More Than Just Knick Knacks: A Conversation with Lily Crooks, by Noah Topliff

On Thursday October 1, 2020, I had a conversation with Lily Crooks, an established member of the Twin Cities literary community and graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Hamline University. The plan was to speak over zoom, allowing us to see each other outside of the chain of emails that had been our introduction and only form of communication thus far. After 3 crashes on zoom, we elected to speak over the phone. Lily quickly moved to another room with better service as I googled “best phone call recording apps.” We spoke for around an hour. The free-flowing, unedited audio file of that conversation can be found at the bottom of this post. The following excerpts are gemstones and light bulbs, an illuminating understanding into Lily Crooks. 

The first piece of Lily’s writing that I read was “Free Fallin’” published in Memoir Mixtapes, August 2020. In it, she writes about her annual family road trip they take to the Black Hills in South Dakota each summer and falling in love with Tom Petty. 

Lily grew up in a family where “for many many years, we were not the kind of family where each of us had a walkman”. She was expected to entertain herself on road trips, and spent a lot of time with her own internal dialogue, the place where most of her writing begins to this day. 

In high school, Lily was a theatre kid. Finding solace in allowing the “internal loud showy Lily” to come out while playing characters. A lover of not only theatre, but the spoken word, Lily initially thought she was going to become a playwright when she first began looking seriously at writing.  “I love reading aloud. It doesn’t have to be screenplays. I love reading books aloud with friends, or on road trips and stuff like that. I wish we did more of that in my family, but we’ve just kind of started that because I insisted. But I just really appreciate the spoken style of storytelling.”

And so, she wonders how she might be able to inject whatever quality it is about her, or perhaps even the spoken voice, into her written works. “It’s very different writing with the intention to be spoken aloud and/or performed vs writing to be read. Inflection changes the whole meaning of a sentence, and how do you do that on the page if you can’t guarantee that this person isn’t going to hear you say it out loud”?

At this point, I check in to see if Lily has a hard-out I need to be working with (we’re about 40 minutes into our conversation) She tells me I’ve got about 15 minutes. 

I needed to know where the mounted deer head on her wall came from.

She purchased it on the last day of the Minnesota State Fair, inspired by an interview with Dan Savage where he had a bison head on his wall, from a vendor in the midst of packing up. She gave the vendor $200 cash (the head was listed for $400) enticing him with it being one less thing he had to transport. Then she remembered she needed to take it home on the bus. The deer’s name is Chauncy. 

We discussed the concept and importance of having “shrines” in your home. Deborah Keenan was the first person who really brought this idea to her, naming that very corner her shrine. “I never considered it (the space pictured in the photo above) as that kind of space, but it serves exactly the same purpose as a small altar to loved ones who’ve passed on or mementos that are more than just knick knacks. Especially when winter comes, I feel like Minnesotans need a lot of little quiet areas in their home to look at and feel joy.”

Coming to the end of our time I asked her what she was working on. Not just in terms of art or writing, but also spiritually, personally, or in terms of a goal she has set for herself. 

Her father has recently passed away, an experience that she’s found speaking about openly has helped in her processing of it. They weren’t particularly close, and as the oldest of his three children, she’s been put in charge of wrapping up his affairs. A task made even more challenging due to COVID-19, making the process longer and unable to get together with her family as much as she’d like. Oddly enough, she says the experience has brought her closer with her younger brother. 

Creatively, she’s been revisiting a piece she started a long time ago about her family history. She is also working to be more engaged in community work and mutual aid, and is looking forward to keeping up her momentum in that this winter.   

And finally, I asked if she had any magic parting words. 

“I don’t think I do. Um, if it’s about writing I hate to tell you that there isn’t magic and a lot of it is work. You just have to do it. Sorry. You have to just sit down and do it. And the best advice I ever got was ‘you can’t revise words you haven’t written’ so you just gotta do it. Your first draft is supposed to be bad. Sorry. That’s a long answer.

See, I’m bad at remedy. 

Write it up y’all, you gotta do it.” 


(note: audio starts at :15)   

Meet the blogger:

Noah Topliff is an undergraduate student at Hamline University in the final year of completing his BFA in Creative Writing. He spends his time outside of his studies writing and recording music and spending time with his dog and girlfriend.

