Thursday, December 20, 2007

Work in Progress: In Praise of Discipline

I’ll be away for the holidays, maybe popping in once or twice late next week, maybe not. In any event, happy holidays to you and your loved ones, and as the kids at my grade school used to delight in saying to each other at the end of December, “See you next year!”


I have been revising my novel in progress on and off since late September. This is (I hope) the final revision before sending my baby out into the world, so it’s not the time to say, “Oh, I’ll fix this later.” Later is NOW.

You may guess where this is going…there are several things to fix that I didn’t “feel like” fixing earlier, because they were too hard. There are things to fix that I didn’t know needed fixing until I got to the end of the manuscript and had the whole story (finally!) out in front of me. Some things I thought were fine until my fabulous writing group kindly informed me that, no, actually I was mistaken to think those things were fine; those things need serious fixing!

Basically, what I’m saying is that as much as I prefer revision to the empty terror of the first draft where I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, this revision right now is actually quite hard for me. It’s not a matter of wide swathes of change—new scenes, new characters, massive deletions, joyful red pen everywhere. Rather, it’s that type of revision where you know you need to come up with one or two sentences that are absolutely perfectly written, to fit exactly there between these two paragraphs, to convey a nuance to a character’s personality as they illustrate an important thematic thread, move the plot forward, AND set up things for the big reconciliation scene two chapters ahead. Hard, hard, hard. There are moments when I think I’d rather be digging ditches.

During those difficult moments, I find that the first place I want to turn is the refrigerator or the cupboard where sometimes there are potato chips. If there’s nothing there, I head to the internet (yes, those articles about Britney’s pregnant sister are very important). I have even been known to jump at the sound of the dryer dinging because folding laundry is preferable to the task at hand. Sick, sick, sick. But, perhaps not entirely unfamiliar to your “process.”

So it’s a struggle to stay focused, especially since there are many other activities beckoning at this time of year: cookies won’t bake themselves. Appropriate gifts for loved ones don’t select themselves (or pay for themselves either, come to think of it).

In the midst of all this internal and external distraction, I was working on a particularly troubling chapter that needed a great deal of work—I’m hoping it might be safe to say that this is the chapter that required the MOST work, but we’ll see. For several days, I tried to squeeze in my work around cookies, laundry, etc., figuring some writing is better than none (true). But it wasn’t going well, and finally I buckled down. I went to the library, which is the most intense place around here—everyone there is buried in their work; it’s hard even to get a carrel, and the place is spookily silent. It’s the kind of place where you’re embarrassed to get up after sitting at your desk for two hours straight because the person directly across from you hasn’t left their seat in all that time and had been sitting there before you arrived. So, needless to say, I focused on my work in the library. (I previously wrote about this very intense library here.)

The next day I turned off the internet for as long as I could stand it.

Then I let the laundry pile up. I didn’t jump to answer emails. I put off going to the post office to mail my packages. As much as possible, during my writing time, I tried to immerse myself in my hard chapter. I was disciplined.

My reward? Because I was much more present in the work, thinking about it and not letting myself get distracted with either the tediousness or the joy of daily life, I woke up one morning with the dialogue in my head for the most difficult part of the chapter—I jumped up and wrote it all down, several pages, just letting the words flow, deciding to worry later about making them perfect.

Later that day, I sat down and looked over my “vision.” It wasn’t perfect, but it was something I could move forward on. I worked on it that afternoon, fixing it, enhancing it, plugging it into the chapter. I made it “perfect.”

I’m not sure I believe in visions. But I do believe in the kind of discipline where when you show up and take your work seriously, your subconscious will take pity on you and do the heavy lifting: “Hey, dummy, see how you can get the father to have to make an impossible choice if he doesn’t go to the hospital first? Uh, isn’t that one of the important themes of your book? How about pulling that forward? Duh!” (I hope your subconscious is less surly than mine.)

And not only do I believe in that, I rely on it. You will figure it out, you will get through the hard parts, you will come up with those two perfect sentences that do everything you want and more. You will that is, if you keep working.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Learn to Publicize Your Book

Here’s an upcoming, not-to-be-missed event you MUST mark on your calendar right now. Not that I’m bossy or anything (!), but I would be distressed if you missed this great opportunity to learn from two experts how to send your book out into the world properly. And if your book isn’t quite ready…no time like the present to learn what to expect and how to lay the groundwork for a successful launch.

Remember, it’s not enough just to write the darn things anymore…we also have to market them! The reclusive Salinger or Pynchon thing just doesn’t cut it these days.

"Promotion and Publicity"
Sponsored by Women’s National Book Association, DC Chapter

Monday, January 14, 2008
6:30 PM—Refreshments & Networking
7:00 PM—Program
Charles Sumner School
1201 Seventeenth Street, NW
Washington, D.C.
Admission to programs is free for members, $10 for non-members/guests.

If I have a book coming out in June 2008, what would be my time frame for setting up promotions? If I wanted to do some readings, how would I set that up? If I wanted to offer my book at certain events, who would I approach? How would I get on the radio? How do I get my book reviewed? How do I get it into libraries? What other venues should I be considering? What will all that cost me and will I have to quit my job to do it? Do I need a website? What if I need help setting one up, creating links, etc.? How do I get noticed by influential bloggers? If I post excerpts on a website how do I protect them from copyright violation (theft)?

