Monday, March 30, 2015

Learn How to Write Better Essays, Tweet by Tweet

Who says Twitter is banal?  Writer/essayist Roxane Gay (@rgay) gave an impromptu tweet-by-tweet, Q&A tutorial on how to write essays, which has been captured in its entirety.


do you think essays have to have a specific "point"? Is comedy a good enough purpose? 

Purpose matters in all things. Humor needs to give shape to an idea of some kind.

but must there be a rhetorical point? Is expression of experience ever enough? ie,poems don't NEED a point, just a POV (in my opinion) 

Why should someone care about the expression of experience? That's why purpose matters 

And by all means, read her latest book of essays, Bad Feminist! I'm pretty sure that book will end up on my favorite books of the year list.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

P&P Bookstore ISO Writing about DC

Politics & Prose Bookstore is reading for District Lines, its annual(ish) anthology of writing that captures the DC area:

We are now accepting submissions—poems, essays, short stories, coherent musings and ramblings, scribbles, comics, photographs, or graphics—that capture a sense of people or place in D.C. and the surrounding metropolitan neighborhoods. Work must be original and previously unpublished. Prose (fiction and non-fiction) should be under 3,000 words.

The deadline is May 31, and you can read more here (be sure to follow the guidelines exactly!):

Monday, March 23, 2015

Why a Writer Must Care about Place

In her blog, writer and teacher Patty Smith recommends a wonderful writing exercise based on this quotation:

To provoke [my students] — I quote Scott Russell Sanders in his book Staying Put: Making Home in a Restless World: … “…how can you value other places if you don’t have one of your own? If you are not yourself placed, then you wander the world like a sightseer, a collector of sensations, with no gauge for measuring what you see. Local knowledge is the grounding for global knowledge. Those who care about nothing beyond the confines of their parish are in truth parochial, and are at least mildly dangerous to their parish; on the other hand, those who have no parish, those who navigate ceaselessly among postal zones and area codes, those for whom the world is only a smear of highways and bank accounts and stores, are a danger not just to their parish but to the planet.” …

Read the rest of her thoughtful meditation on race and space and check out her suggested writing exercise, which will work for any genre: 

Friday, March 20, 2015

Novel Critiques Offered by Dzanc Books

Here’s a message from Dan Wickett, co-founder of Dzanc Books, a wonderful and top-quality small press:

I'm now critiquing novel openings. Here's the pitch:

 Co-founder of Dzanc Books and one who has opened and read thousands of manuscripts with an eye toward acceptance, I would be reading and critiquing the first two chapters of your novel manuscript (or up to 40 pages) with that same eye, but as a reader and not as if I'm looking to accept or reject your novel--my critique would be a letter detailing what caught my eye, both good and bad, and where I was at when honestly were I reading this as a submission that I'd decide to say No thank you, or I want to keep reading. It will also include line edits--the length into the manuscript of which will depend on just how frequent they are--if I'm picking apart something in every sentence they won't go through the full two chapters or 40 pages, but will go in deep enough that you'll understand what I'm commenting on and why.

 Donate $50 to Dzanc to receive the above. They will be critiqued in the order they are received and I will do at least one every other day. Each mss will be read 2X before I begin to critique them in writing. When I receive your manuscript, I'll reply via email letting you know what number in line your manuscript is, and give an approximate date of completion.

 Simply donate the $50 to Dzanc via their support page at and then forward your receipt to with your manuscript attached. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Teeth that Bite: An Interview with Marlin Barton, Author of Pasture Art

 By Kevin Welch

The magic of the short story seems outshined by the glitz of the best-seller, soon-to-be-a-major-motion-picture, box-office smash complete with new Hollywood cover shot of an actor’s photo-shopped face. I’m not poo-pooing success—who wouldn’t want to see Matt Damon or Claire Danes playing our characters?—just noting that stars falling from the sky and landing on a book’s cover shouldn’t necessarily be the depth of our literary blind date.

Some of the stories that stick with us the most are those finished in a dentist’s waiting room, a lunch break, or even waiting at the DMV (unless you go to my DMV, then just break out War & Peace). Great fiction has heart. It has eyes that bore into you, hands that shake you, teeth that bite. It leaves you with clips and rushes of made up memories, fantasies, something dark, something chilling, and something hopeful, something askew.

Marlin Barton’s latest short story collection, Pasture Art, is his finest work to date. His work leaves lingering echoes that bring the reader back for another go. The imagery is so lush that we know that river, field, and forest as a place from our own past. Barton is a master at telling a story. His mastery shines in this collection of shorts. His stories have heart. And, they have teeth.

