Monday, May 23, 2016

Spark Will Inspire You!

Thanks to writer Cheryl Somers Aubin for telling me about this fun program for creative spirits:

Get Ready to Get Sparked!

Imagine being able to work with an artist or musician who will give you a piece of work as inspiration for your own writing.  Now imagine that same artist or musician using your work as inspiration to create a piece of art or music.

This is what Spark is all about.  Founded by Amy Souza, Spark has been taking place four times a year since 2008.   Participants have ten days to create their own work from the inspiration pieces they are given.

No worries that these are first drafts, the fun and important part is to let inspiration take you wherever it will!   If you write nonfiction, you may come up with a poem.  Likewise, poets may write a piece of fiction.

Both writers and artists/musicians are needed.  The next round of Spark takes place May 25th – June 3rd

Visit this website to see some of the amazing work that has been done in past Sparks: 

Check out the Spark Experience page to read about others' experiences during Spark:
 Then go here to register: (NOTE: official registration has closed, but you can jump in with an email to Amy Souza, which is explained at this site.)

A donation of $10 is requested but not required to participate.


Cheryl Somers Aubin has been writing and publishing for over twenty years, and her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Boston Globe, Foundation Magazine, and other newspapers, magazines, and online journals.  She has a Master of Arts degree in Writing from Johns Hopkins University.  Cheryl teaches memoir writing and creative writing that incorporates artwork.  She has been an instructor at Johns Hopkins University and a featured speaker at personal history writing symposia, writing conferences, and workshops. More of Cheryl’s work can be found on her website

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Prompt Writing Class at Politics & Prose

I’ll be teaching a prompt writing class in July, at Politics & Prose Bookstore. I’m especially excited because I’m using a new book for a prompt base and I’m trying out a new format…a series of stand-alone classes that will focus (broadly) on a specified topic. First up: PEOPLE!

Here are the details:

Monday, July 11, 6:30 – 9 p.m.
 Politics & Prose Bookstore
5015 Connecticut Ave. NW
Washington, D.C. 20008

$45 (10% off for P&P members)

Explore your creative side safely in this session, one of a series of stand-alone prompt classes. We'll focus on writing about the people in our lives, including ourselves. The class offers discussion and writing exercises designed to get your subconscious flowing. 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 project and looking for a jolt of inspiration. The 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 book and all new exercises! Returning participants welcome!

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry, ed. by J.D. McClatchy
* Please note: Though this is a poetry book, you are not required to write poetry.

I’ll paraphrase someone who attended my last session: “I thought this would be scary, but it was so fun!”

Monday, May 9, 2016

Etiquette for Recent MFA Grads

Okay, I’m not really the official Miss Manners of the writing world. But for graduation season, I’d like to offer a few thoughts directed to new MFA grads who will now be navigating the mysterious world of Writing Biz on their own.

First, do not expect your teachers to keep in touch with you. They may adore you and your work, but their own writing (and life) is always going to be their priority. This does not mean that they aren’t interested in what you’re doing…just that, for the most part, you will need to be the one to keep in touch. (The teacher-student relationship is, of course, also structured around a certain power dynamic and it is plain wrong for a teacher to pursue a student after graduation [unless that student wins a Pulitzer, haha].) So think about which teachers were especially meaningful to you and your writing life, and think about how to stay connected with them.

Social media is a nice way to keep a casual relationship going with your professors, but if they (or you) don’t use social media, an occasional email/text is, it seems to me, welcomed by most professors. A few dos and don’ts on that occasional email/text:

DO reread what I said and take to heart that word: occasional. Don’t overdo it.

DO follow what your beloved professor is up to and acknowledge his/her publishing successes.

DON’T (ever) attach work you’d like to be critiqued.

DON’T write only when you want/need something.

DON’T take it personally if your professor is too busy to respond to you immediately, or perhaps ever.

DON’T write only when you want/need something. (Oh, did I say this already? Hmmm…must be important.)

DO ask for letters of recommendation/blurbs if you need them and you have maintained a good relationship with your teacher…but DON’T imagine you can make this request for the rest of all eternity. DO understand that your beloved professor will be beloved by many students who will come along after you. DO imagine that perhaps you’ve got a couple of shots at this sort of favor. DON’T (ever) ask for any letters that are due in less than two weeks.

DO understand that favors go both ways. You are now an MFA graduate, a member of the writing community, and that means you are allowed (encouraged!) to use whatever power you may have to help the people who helped you…can you invite your teacher to read at your reading series? Is your journal looking for a contest judge whom you will pay? Did you write a glowing review of your teacher’s book on Amazon? Can you interview your teacher for a writing blog? DO send an email offering something to your teacher!