Join us for the answers to these questions and more as the Washington, DC, chapter of the Women's National Book Association presents an informational session on "Promotion and Publicity" for authors, with independent publicists Lauren Cerand and Imal Wagner.

Lauren Cerand ( is an independent public relations representative and consultant in New York. Her clients are a purposefully eclectic mix of creative professionals, and she specializes in generating initial buzz and building sustained attention for projects and individuals. She is often asked to share her innovative perspective on publicity and has spoken to audiences at Book Promotion 101, Mystery Writers of America, NYU's Center for Publishing, The (Downtown) Omaha Lit Fest, Penguin UK, Virginia Festival of the Book, Word of Mouth, Women's National Book Association, and the 20th Annual Independent and Small Press Book Fair (December 2007). In 2004, The Village Voice included her in its "Best of New York" issue.

She is the vice chair of the board of directors of Girls Write Now, "a nonprofit volunteer mentoring organization that has been matching bright, creative teenage girls from New York City's public high schools with professional women writers in the community since 1998." A Cornell University graduate, Lauren compiles "The Smart Set," a weekly round-up of cultural happenings for, and writes about art, politics and style at

Imal Wagner ( provides advanced public relation, marketing and media placement services to authors, web sites, business entrepreneurs, speakers, and entertainers. Imal Wagner has special skills in knowing how and where to promote her clients and the extraordinary ability to forge long-lasting relationships with editors and producers. Her unique capabilities and relentless determination have resulted in an impressive client list of N.Y Times best-selling authors, up-and-coming performers and trailblazing business leaders. She works with people who have authored books in the areas of self-help, how-to, business, finance and family/children's issues. Imal creates market positioning that showcases her clients in the print and broadcast media where influential consumers will pick up the buzz and keep it going. She places clients on radio and TV, in magazines, newspapers and on the internet. She has placed clients on Fox News Channel, The Neil Cavuto Show, Reuters, in all the top 25 radio markets, NY Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, NY Post, Investors Business Daily, National Geographic Adventure, People Magazine, Entrepreneur, The Financial Times and in regional and community papers throughout the country.

ABOUT THE WNBA: The Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) is a nonprofit professional association of women and men who work with and value books. The organization was founded in 1917. The Washington, DC, chapter was established in 1978. WNBA, whose purposes are both educational and charitable, promotes reading and literacy, and supports the role of women in the community of the book. A volunteer board of directors manages chapter business and coordinates chapter activities.

Our members include publishers, writers, editors, librarians, booksellers, agents, designers, illustrators, marketing and promotions professionals, book and magazine producers, teachers, and others.

The Washington, DC, chapter hosts monthly events for members and other professionals in publishing and allied fields. Held between September and May, our events include networking brunches, panel discussions and workshops. Programs address topics of interest to our members, from the craft of writing and the business of publishing to professional development, freelancing, and literacy promotion. For more information go here.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

"What Is to Give Light Must Endure Burning"*

The Sun Magazine is one of my favorite magazines, worth every penny of the subscription fee, and I’m pleased to pass along news that the web site offers a wonderful new feature, “Favorites from the Archives,” in which editors and contributors have selected pieces from the past that they found to be especially memorable. Something new will be posted each month, so this is a good site to bookmark.

I liked the essay “On Being Unable to Breathe,” by Stephen T. Butterfield who explores ways of coming to an understanding of chronic disease that do not revolve around the “think happy thoughts” school of pop psychology. This essay was first published in 1988…sadly, the bio note refers to Mr. Butterfield in the past tense. How fortunate we are that this remarkable essay has come to light again.

Here’s a brief excerpt:

“We have little choice about anything, moving around as we do in a sleepy, anxious cloud of habit and conditioned response. When we slow down, that cloud settles, finally, and the details hidden within it begin to emerge with startling precision. I hold the kettle to the faucet; hear the water swirl in the bottom; place it on the stove, the little drops sizzling away from the hot grill; stare out the window at the vortex of snow down in the valley, swirling over the trees. Finally, the steam whistles through the spout and I pour a cup of tea. My thoughts flutter and swirl like water, like the snow. Having to slow down begins to seem less like a disability and more and more like a precious gift.

“But I cannot delude myself that this is some kind of accomplishment, for I would dearly love to leap, like my cat, from the stairs to the floor; I would love to dance, run like a horse across the yard, play football, go out for a pass. The fact that slowing down is choiceless becomes part of the gift: taking credit for things just keeps stirring up that cloud. Since I cannot take credit, what really matters is the scent of the tea. The only choice we have anyway is to wake up.”

*This quotation, by Viktor Frankl, seems to serve as the magazine’s mission statement.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Get Up, Stand Up

This isn’t an event or agency I’m familiar with, but trusted source Anna Leahy sent this along and I’m intrigued. Ha—it’s certainly not as though Congress forks over money hand over fist for the arts…wouldn't we all rather see a theatre or literary journal funded than another “bridge to nowhere”?

National Arts Advocacy Day
Capital Hilton Hotel
Washington, DC
March 31–April 1, 2008

The 21st annual Arts Advocacy Day is the only national event that brings together a broad cross section of America’s cultural and civic organizations, along with hundreds of grassroots advocates from across the country, to underscore the importance of developing strong public policies and appropriating increased public funding for the arts.

LEARN how to lobby congress.
NETWORK with other attendees from your state and across the country.
BE HEARD by your members of Congress when you visit them to make the case for the arts and arts education.