No Place for Wolves: Cancel Culture and Consequences in the World of YA Fiction, By Kelly Holm

No Place for Wolves: Cancel Culture and Consequences in the World of YA Fiction, By Kelly Holm

No facet of the public consciousness is invincible. Even the most spotless legacy can be tarnished by the unearthing of otherwise overlooked or long-forgotten iniquities. We see this in the growing re-examination of long-dead historical figures, Christopher Columbus for example. Yeah, the dude actually wasn’t so great. Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, may have been acquitted of child molestation charges, but even the king isn’t above the public’s court of law. Justin Trudeau? Although the prime minister’s Liberal government survived Canada’s recent federal elections after several blackface incidents from his past were brought to light, his party is down 20 seats in Parliament and in fact lost the popular vote by more than a percentage point to Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives.

Yes, “cancel culture” doesn’t always lead to consequences. Christopher Columbus is too dead to defend himself, as is Michael Jackson, but neither faced true justice for their wrongs within their lifetimes. The blackface scandals may have damaged Trudeau’s reputation, but he’s not out of a job, and neither are many other public figures smacked with serious allegations, whether for racism or sexual assault. 

Surprisingly, the young-adult literature community is better at holding their own accountable than many branches of the U.S. government. Prominent figures like Jay Asher and Sherman Alexie have faced some social ramifications after being accused of sexual harassment, but those feeling the most heat were condemned not for what they were believed to have done, but for what they were believed to have left undone. Not for a crime, but for their own shortcomings, namely, for failing to live up to the YA community’s general consensus on inclusivity, representation and cultural sensitivity. 

If you browse over the Twitter accounts of today’s notable YA authors, you will find that they are overwhelmingly liberal, and more likely to have supported Hillary Clinton during the 2016 primary than Bernie Sanders, even though they are also likely to support keystones of Sanders’ policy platform, such as universal healthcare and student loan forgiveness. This preference is no coincidence. Sanders has frequently been critiqued by fellow left-liberals for being dismissive of “identity politics” and for tone-deafness to the issues faced by voters of color. 

The YA community, meanwhile, is deeply invested in diversity issues as its target market becomes minority-majority. Less than half of all children born in the US today are white, and members of Generation Z are far likelier than their predecessors to identify as LGBT. These issues have taken the front seat as demographics shift, from the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books which seeks to amplify marginalized perspectives in children’s and young-adult literature, to the #OwnVoices movement, which asserts that marginalized protagonists should be written by authors from the culture they represent. This Tweet by YA author Kosoko Jackson takes it a step even further:

“Stories about the civil rights movement should be written by black people. Stories of suffrage should be written by women. Ergo, stories about boys during horrific and life changing times, like the AIDS EPIDEMIC, should be written by gay men. Why is this so hard to get?” 

But his words boomeranged back at him. Jackson failed to live up to his own standards, as he is one such YA author who came under the hot-seat for writing outside of his lane. His debut novel, A Place for Wolves, starred a main character who, like him, is a gay black male. Jackson, however, has no personal connection to the Kosovo War, the conflict against which Wolves is set, and he wrote an Albanian Muslim villain, despite Albanian Muslims having borne the brunt of ethnic cleansing by the Serbian and Yugoslav governments during the war. This spelled doomsday for his book in the hands of critics on Goodreads, the social cataloging network that allows users to review books that aren’t even released yet.

“Genocide isn’t a romantic backdrop for your story,” reviewer ‘Nina’ wrote on Feb. 26, 2019, a month before Wolves’ scheduled publication day. “i don’t need a book about soft gay boys cuddling during a genocide that neither of them are part of or really affected by, an authors note that says there is two sides to every story of ethnic cleansing, and a muslim villain who comes from the group being ethnically cleansed,” said ‘Maxwell’ that same day. 

Wolves’ community rating on Goodreads, which had previously been more than four stars out of five, plummeted to less than three as more caustic reviews piled up. You have to wonder how many of these critics had actually read the book and how many were just bandwagoning along with their friends. Even a fellow YA author who had previously praised Wolves took back his endorsement after reading the criticisms.

