Monday, June 18, 2018

Essentials of the Writing Life: Gratitude



This is not one of those posts where I talk about how lucky and grateful I am (though I most certainly am lucky and grateful). Instead, this is a post where I (gently?) suggest that expressing gratitude to others is part of the responsibility of being a good literary citizen.

It’s not as though these are the only ways to express gratitude, but these are some of my practices:

1.     Thank the editors who publish your work. An email is fine, but a handwritten note is even more notable (if you can find a mailing address!). Did someone read a zillion manuscripts to select yours? Did someone take time to offer suggestions that improved your work? Did someone correct your typos? Did someone tweet about the new issue? Did someone do all of these things for no or little pay?

2.     Thank your teachers. A spoken thank you is fine, an email is better, and a handwritten note is a true gift. Did your teacher spend a lot of time reviewing your manuscript and making notations? Did your teacher spend time preparing a class that was smart and logical and organized? Did your teacher treat you as a writer, as a professional? Did your teacher do this for (trust me!) never enough pay? (And here’s my plug for a special thanks for those teachers who work on your thesis. No one’s going to say no to a small, thoughtful gift!)

3.     Thank your community. A spoken thank you from time to time is fine, an email is better, and a mention in your book’s acknowledgments is the best of all. As you write, try to keep a running list (no, that’s not going to jinx whether the book will be published or not; instead it’s a way to be reminded of how many people are rooting for you; also, on a dark day, it’s a pleasant fantasy to envision those names in print). Spell people’s names correctly. Spread a wide net: it’s FREE to say thank you in print.

4.     Thank anyone and everyone who organized an event you participated in, whether you were the headline speaker or you were a paid participant. I promise you that behind each five minutes of “event time” lurk a million phone calls/emails/stressed-out-moments/worry-nightmares/meetings/misunderstandings-needing-to-be-straightened-out/on-the-fly-decisions/etc. Thank that head person who everyone sees on stage with the mic, and also thank those behind-the-scenes people holding clipboards. Thank your fellow panelists/moderator/reader/attendees. A spoken thank you is fine, but if you want to be invited back to speak, a written thank you will be special.

5.     Thank editors and agents who go out of their way to offer constructive advice via a personal rejection. They are busy-busy-busy and they don’t have to offer their thoughts to you. I bet they will remember you. And thank agents/editors you meet via pitch sessions. A thank you note is really going to stand out amidst the tide of query letters. (Obviously, special thanks to YOUR editor and agent! But everyone knows this already, right?)

6.     Thank people who write letters of recommendation or suggest you send something to their agent or who say “use my name” at XYZ literary journal. Spoken or email is fine, but best of all is to turn around and be the person who will write letters and offer connections. (Special thanks to anyone who writes a blurb…again, no one’s going to say no to a small, thoughtful gift!)

7.     Thank the people who host you at writing residencies, the people who have the titles printed on business cards but also the people who clean the rooms and landscape those pretty grounds and manage the paperwork. Spoken is fine, but a follow-up note will stand out. When your book comes out, if it’s appropriate, send along a signed copy for their library.

8.     Thank bookstores that carry your book. Thank bloggers who promote your book on their blogs. Thank writers who interview you. Thank librarians who put your book in their newsletter.

9.     Thank readers. Thank audiences. Thank anyone who forked out money to buy your book or hauled themselves to the library to check out your book or anyone who spent time reading your book or your story or your poem. I think we all know that there are countless other things these people could be doing with their time/energy/money, and they chose YOU. Wow. Is that living the dream or what?

10.  Thank your family, either the biological folks or the family you’ve created. They didn’t ask to be dragged into the writing life, and they are making sacrifices, too, whether it’s being written about or taking up the slack at home or shifting finances so you can enter that contest or a thousand other things that families do. They are doing these things because they love you, but also they deserve thanks. A hug is fine, but spoken is best. Let them know that you see how they are contributing to your pursuit of your art.

11.  Thank writers just for being writers. Send an email to the author of a book you love (don’t get hung up on getting a response or the “right” response). Thank them by writing a review of their book on Amazon or giving it 5 stars on Goodreads. Thank them by telling your friends/book club/relatives about their book. Thank them by reading widely and deeply and appreciating those hard-fought words; thank them by closing a book in the deep heart of the night as you sigh and think, “This.”

Monday, May 28, 2018

Join My Prompt Class at Politics & Prose Bookstore on 6/13!



I’ll be offering another, all-new section of my popular Right Brain Writing prompt classes at Politics & Prose bookstore in DC (Connecticut Ave branch) on Wednesday, June 13. I’d love to see you there…we have a lot of fun, and get some really interesting writing down on the page.

Right Brain Writing: The Art of Losing
Wednesday, June 13
6:30 p.m.– 9 p.m.