Advocacy Day Highlights

March 31: 21st Annual Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public PolicyDaniel Pink is a best-selling author and an expert on innovation, competition, and the changing world of work.

March 31: Emerging Arts Leaders Networking Reception

April 1: Congressional Arts Breakfast
Hear from members of Congress and celebrity guests. ~~ View the schedule for all the activities. ~~ Register and book your hotel today!

This past year, the first hearing in 12 years dedicated to the importance of investing in the arts was held on Arts Advocacy Day including testimony by Wynton Marsalis. Your involvement does make an impact.

For more information about this program or any Americans for the Arts programs and services, please contact us by e-mail or call us at 202.371.2830 or check the web site.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Guest in Progress: Dan Ryan

I met Dan Ryan when he took a couple of my workshops at the Writer’s Center; we immediately hit it off because he, too, is from Iowa. (If you need a refresher on why people from Iowa are so special, please go listen to the soundtrack from The Music Man.)

I also admired his ambitious reading: during one workshop he noted that he was a tremendous Anthony Trollope fan. This is an author not so much in favor today—not sure why; I remember his work as enjoyable—he was the Joyce Carol Oates of his time, in terms of productivity; check out the lengthy list of novels at the end of this post.

In the next workshop, Dan had decided to read James Joyce’s Ulysses…always a noble undertaking. I needed a college class to force me into it (with a forgiving syllabus that let us skip one or two chapters). And, okay…secret confession: Cliff’s notes to get through some of the more challenging parts. (Lest I sound too much of a slacker, in my defense, the summer before I was to take that class, I did read Homer’s Odyssey on my own so I could more fully appreciate Ulysses.)

Back to Dan—along with this ambitious reading schedule, he has finished a draft of the fascinating coming-of-age novel that he was working on back then, and lately he’s been trying his hand at short stories. As with the reading—Dan is always pushing ahead into new territory, which I very much admire.

Here is his amusing piece on a more technical matter of interest to writers: a computer program that helps with formatting issues. Speaking for myself, I need all the help I can get when it comes to computer issues…maybe this will help me get the pages numbers on my manuscript into the same font as the text!

A few years ago I decided I wanted to write the Great American Novel. On that glorious first day when I started my manuscript, I opened Microsoft Word and started typing Great Words of Wisdom. Immediately I started to wonder about format. What should be the size of the margins? Should it be double-spaced? What should be on each page’s header and footer? How should chapters be formatted?

I found the answers on the Internet, and made the necessary changes to my Microsoft Word document. But as I did so, I thought to myself, “This isn’t the first time someone has formatted a manuscript. Surely somebody has created a Microsoft Word template that has all these settings configured so I don’t have to do it each time.”

A Microsoft Word template is a file that specifies how a document should be formatted. When you open Microsoft Word and start typing, behind the scenes you are using a template. The default template is the psychologically-charged name “” But Microsoft Word allows you to create your own custom template to define your own settings for options such as spacing and margin. Once you have a custom template, you can create documents from it.

The problem with templates is that they’re difficult to understand. Indeed, most people don’t know they exist. Below are the typical steps people use to format their documents:

1. Spend a bunch of time getting the format correct for your first masterpiece.
2. Create a copy of Masterpiece.doc. (ThisTimeItsReallyAMasterpiece.doc)
3. Delete everything in ThisTimeItsReallyAMasterpiece.doc.
4. Curse the computer gods that you’ve accidentally deleted much of the formatting

Fortunately there’s a better way. ProsePro from ScriptWizard ($49, available for PCs only) makes it easy to create a document that conforms to Writers Market specifications with the push of a button.

I’ve been using ProsePro for over three years and am very happy with it. With ProsePro I spend less time fighting with Microsoft Word. This is particularly true at two crucial points of the writing process: the beginning and the end.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m creating a document for the first time, I’m brimming with all sorts of wonderful ideas. The last thing I want to do is kill that creative energy trying to remember what the header is supposed to look like (Name/Title or Title/Name?)

Maybe you blow off all that formatting nonsense until your manuscript is done and you’re ready to send your masterpiece out to the world. Now all of a sudden your darling manuscript needs to look pretty. At this point, you’re completely stressed out and not thinking clearly. Maybe you’ll format everything correctly or maybe you won’t. Wouldn’t you rather rely on a product written by people who has thought about document formatting a heck of a lot more than you’ll ever care to?

One feature I particularly like is that it automatically puts the page number and word count on the cover page. I use this feature to monitor my progress while I’m writing.

ProsePro isn’t perfect and has a few annoying bugs. Given the amount of capability provided, I think the product should cost only $19. Perhaps the $49 price tag reflects the fact that the audience for this product is extremely small and, to my knowledge, there aren’t any competitors.

Should you buy it? That depends on how much money is in your writing budget. One thing to consider is that you’ll actually use it every time you write. How often can you say that about a writing-related purchase?

About: Dan Ryan is an aspiring writer who writes software for a living. He lives in Cheverly, MD. (Also, check out Dan’s previous help on the blog when I briefly became obsessed with “the language of corn.”)

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Okay, Honestly!

I got my December 17 issue of The New Yorker in the mail today, and because I was already in a crappy mood, I checked the table of contents:

ONE woman

Out of 16 writers.

For the record, it’s Nancy Franklin, their regular (and excellent) T.V. reviewer.