As a result, Jackson asked publisher Sourcebooks to cancel Wolves’ impending release, and 55,000 ready-to-go copies of the novel had to be pulped. Put into context, that’s a larger first printing than runaway bestsellers The Hunger Games and The Lovely Bones, which both saw 50,000 initial copies.

This wasn’t the first time such a controversy unfolded, nor was it the last. In January 2019, Amelie Wen Zhao postponed the release of her Anastasia-inspired fantasy Blood Heir due to accusations of insensitive parallels within the book to antebellum chattel slavery, although the book’s universe features an ethnically diverse empire in which magical powers, not race, are the basis for oppression. A revised version was released in November.

In the spring of 2019, memoirist Katie Heaney liked a Tweet comparing bisexual people in heterosexual marriages to girls who studied abroad in college and won’t shut up about it. Heaney was quick to regret this, as her Goodreads reviews went on to suffer for it— reviews of a book that, at the time, was more than a year from publication: April 2020’s YA romance Girl, Crushed. None of these ratings and reviews have to do with the actual content of the book; they are all condemnations of an online action which the author later apologized for. To Goodreads’ credit, many of these reviews were removed for being irrelevant, but some users just re-posted them, minimally repackaged, and said as much.

Don’t these people have better things to do with their lives? Think back to the scandals mentioned at the beginning of this post, and consider how silly it seems to go after an author’s Twitter history rather than hold accountable those with actual power, whether in their own lives or in the larger world, for their wrongdoings. Why don’t they take up armchair detective work, and go cancel some serial killers? The Delphi murderer still hasn’t been caught, even though one of his victims recorded audio and video footage of him within her last moments. Anyone know this guy?

But I digress. Based on the flack Jackson and Heaney got from their seemingly innocuous online activities, it might do some serious good to think before you post. Maybe our parents were on to something, after all.

Meet the blogger:
KELLY HOLM is a member of Hamline University’s class of 2021. She is an award-winning student journalist for The Oracle and an English and creative writing double major. Besides Runestone, she’s interned with Sentinel Publications, Elicit Magazine and GenZ Publishing. She hopes to find work as a professional writer. 


10 classical playlists to write to,  By Ann Marie Leimbach

10 classical playlists to write to, By Ann Marie Leimbach

Like many, I need some background noise while I’m writing. It could be the hum of a coffee shop or a tv on in another room, as long as it’s something not too distracting, I’m happy. But my favorite thing to write to is classical music. I’ve been studying classical flute for over a decade, and as of now I’m one senior project away from a Music degree.  I’ve curated 10 classical playlists from Spotify perfect for any kind of writing: 

  • Sci-Fi- Space-themed Classical Music: From movie soundtracks, contemporary creations, and, of course, Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite “The Planets,” this playlist should inspire any sci-fi writer to create something out of this world. 
  • Fantasy- Romantic Era 50: Spotify Picks: This is the era that produced well known composers like Wagner and Rimsky-Korsakov. Characterized by emotion and drama, the Romantic Era is a perfect soundtrack to epic battles, long journeys, and quieter moments too. 
  • Romance- Folk-inspired Classical Music  The simple and sweet melodies of folk music are sure to inspire some love. Featuring composers like Copland and Grieg, this lively playlist will make you want to dance in a prairie with your one true love. 
  • Experimental- Avant Garde 50:Spotify Picks: If you’re writing something a little out of the box, look to these 20th century compositions for inspiration. Composers include João Pedro Oliveira and Rebecca Saunders.
  • Comedy- Baroque 50: Spotify Picks: The period that brought us Bach, Vivaldi, and Handel often features the plucky harpsichord, and fun music to smile to. 
  • Poetry- Lute Music for Alchemists: Lute music from some of the best European Renaissance and Baroque composers (like J.S. Bach and Giocomo Gorzanis) makes for a calm and focused atmosphere, even when your poetry isn’t.
  • When you’re writing something sad: Classical Noir Melancholic in minor keys, this collection of dark music from composers like W.A. Mozart fuels heartache.
  • When you’re writing about nature- Birdsong in Classical Music: From Baroque to contemporary, with composers from all over the world, this playlist transports you to the wilderness. The avian inspired composers include Camille Saint Saens and Somei Satoh.
  • When you’re looking for some drama- Epic Classical Are your characters are getting in huge fight? Is someone dangling from a mountain or getting chased by the police? Featuring masters of the dramatic, like Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, and Dvorak, this playlist will have you on the edge of your seat. 
  • Writing when restless- Spotify Orchestra: Cello: Everyone knows the stress of the impending deadline, and the stress gets even worse when you can’t concentrate. From composers like Eric Whitacre and Jaques Offenbach, the dulcet tones of the cello are perfect for centering your mind, and getting your work done. 


