Thursday, February 26, 2015

More on Prompts!

Here's a great post from the Ploughshares blog listing writers' favorite prompts:

I like this list because it embraces a range of approaches from my very simple, one-word preference to a more craft-based assignment:

"Write a story that takes place over six real-time seconds. -Jeff Bender"

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Whatever Works, Works: Start Your Own Prompt Group

I’ve been involved in a writing prompt group for several years, and it’s something I highly recommend, especially for writers who feel busy and stressed out.  While everyone comes to any group with their own reasons and agenda and desires, personally I decided to start this group because I was weary of the critique process (not that I’m opposed to my work being critiqued, but that I was doing a lot of experimenting and I didn’t necessarily want to hear right then why my stories were/weren’t working; I just wanted to keep going).  I was also feeling overwhelmed with reading too many manuscripts with that critical voice in my head, “What’s wrong? What else is wrong? Now what’s wrong?”  And—haha—don’t get me wrong: that is part of my job as a writing teacher, and I do love teaching…but that voice was infiltrating into my own work during this experimental phase I was passing through.

So. I decided that a monthly prompt group would help me experiment and remind me that writing was fun.  Our set-up is pretty simple:  we meet for two hours, once a month, from 10-noon, at a not-too-busy coffee shop.  The first half hour is chit-chat, eating amazing quiche, catching up, late arrivals, settling in, sharing reading recommendations, etc.

The first prompt is from me, usually a very open-ended word (i.e. basement), and we all write for 15 minutes.  The second prompt is either a word or a thing that another member brings in and then we write for another 15 minutes.  Then we read aloud—or not.  No one is required to read.  And here is what is SO RELAXING about this prompt group: there is NO critiquing!  We admire, we coo, we like, we laugh, we cry, we share stories, we point out excellent sentences and details, we make observations and connections, we support.  The most that is allowed is a kind, “Maybe if you wanted to explore this further, you could think about a deeper focus on the father.”

We go home feeling refreshed…yes, writing IS fun!

What I love most about the prompt group is that there are no rules beyond those I’ve stated above.  In our group, people have:
--written poems
--written total fiction
--written the deep, dark truth
--written humor
--written two separate pieces
--written one connected piece
--written about recurring characters
--written an ongoing story that extends from meeting to meeting
--written crap (I take full responsibility for this one!)
--written something stunning (we have all done this!)
--written pieces that ended up later in longer pieces
--written pieces that have been published
--written sections of a novel
--written (and discovered) things they would share nowhere else

I think we can accomplish all this in half an hour (yes, 30 minutes of writing!) because there’s a certain unique energy created when you’re sitting at a table with 5 other people scribbling/clicking away—and there’s also a certain pressure.  You look up and there they are, scribbling/clicking…time for you to get busy.  If it’s crap, you don’t have to read it.  But, seriously, most times you really will find something.  You learn to trust that you will.

Sign me up, you’re saying!  I want a prompt group!

Lucky for us, it is about the easiest thing in the world to create one.  Here are the steps I went through:

--I picked a day/time/place that worked for me and my schedule.

--I found one friend who would commit to trying the plan with me.

--I advertised the meeting on my neighborhood list-serve: no experience necessary, just a desire to explore your creative side through writing. If you don’t have a list-serve, reach out on Facebook or to friends and friends of friends or people in your classes or old friends or Craig’s list or a notice on a coffee shop bulletin board.  Remember, no experience necessary!  And you don’t have to know these people in advance. One of the great pleasures of this group for me has been getting to meet a set of people I might not have crossed paths with but who I now would miss desperately if they moved away.

--Set up your parameters/rules before the first meeting. (Maybe you want 3 prompts; maybe you want to write for 20 minutes instead of 15…whatever, though you’re welcome to copy our formula.)



--Keep everyone organized with an email notification about upcoming meetings.  I recommend trying to stick to a regular schedule as much as possible (i.e. the second Wednesday).

Where to find prompts?  There are a lot of resources out there, but as noted, I like very open-ended prompts, so I often find myself using words from The Sun magazine’s “Readers Write” section.  Googling “writing prompts” just brought me more than 10 million results…surely one or two of those sources will be good for you!