The drawings aren’t much better—though there are a few names that are initials, so I can’t tell. So, assuming all the initials are women, we’ve got 16 drawings with 2 maybe-women. (And the cover is by a man.)

Week after week after week…how can this possibly be coincidental?

Ann McLaughlin Reading

Dear friend and writing group member Ann McLaughlin will be reading at the Writer’s Center on Sunday, December 16. The theme of the afternoon is World War II, and Ann will be reading from her lovely book, The House on Q Street (which I had the privilege of reading in progress, in our writing group). Joining her is Louis Maier, reading from his new memoir, The Golden Gate to the Black Forest.

(Check out Ann’s Work-in-Progress piece about writers keeping journals, including her own childhood “war journal,” which she consulted when writing The House on Q Street.)

Event Details:
Sunday, December 16, 2007
The Writer’s Center
4508 Walsh St.
Bethesda, Maryland
2:00 pm

More info here.

Cyber-Discussion with Nell Freudenberger Today

Richard Ford recently called short stories "the highwire act of literature." Walter Mosley has said he thinks of "novels as mountains, and short stories as far-flung islands that are the tips of mountains."

Nell Freudenberger
, the winner of the 2004 PEN/Faulkner Award for Excellence in the Short Story, who was recently one of the youngest writers included in the New Granta Book of the American Short Story, will join's Off the Page on Wednesday, Dec. 12, at 3 p.m. ET, to talk about short stories and her work.

Ask questions now or during the discussion at this url:

Freudenberger's talk continues a series of interviews to kick off the publication of Off the Page: Writers Talk About Beginnings, Endings, and Everything in Between, a book, published this month by W.W. Norton, based on 41 "Off the Page" interviews with writers. For more information about the book, go here.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

"The Dawnzer Lee Light"

As a long-time Beverly Cleary fan, I was delighted to discover that Klickitat Street is a real street and to read this short, evocative piece that reminded me of those long ago days, tucked sideways in an armchair, poring through those well thumbed library books, their pages soft and limp and smelling of someone else’s house, putting myself plunk in the middle of Ramona Quimby’s woes or Ribsy’s adventures, begging the inevitable, “Just one more page,” when it was time to go to bed.

(Link from Maud Newton.)

Need a Gentle Nudge?

Here’s an announcement for a class that will help get you motivated and writing.

Write Here, Write Now!

When: Saturday, 12/15, 9am – 12pm
Where: Georgetown (1023 31st St. NW)
Tuition: $110.00 (check, cash, or PayPal)
Limited to 12 participants
For more information and/or to register: email

Everyone gets writer's block at one time or another. Maybe you just finished a manuscript and don't know what to start next. Maybe the only thing you're writing these days is email and you want to try your hand at writing something more enduring, more personal. Maybe you've always thought you had a story in you, but you don't know how to get it out, or where to start.

Stop staring at your blank notebook or empty computer screen and get started on a new project with a new attitude toward writing in this half-day workshop facilitated by Robin Tucker (Leadership and Life Coach) and Khris Baxter (screenwriter and writing instructor).

Through fun and useful in-class writing activities, you'll get the beginnings to several new stories/pieces, and you'll get valuable feedback from the instructors and your fellow classmates. This non-judgmental and supportive workshop is great for those who want to write fiction, nonfiction, essays, poetry, or a daily journal.

Through group exercises, writing prompts, and discussion, you will leave the workshop with new tools, ideas, and the motivation to get you writing.

Robin Tucker (CPCC, ACC) is a Certified Life and Leadership Coach. She is a member of the International Coach Federation (ICF), a Board member of the ICF Washington, DC Metro chapter, and is certified by the ICF and The Coaches Training Institute (CTI).

In addition to coaching individuals and couples, Robin leads customized training sessions for a range of audiences and clients, including teens, women in low-income communities, and corporate teams. Robin is inspired by her client's potential and uses a supportive, honest, and dynamic approach in her coaching.

Khris Baxter is a screenwriter, producer, and script consultant. He has sold and optioned six screenplays to Hollywood studios and production companies, including "Voyage," produced by USA Pictures. His screenplay, "Outrider," is currently in development.

Khris teaches screenwriting at Gettysburg College, The Writer's Center in Bethesda, MD, and at the Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing at Queens University in Charlotte, NC. He is a member of the Virginia Film Office and a judge for the annual Virginia Screenwriting Competition.

More details:

Last Chance for the Wordy

The deadline for this contest for long short stories is a Saturday postmark. It’s hard to find homes for those longer pieces, so if you’ve got one that’s ready to go…better get going!

Here’s the announcement:

THE LONG STORY CONTEST, International (formerly The Long Fiction Contest, International), now in its 15th year, has become the premier competition for writers of stories that don't fit the conventional limits imposed by the economics of small press publishing. Named for A. E. Coppard, one of the leading British writers of the 1920's, whose first story was rejected only because it was too long--12,000 words--the contest attracts writers from all over the world. In order to acknowledge and encourage entries from outside the United States, the word International has been added to the title. All submissions must be in English and entry fee in U.S. dollars.

Long Story Contest: White Eagle Coffee Store Press
Contest Rules, 2007

Manuscript Length: 8,000-14,000 words (30-50 pages double spaced).

Manuscript Genre: Single story (may have multi- parts or be a self-contained novel segment)

Deadline: December 15, 2007 postmark. Winner announced by May 30, 2008.