Explore your creative side in this session, one of a series of stand-alone classes with prompts designed to get your subconscious flowing. Through guided exercises, we’ll focus on writing about the variety of losses we have encountered in our lives, the large and small absences that inform our landscape. Elizabeth Bishop calls it “the art of losing”; where is the art in saying goodbye? No writing experience necessary! This is a great class for beginners and also for those fiction writers and/or memoirists with more experience who might be stuck in their current projects and are looking for a jolt of inspiration. Our goal is to have fun in a supportive, nurturing environment and to go home with several promising pieces to work on further.  Please bring lots of paper and pen/pencil or a fully charged computer. Note: new exercises!

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry edited by J.D. McClatchy

*Please note: Though this is a poetry book, you are not required to write poetry.




Friday, May 18, 2018

"Cancer Cowboys" & Ticking Clocks: An Interview with Tim Wendel by Mary Kay Zuravleff

I had the pleasure of reading twice recently with author Tim Wendel and hearing about his new book, Cancer Crossings: A Brother, His Doctors, and the Quest for a Cure to Childhood Leukemia. Tim has a wonderful way of speaking about his work, and I was fascinated to learn more about early cancer research and the controversy surrounding medical practices now taken for granted. Naturally, I wanted to hear more! So I’m pleased to present this interview with Tim conducted by author Mary Kay Zuravleff:

*****

Tim is the author of THIRTEEN books, which include novels inspired by Cuba, baseball, Cuban baseball, and World War II, nonfiction books, and even young adult books. He’s an incredibly versatile writer, who’s been a celebrated journalist as well as a beloved writing professor in the Johns Hopkins M.A. program. His latest book, Cancer Crossings: A Brother, His Doctors, and the Quest for a Cure to Childhood Leukemia is an amazing, sad, uplifting tale of his family’s loss to leukemia of his brother, Eric, back in the late 60s. He was the fourth of six kids, and Tim is the oldest, the first-born. From the book cover: “Part family memoir and part medical narrative, Cancer Crossings explores how the Wendel family found the courage to move ahead with their lives.”

David Maraniss has called your work “a winning mix of science, biography and mythology,” which aptly describes this book.  How did you weave together the science, biography, and mythology? (For example, you brought back the memory of when people wouldn’t even say the word “cancer,” which was part of its mythology.)


First, David is being very kind. He’s been a great friend of my work, along with Ken Burns, David Granger, Frank Deford, Cathy Alter and so many others over the years. Always great to have folks like that in your camp.

As a writer, I dislike being pigeon-holed. For example, some say I’m just a baseball writer. OK, I do enjoy the game and it plays well on the page, but I’ve done a nonfiction book (Summer of ’68) and a novel (Castro’s Curveball) with the sport as the backdrop and they play out very differently. In the case of Summer of ’68, I moved sports to the foreground during one of the most tumultuous periods in our nation’s history. With Curveball, the conceit was what if Fidel Castro had pursued baseball more seriously? If so, the world as we know it would have been much different.

So, I think you’re keeping an eye out for those connections, places where different elements come into contact. In my new book, Cancer Crossings: A Brother, His Doctors and the Quest to Cure Childhood Leukemia, I needed to find the places where the treatment of my brother Eric for leukemia intersected with the procedures and new philosophy of the so-called “cancer cowboys” – the doctors who took this form of cancer from a death sentence to a 90 percent cure rate. Once you open yourself up to such possibilities, there are many more than you realize at first.


Your brother Eric was first diagnosed with leukemia in 1966, when he was three years old. And his story is a tale of miracles and also just-missed opportunities. Because his diagnosis came at the turning point from doctors seeing their duty as offering palliative care and aggressively experimenting with drug combinations to put leukemia into remission. Tell us about the prognosis then and what it would be like now for a child with his diagnosis?

The odds of a child surviving acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which is the form of cancer my brother had, have been greatly improved. My daughter Sarah was at Georgetown Medical School when I began Cancer Crossings. She’s the one who pointed out that the survival rate went from 10 percent to 90 percent during the 1970s. That really turned my head and I went in search of this small group of doctors who did it. Many were in their mid to late 80s by then. And when they told me how much opposition they faced from the medical community, how they were called killers, poison pushers, misfits and, yes, cancer cowboys because they dared to try something different when it came to leukemia, well, I was hooked. I had the elements of a family memoir and a medical detective story. And with the latter, there was fierce opposition to what the cancer cowboys were trying to do. Until this point, many in the medical community refused to take on cancer. It was that daunting. But the cancer cowboys pushed ahead and many of the advances we take for granted today – chemotherapy cocktails, the blood centrifuge machine, etc. – are a result of their work.

Your parents’ response to his first remission was to buy a big old sailboat for their family of six children and to not only go for sails but to sail all the way across Lake Ontario, from Buffalo to Toronto, an a Saturday and sail back home on Sunday. You wrote in Psychology Today that “We coped with my brother's struggle against leukemia by doing instead of talking.” Tell us how that seemed then and how it seems now, as a parent, looking back on your family’s response?

