joy to read.
    Keep blogging but then that would interfere with the book eh?

    Perri March 31st, 2011 at 8:40 am

    Oh, I love this! I write in my car, too, by the way. A two hour long commute will do that to ya. Though usually, I can barely read what I've scrawled en route.

Post a comment:

Get Your Gravatar

  1. Please note:
  2. All comments require moderation by staff.
  3. Comments submitted on weekends might take until Monday to appear.
PowellsBooks.Blog uses Gravatar to allow you to personalize the icon that appears beside your name when you post. If you don't have one already, get your Gravatar today!
  • back to top


Powell's City of Books is an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, that fills a whole city block with more than a million new, used, and out of print books. Shop those shelves — plus literally millions more books, DVDs, and gifts — here at