Award: 2008 A. E. Coppard Prize for Fiction. Winner--$1000. and 25 copies, plus 10 press kits to news sources of choice.
*** All entrants receive a copy of the prize chapbook.***

Entry Fee: $15. US funds. Additional MSS in same envelope $10. US each. Check made out to WECSP. Entry fee is not refundable.

Format: Cover Page with Title, Name, Address, Phone, E-mail. Second Title Page, no name. No name on MS. Easy to read type or print, double spaced. Do not bind MS.

Judging: Blind judging. All stories coded before judging.

SASE for announcement only. Use #10 envelope. No manuscripts can be returned. They will be recycled.

Simultaneous Submissions OK. Multiple submissions are not a problem. Please let us know if story accepted elsewhere.

Unpublished (Previous publication of small parts of ms. OK with acknowledgments). Published on the Internet is published and cannot be considered. NO Restrictions on style, method, or subject matter. We respect the full range of literary writing.

More information here.

Mail to:
Long Story Contest, International
White Eagle Coffee Store Press
P.O. Box 383
Fox River Grove IL 60021
(Use USPS First Class Mail.)

Monday, December 10, 2007

Happy Birthday to...

Emily Dickinson (born in 1830). I had the opportunity to visit her house in Amherst, Massachusetts, and was amazed that her writing desk was about the size of an end table. Obviously she didn’t have enough room to become a novelist, with space needed for those mountains of scraps of paper and odd notes!

Here’s one of my favorite poems by her:

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,
And Yesterday, or Centuries before?

The Feet, mechanical, go round –
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –
A Wooden way Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone –

This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First -- Chill -- then Stupor -- then the letting go --

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Work In Progress: Anna Leahy

Anna Leahy previously offered her suggestions for students in the writing workshop here, and I’m pleased to have convinced her to expand into a broader suggestion-giving role with this interesting piece about her writing group, and the process of tackling the writing of that first novel. I am especially taken with one of her ideas and may surprise my own writing group by suggesting that we, too, all kill off some characters as a group. (Yes, of course I gravitate immediately to the most dramatic idea!)

I first met Anna at the AWP Conference in New Orleans—introduced to her because she is the dear friend of a dear friend of mine. I love how that works out—when you enjoy talking to someone so much that you are certain you will like the people they enjoy talking to as well and then you do. She’s smart and fun and highly impressive: Not only did her lovely first book of poetry come out this fall, but she’s also in the homestretch of completing the first draft of her first novel.

I hope you enjoy Anna's thoughts on the benefits of and ways to use writing groups:

In October, Leslie wrote here about her fabulous writing group and iterated many of my own attitudes toward and guidelines for the writing group I started a couple of years ago, when I (a poet) wanted to tackle writing a novel. For poetry, I’ve shared work with poet-friends now and then to good ends, but I recognized that, if I were to have any chance at completing a draft of a novel, I need a writing group.

My fabulous writing group meets once a month and includes four people, though we had five for a while. Because there are just four of us, we are under pressure to produce pages (usually 8-15, occasionally more) and show up for every gathering. That pressure has been great for me. I need the monthly deadlines, heartfelt encouragement, and tough criticism.

It seems important that we are all at relatively the same stage of our novels. No one has a complete draft, though some of us have left a couple of chapters for later and are revising because things—characters’ ages, orders of events, etc.—changed as we’ve moved from chapter to chapter. All of us have chapter outlines and strong writing skills, too, so it doesn’t seem to matter that three of us are writing historical novels, one of which is a spy novel, and the fourth is writing what might be so-called chick lit. We know where we’re going, and we know where we’ve been.

What I want to suggest here is the possibility that writing groups can assign themselves tasks, even do exercises, though the most important and ongoing effort remains producing pages that will become the novel.

Early on in my writing group, we were all skirting around some big events in our novels, patting ourselves on our aching backs for the beautiful sentences and three-dimensional characters we’d created. So, we decided to each kill someone off in the next month’s pages. I had a grandfather who was going to die tragically. Another member had a mother who needed to die before the main character could deal with her dysfunctional upbringing. Having a common task that was adaptable to each novel provided motivation and focus, taught some of us how to draft out of sequence, and, unexpectedly, gave us a differently informed way to talk about each other’s pages.

Last summer, I attended a weekend workshop on novel synopses at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival and, afterwards, shared handouts and notes with my writing group. I suggested that we draft synopses and pitches. We all found this assignment harder than we’d expected. How different the synopsis seemed from a chapter outline! Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook was a good guide for this and some other writing group assignments. Writing a synopsis forced each of us to pin things down, prioritize, and see causality (or lack of it) in our stories.

We adapted another exercise from Brian Kitely’s The 3A.M. Epiphany: Uncommon Writing Exercises that Transform Your Fiction. While we were away from home on our summer vacations (and ambitiously doubling our page production for the next gathering because our vacations interrupted our regular schedule), each of us sent a postcard to another group member. The postcard contained a brief scene, drafted in pen spontaneously and not revised. I typed mine up before I sent it off and later used a revised version in an actual chapter. Another member used the exercise to imagine an event in a character’s childhood that would likely never appear in the novel but that helped her understand that character’s motivations. We all found it helpful to think about one small snippet for a change and to see exactly what just a few minutes could muster.