Few things make you feel as vulnerable as becoming a parent. The core emotion is you want to protect this new being you’ve brought into the world. To realize, decades later, that my parents also dared to have family adventures, even with a kid with leukemia in tow, kind of blew my mind. My parents taught us to really live in the present. We jammed as much as we could into every day. We sailed to the far horizon on Lake Ontario, which is a huge body of water, in the summers, and skated and played hockey in the winters. They let their son with ALL play hockey? Kind of crazy isn’t it? But it all kind of worked and us kids learned so much in the process. For example, my father made sure we knew how to read the wind, to realize that it’s always changing direction and velocity. Of course, that makes you a better sailor, but it’s also a great way to look at life. In a way, Cancer Crossings focuses on my parents when they were at their best, and that’s a good thing for any kid to be reminded of.

I always tell my students to be mindful of having a clock in their book, and you have many ticking time bombs in yours. Of course, there’s Eric’s illness. On the other end, a kinder clock, is  your own daughter in medical school learning about those pivotal years that changed the outcome for leukemia patients. What was that like, her bringing you that discovery?

I knew I needed to do right by this request. My daughter genuinely wanted to know more about my brother, his doctors, this quest to cure childhood leukemia. I guess it’s another example of how being a parent opens you. I mean I couldn’t really shrug this off. My daughter wanted to know something important about my past and it was up to me to find some of those answers. Would I have written such a personal story, with a steep learning curve for me about medical procedures and meds, without her request? Probably not. But the fact my daughter wanted to know made it very important from the get-go.

Another clock is ticking with the doctors—they were racing to find treatments or even a cure and then when you decided to write the book, there’s your race to find them and interview them because they’re getting on in years. Can you talk about those two clocks—the doctors early careers and talking to them now?

Time running out or running down in any work creates urgency, heightens things across the board. I hadn’t planned to have two clocks ticking, they were there, right in front of me. One was the race to cure a deadly disease before more kids died. But I soon realized that many of the cancer doctors and nurses were getting on in years, too. How much longer would they be with us? All of them were very forthcoming in our conversations because I think they knew when they passed on much of this incredible success story, the details about a modern medical miracle, would go with them. Indeed, several of the cancer cowboys died in the weeks leading up to the book’s release. My hope is some of their message lives on in these pages.


Early on in the book, you mention that Cancer Crossings is a departure for you, being a book that’s focused on medicine instead of sports. But you have written about teams overcoming obstacles and great odds. The doctors at Roswell Park certainly qualify as a group of people trying to do something that nobody thinks they can. What do you think draws you to such stories?

I’ve always been intrigued by how successful groups and teams work, especially when they are made up of different personalities and viewpoints. I think it was F. Scott Fitzgerald who said writers and artists are drawn to particular stories or themes. How they are part of our DNA and we have no choice but to keep returning to them. Early on in writing Cancer Crossings, a good friend pointed out that I was doing it again. That the only real difference this time was I focusing on an elite group of doctors instead of a memorable team of ballplayers or hockey stars. Either way it was a group of underdogs, only this time they were daring to take on this shapeshifter of a disease. When he told me that I remember thinking to myself, “OK, I can do this.”

***

Buy Cancer Crossings:

More about Tim Wendel: www.timwendel.com

****

ABOUT MARY KAY ZURAVLEFF

Mary Kay Zuravleff’s latest novel, Man Alive!, was named a 2013 Notable Book by The Washington Post. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in The AtlanticLos Angeles Review of Books, American Short Fiction, and The Washington Post. She is the founder of NoveltyDC, which offers master classes on the novel and manuscript consultation.



Friday, April 27, 2018

“Follow the Brush”: Vulnerability, Lyricism, and the Art of Creative Nonfiction



An Interview with Susan Tekulve, author of Second Shift, Essays of Susan Tekulve

  
By John Newlin

In her collection of intimate essays entitled Second Shift, Susan Tekulve has crafted a brilliant series of highly autobiographical pieces.  What makes them so powerful is that she speaks to the universal qualities of beauty, pain, fear, and does so in a way that makes us see that she is a person/writer/poet who is attentive to her surroundings and deeply reflective of what she experiences.


JN: Writing anything at all autobiographical involves taking some risks.  One particularly compelling quality of Second Shift is how deeply personal it is.  Your discussion of your husband Rick’s blindness in one eye and your resulting fear in “The Plain of Sorrento” is one example.  Another is your willingness to expose your own vulnerabilities in “Just For Fun” and several other essays.  Was it a struggle to permit yourself to write about those aspects of yourself? 

ST: That’s the million-dollar question, John.   All writers, but especially nonfiction writers, have to consider the risks of exposing their vulnerabilities.  For me, it’s a matter of intention.  In the beginning stages, I think of all my writing as private because I only feel focused when I write as if nobody is ever going to read what I’ve written. This is how I trick my mind out of worrying about what other people think. This kind of worrying kills any piece of writing before I type the first words. When I begin thinking about an essay or a story as public, and therefore a piece I might publish, I always consider my intentions.  If the writing in the essay serves simply as therapy, retribution, or purgation, then I’m wary of my intentions, and I usually keep that piece private for a while longer.  If the writing in the essay turns out questions I think others will relate to, and invites the reader into a dialogue, then I’m more likely to consider turning that essay into a public piece that I’d consider publishing.