In the beginning, we kept our group open, and we were willing to let anyone show up and give us a try.  Now, we’ve settled into our core and we aren’t accepting new participants at the moment—but this is something for you and your group to determine.  For us, we have 9 or so people on the roster, which ensures that about 5-6 will show up for a meeting, which is the number that works well for us and our format.  But that’s the lovely thing about prompt groups: Whatever works, works.

Monday, February 23, 2015

C.M. Mayo's Travel Writing Workshop

My friend C.M. Mayo will be holding a one-day class on travel writing:

April 18, 2015 Bethesda MD
The Writer's Center
Writing Workshop in Literary Travel Writing

(Saturday, one day only)
10 am - 1 pm

Take your travel writing to another level: the literary, which is to say, giving the reader the novelistic experience of actually traveling there with you. For both beginning and advanced writers, this workshop covers the techniques from fiction and poetry that you can apply to this specialized form of creative nonfiction for deliciously vivid effects.
Questions about this workshop? Email here.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

"Drama, or Melodrama": My Story Is Examined by a Close Eye

What an honor to see one of my stories go under the microscope on the blog “Why the Writing Works,” which focuses on studying elements of craft in various pieces of writing.  Founded by Converse MFA in fiction graduate Cheryl Russell, it’s a smart site, filled with astute observations about fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction, and insights that lead into improvements in one’s own writing.

Rhonda Browning White, who also received her MFA in fiction from Converse (and, disclaimer, worked with me on her fabulous thesis!), examines my short story “The Circle,” which appeared in The Gettysburg Review, in her piece titled, “Drama, or Melodrama: The Fine Line of Emotion.”

Here’s the opening:

Successful stories are emotional stories: we connect with that which moves us. A writer’s work is at its best when the reader feels emotion alongside a character. We must take care not to cross that very fine line and overdramatize a character’s feelings; otherwise, a reader will be about as patient with the emotional scene as with a toddler’s temper tantrum.
You can read the rest here…and discover, does my story cross over into melodrama!!!!??? And how does one win that battle between melodrama and emotion in one’s own writing?

I would love for you all to go buy this issue of The Gettysburg Review to read my story (which is part of my forthcoming collection, THIS ANGEL ON MY CHEST), but if that’s not possible for you, when the story received a mention as a Pushcart Prize “important work,” I offered to send a PDF to anyone interested, and here’s the link about how to get that copy from me, with specific directions and many, many disclaimers about how sad this story is:

Monday, February 16, 2015

My Short Story in The Collagist! Set at a Famous Writers' Conference! So Excited!

Oh, wow…I am SO thrilled that this story found a fancy home: “One True Thing” has just been posted in The Collagist, a wonderful online journal.  I worked on this story for more than a year, and it nearly undid me, trying to figure it out and make the whole darn thing come together.  I had thought it was complete and then while walking through downtown Nebraska City, Nebraska, I had a sudden realization of one last component that was  needed, something so crucial that your mouth would drop open in disbelief if I told you what piece was missing until the very, very end.

While it’s a stand-alone story, I considered it integral to the success of the forthcoming collection of linked stories, so I was very motivated to find a way.  But here’s what I was dealing with:

 1)     a story told in the form of a craft lecture about point of view; and
 2)     10 different types of point of view.

Whew.  For the record, omniscient and interior monologue (verging on stream of consciousness) were the hardest, though objective was no picnic.

Also, a confession: this story is 40 pages long. BUT—before you despair, it is also set at a writers’ conference that bears ABSOLUTELY NO RESEMBLANCE WHATSOVER to any other famous writers’ conference.  So, it’s a little gossipy, and perhaps that will sustain weary readers through the whole 40 pages.

Here’s where I pledge eternal gratitude to The Collagist and Gabriel Blackwell, its fabulous fiction editor, for taking on this story.