I also have a weekly writing date, when two of us go to the same restaurant (I even order the same meal, most times). We talk, eat, and then write for at least an hour, until the staff is sweeping up. Before we go, we read aloud what we’ve written, making quick edits and talking briefly about the writing. We’ve both found that, as we type up and revise these handwritten drafts, we end up with 8 or 10 pages. When I first turned in pages from these writing dates, one of my group’s members noted that something had changed, asked what I was doing differently. I credited the pint of Dogfish Head IPA, though it’s the regularity and community that I crave as a writer. This fall has been so busy (my poetry book was published, I must keep writing poems) that it’s interrupted my regular fiction writing date—I’m anxious to get back to it, for my novel lags (and lagging can be contagious in a small group!).

I’m not suggesting that writing groups gather to write together. Certainly, too, any tasks and exercises for the group should move the novels forward. Exercises are not necessary, especially for groups composed of serious and skilled writers, so I imagine that many writing groups will feel above or beyond such tasks. Yet, my fabulous writing group has found that occasional (maybe once or twice a year) group assignments make us feel connections among our disparate fiction projects and also challenge some of our habits (dare I say, ruts) in our writing and discussions. For myself, a certain level of structure is incredibly helpful, perhaps even necessary in sticking with a daunting project of the sort I’ve never before (and not yet) accomplished.
~~ Anna Leahy

About: Anna Leahy is the author of Constituents of Matter, which won the Wick Poetry Prize and was published by Kent State University Press this fall. In the past year, her poetry has appeared in Lake Effect, Nimrod, and the Spoon River Poetry Review, and she is guest poetry editor for the next issue of Fifth Wednesday. Her work (with art historian Deborah Rindge) about the ekphrastic poetry of Pulitzer Prize winner Natasha Trethewey was published in English Language Notes and is forthcoming in an edited collection. Leahy is also the editor of Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom, published by Multilingual Matters.

Ha Jin, Rescheduled

Ha Jin, who won the National Book Award for his novel, Waiting, will join's Off the Page on Thursday, Dec. 6 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his new novel, A Free Life.

Ask questions now or during the discussion:

Ha Jin joins us in the first of a series of Off the Page interviews to kick off the publication of a book based on these interviews: Off the Page: Writers Talk About Beginnings, Endings and Everything in Between, edited by host and writer Carole Burns and being published Dec. 10 by W.W. Norton.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Let Herbert Hoover Be Your Muse

Here’s a unique opportunity for writers and visual artists: spend four weeks at the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site! Yes, this is the Herbert Hoover site that’s just outside Iowa City, where I grew up, and was (and probably still is) the site of many field trips from good old Robert Lucas Elementary School. Let me know if you go: I can steer you to some good restaurants and a top-notch pork tenderloin!

By the way, Herbert Hoover was more interesting than you might think. He was the first president to be born west of the Mississippi River, and he grew up as an orphan.

Here’s the announcement and application guidelines:

Herbert Hoover National Historic Site
Artist in Residence Program

Artists have long contributed our national parks. Painters such as Thomas Moran stimulated the establishment of national parks in the 19th century by documenting the unbelievable landscapes of the American West. Today´s writers, composers, and visual and performing artists are invited to interpret the history and beauty of Herbert Hoover National Historic Site through their work.

About the Program: Herbert Hoover National Historic Site offers two residencies each of two to four weeks from May 1 through October 31. Residencies are open to all professional American artists. The National Historic Site will provide lodging and a secure, environmentally-controlled place to lay out equipment and supplies at no cost to the artist. Supplies and personal transportation must be provided by the artist.

The artist must be willing to interact with park visitors while working on the site. Artists will make at least one presentation based on his or her medium, interests, and experiences. Each artist is asked to contribute a piece of work created during his or her tenure to the park´s collection. The Artist-in-Residence will be enrolled as a Volunteer-in-Parks, which provides worker´s compensation insurance. The artist should be in good health, self-sufficient, and ready to work closely with park staff and the local community.

How to Apply: Applications must be post-marked or delivered to the park between November 1, 2007 and March 1, 2008. There is no application form, but your application must include:

1. A resume (1-2 pages) and summary of creative work (exhibitions, collections and publications where your work has appeared). (4 copies)

2. Samples of recent works: visual artists provide six (6) 35 mm slides or 4x6 prints with a typed list of slides with titles, medium, and image size (height by width); writers submit no more than ten (10) double-spaced, typewritten pages of manuscript; and performing artists must provide a five (5) minute audio and or video tapes identifying or demonstrating your craft. (4 sets of each)

3. A statement of what you hope to achieve from a residency at Herbert Hoover NHS and how you envision your interpretive program(s) will be presented. (4 copies)

4. Your preferred period of residence from May to late October (two week minimum).A panel from the park and the local arts community will select the Artists-in-Residence from the pool of applicants by April 1, 2008. All applicants will be notified as soon as possible. Selections will be made based on merit and how the artists´ work can advance the mission of Herbert Hoover National Historic Site, and will be made without regard to race, religion, sex, disability, marital status, age, or national origin.

All samples will be returned at the end of the selection process. You do not have to include a self addressed stamped envelope. For more information or to submit an application, call Adam Prato at (319) 643-7855 or write to:

Herbert Hoover National Historic Site
Artist-in-Residence Program
P.O. Box 607
West Branch, Iowa 52358

For more information, check the web site.