JN:…and that leads to the question of truth versus imagination in the writing of autobiographical material, doesn’t it?

ST: As I tell my nonfiction students, you have to tell the whole truth, and sometimes that means giving details about yourself, or others, that are private.  Revealing these kinds of truths can make you feel extremely vulnerable. However, if your intentions are to honor and honestly explore yourself, or another human being, then even the unflattering truths can make your subject more complicated. Keep in mind, too, that all personal “truths” are really an individual’s perceptions.  These perceptions must be as true as possible, certainly not libelous, and they must be shaped well into an essay, using language that engages.  In other words, the way we write an essay, the skillful shaping of vulnerable truths will honor the subject, and help the writer to avoid a simplified spilling of emotions on the page.  Finally, the narrative “I” of the personal essay must be just as multi-faceted as a well-drawn fictional character.  As with fiction, who really wants to read about perfect people?  Once, while I was reading Paradise Lost, I began to wonder why Milton made the characters of Adam and Eve so flat and simple.  While I read the parts about Adam and Eve in paradise, before the fall, I nearly fell into a stupor. Satan, on the other hand, is a much more conflicted and complicated character.  He has the gift of the gab, as they say, and he articulates his vulnerabilities—his sorrows, fears, and loss--much more engagingly.  But he is Satan!  If I followed the conventional wisdom, I wasn’t supposed to empathize with Satan. So I asked my husband, who is a poet, why I preferred Satan’s character over the characters of Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost.   He said, “We like Satan because he most resembles us.” 

What he meant, of course, is that we are all frail and vulnerable from time to time. As Phillip Lopate writes in The Art of the Personal Essay, some vulnerability is essential to the personal essay because it would be insincere to never admit that you are vulnerable.  As Lopate explains, “Unproblematically self-assured, self-contained, self-satisfied types will not make good essayists.”  The skilled reader will turn away from that narrator.  So the struggle, always, with writing personal essays is how to be self-aware, without being self-absorbed, callow, insensitive or hurtful to others. 

JN: So true.  You accomplish making that connection with the reader by revealing yours (and husband Rick’s) vulnerabilities in this collection, something that definitely drew my interest.  How does one weigh the pros and cons of self-exposure?

ST:  It’s interesting that you asked whether I had to struggle with giving myself permission to speak in the essay “Just For Fun.”  Of all the essays in the collection, I struggled the most over how much of my own fear and discomfort I should reveal.  The strange “gun incident” that launches that essay shook me to my core, and the events that followed filled me with a tremendous sense of outrage. I started the essay the day after the incident, and I wrote it straight through.  In the first draft there were parts where the narrative “I” sounds a bit angry.  I kept this piece private for a long time, paralyzed by worries about writing from this vulnerable stance.   Did the narrative voice of this essay sound shrill, messy, unhinged?  Surely there were far more violent crimes being committed all around me, so what part of my story, which seemed mild compared to the gun assault stories of others, seemed worthy of a public discourse?  Did I sound like victim?  Above all, I didn’t want to write from the stance of complete victimhood. Being a passive victim narrator would be even worse than being an angry narrator.

Anger is the most extreme form of vulnerability for me because it is the absence of control. It can ruin your health if you hold onto it, and if you write purely from an angry stance it can ruin your writing because it’s extremely difficult to maintain control from this perspective. Readers don’t want to be bludgeoned by an uncontrollable stream of another person’s pain and anger—especially female anger.  Unfortunately, we are socially coded to believe that a woman’s anger and outrage undermines her ability to be heard.  We are brought up to feel, perhaps subconsciously, that female anger is usually irrational, overblown.  Female anger sometimes evokes more anger, not understanding, and certainly not respect.   I recently read an interesting article by Leslie Jamison in The New York Times about female anger and sadness. Jamison posits that female sadness and rage are two parts of the same emotion, and that women are still much more likely to reframe themselves as sad, rather than angry, because our society still views angry women as harpies and Medusas. Angry women are considered messy and unhinged, and it’s still widely assumed that their pain is more likely to spin out of control, and hurt those around them.  Sad women, on the other hand, summon sympathy.  They are typically perceived as self-controlled, elegant, and even desirable—as long as they don’t get carried away and become eternal victims.  In short, the melancholy, meditative female narrator of an essay is much easier for people to relate to, and read. 