And here’s a short excerpt from just about the beginning:

COLLECTIVE FIRST PERSON: we We were all young back then, or so it seemed to us. If there were old people—"old" meaning anyone older than us—at the MacBride Writers' Conference in 1996, we didn't notice. We were busy with ourselves, and no world existed beyond us, our egos, our writing, our dreams and hopes, our gossip. Some of us were on working scholarship to the conference as waiters, and some of us earned scholarships because our poetry was published in a literary journal deemed important, and some of us—though we were so, so young—had published our first book, which was the holy grail: publish a book. Those people were luckiest of all, coming to the writers' conference on a fellowship, which was the golden ticket. None of us paid. Paying was what regular people did, not us. 

We were obnoxious, toting bottles of crummy red wine into dinner and toasting ourselves in loud voices, clustering at the back of the room during craft lectures to lean and whisper in each other's ears. We mocked the famous poets who taught us, their voices lilting in mind-numbing sing-song as they read their famous poems. We cock-teased the wrinkly, bad-bald, über-letch fiction writers and faked shock when they assumed they would get to fuck us. In workshop, we pontificated on theories of narrative distance and rolled our eyes when the lady from Pasadena who wore the "Book Power" T-shirt raised her hand, and we sighed gustily when our teacher quoted that turd, Hemingway. We organized an invitation-only séance to channel poet James Merrill, and some of us knew tarot, and each of us, when confronting the cards, asked, "Will I be a famous writer?" and a lot of us didn't like what was revealed, though we pretended not to care and called tarot "stupid." …  

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Hub City Writers Project Offers Residency in South Carolina

About the Residency
Hub City Writers Project offers three residencies per year in a furnished, two-bedroom cottage in Spartanburg, South Carolina (yes, home of the Converse low-res MFA program!). Applications for summer and fall residencies are now being accepted. The deadline to apply is April 15, 2015.

The 10-week summer residency is June 8–August 15, 2015.
The 15-week fall residency is September 7–December 18, 2015.

Residents receive lodging, utilities, and a stipend ($150/week); they are responsible for their own transportation and meals. In addition to uninterrupted writing time, the residencies offer opportunities for service at Hub City Press and Bookshop, for presentation of workshops or readings, and for literary projects of your own in Spartanburg.

The program is open to emerging writers in the United States who have completed a degree in creative writing within the past five years or are currently pursuing a graduate degree in writing.

How to Apply
Please submit: a writing sample of 10 poems, one novel chapter, a short story, or an essay of up to 20 pages; a one-page project description that includes what you want to accomplish with your own writing and your ideas for community literary service in Spartanburg; a résumé; and the names and contact information for two references.

The application fee for summer or fall is $30. The application for both is $40. Applications are processed through Submittable and are open until April 15.
Additional information and the link to submit can be found here:

Monday, February 9, 2015

Robin Black on Writing Outside Your Comfort Zone

"When dealing with responses to work that helps one evolve and change and grow, missteps and all, the voices of encouragement should not only balance those that are critical but negate them entirely. Not because one shouldn’t ever to listen to constructive or helpful criticism, but because in the specific case of writing that takes you out of your comport zone, and that seems to have succeeded for some readers, there is no role for voices that may push you back to where you feel safe."

I most certainly cannot speak more eloquently on this topic than Robin Black does in this wonderful essay, so I will just note that for me, one of the most exciting critiques ever in my writing group was when half the group loved my story and half the group hated it (though they were slightly kinder in their phrasing). I remember thinking, Wow, I must really have something here.

On the other hand, while it’s one thing to aspire to write a story that creates such a dramatic and divided response, admittedly it’s more daunting to consider the three-five-ten years it takes to write a novel and hope that half the people who read it “hate” it. But, honestly, that has be better than if they merely go “eh,” right? I want to believe that “bold” is always rewarded, somewhere and somehow, and that’s the job of the artist anyway from the get-go, to be bold.

My assignment to myself as I work on this chapter revision in the coming days is to step outside of my comfort zone and to push, hard, to reach down into that hard dark core of experience even as I feel myself resisting. Like it or hate it…but my mission is to make you feel something, dear reader.

Oh, and my other assignment:  to re-read Robin Black’s story, “if i loved you, i would tell you this,” referenced in this essay, and one of my favorite short stories in the world, from the collection of the same name that is firmly placed on my Favorite Books bookshelf.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.