Split This Rock Poetry Contest

Split This Rock Poetry Contest to Benefit Split This Rock Poetry Festival
Washington, DC, March 20-23, 2008

Kyle G. Dargan, Judge
$500 for 1st, $300 for 2nd and $200 for 3rd place.
1st place winner will read the winning poem at the festival. The poem will also be published on the festival website at All winners receive free festival admission.

Postmark Deadline: January 15, 2008

Send three unpublished poems, no more than six pages total, any style, in the spirit of Split This Rock. Simultaneous submissions OK, but please notify us immediately if the poem is accepted elsewhere. The theme can be interpreted broadly, and may include, but is not limited to, work addressing politics, government, war, and leadership; issues of identity, including gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, disability, body image, immigration and cultural heritage, etc.; poems on community, civic engagement, education, and activism; and poems about history, Americana, and cultural icons.

Staple one cover page to your submissions containing your name, address, phone number, email, and the titles of your poems. This is the only part of the submission which should contain your name. Enclose a check or money order for $20 made out to "IPS/Split This Rock," an entry fee that benefits Split This Rock Poetry Festival. Submit to: Split This Rock/IPS, 1112 16th Street, NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20036. Winners will be announced on Split This Rock website by early March.

About the judge - Kyle G. Dargan’s second collection of poems, Bouquet of Hungers, has just been released by the University of Georgia Press. He is the managing editor of Callaloo and teaches in the creative writing MFA program at American University. His debut collection, The Listening, won the 2003 Cave Canem Prize, and he has received fellowships from the Bucknell Seminar, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and The Fine Arts Work Center.

Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness calls poets to a greater role in public life and fosters a national community of activist poets. The festival will present the rich variety of socially-engaged poetry being written in the United States today and celebrate the many ways that poetry can act as an agent for change. The program includes readings, workshops, panel discussions, poetry contests, film, walking tours, and activism.

For more information:,

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Rule the World vs. "I Don't Think The Story Has Earned This Ending"

Take heart, writers! Apparently it is easier to try to rule the world than write a novel. Napoleon started a novel (a love story!) and got to page 22 before “turning his literary attention to political matters.” (Details here.)

On the other hand, a single, hand-written page from the manuscript was just sold at auction for approximately $35,000. (Via The Elegant Variation)

More on New Year's Resolutions for Writers

Writer James Tata writes a blog I enjoy that he describes as, “an informal log of recent enthusiasms.” He recently expanded upon his suggested additions to my posting of “New Year’s Resolutions for Writers”:

“I suggested replacing ‘subscribe to literary journals’ and added ‘Write only to please yourself. You might be surprised how good a writer you actually are.’”

You can read all the details here, but I thought this was especially important for us to remember:

“As for writing to please yourself, that's a cliche of creative writing instruction that is no less true for being a cliche. I once read, somewhere, Mary Gaitskill say that it wasn't until she gave up trying to please other unknown-to-her people with her fiction that she started writing the stories that she eventually and paradoxically went on to publish. It's not just writing for audiences or editors that can harm a writer's work. Writing to please that teacher from ten years ago, or writing for the sake of Literature, or writing to settle scores all implies doing it for the benefit of someone else, and we can never, ever know what someone else wants. As far as writing goes, one can't really please anyone, so why even bother? Besides, if you are at all serious about writing, I doubt you'll find a harder critic of your work than yourself, so just take it easy and turn it into a game.”

"Exisiting So Intensely": Rilke

I realize I’m starting to sound obsessed with The Writer’s Almanac, but I couldn’t resist passing along this section from today’s entry. Rilke’s language is, of course, beautiful, and I hadn’t realized the journey to those words was such a struggle.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotations from his Letters to a Young Poet:

“There is no measuring with time, no year matters, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without the fear that after them may come no summer. It does come…patience is everything.”

Here we go:

“It's the birthday of poet Rainer Maria Rilke, (books by this author) born in Prague (1875), who made a career as a poet by seducing a series of rich noblewomen who would support him while he wrote his books. One princess let him live for a while in her Castle Duino near Trieste, a medieval castle with fortified walls and an ancient square tower. Rilke's room had a view of the gulf of Trieste, which he loved. In a letter from his room he wrote, "I am looking out into the empty sea-space, directly into the universe, you might say."

“It was that winter of 1912, alone in the castle, that Rilke later said he heard the voice of an angel speaking to him about the meaning of life and death, and he started a poem that began with the lines, "And if I cried, who'd listen to me in those angelic / orders? Even if one of them suddenly held me / to his heart, I'd vanish in his overwhelming / presence. Because beauty's nothing but the start of terror we can hardly bear, / and we adore it because of the serene scorn / it could kill us with. Every angel's terrifying."

“Rilke wrote two poems about angels in almost a single sitting, and he knew that he had begun his most important work, but then he got stuck. He eventually left the castle, the First World War broke out, and he struggled to write anything for the next decade, while he was slowly beginning to suffer the symptoms of leukemia. Finally, in February of 1922, he managed to finish in a single month what he'd started a decade before. The result was a cycle of 10 long poems that he called The Duino Elegies, about the difference between angels and people, and the meaning of death, and his idea that human beings are put on earth in order to experience the beauty of ordinary things.

“In the Ninth Elegy, Rilke wrote "Maybe we're here only to say: house, / bridge, well, gate, jug, olive tree, window — / at most, pillar, tower... but to say them, remember, / oh, to say them in a way that the things themselves / never dreamed of existing so intensely."

