Saturday, August 30, 2014

Follow Writing Advice--Except When You Shouldn't

As a teacher of writing, I’ve offered much advice and have said many things about writing.  Some of them are even on the following list, “Writing Advice No One Needs Again, Ever,” composed by one of my former students [excerpt below]. (Note:  I am NOT the “inspiration” teacher!) And yet, I try to always add into the mix this piece of advice:  The only rule in writing is there are no rules. (I would like to take credit for this bit of wisdom, but I stole it from one of my teachers.)

What this means to me is that there are lots of guidelines, and plenty of writers before us have come up with general principles and shortcuts and “best practices” that tend to make for a better book/story.  But eventually, writers have to feel free to break those rules as needed.

Of course, the corollary to breaking the rules is that then you also have to find your way to creating the book/story/whatever that succeeds despite ignoring these “best practices”; you have to “make it work” (to quote Tim Gunn on my beloved “Project Runway”).  Sometimes that means you have to experiment and study and fail for years until you get it right.  Or it means you have to be a genius or accidentally stumble into a moment of genius.  Or it means others in the mainstream don’t understand (or appreciate) what you’re doing. It requires immense confidence yet also immense humility.

In the end, though, art is always about knowing the rules and yet knowing how to bend them and when to utterly break them.  Listen to your teacher, but also listen to yourself. 


From the article:

1.  Write what you know. Imagine applying this advice to other areas of life. “Where should I go on vacation?” Stick with what you know, stay home. “Where should I study in college?” Study what you know, that way it’ll be easy. “Who should I marry?” Pick someone whose personality is just like yours. If it’s so obviously stupid in every other facet of life, why would it work for writing?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

"Someone in Nebraska" Published in Potomac Review!

I’m so pleased to see my story “Someone in Nebraska” published in the always-fabulous Potomac Review.  I wrote this story while in—guess!—Nebraska, last year when I was enjoying my residency at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts*. And this rarely happens—believe me!—but this was a story that came fast and furiously, actually after a conversation in a bar.  (So you know it’s good!)

Here’s the opening:

You have finally met someone—live and in person—who has seen the white light at the end of the tunnel. She’s a bartender in a small town in Nebraska who had a heart attack when she was forty. “They run in my family,” she says, as if that might be an obvious thing to understand about her. She knows everyone in the bar, everyone except you. You’re the stranger. You must like being the stranger wherever you go. That’s why you go to so many different places. “I was clinically dead for twenty-five minutes,” she tells you. Others in the bar listen, but clearly they’ve heard the story, the minute-by-minute. Only you don’t know, although you know the end: there she is, standing in front of you, bringing you a Bud whenever you ask for one…. 
I’m sorry that it’s not online, but you can order a copy here, on amazon.  While my story is only five pages long, there are lots of other delights in the journal—I especially recommend Thad Rutkowski’s short-short, “Warts and All.”

*The application deadline for the next residency period is September 1! You already know what an inspiring place it is.

Our beautiful cover, "Heron," photographed by Philip Friedman

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Writing in Portugal (Already Dreaming for Next Summer!)

Travel is on my mind…I just returned from Nashville (more about that later!) and I’m on my way to Iowa in 10 days.  Perhaps that’s why I was so taken by this report from a writing conference in Portugal.  Disquiet is the name of the conference, which was co-founded by Scott Laughlin, currently a Converse MFA fiction student. 

On the South85 blog, participant Annie Liontas gives her view of the fabulousness that is Portugal, that is stepping outside daily life, that is, as resident writer Denis Johnson said, “Writ[ing] yourself naked, from exile, in blood”:

“After working in isolation in Philadelphia for the past year, I started to realize that I’ve been waiting to be disquieted for some time. I was ready to be unsettled: I felt it in my bones, the restlessness, the need to find others like me. Somehow I knew I’d have to travel 3,500 miles before I could be reminded that there is but one nation, and that is the nation of writers. “It’s been a long time since I’ve traveled, and never have I traveled for writing. This summer I answered Disquiet’s call, which proclaims that “stepping out of the routine of one’s daily life and into a vibrant, rich, and new cultural space unsettles the imagination, loosens a writer’s reflexes.”….

Warning:  you’ll quickly find yourself longing for a glass of wine….

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Free Online Class about Laura Ingalls Wilder

Here’s a great—FREE—opportunity:  an online class on the work of Laura Ingalls Wilder, taught by Pamela Smith Hill, history faculty at Missouri State University. (As you may recall, I have a special interest in Laura, and made a pilgrimage to one of the towns she lived in, De Smet, South Dakota.)

"Laura Ingalls Wilder: Her Work and Writing Life" starts on September 22, and you can register now.  (Did I say FREE?)  This is a MOOC, which I’ve just learned stands for “Massive Open Online Course,” something universities are exploring (I don’t know why…to increase brand awareness? To educate the world?).

