Tag Archives: writing

The $1500 Gooey Butter Cake: NICE!

IMG_1423I’m still in a bit of shock about this year’s fundraiser results. It’s not like I was unaware of the power of the cake, but when it went for $1000 more than the highest bid for indoor skydiving and only $500 less than two primo tickets to the finale of “Dancing with the Stars” I realized that there was more to this story than a box of cake mix, some eggs, a stick of butter, powdered sugar, and cream cheese.

Each year during my school’s annual benefit season, teachers are asked to donate their time and talent in experiences that are put up for auction and bid on the night of the gala. Last year when my initial offering of gooey butter cake appeared, it was bought straightaway for the suggested price of $200. (The $200 Gooey Butter Cake) It went so quickly that this year I knew it would be put up for auction without a ceiling.

A week before this year’s big event, when it was time to make my sales pitch at morning chapel for my “Teacher Experience” that wasn’t an experience at all, I knew I’d have to update my approach.  That meant just one thing. I had to come clean. The previous year I’d ended my presentation dramatically, reminding students that gooey butter cake was NOWHERE to be found in southern California and that their best chance of having it again was in asking their parents to bid on the one I’d bake for them, St. Louis-style.

As it turned out, this was not completely true.

‘In the interest of our school policy of honesty in all things and truth in advertising, I come before you today to set the record straight,’ I confessed as I stepped up to make my pitch. ‘A reliable source informs me that gooey butter cake can now be found in southern California!’

Stunned silence as the following picture appeared on the overhead screen:


When the gasps of horror and giggles died down I explained that I’d done some investigative research and this is what I’d discovered.


More gasps.

I compared and contrasted the two products, pointing out that despite its claim as the ‘Gateway to Flavor’ and the friendly price point of $1.49 or 2 for $2.50, the extensive list of ingredients on the Walgreens’ brand of gooey butter was nearly unpronounceable as compared to the simplicity of ingredients in my homemade cake. I tried to be as kind as I could about the inferior imposter and closed my pitch with this call-to-action plea:

‘I’m sure the folks at the NICE! company mean well, but wouldn’t YOU rather have a gooey butter cake baked just for you by a NICE teacher like ME?’

Apparently, that clinched the deal. The rest was gooey butter history.

In hindsight I’ve realized that along with the sheer power of the cake there were some basic sales principles at work here that, despite the fact that I nearly failed Econ 101 my freshman year of college, I have finally understood:

  1. Create a buzz. Because I use gooey butter cake as an example of my favorite dessert in class when I teach expository writing, students are inundated with knowledge about it, intrigued by its foreign Midwestern origins, and curious to sample it, which leads to…
  2. Don’t underestimate the role of the stomach in decision making. After we complete the writing unit I bring in samples of GBC for the students to taste. Their heightened anticipation from hearing all about it along with its pure deliciousness creates further buzz.
  3. Limit supply, increase demand. Now that gooey butter cake is a benefit item I no longer share the recipe with students and their families. Big deal, you might be thinking. Anyone can get the recipe in a hundred places on the internet. True, but not one baked just for them by their writing teacher. Which returns us once again to #1.

There’s one more principle that renders my list pretty much irrelevant because it’s the one that really matters. And that’s the generosity of the parents who purchased this St. Louis-born treat to help our school and make their daughter and her classmates happy.

Now THAT was really nice.


Got Plot? A Handy Quick Check


Recently I was sitting in on a picture book critique workshop, listening and reading along as a writer read from her work-in-progress, a story with no clear plot structure. I’d read many such meandering stories over the years as a writing teacher of children, until it occurred to me that the same simple strategy that my literature students use to summarize chapter and book plots could be used as a pre-writing task for storyboarding the main plot points in writing. What a difference! Using this method with my writing students has resulted in clearer plots and tighter stories that are much more satisfying to read.

While there certainly are more sophisticated and refined plotting techniques for writers of picture books to utilize, I find the following scaffold can quickly determine whether a story has a narrative structure.

Ready for this ‘handy’ trick? Open your hand and put out your thumb, then each subsequent finger for each bullet point.

  • Someone: Your main character
  • Wanted: What does your character want? This can be explicit or implicit and must carry though from story’s beginning to end.
  • But: What is the problem/obstruction that keeps your character from getting what he/she wants?
  • So: What does your character do to overcome the problem?
  • Then: The resolution. Does your character achieve what he/she wanted?

Someone wanted, but, so, then. A simple frame, but it’s enough to hang a story on. Try using it as a storyboard when planning your picture book or next chapter. Or use it as a diagnostic tool after you’ve written, to see whether your story has essential plot points. I’ve even introduced the frame as a discussion device in my book group, which has provoked some lively debates as we hammer out just what exactly our book was really about.

Simple, quick, and always handy, this tool is just an arm’s length away!

[This post was originally published at The Rhubarb Writers Group blog, July 2014]

Growth Underground


(Excerpt from Gifts from the Spirit: Reflections on the Diaries and Letters of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, 2002, 2014, copyright Kim Jocelyn Dickson)


“She said too what I have learned lately, that when one is ‘vegetating’ one is growing.”    Anne Morrow Lindbergh, LOCKED ROOMS AND OPEN DOORS, p. 374

Anne was visiting with an old family friend, Mrs. Neilson, the wife of William Allan Neilson, the president of Smith College. They discussed marriage, love, the importance of not separating the body and the spirit, having passion for work, and a German poet–Rainer Maria Rilke. It was a rich conversation for Anne who gleaned wisdom from Mrs. Neilson both in what she said and what she didn’t say.

And she confirmed Anne’s growing sense that even when she felt herself to be in a fallow period, she was still growing.