I was given an opportunity to ask Barton a few questions about Pasture Art.

When reading Pasture Art, it’s as though we’re in a dinghy drifting on a river that winds through the collection. On the banks, one plot of land cedes to the next and on each a different story. While this is a collection of fictional stories, they feel real and this feeling is given life by the fictional Tennahpush River. Does the river function for you as a character or does its repeated appearance help you blur the lines between fiction and the real world?

I suppose it’s both. The Tennahpush, and the Black Fork River, which is also featured heavily in the collection, do feel a little like characters to me, and they also blur the lines, in a personal way, between fiction and reality. As for their being characters, I hope they come across as living things: they move, they have depth, they have a history that’s older than the people who live along their banks, and I hope they have a presence in the book. For the husband in “Braided Leather” and “Haints at Noon,” the Tennahpush offers aid in a possible escape from slavery, and in “Pasture Art,” it holds a level of danger if you think about the fisherman who end up shooting at the statues of deer at the top of the high bank.

Both rivers are fictional, but they are based on the Tombigbee and the Black Warrior Rivers in Alabama. I grew up in a little community called Forkland, which lies in the fork of the two rivers. I think it was inevitable that rivers would flow through all my fiction, and when I describe these rivers, I see in my mind’s eye the rivers that I grew up swimming and fishing in, but I wanted to give them fictional names to remind myself that I do need to create my own unique world for my characters. I have to add that over the years I’ve submitted stories to the Black Warrior Review, with no luck. It does seem like a writer who’s actually swam all the way across the Black Warrior, and it is a wide river, ought to have some advantage in placing a story there.

Rivers play an important role in your most recent novel, The Cross Garden, and again throughout Pasture Art. Scholars and critiques tend to relate a river to life but your rivers are somewhat darker. Where does this influence come from?

Rivers are life-giving things, I suppose, but life also has its darker side, which fiction must address. I’ve sometimes had my stories and fictional vision, if that doesn’t sound too fancy a term, described in reviews as “dark.” I don’t think of myself as a particularly “dark” kind of person; I try to be hopeful, and I also attempt to reach a place of hope in my fiction, but my stories and novels have often explored my characters’ capacity for evil, which is a theme as old as literature. So I think I’m going about the business of what I should be doing as a writer, and the rivers that run through my stories are simply a part of that. In The Cross Garden, for example, a murder by drowning has taken place, and I try to suggest in the novel that the river itself holds the memory of that act, just as it’s held in the memory of the main character Nathan.

Pasture Art features a number of stories from the female POV. What attracts you to that POV? Is it easier to define the supporting male characters from outside their POV influence?

I have often written from a female point of view. I’m not sure why, and haven’t really thought about it all that much, to be honest. I’m not the kind of writer who has notebooks and notebooks full of story ideas, so when an idea comes to me that seems workable, I try to write it. Sometimes the characters in those stories are male, sometimes female. And sometimes they are of a different race. I think all writers have every right to write from a point of view different from their own. How boring it would be to write only from a middle-aged, white, male point of view.

Your remark about it maybe being easier to define a male character from outside his point of view is an interesting one. In the novella “Playing War,” the main character is female, and I realize just now that I had to, of course, define her husband from her point of view. In many ways, that’s what the novella is about.  Their marriage is deeply troubled, and Carrie spends most of the novella trying to decide what kind of man her husband is, including if he’s capable of murder. The way she sees and defines him changes, and I hope the way the reader sees and defines him changes too. In fact, I hope the reader can sometimes see Foster more clearly than Carrie is able, even though everything the reader sees comes through her.

While all stories in Pasture Art stay with the reader long after the book is closed, the collection’s final (and longest) work, “Playing War,” is an intriguing, frightening page-turner. Was there ever a thought this could be a novel?

Not really. I envisioned it as a novella from the start. I’d thought it might run 100 manuscript pages or so, but it ended up running about 70 after I did a little cutting. I’ve never been a writer who experiments with form really, but one of the things I wanted to do in this collection was to try forms I’d never used before. So I wanted to give a novella a shot, and I thought just maybe I had a story idea that could sustain the length required. I also wanted to write a short, short, which was a real challenge. I think Brady Udall’s short “The Wig,” which is one of the finest short, shorts I’ve ever read, inspired me to try my hand at it. I’d also read a couple of volumes of slave narratives taken down in the 1930s for the Federal Writers’ Project, and it was a form that intrigued me. So while the short, short “Braided Leather” is written from the husband’s point of view, I thought revisiting that story from the wife’s point of view, and from a distance of many decades, might be a revealing thing to do, and hopefully each story helps to enlarge the other. Finally, there’s another story in the collection called “Midnight Shift” that’s written from a multiple third-person point of view. I’d always written from either third-person limited or from first person. While the story isn’t true omniscient point of view, it still uses a point of view I’d never attempted before.