DO follow up with your professor with a thank you after he/she has helped you in some way, whether it’s a letter written or advice offered or a question answered or whatever. At this point, your professor is not required to help you and is doing so only from the goodness of his/her heart. Saying thank you is FREE!

DON’T forget that your professor is first and foremost a writer whose job was to teach you. Note the distinction. Once you have graduated from the program, your professor takes no responsibility for you (unless you win a Pulitzer). Sad but true: your professor may not want to stay in touch with you. This might feel like a rejection. But please be gracious. A good teacher will have given you the tools to you need to forge ahead on your own and find your place in the community.


I’ll also offer a suggestion that revolves around that word “gracious.” Maybe it turned out you didn’t like your program so much. I’m sorry. I really am. (I wish you would have joined us at the Converse low-res MFA!) But now that you’re “free” of all those “%$#$-ing” teachers who think they’re such “hot $#@$” it might be tempting to let loose on them, either in your writing or on social media or in scathing, tell-all articles.


I’m only offering my own views here, but it’s been my experience that our lovely writing community is a small-small-small-small world, not only in size (I promise I could play six degrees of separation with about any MFA grad and get to a mutual acquaintance) but it is also small in terms of pettiness, which means that people WILL remember that you were the one who trashed the program or your teacher on The Rumpus or in The New Yorker or wherever. (Also, no one will be fooled by your pseudonyms and the tricks you use to disguise people/places…remember what I said about six degrees of separation?)

And think about it: why would you trash the crazy-imperfect-infuriating-inspiring program you graduated from? Now that you’re out, you should feel invested in the success of the program: you want your fellow grads to win awards and bring prestige to your school because that will help you and your degree. When your book is published, you should want to return in triumph to your program, invited back for a reading or a class visit. You should want your name proudly listed on the website as a “famous alum.” The fact is, you are connected in some way to your MFA program for the rest of your writing life.

Bitch and gossip privately, to your friends or at the AWP bar after you scope the scene to ensure your teachers are out of spitting distance. But always think twice and then twice again before going public about all the crap you endured while at your MFA program. (Unless we’re talking about something illegal or an abuse of power.)

In short, don’t burn bridges…until you win your Pulitzer.


You may not want to keep in touch with all or any of your former professors, and that’s fine. While many segments of the writing world run on blurbs and letters of recommendation and such, your former teachers are not (and should not be) the only source for acquiring those documents. You will move forth and build your own network of support, and memories of that horrible MFA workshop will fade in time, and maybe soon you will be the teacher opening emails from former students. But one last tip:

DO thank your teachers in the acknowledgements of your first book, and DO spell their names correctly. And if you’re one of my former students, DON’T send me a free copy: I will happily, happily buy it!

Friday, April 29, 2016

A Big Day Over at Redux

It’s been a busy week, but maybe you’d like to wind down with some good reading? Redux, the online journal that I founded*, marks its 200th "anniversary" this week—that’s 200 posts of creative work since we started in August 2011. In honor of the big day, I posted links to the 10 most popular stories/poems/essays that we’ve published, along with some other favorites.

Let the reading begin:

*Redux features previously published literary work that is not available in a print book or elsewhere online.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

"Lying within the Lie" My Interview in The Collagist

I was interviewed by the wonderful online journal TheCollagist about my short story “One True Thing.” The story appears in THIS ANGEL ON MY CHEST (and online, in The Collagist), and in my mind is infamous because:

~It’s 40 pages long!
~It uses 10 different points of view!
~It takes place at a writers’ conference “no one” would recognize!
~I discovered something utterly crucial and foundational to the story an hour after I thought the story was finally one would ever guess that this was the last puzzle piece.
~It took me more than a year to write and figure out this story, and I  joke that the experience nearly killed me.

Here’s a tease from the interview:
 I love writing (and reading) second person stories, but I agree with the craft lecture here, that it’s a tricky point of view to carry off and that it’s dangerous to use that POV in an MFA workshop. (Maybe the word isn’t so much “dangerous” as it is “tedious”…because at least half the allotted workshop time will be spent talking about how two-thirds of the class despises the second person.) I love the first person as well, but I’m mindful that if third person is the standard and default choice of POV, there must be a legitimate reason for choosing the first person. For me, that reason is often unreliability. While all fiction technically is a lie, I especially love lying within that lie, it seems, making me very fond of unreliable narrators.

Here’s the story (in case you haven't bought my book yet!!):

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Where Should You Hold Your Off-Site Event at AWP DC?

I don’t know. I live in Alexandria, Virginia, which is a 40 minute metro-ride away or a 6 mile/50-minute rush hour traffic trip by car. Also, I don’t plan events for a living, so I don’t keep track of spaces for rent. I don’t know the cool hipster bars with party rooms. The bottom line is that unfortunately, I have no idea who you should contact to talk about hosting your reading/party/slam/mock prom/happy hour/wake for rejected panelists/shots contest. And I don’t want to spend a lot of time thinking about it, unless, ahem, you’ve invited ME to participate in your event. And, honestly, I suspect that many of your DC friends feel the same way I do. (Or maybe they are nicer than I am.)