The past year had been difficult. The highly publicized trial of the man accused of kidnapping and murdering her child and the death of her sister, Elisabeth, rekindled Anne’s grief. She struggled to be hopeful about the future and to move forward. She was ready to begin her second book but found it hard to settle in to work.

But she had a feeling that even though she seemed to be in a state of dormancy, below the surface her creativity and energy simmered. She was learning, and in due time this would be apparent.

She was right. Not long after Anne’s conversation with Mrs. Neilson, she and Charles and their three-year-old son Jon moved to England. There she found relief from many pressures and painful reminders and settled in to a life of peace that enabled her to write her next book Listen! the Wind. It proved to be a richer, more complex book than her first. She had clearly grown.

Rainer Maria Rilke’s work became increasingly important to Anne, both validating and shaping her understanding of her life and herself as an artist. In Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke wrote in 1903 what Anne came to know for herself:

Allow your judgments their own silent, undisturbed development, which like all progress, must come from deep within and cannot be forced or hastened. Everything is gestation and then birthing. To let each impression and each embryo of a feeling come to completion, entirely in itself, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own understanding, and with deep humility and patience to wait for the hour when a new clarity is born; this alone is what it means to live as an artist: in understanding as in creating.[i]

Anne came to see that she could trust whatever stage she was in. That even during times when she didn’t feel herself to be flourishing and wasn’t outwardly productive, below the surface, deep in her unconscious, life was brewing.

I know this too. When I was a seminary student I discovered Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s work and became impassioned by it. I knew then that I wanted to write about her someday. I was far from ready to do it, but a deep desire was born then and continued to grow. Now, after a gestation period of nearly twenty years, I am writing a book I couldn’t have conceived much less written then.

As much as we’d like to, we can’t put our dreams on a schedule. “In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing.”[ii] Did it ever seem like I might never write my book? Many times. The curves that life throws you often seem like obstacles between you and what you desire. But the reality is they are opportunities to take you further into yourself, into that deeper place Rilke speaks of that is the genesis for all our creativity and passion. Like the tree ripening in the spring, he says, we can stand confidently in the storms, unafraid that summer may not come afterward. Summer does come.

If we pay attention to what’s happening in our inner lives and trust the wisdom that comes from there, fruit that we can see and touch will appear.


[i] Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to A Young Poet, trans. by Stephen Mitchell (New York: Random House, 1984) p. 23-24.

[ii] Ibid.


Only connect…

imagesNot long ago, on break at a writers’ conference, I sat down with a sigh as I checked email on my phone. Discouraged that my manuscript for a children’s biography of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, which had won two prizes including “First Place Work-in-Progress Picture Book” at this same conference the year before, had not yet found a home (“You write beautifully, but you need to cut 1,000 words!” was a common refrain), my thoughts were beginning to spiral into the black hole of my-writing-efforts-are-for-naught.

Just one well-timed email later, the veil of self-doubt lifted, and I was reminded that this was not necessarily so. The subject header on the email was: “From Sue, Fellow Lindbergh Graduate.” Sue was a classmate I hadn’t known well growing up in St. Louis many years before, despite having shared close mutual friends in junior high. The gist of her surprisingly long email was that she wanted me to know her recent discovery of Gifts from the Spirit: Reflections on the Diaries and Letters of Anne Morrow Lindbergh more than ten years after its publication and, subsequently, Anne’s own Gift from the Sea, had made a profound impact on her.

“Why did Anne’s book and your book resonate so much within me? Because I have struggled to ‘find myself,’ to stand up for my right to create space and time for myself without feeling guilty or selfish most of my life…(and) that this was essential, as you say, to happiness, inner peace, spirituality, to more rewarding relationships with others…” Sue had more to say. She shared quite openly with me, a virtual stranger despite our common hometown origins, about herself and how her choice to grow in self-awareness has affected every aspect of her life.

Deep calls to deep. My openness in sharing my own struggles in Gifts had elicited this beautiful and heartfelt outpouring of honest expression from her. Sue’s words were a gift to me in that moment, lifting me out of my dejection and reminding me that my writing effort does make a difference. Several emails later we met in St. Louis for lunch and nurtured the seeds of a growing friendship. In reaching out to me, Sue also became the catalyst for reconnecting me with mutual friends whom I’d lost touch with years before.

The gifts continue coming.

The chapter in Gifts titled “Reading to Know You’re Not Alone” could have a corollary: “Writing to Know You’re Not Alone.” As I look back over the years since its publication, I realize a theme is woven through my post-publication experience.

There have been other correspondents, not unlike Sue, who have touched me with their response to my book. And there have been occasions, like the afternoon I had the honor of delivering a keynote lecture at the Missouri History Museum, marking the 75th celebration of Charles Lindbergh’s epic flight, an experience that connected me with the hometown I loved and the museum that meant so much to me as a child. I have also been the guest of a dear friend on Captiva Island, where together we walked the same shell-strewn beach that inspired Anne’s Gift from the Sea.

One of my most cherished memories was the day I met Anne’s daughter Reeve Lindbergh for lunch in her hometown in Vermont. After our meal Reeve could have bade me farewell and sent me on my way, but she didn’t. Instead, she invited me to her farm to see the A-frame chalet that her husband had built on their property for Anne, where she spent her final days. Moments of connection like these are electric. I was reverberating for days after the experience of seeing Anne’s home, with the seashells she had scooped up on Captiva Island lining her mantelpiece. These are the moments that tell us we are fully alive.

A writer friend once gave me a card with an E.M. Forster quote on the cover that said, quite simply, “Only connect…” I keep these words close by, and it’s in this spirit that I am pleased to launch Gifts from the Spirit:Reflections on the Diaries and Letters of Anne Morrow Lindbergh once again.