If you take “Playing War” and put it opposite “Braided Leather” you have a 50+ page story and a one-page story, yet both have a powerful impact on the reader. When do you know a story is complete?

Here’s the short answer: when it feels right. But that’s a hard thing to know for certain. I suppose to give a kind of technical answer, I’d have to say after the climactic moment has occurred and the conflict has reached whatever resolution it’s going to reach, whether that’s a hopeful, completely satisfying resolution, or not. Stories should not tie up too neatly. Every little thread can’t always be accounted for. But the major issue at work in the story must be addressed and resolved in some way, even if that resolution is more implicit than explicit. The best stories work more by suggestion. They end up giving you a sense of how the character’s life might be changed by what’s just happened to them. By the way, I appreciate your compliment of the two stories you mentioned, just as I appreciate greatly your reading the collection so thoughtfully and wanting to ask me questions about it.

More information about Marlin Barton

Buy the book



Kevin Welch holds the MFA in Creative Writing from Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Currently, he works as an instructor at Mt. Hood Community College, Portland, Oregon. He is working on his first novel, Military Dreams.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Tackling Po-Biz One Day at a Time

by Kim Roberts

Like most writers, I am plagued by a constant, nagging sense that I should be doing more of the administrative tasks needed to advance my career.

Recently, I was having coffee with Leslie and said something to her about the problem of  “doing Po-Biz.” I asked her, “You fiction writers don’t call it that—what do you call it?”

She looked up brightly and answered, “Crap.”

Which sums up how most of us feel, I’d guess—we know we need to do it, but it’s a chore. What do I mean by Po-Biz? It’s the part that feels most like work: applying for grants, fellowships, awards; sending out finished poems to journals, anthologies, competitions, presses; setting up readings; finding reviewers for our books.  It’s a big black hole: you can never do enough.

In the past, I’ve handled Po-Biz randomly, working up a head of steam and then sending out queries or applications in spurts—with long fallow periods between times when I tried to build up the energy to focus on administrative matters once again. This past January, I made a resolution to try a new tactic.

For the entire month, I did one piece of Po-Biz per day. I never did more than one thing, so it was never overly burdensome, and even small things counted. So one day I might merely send an email to a person who organizes a reading series, and the next day I might take on the larger task of sending a new book manuscript to a competition or applying for a residency at an artists’ colony. By the end of the month, I’d done an extraordinary 31 things.

Will this tactic bring me more professional opportunities? Hard to say. I may just get more rejections than usual. But I believe in putting my work out into the world. I can’t get opportunities if I don’t apply for them—and the more things I apply for, the more (statistically) for which I will be in the running.

And I found, surprisingly, that it was not too difficult to devote a month to the discipline of “doing Po-Biz.” I certainly felt virtuous every day. I’m thinking of picking another month and doing it again.


Kim Roberts’s fourth book of poems will be released by Poetry Mutual this April. Fortune’s Favor: Scott in the Antarctic is a connected series of blank verse sonnets based on explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s journal about his race to the South Pole in 1911 – 1912. More information about the book, including a short video, can be found on her website:

Friday, March 13, 2015

Pre-Pub Love from a Writer I Admire!

I don’t want this blog to turn into one of those blogs where all I ever do is talk about myself.  But you’ll have to excuse me while I talk about myself for just a minute here to note my immense pleasure at this notice from a writer I desperately and deeply admire, Robin Black, who had this to say about my forthcoming book in the “Bedtime Stories” column of the Washington Independent Review of Books:

“Coming out in fall 2015, This Angel on My Chest is the Drue Heinz Prize-winning collection of short stories by Leslie Pietrzyk, and it is stunning. Everyone should be marking their calendars and setting aside time for this entirely original, brilliant, and, yes, heartbreaking look at what it means to lose a spouse at a very young age. There is a prismatic quality to the book, new angles explored, new light cast from different vantage points. It’s not to be missed.”

So, I guess you can see why I felt like talking about myself for just a teensy minute or two!!

Here’s my post from when I first read Robin’s first book, the wonderful collection of short stories called, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This

And, for good measure, here’s her amazing essay about professional jealousy, recently published on the Gulf Coast blog:


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