Still I understand that you may know less than I do! And I understand that I should be a gracious host to those of you coming to our metro area nest February. So here are some resources and suggestions that will help you find the perfect location.

First and foremost:
Metro. Make sure your off-site event is near a metro stop. The Convention Center is at Mount Vernon Square, which is on the Yellow and Green lines. On one side of the convention center there are some inexpensive interesting options to consider, but on the other side there are a lot of fancy restaurants, so you might want to branch out to…

Gallery Place/Chinatown. This stop is on the Yellow, Green, and Red lines and serves Penn Quarter. There are a bajillion restaurants and bars and tourists and teenagers and sports fans around here, because this is also where the Verizon Center is. You might want to check to see if the Wizards (basketball) or the Capitals (hockey) are playing, because if they are, everything will be a little more crowded. Also, there could be a major concert at the Verizon Center…let’s hope not. But maybe make sure.


Staying on the easy path of Green/Yellow, you can also look to Shaw/Howard; U Street; Columbia Heights; or Petworth. There definitely are fun and funky and less expensive options for food/bars in these neighborhoods, along with fabulous bookstores like the original Busboys & Poets and Upshur Street Books. To my (lazy) mind, though, your offsite event is sounding like a trek if I have to go past U Street…which means it better be at an amazing spot to get me there. Logan Circle is a current hotspot for restaurants and is between U Street and Dupont Circle.

Speaking of Dupont Circle, from Gallery Place, you can go sideways along the metro on the Red Line to Dupont Circle…but to my (lazy) mind, having to transfer trains is another irritant. If I were you, I’d really try to stay on that Green/Yellow corridor, which is sooooo convenient to the Convention Center. (Unless, I don’t know, Sherman Alexie is reading at your off-site event? I’d metro all the way into Maryland to see him!)

The really fun neighborhood is called NoMa and I don’t see it as being convenient to the Metro…but it’s not too far from the Convention Center, so if your guests are Uber/Lyft folks, that’s a good option because there are LOTS of bars and restaurants.

Either way, Metro offers a very handy “Trip Planner” service on where you can put in addresses and find your exact route via public transportation, including WALKING DIRECTIONS from the metro station so can see how much of a hike your site will be.

I will go out on a limb and say that in general, taxis in DC are disgusting. Uber works for the most part, though sometimes you will end up with a taxi that shows up through the Uber app. Walking could be tough in February (on the other hand, it could be 75 degrees and lovely in an alarming way).

As for places: Here is a list of party rooms available via Yelp. I make no endorsement beyond the fact that in general, I have heard of these places and they look like legitimate, interesting spots to me.

(Watch out because there are ads sprinkled throughout that look like the vetted listings but aren’t.)

This list looks okay to me, too—maybe a little more restaurant-oriented than bar-oriented:

A final thing to remember: ACCESSIBILITY. Please be considerate and ask the site you’ve contacted if it is accessible to everyone. What would be worse than someone getting to your event and discovering a barrier in the form of a steep flight of stairs and no working elevator? Or discovering that the bathrooms are all in the basement?

Happy event planning…see you in February!!

Monday, April 25, 2016

“Writers Write, Every Day, No Excuses”: Interview with Dana Cann about GHOSTS OF BERGEN COUNTY

I first met Dana Cann when I was teaching a novel workshop at the Writer’s Center back in the olden days. He was a wonderful writer, devoted to the craft, and exactly the kind of person you want to stay in touch with after class. He wrote a piece for Work in Progress that remains one of my favorite guest pieces to this day—“200 Words and a Cloud of Dust”—outlining his approach to getting the work in, day after day, even if only 200 words at a time, even if only 15 minutes at a stretch. And now, proving the power of discipline and showing us that 15 minutes a day IS enough, here, happily, is his first novel: GHOSTS OF BERGEN COUNTY.

I haven’t had the chance to read it yet, but I’m dying to (and I had a tantalizing tease when we read together recently at Johns Hopkins; upcoing reading dates are listed below). Here’s the publisher’s description:

Gil and Mary Beth Ferko moved to Bergen County thinking they would lead a typical suburban life: Gil commuting daily to Manhattan; Mary Beth a stay-at-home mom. But after a hit-and-run accident kills their infant daughter, Mary Beth becomes a shut-in. When Gil reconnects with a high school classmate, Jen, she introduces him to heroin. As his dependency on the drug grows, his downward spiral puts his life in danger and his career in jeopardy. Mary Beth has also found an escape—first in prescription drugs that numb her senses, then in the companionship of a mysterious girl who heightens them. And Jen is also haunted. Years ago she witnessed a man she had just met fall from a rooftop. She walked away from the accident and has been tormented since by the question of why she did so. As her quest to rectify that mistake collides with other mysteries and traumas, all the characters must face the fine line between fate and happenstance.