About three years passed before I could look at the “Just For Fun” essay more objectively.  By this time, the gun control debate had become even more volatile, but it had become more socially acceptable for women to voice their anger. In 2017, when anger became the dominant emotion across the country, the normative bonds that kept women from expressing their full-on ire seemed to fall away. Suddenly, angry women and female characters were being celebrated, rather than ridiculed as hysterics and paranoids.   It began to seem that my “Just For Fun” essay might actually open a dialogue, rather than shut the conversation down.   I still believe that men and women should be responsible for their own anger. I still believe we must be careful with people, always, in life as well as in our writing. But writing that essay taught me a whole lot about writing from an emotional stance that I used to avoid entirely. 

JN:  Particularly impressive to me is the way you juxtapose at least two seemingly different elements in most of your essays.  For example, in “Hell Broth and Poisoned Entrails” you combine the discussion of traditional fare with the Bubonic plague!  

Well, the juxtaposition in that essay came naturally.  I really did go to the whisky shops on the Royal Mile the first day my husband, son, and I were in Edinburgh.  My husband bought me a bottle of lovely, but deadly, lowland whisky as a gift, and I made the mistake of sipping that whisky out of an elegant teacup while eating a picnic we made out of the hardy local Scottish food—mostly organ meats.  Around this time, I’d been reading through all the books on our landlady’s bookshelf.  Usually, it’s good to raid the bookshelves of rental homes or apartments because they often hold books that contain information that you wouldn’t find in a standard travel guide of a city.  Our Scottish landlady was exceptionally literary.  I discovered The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie on her shelves, and to this day I am a huge fan of Muriel Spark because I discovered her in Edinburgh, where she was born, and where she set this wonderfully eerie novel.  Perhaps I should have read this novel first, but I read the book about the Bubonic plague instead. When I woke in the middle of the night, still in a dream state that comes from drinking sweet lowland whisky while jet lagged, that’s when I diagnosed myself with the Bubonic plague. 

The juxtaposition of those two elements—Scottish cooking and the Bubonic plague-- came later, after the editors at Serving House Books—Walter Cummins and Thomas E. Kennedy--sent out a simple yet brilliant prompt to all the writers who published with their press: Write about the worst meal you ever experienced.  Don’t write about your day-to-day fare; write about a food you ate under nightmare circumstances.   This prompt was brilliant because when you write about food you are never simply writing about what’s on your plate.  Food, or the lack of food, holds some of our most intense memories, so writing about your best, or worst, food experiences allows you to delve into memories both ecstatic and nightmarish. The prompt also contained the key word “experience,” which demanded that I shape the food metaphor into a whole narrative--a story, a poem, or an essay.

JN:  This is all excellent advice for the MFA student learning the craft of writing the personal essay.  Please tell us more!

ST:  In general, we use juxtaposition to create metaphor, or to view a subject from a different perspective. Food writing is one of the easiest ways to create metaphor through juxtaposition. Writing about a specific food experience, enables you to explore a whole range of experiences in a more oblique way that can heighten a reader’s emotional response.  MFK Fisher famously wrote, “There is food in the bowl, and more often than not, because of what honesty I have, there is nourishment in the heart, to feed the wilder, more insistent hungers.  We must eat.  If, in the face of that dread fact, we can find other nourishment, and tolerance and compassion for it, we’ll be no less full of human dignity.”  When Tom and Walter sent the food prompt to me, I was in the middle of writing a long novel that was set in a time and place that was wild, so the hungers of my characters were wild, and insistent.  I was beginning to realize how emotionally draining it can be to live in the heads of such characters.  I realized that sometimes it’s just a good idea to take a step back, and stop taking myself so seriously. While I used the food prompt to write an essay whose goal is to entertain, the lesson it taught me about the use of juxtaposition has been lasting.


JN: Details, details, details.  Can you relate to us something of your process of gathering specific elements?  Is there any specific goal you have in mind before you begin cataloguing the details---what are you looking to do with these pieces?

ST:  A friend of mine once said--and I believe he was quoting Henry Miller—that a writer collects details the way a man in a blue serge suit collects lint. If you don’t pick up details naturally, then there are plenty of fun ways to train yourself to collect details more deliberately.  For instance, when I know I’m going to write about a place, or the people who inhabit it, I carry a pocket-sized notebook, and an old Powershot camera.  First, I write down all the sensory details as I experience them.  I try to experience the subject viscerally first, jotting down all the sights, the textures, the smells, the sounds, and, sometimes, the tastes. Even if I don’t feel a detail is important at the time, I write it down anyway because often the less obvious details are the ones that end up being most important.  Then, I take out my camera, and compose several pictures of what I think I’m seeing, hearing, feeling.  My old Powershot camera has a great device on it called “creative shot.”  After I’ve composed the shots of what I think I’ve seen and experienced, I flip the camera into “creative shot” mode, and the camera automatically composes five additional photos.  Each additional photo crops the subject from a different angle.  The camera automatically uses different filters, colors, and light.  I don’t really share any of these creative shots with anyone.  I just use them to force myself to look beyond my own initial perceptions, and to collect details in ways I haven’t seen them before.