There’s nothing more inspiring to me than the way instrumental music is able to tell a story or convey a feeling without using any words. I hope these talented musicians and composers can help you be a better writer.

Meet the blogger:
ANN MARIE LEIMBACH sudied music and creative writing at Hamline University. Besides writing, their passions include playing flute and complaining about playing the flute. 


The Only Worlds We Know, By Michael Lee, Reviewed by K McClendon

The Only Worlds We Know, By Michael Lee, Reviewed by K McClendon

The Only Worlds We Know

Micheal Lee

Button Poetry

Fall 2019

ISBN: 978-1-943735-60-0

92 Pages

Reviewed by K McCLENDON 

If you are profoundly lucky, grief is something you know in name only. It has not yet made a home in the heart where someone you used to love once fit. Most of us carry on through the world ignoring death, attempting to make as little eye contact as possible. We assume tomorrow will come because if we didn’t, fear would make life impossible. But what happens when death becomes a force you can no longer ignore? What is there to do in life when you have no other option but to grieve?

In his debut book The Only Worlds We Know, published by Button Poetry Publishing Fall 2019, Michael Lee teases out these impossible ideas of death. He navigates the loss of a beloved friend to knife violence and the thin line between life and death as a recovering drug addict. 

There are many ways Lee attempts to describe death and its relationship to the body. A line from the poem “The Study Of The Dead And Puzzles” reads, “the knife does not kill the body it simply informs it / that death is possible; a single light flooding the room, / the one corner of the house we never knew / existed until all other rooms had darkened.” Another line from the poem “study of knives and music” says, “as if death is a kind of realization the body has.” Lee has an incredible way of giving death a soft side, a mystery that is not so terrifying. At the same time, he acknowledges that it is a sudden and incomprehensible thing the moment it happens. This balance is striking, as Lee is able to reduce death to a mere moment, the sun setting on a life.

Lee writes about the act of grieving.  In “A group of dead friends is called a memory,” he places the reader now at a dinner table, imagining dining with ghosts. They sit in the loneliness that comes with losing loved ones to the unexpected horrors of life. There are enough plates for the living and but not for the ghosts to feast. Michael, wonderfully alive, tells stories of times when these ghosts were not yet undone. He attempts to reconcile his own living, by recounting joy. 

When speaking of his life as a recovering addict, he emphasizes a different way of grappling with death. In the poem “Out There,” he writes about what it means for him to go to Alcoholics Anonymous and what it means when people stop coming to the meetings. “Each week a new man enters / the room, each week another man doesn’t / come back. What magic, to walk through / a door and then appear again as ink / in the Sunday paper. He went back out,/ the sentence a sentence… /and you wonder / where all these men have gone but you don’t / you know./ You know there is no long winter out there / where we dig through dead pines / in search of the bottom.” 

In this poem, Lee interrogates death as both addict and a witness to addiction’s power. It is a fact that if the addict drinks, smokes, or otherwise gives into the addiction, death is not only possible, but it is unavoidable. Lee centers himself in the middle of it, an addict who has seen his future over and over again in the ones who have gone out. Lee comes to terms with sobriety only after death is accepted as imminent. On the page this poem has power that is unprecedented, Lee’s performance of it is second to none, watch it here.

Lee speaks of death with a control that makes it seem like a manageable moment we all must inherit. He does not let us forget there is beauty and grace in this too. He masters grief in a way that allows space to be held for healing. This debut book of poems exhibits mastery of the abstract, working to uncover the darkness and confusion of the only worlds we know. 