Anyway, all FREE, all online, and all at your own pace.  No college credit, though, so just for fun.

And here’s where to go directly to sign up:

See you in class…I’ll be sitting in the front row, asking lots of questions and trying to suck up to the teacher!

Saturday, July 12, 2014


I was just remarking to a writer friend the other day that IMHO the hardest thing to learn about writing and the process is patience and the other hardest thing is faith in oneself.  I have no magic answers, but I’m having a little lesson in patience today, with a small cooking project:  Bourbon Candied Cherries.

Steve has become interested in baking, but I was able to lure him into helping me make this, since these cherries should be lovely in drinks.  The problem is that we have to let them marinate for THREE DAYS when they look so delicious RIGHT NOW. 


Here’s the recipe, and I’ll let you know on Wednesday how they were…we will be giving them a run on Tuesday night as we celebrate our wedding anniversary!  (Talk about another thing that requires patience…but that’s a different story!)

Bourbon Candied Cherries
From Cooking Light magazine, July 2012

I’ll give the full recipe, but we halved it:

 1 ½ lbs fresh Bing cherries with stems
1 c sugar
1/3 c fresh lime juice
¼ c water
1 c bourbon or rye whiskey (we took this chance to use up several “dregs” from a variety of bottles)

Place the cherries in a medium glass bowl or large jar.  Combine sugar, juice, and ¼ cup water in a small saucepan; bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to medium; cook for 5 minutes, stirring to dissolve sugar.  Add 1 cup bourbon; bring just to a boil.  Pour the hot bourbon mixture over the cherries.  Cool completely.  Cover and refrigerate at least three days before serving.

Note: They will keep in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.

Our plan is to use them in Manhattans and to serve them alongside the incredible and perfect pound cake I love to make (recipe here).

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Fried Chicken in Frederick, Maryland!

You can tell how excited I was about My Salinger Year (yesterday’s post) because I wrote about that before writing about some small food adventures over the Fourth of July weekend.

Steve and I have an annual tradition for the Fourth, one I highly recommend:  eat fried chicken.  This is typically the only time of year we indulge ourselves (though I’m more prone to break this rule than he is).  When you eat fried chicken only once a year, even KFC is pretty good, so we’ve sometimes bought chicken from there.  We also make it ourselves [link to recipe below], and have gotten pretty good at it over the years…but what a mess!!!  (You would think it would be lovely to live in a house that smells like fried chicken for a week but actually it’s not.)  Plus, we were feeling lazy this year.

So how fortuitous that Steve received a promotional email from Bryan Voltaggio (of “Top Chef” and chef/owner of several restaurants in Frederick, Maryland; we had an amazing meal last year at the chef’s table at his fancy restaurant, Volt, to celebrate Steve’s birthday). The email noted that they were taking advance orders for buckets of fried chicken at his casual restaurant, Family Meal.

Buckets!  I sure liked the sound of that.

Also, it’s been my experience that in general, when a restaurant acts as though its fried chicken is something special, it usually is.  (Sadly, this rule does not apply to other food dishes…never buy barbecue because it’s “famous” and I could tell you a sad story about the time I had to try “world’s best concession crabcake” at a fair.)

For several days, we pondered the wisdom of driving an hour for fried chicken.  Remember the lazy part of the equation?

A day or two before the ordering deadline, I decided to call for more information.  I couldn’t find the original email, so I googled “fried chicken in Frederick, Maryland.”

Hello? First up was a link to Doc Geiser’s, which has won Frederick’s best fried chicken award for FOURTEEN YEARS IN A ROW!  And yes, they were open on the Fourth!

Well, I reasoned—first with myself and then with Steve—it’s a little crazy to drive an hour for a bucket of chicken, but if you’re going to try TWO different places after an hour’s drive, doesn’t that really make a lot more sense?

He agreed (which is one of the reasons I married him)…though he did note for the record, “So you’re going to go eat fried chicken before getting more fried chicken?”

Exactly!  We would go to Doc Geiser’s and then bring home the Family Meal chicken.

Doc Geiser’s was in a little strip mall, tucked off a major road of bigger strip malls, and we got a warm welcome as we ordered our 4-piece dinner to eat in (sides: [average] mac and cheese and [really good] lima beans…guess who picked which??).  I was surprised no one else was eating in the restaurant, but as we waited for our food, a stream of people came in to pick up take-out orders, including a huge Styrofoam cooler of 50 pieces!  I gotta say, you see that and you feel pretty confident that you’re in a place that knows its chicken. (Plus, they had sweet tea, as I suspected they might.)