You can try this exercise with a regular phone camera too. Go to a place and write down all the details you experience.  Compose some pictures of what you think you are seeing, and experiencing.  Then, return to your writing space and look at those pictures again. Write about something that appears on the periphery of the pictures.  What’s going on behind your subject, or off to the side?  The less-obvious details that come to you as a surprise, the ones that recur in your imagination for reasons you don’t quite understand, are often wellsprings for personal essays and fiction. Virginia Woolf wrote about this most eloquently in her memoir, Moments of Being.  She writes that we spend a good part of every day not living consciously.  We eat, sleep, and work without paying much attention to what’s going on around us.  Then there are times, which she calls “Moments of Being,” when we are shocked out of our everyday complacency. She poses that the “job” of every writer is to learn how to identify metaphor in these heightened moments of experience.  Once identified, these moments are followed by the desire to explore the subject by writing about it, and then examining the experience. She believed that every writer has two selves.  The past self has sensory experiences, often without complete understanding.  The present self continually searches the past, interpreting, evaluating, and shaping the past into essays or stories.  This is the central impulse behind storytelling, both in fiction and nonfiction.

JN:  Wow, such really helpful tips!  And they apply equally well to all genres.  I know you write and teach poetry, as well as non-fiction and fiction, and it’s evident in the often lyrical quality of these essays.  Please share with us how your background as a poet informs your essays. 

ST:  Poetry was the first literary form I studied when I was an undergraduate, so whenever I return to this form I feel a sense of familiarity, and safety.  Often, when I’m trying to explore a new topic for an essay that feels large and unwieldy, I’ll write it out as a poem first.  The use of lyric strategies—the turning of the line, the concentration on word selection, the juxtaposition of images—de-emphasizes the sequential and linear, and allows me to get to the emotional center of my material sooner.  Once I find the emotional core of what I’m exploring, I can de-lineate the original draft or expand upon it in a more linear way.  Or, sometimes, the lyric structure remains.  I just develop the poem into a long-form essay. 

Also, in general, I’ve come to think that the essay form has much more in common with poetry than it does with fiction.  I believe this to be the case because the roots of the essay are lyric.  For instance, the Japanese writer and Buddhist monk, Kenko, who was writing in the 13th century, used a random mode of composition known as zuihitsu, which translates as “follow the brush.”  He, and his counterparts, were downright suspicious of narrative forms because they believed that formlessness was more sincere.  Once something was put into a linear, narrative form it was no longer the truth.  So Kenko’s essays skip from subject to subject, without any obvious links.  Today’s lyric essay, which is basically an extended lyric poem, relies upon those same lyric brushstrokes, the same density of language, the same use of compression as a poem requires.

Anyway, the concept of the personal essay as purely a linear narrative form is relatively recent. The roots of essay writing are much more expansive and flexible, which could be why I’m drawn to writing them in the same way that I’m drawn to writing poetry.    

JN:  That makes terrific sense!  Susan, I’m fascinated to know a little bit about your next writing projects.  

ST:  I’m in the middle of an ongoing travel and food-writing project that involves researching and recording intangible heritage sites that can be found in the small towns of Southern Italy. Unlike tangible heritage sites, like monuments or museums, the intangibles are customs that are handed down through generations. There is a whole biosphere on the Cilento Coast that is protected by UNESCO for its intangibles, which include the anchovy fishing techniques that were brought over by the Greeks 3,000 years ago, the shoulder-borne saint processions, and even the traditional ways of making of some foods that are a part of the Mediterranean diet.  These customs rely upon communal memory, and the transmission of information from one generation to the next.  As the members of the older generation who remember these customs die out, and their children and grandchildren scatter north to find employment in bigger cities, whole communities risk forgetting these traditions.  Our memories, personal and communal, form our identities, so if we lose them we forget who we are.   It’s this idea of memory, personal and communal, that I hope to explore in a more concrete way through the food and travel experiences.

JN:  Susan, thank you so much.  One doesn’t have to sit in one of your craft classes to see how brilliant an instructor you must be.

                                                            _             _             _             _


Order Second Shift, Essays of Susan Tekulve via Amazon.

ABOUT JOHN NEWLIN
John Newlin earned his MFA at Converse College (SC).  His reviews and essays have appeared in Night Owl, Independent School, and South 85, where he is Review Editor.  He also writes reviews for the New York Journal of Books.

ABOUT SUSAN TEKULVE
Susan Tekulve is the author of In the Garden of Stone, winner of the 2012 South Carolina First Novel Prize and a 2014 Gold IPPY Award. She’s also published two short story collections: Savage Pilgrims and My Mother’s War Stories. Her stories and essays have appeared in Shenandoah,The Georgia ReviewNew LettersBest New Writing 2007The Indiana ReviewDenver QuarterlyPuerto del SolPrairie SchoonerNorth Dakota QuarterlyConnecticut ReviewBeloit Fiction JournalCrab Orchard Review, The Literary ReviewWeb Del SolBlack Warrior Review, and The Kansas City Star. She has been awarded a Sewanee Writers’ Conference Scholarship and a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Scholarship. An Associate Professor of English, she teaches in the BFA and MFA in creative writing programs at Converse College.