And here are some nice things that people are saying:

Publishers Weekly: "Cann’s novel is an impressive, accomplished effort, nuanced in its depiction of complex interpersonal drama and eerie elements of the supernatural." Full review.

 Bret Anthony Johnston: “Dana Cann’s characters are so complicated and vulnerable, so profoundly human and wounded, that they linger in the reader’s memory like family snapshots. This is a courageous and revelatory novel, the beginning of a gifted writer’s long career.”

And on to my short interview with Dana:

Usually I ask authors to describe their book in 10 words or less, but since I heard you at a reading effectively describe the book in 140 characters, let’s do that! (I’ll spot you the words of the title, if you’d like.)

A private-equity guy and his wife, a recluse since their baby’s death, confront grief amid addictions and the company of a mysterious girl.

I’m always interested in point of view…how and why did you choose the POV you did?

GHOSTS OF BERGEN COUNTY utilizes a third-person, limited point of view. Each of the three principal characters—Gil, Mary Beth, and Jen—is a point-of-view character, and the shifts in point of view typically (though not always) occur at chapter breaks. Third-person limited, with multiple point-of-view characters, is a pretty conventional way to write a novel. When I first started writing GHOSTS, my intention was to utilize a third-person omniscient point of view, where the point of view could shift more fluidly from character to character, but I quickly nixed that ambition when it became apparent that the number of choices I’d need to make would increase exponentially. Plus, I was confusing the generous, smart readers in my writers’ group. I don’t aim to confuse readers.

Plot or characters? Which comes first for you? Or is it something else?

Definitely characters. However, GHOSTS OF BERGEN COUNTY has a pretty intricate plot. This was a surprise for me, when the plot began to emerge as I was writing the novel during a particularly fruitful residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. I had a plot! I’d never written anything with an intricate plot before. I was about halfway through the first draft at this point, and I had to circle back to the beginning to capture my new discoveries. Some early readers have noted that the characters are well developed, while others have noted that the plot is well developed. I like to think that this is a novel that promotes both elements in equal measure, that neither takes a back seat to the other.

You have been part of a writing group for sixteen years, which I find an impressive length of time. Can you tell us more about your group and speak to its benefits (and any drawbacks)?

My writers’ group, which currently consists of seven fiction writers, has been invaluable to me. It forces me produce new work because I have deadlines every few months, it provides me with smart and generous feedback on my work, and it allows me to read the work of my peers critically, which is an important skill for a writer to hone. There are few drawbacks I can think of. Maybe one is that novel chapters are more difficult to critique than short stories, since novels are often written over many years, and it’s difficult for a critique group to read a chapter or two at a time every few months.

We formed the group from a short story workshop we took at The Writer’s Center in (I think) 1999. We meet once a month. We’ve had remarkably little turnover over the years. Four of the original six members are still in the group. We’ve now published five books (three novels and two story collections), plus several dozen short stories in literary magazines and anthologies.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve heard, and how did you apply it when working on GHOSTS OF BERGEN COUNTY?

Writers write, every day, no excuses.

This may be more mantra than advice, which probably makes it more valuable, since it’s something you can tell yourself and believe in. Writing is like physical exercise—the more regularly you do it, the easier it is. While writing every day is fabulously terrific advice, I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m not as disciplined as I should be in following it. The truth is that sometimes life gets in the way. Sometimes I have excuses. Sometimes I make excuses. Sometimes I feel like watching a baseball game on TV.

What really got GHOSTS OF BERGEN COUNTY over the finish line were two residencies at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. For a writer like me, with a day job, to be able to take two or three weeks at a time to do nothing but write was huge.

For more information:

Upcoming events in the DC area:
April 30: Reading at Politics and Prose, 6 pm, 5015 Connecticut Ave NW WDC
May 6: Reading at Barnes & Noble, 7 pm, 4801 Bethesda Ave Bethesda, MD

Dana was born in Santa Barbara, California, and raised in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC. He's worked in commercial banking, corporate finance, and restructuring. His short stories have been published in The Sun, The Massachusetts Review, The Gettysburg Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, The Florida Review, and Blackbird, among other journals. He has received fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation. Dana earned his M.A. in Writing from Johns Hopkins University. He lives in Bethesda, Maryland with his wife and their two teenage children. Dana teaches fiction workshops at The Writer’s Center. Ghosts of Bergen County is his debut novel.


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