And yes!  The chicken arrived, and it was gorgeously crisp and light, with good crust to meat ratio, and hot-hot-hot!  Not overly salty, not bland…in fact, just about perfect.  There was talk of saving one piece for later, but it was only talk.  Another reason I married Steve: no fighting over the 4-piece meal, as between us we each got our favorite pieces with no need for negotiation (though I don’t understand his attitude that “the wing is only a vehicle for skin”…I mean, of course!  That’s why it’s so desirable!).

And then…off to pick up our bucket of chicken and sides from Family Meal, which is located in an old…train depot? in a semi-industrial part of town.  A very cute and breezy place, with nice outdoor seating and an inviting dining room and bar.  I was pretty confident that this would be good chicken too, because when I placed the order, I had to pick a 15-minute window for pick-up.  (Another fried chicken rule:  if a menu tells you that you’ll have to wait 30 minutes for fried chicken, ORDER IT without hesitation.)

We were lured into ordering some desserts to take home (and a milkshake for the road, which was superb; and actually there’s another blog entry that could [and should] be written, The Milkshakes of My Summer), and we loaded up our meal (which included a beautiful little whole watermelon!) and headed home.

If I had followed my instincts, we would have eaten a piece in the parking lot—just to “try it” while it was hot—but Steve drew the line (another reason I married him…he’s not as crazy as I am!).  So later, while we heated the chicken slightly at home, it was basically room temperature by the time we ate it…which is actually a good test, as superior fried chicken must be amazing whether hot, room temp, or cold.

Passed!  With flying colors!  Amazing!  This was a more modern interpretation of chicken, with a passel of spices and (maybe?) some cracker meal in the coating.  Whatever it was—YUM!  As a bonus, there was a delicious hot sauce for dunking, so good that we felt a little guilty covering up the amazing chicken with sauce.  But you know, if that’s how the chef serves it….

Two great sides, also:  green bean casserole (which was along the lines of the “famous” Thanksgiving green bean casserole with the fried onions, but made with real ingredients instead of cans of soup) and smoked potato salad, which was a brilliant interpretation on a dish that’s already awfully brilliant.

To top it off, we’ve been eating the little watermelon for breakfast for the past several days…it’s like the way watermelon is supposed to taste and usually doesn’t anymore, sweet and juicy, deep red, seedless.  The essence of summer.  Totally worth an hour’s drive itself!

If you’re feeling that you must have some fried chicken right now and can’t possibly wait until July 4, 2015, here’s more information:

~~Doc Geiser’s:

Monday, July 7, 2014

Ultimate Luxury: Reading "My Salinger Year" by Joanna Rakoff

I have a new definition of luxury—beyond my fantasies of all-you-can-eat lobster and all-you-can-drink Champagne—and that is to read a book that feels as though it was essentially and EXACTLY written for you.  Your tastes, your life, your interests:  it’s as if the author had a checklist and spent years writing this book just for YOU.

Obviously this is not what author Joanna Rakoff did with her new memoir, My Salinger Year.  But that is how I felt as I flew through the book in the twenty-four hours after getting it in my hands.  The subject matter alone proves my point:

First person, young girl, coming of age. Check. I love plenty of other points-of-view and point-of-view characters, but a luxury book by this new definition I’ve invented would have to be first person coming of age, told by a young girl, preferably a young girl looking back, preferably looking back on events that happened in…

New York City.  Check.  The book is set in late 90s New York and the author is involved in….

Something bookish. Check.  The author works for an esteemed literary agency, that “glamorous” first job out of school, similar to my “glamorous” foray in the NYC publishing business when I was an editorial assistant at The Hudson Review back in the olden days.  The author’s work involves….
J.D. Salinger! Check and check!!  It’s not that I exclusively read books about (or by) Salinger, haha, but he was my literary idol growing up and is still an author whose works I admire immensely. The Catcher in the Rye is easily in my top five favorite books list.  In My Salinger Year, Rakoff finds herself working for J.D. Salinger’s literary agent!  She, however, has never read his work (which is probably a good thing at this point, as she is strictly warned about turning fangirl if Salinger calls or comes to the office).  She is put in charge of sending a typed (NOT Xeroxed!) form letter to each of the many, many pieces of fan mail Salinger receives, and through those letters—and her interactions—with the man himself—she eventually does read the work, and writes beautifully here about that experience.   

All this, and the book is well-organized, well-written, smart, funny, and even (something Salinger would appreciate) well-designed on the page.  While this memoir may not meet your exact checklist of “perfect book” as it did mine, I recommend it to anyone who has ever felt world-weary of phonies or who wants a peek behind the scenes of a literary agency (albeit a rather old-fashioned model of a literary agency).  Or, frankly, anyone who enjoys a great book about youthful salad days and the challenges of learning to navigate the larger world.

Here’s a review from the Washington Post.
Here’s more information about Joanna Rakoff and the book.



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