Thursday, April 26, 2018

Win a FREE Audio Edition of SILVER GIRL!

Head over to Twitter or Instagram for your chance to win a free audio edition of SILVER GIRL:



Thanks to my fabulous agenting team at Curtis Brown for hosting this giveaway!

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Some Scraps of SILVER GIRL News & One Additional Thing


SILVER GIRL is now available on audio, through Audible.com. You can access an audio version on Amazon or directly from Audible

And check Curtis Brown Ltd. on Instagram on Thursday, April 26, 2018, when they will be giving away a free audiobook edition!!

*****

Speaking of social media, if you’re on Facebook, check out this conversation and reading on  FB Live!, with Patricia Smith at Chop Suey Books in Richmond, VA. I’m good enough, but Wonton the cat is the real star of this show!

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I will be offering another one of my prompt writing classes at Politics & Prose Bookstore in June. The theme is especially interesting this time, “The Art of Losing,” guided, of course, but Elizabeth Bishop’s iconic villanelle “One Art.” (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, drop everything and read it here immediately, and if you do know, reread it just because.)

These classes often sell out, so don’t wait too long.

Wednesday, June 13
6:30 p.m.– 9 p.m.
Class ~ Right Brain Writing: The Art of Losing
Politics & Prose
Washington, DC

Explore your creative side in this session, one of a series of stand-alone classes with prompts designed to get your subconscious flowing. Through guided exercises, we’ll focus on writing about the variety of losses we have encountered in our lives, the large and small absences that inform our landscape. Elizabeth Bishop calls it “the art of losing”; where is the art in saying goodbye? No writing experience necessary! This is a great class for beginners and also for those fiction writers and/or memoirists with more experience who might be stuck in their current projects and are looking for a jolt of inspiration. Our goal is to have fun in a supportive, nurturing environment and to go home with several promising pieces to work on further.  Please bring lots of paper and pen/pencil or a fully charged computer. Note: new exercises!




Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Writing as a Reckoning: An Interview with Cinelle Barnes on her Memoir, MONSOON MANSION


By Sara Kuhl

I clearly recall the first time I saw Cinelle Barnes at Converse College in Spartanburg, S.C. I was sitting in a room awaiting the start of an event at the low-residency MFA program. I glanced out the window and saw a woman walking toward the building with an adorable toddler and a tall man. I remember wondering if they were visiting campus or if one of them was a student in the program. For some reason, I wanted to know their story, to know about their lives. I never would have guessed that beneath that picture-perfect family lay a compelling and powerful true story that became Cinelle’s first published book, her memoir, Monsoon Mansion.

Monsoon Mansion has a dream-like quality that takes the reader from an affluent life filled with opulence and power to one of darkness and hunger and street-smart living for a wisp of a girl child.  

Reviewers have compared Monsoon Mansion to Jeannette Wall’s The Glass Castle; I drew the comparison as well. Yet, there is an enchanting and lyrical quality to Monsoon Mansion that led me to feel at times as if I were reading a strangely twisted fairy tale filled with characters who could be warm and wonderful and cruel and conniving at the same time. And through it all, I pulled for Cinelle. I hoped and prayed Cinelle would be the hero in the end.

As I read her memoir, I found myself thinking back to that moment when I saw Cinelle walk up to Zimmerli Common and wondered how she survived and flourished. You’ll need to read Monsoon Mansion yourself to discover that truth. I promise you, it is a memoir that will linger long after you’ve finished it.

Writers who have the courage and grace to share their own stories with brutal honesty fascinate me. In Monsoon Mansion you don’t give yourself or your reader an easy way out of the trauma of your childhood. What was the process like for you to re-examine, and I imagine, uncover some of those memories that were so visceral?

I wrote about this process in detail for South 85. The essay recounts years of writing from a rocking chair in my daughter’s nursery, from my therapist’s couch, and from under the sheets when it got really bad and I couldn’t or wouldn’t get out of bed.

I also wrote about half of MONSOON MANSION while completing my MFA through the Converse College Low-Residency program. The structure and community that the program provided for me gave me the discipline and the safe space I needed to write a book and write it well. I needed the friends, the co-writers, the co-survivors of trauma, the mentors to help me through what this process really was—emotional labor and an absolute test of will and mental rigor.

The process of writing this book was everything the reader imagines it to be, plus more, because I wanted to make art. I wasn’t just making peace with my past. I was making art. And for that, I had to keep learning my craft. So after the MFA, I applied for fellowships with Kundiman and VONA, where I found teachers and chosen family who carried me through rounds of revisions.

Writing, whatever it’s about, is difficult and solitary. And so I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to find your tribe and to believe that despite that frequent isolation, creating is a communal act. I couldn’t have done any of this without my patient, steadfast husband, my bright and happy child, and my cuddly, sensitive, supportive dog. And this truth is my triumph—if you’ve read the book, you know that I was left alone for far too long.