Meet the blogger:
K McCLENDON is a junior at Hamline University where they study creative writing. K competes nationally as a spoken word artist. They have been an avid Button Poetry fan for many years and are now an intern at the company.

The Killers’ Literary Challenge By Tijqua Daiker

The Killers’ Literary Challenge By Tijqua Daiker

From the cinnamon challenge that had you gasping for breath in the half finished basement of the kid down the block to #thefloorislavachallenge #2k17, people these days no longer throw down their gauntlets or draw lines in the sand. Challenges take place on social media instead of the arena these days. They’ve certainly become a way to entertain and foster community.

I truly think that the lit-o-sphere could really benefit from creating some more challenges. 

We have National Novel Writing Month in November (NANOWRIMO) and National Poetry Month in April (30/30 or NAPOWRIMO), but something I really enjoy about other viral challenges is that they are not confined to a single month. The literary community is notoriously introverted – we’ve gotta be supporting each other year round. I’m talking 24/7 & 365. So, I’ve come up with a challenge made specifically for us book nerds that you could post anytime, anyplace:

The Killers’ Read My Mind Challenge

#fiction #short prose #idoubledog I can pinpoint the moment. I was late to The Killers’ fan fare, but when Brandon Flowers told me he got soul but he ain’t a soldier, I felt it like his layered harmonies were all tangled up in my ribcage. Twelve year old me had a near-spiritual epiphany: I can care without needing to put myself on the front lines.

So, yeah, All These Things That I’ve Done got me hooked, but then there was Read My Mind. Not only was it a bop for the entirety of my pre-adolescence, but it housed a challenge. That’s right, folks. Brandon Flowers threw down the gauntlet for writers everywhere when he said,

“the good old days, the honest man

the restless heart, the Promised Land

a subtle kiss that no one sees

a broken wrist and a big trapeze

the teenage queen, the loaded gun

the drop dead dream, the chosen one

a southern drawl, a world unseen

a city wall and a trampoline”

Here’s how you play: 

Brandon Flowers’ song gives you the idea bank. 

You try and use as many of his concepts as you can in a short story of your own. 

Imagine: an intense period piece set in the circus regarding  two trapeze artists stumble upon the missing murder weapon (a gun still loaded) and get roped into a life of crime. The crime lord is from Alabama who used to be an honest man. 

Imagine: a torrid apocalyptic rom-com short about your dream date- a brazen hooligan who has always been itching for adventure – falling prey to the legions of undead while your city builds a wall to ward off the zombie hoards. 

Imagine: a saccharine fantasy coming of age story in which a trans girl’s transition jump starts her fae-inheritance and now she’s dealing with being a faery queen at sixteen and ruling over a mythic, dangerous, beautiful world that’s entirely unseen.

And for a #challenge on top of this #challenge – get precise with your word count.

Read My Mind was released in 2007. Can you write a short can have exactly 2,007 words? The longest edited version of the song was the Gabriel & Dresden Unplugged Mix; it was 10 minutes and 24 seconds long. Can you write a short with exactly 1,024 words? The original track was 4 minutes and 6 seconds long. Can about a super short that’s only 406 words long? 

For some extra easter eggs in your #TheKillersReadMyMind challenge, here’s some more words to weave into your story:

  • Feburary 13th 

The song’s original release date 

  • Sam’s Town 

The name of the album

  • Belgium 

Read My Mind was big in Europe too; it ranked 12th on the charts in Belgium in ‘17

  • Friday Night Lights 

A remix of the song was featured on the NBC Series’ soundtrack

  • 1981 

Brandon Flowers, the lead singer of The Killers, was born in 1981 

  • Pet Shop 

The Pet Shop Boys have done at least 5 different edits of this song

  • Japanese Elvis Impersonator 

*shrugs* there’s one in the music video!

Can you think of any other guidelines for the challenge? 

If you do attempt the challenge, post your results on instagram and be sure to tag us:

@Runestone @tijqua #TheKillersReadMyMindChallenge 

Do it. I dare you.

Meet the blogger:
TIJQUA DAIKER graduates this spring from Hamline University. They live in Minnesota.

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