I had a writing teacher who once told me that writing was not a way to work through your private issues. I disagreed then and now. Did writing your own story help bring clarity to your early life? And what was your process for examining those intimate details of your life?

Yes, to bringing clarity to my early life.  It brought clarity to my present life, too. When I started writing what would become MONSOON MANSION, I didn’t know I was writing a book. I was writing on 3x5 notecards to help myself feel better. The baby blues never really went away for me until after I had written three shoeboxes full of notecards and had gone to therapy.

Writing was a reckoning, whether or not I knew it would amount to a manuscript, to publication, or to a career. I was writing out of necessity. And so, to the teacher who told you that the page is not a place to work out your private issues, I would tell that person that while the art itself is not a place for emotional diarrhea or psychotherapy porn, they are not in any place to tell anyone what they need.

We’ve all broken differently. We will all heal differently. For this same reason, I’ve stopped judging people for the books they read. We’re all trying to learn something or get somewhere or pinpoint that thing that keeps coming back like driftwood.

As an immigrant, trauma survivor, and person of color, I can AND will use anything available to me that might aid me in finding a place for myself or some sense of equilibrium. And again, I did not diagnose my PTSD nor did I prescribe clinical methods or medicine to myself. I did those with a professional. And this professional knew what she was doing. And I’d like to think that I, too, am a professional—that I know what I’m doing. It just so happens that along the way, I confronted my demons, too. And somewhere farther along the way, I hope someone picks up my book and comes to a place of hope and healing for themselves.

Many of your readers will have little knowledge or understanding of the Philippines in the post-Marcos era you write about. I found myself looking into the history of the island nation, and the times you described in your memoir.  Your writing expertly weaves in the history of the country, the political upheaval, the socioeconomic disparity, and the chaos that existed not only in your life, but also in the life of that nation. When you began to write, how important was it to you to educate your readers about the Philippines beyond the cliché regarding Imelda Marcos’ shoes?

As I mention in the chapter “Library,” I had always been a lover of history, so weaving it into the narrative was natural to me. And because my family had political ties, and because names and faces included in later chapters of Philippine history books were household names to me, it really was a non-decision on my part to include these events and lesser-known information.

By default, or at least according to my mother, the country’s history was our family’s history. The two are not separate. And so when I started writing the book and started getting comments from early readers about how to “educate the reader,” I would just tell them that in the age that we live in, with the Internet and all, it’s not so much my job to educate the reader, but to prompt them to educate themselves. It’s like I read books that mention croquet or tennis or Olympic curling or fox hunting, and they’re usually written by someone with Anglo or Germanic roots, and I’m expected to use context clues or to delve into the context, like I have the time and resources for it. And often, I oblige. I do the research. It only ever takes less than two minutes on Google. In short, I trust that I have an informed readership, or at least a readership that’s willing to learn, like I’m willing to learn.

The chapter “The Season of the Sun” brings the reader to current times. And many readers will be relieved that you have a beautiful life. I suspect there are many who would like to know about your life in the gap. Are you working on another memoir? I guess this is a long way of asking what is next for you in terms of writing?

I guess there is no evading this question now, since it seems to be asked at least once a week. So I’ll answer, though nothing is solidified on paper or even in my mind. I do want to keep writing creative nonfiction, and in that vein, use the epistolary form to free me from the emotional undertaking that the first book required.

I’ve been writing letters for publication the past few months, and I’ve found success not just in the reception of it but from the very process. There is just something about the letter form that allows me to tread lightly while not dodging the hard questions or topics. It is such an approachable form, and anyone can do it. I would like to write a series of letters to my younger self (or my older self, or my daughter) about the aftermath of surviving childhood adversity.

Like you said, I think I have a beautiful life, but it is not without its challenges. I’ve been reading about the psychology, neuroscience, and physiology of trauma, and it’s helped me understand who I am and why I am that way, and why I started breaking when I did, and how memoir or narrative helped to piece me back together. In some way, this new project is altogether a roadmap, a collection of prose and poetry, and an investigation into my circuitry and the circuitry of human relations.

Was there ever a time you considered telling this story as a work of fiction? 

I never considered writing fiction, although it was sometimes suggested. An agent who liked my story but believed it difficult, even impossible, to pitch a memoir to publishing houses, suggested that I tweaked certain details and call it a novel. I remember telling my favorite local bookseller this, to which she said, “Girl, this is your story. It’s powerful because it’s true. Find yourself another agent to pitch to.” And I did and I’m so glad.



Ordering information via an independent bookstore: https://www.politics-prose.com/search/site/monsoon%20mansion

ABOUT SARA KUHL
Sara Kuhl is the assistant vice chancellor for University Marketing and Communications at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. She is a 2015 graduate of the Converse College Low-Residency MFA Program. She finds herself wondering about other peoples’ stories all the time, and sometimes asking questions that are probably better off left alone.


 

 

 




Work-in-Progress

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