Monday, December 3, 2007

Bragging About My Friend on The Writer's Almanac

I am so excited that Garrison Keillor selected this poem by Rick Mulkey, one of my wonderful poet-friends, to read on his radio program, The Writer's Almanac. I met Rick and his fiction-writer-essayist-wife Susan Tekulve, in South Carolina; they were wonderful hosts and guides while I spent four weeks teaching as the Julia Peterkin Visiting Writer at Converse College in Spartanburg. Fine writers, awesome cooks, and fun people—I first met Rick and Susan when I won the Julia Peterkin fiction award, and I came to the campus to give my reading. Susan picked me up at the airport around 8:30 p.m. and asked if I needed to eat anything. I’m sure she was expecting to offer one of Spartanburg’s nice sit-down restaurants…but I mentioned a local landmark, The Beacon Drive-In, a ramshackle, old-time drive-in famous for its sweet iced tea and “chili-cheese-a-plenty,” which basically is a cheeseburger buried in no less than six inches of onion rings, french fries, and chili. You have to love someone who's willing to eat that with you!

Back to the literary side of things…I highly recommend Rick’s new book of poetry, Toward Any Darkness, where this evocative poem is found. It was featured on The Writer's Almanac on December 1, 2007.

Bluefield Breakdown
by Rick Mulkey, from Toward Any Darkness. © Word Press, 2007.

Where are you Clyde Moody, and you Elmer Bird,
"Banjo Man from Turkey Creek," and you Ed Haley,
and Dixie Lee singing in that high lonesome way?
I feel the shadow now upon me...
Come you angels and play those dusty strings.
You ain't gonna work that sawmill Bother Carter,
nor sleep in that Buchanon County mine. Clawhammer
some of that Cripple Creek song. Fiddle me a line
of "Chinquapin Hunting." Shout little Lulie, shout, shout,
I need to hear music as lonesome as I am,
I need to hear voices sing words I've forgotten.
This valley's much too dark now.
Sunset right beside us, sunrise too far away.
I haven't heard a tipple creak all day,
and everyone I loved left
on the last Norfolk & Southern train.

Go here to listen to the poem being read. (How to listen)

Many of the poems in the book cover the same southwestern Virginia, mining town landscape. Here's another one that I admire:

Abbs Valley Abstract
by Rick Mulkey, from Toward Any Darkness. copyright Word Press, 2007.

We are steepled churches on Route 460
starved for light. We are the summer
of potato blight. Pressed down
by ancient seas, we're limestone quarries
that lived two lives, as tide and rock.
We're born to cracked facades
and leaky roofs. Anchored by root and briar,
we never move. Our cats grow feral
on barnyard mice. We bark like squirrels, or say
nothing at all. We are the shout
rising from the mine's black throat,
and the quiet after the shout. We stand
in rain and rotting hay. We paint road signs
that read "Dangerous Curve," Dead End," "Keep Out."

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Work in Progress: New Year's Resolutions for Writers

I’m the kind of person who arrives early everywhere I go, but this post may be a case of extreme over-promptness. Nevertheless, this is actuallywhat came out when I started to write about something else entirely. So, voila: my suggested New Year’s resolutions for writers. I’d love to run more, so please feel free to send me your thoughts on the matter. After all, we’ve got another month before we have to get serious about these resolutions!

1. Read. If you can believe this, recently I was chatting with a woman at a conference reception. I asked who her favorite authors/books were and she said, “Oh, I don’t like to read. Honestly, I have no idea. I can’t think of a book I’ve read lately.” I couldn’t control the aghast expression blanketing my face, so she laughed nervously and stammered, “Isn’t that strange to love to write so much and not like to read?” I went off to fetch more (much-needed!) wine, but, yes, YES. That is strange. It is strange and it is WRONG. You cannot improve as a writer unless you read widely and deeply.

2. Buy the books you read. Okay, you can go to the library if you must. And students may go to used bookstores. And everyone can go to used bookstores to seek out those obscure, odd, out-of-print books that make our hearts sing. But please, if and when you can, support the writers you care about. BUY their books. Instead of passing along your copy of a beloved book to your friend/sister/cousin/mom, BUY a copy to give to them.

3. Subscribe to literary journals. You want them to publish your work, so you have a moral obligation to support them. Plus, reading the journals you want to be published in will help you determine which journals are right for your work (a little self-interest never hurts). Because there are so many to choose from, I try to rotate my subscriptions around: there are some I subscribe to regularly, some I get after entering story contests, and some I’m curious about. If you don’t know where to begin, a few of my consistent favorites are The Gettysburg Review, Tin House, The Iowa Review, Shenandoah, and The Missouri Review. It’s helpful to toss in a good local journal like The Potomac Review or Gargoyle, too. Again, I will take pity on struggling students, who are excused from subscribing if they promise to read these journals at the university library.

4. Attend conferences and classes to improve your craft, NOT to get “discovered.” First of all, it IS likely that classes and conferences will help you improve your craft, whereas it is NOT quite as likely that you will be “discovered.” Second, improved writing is what will catch the eye of that dream agent; no matter how drunk and jolly an agent may be at the post-conference reception, he or she will never be drunk enough to sign up a writer whose work they don’t believe passionately in, whose work they don’t think they can sell. It’s the writers who write well that inspire that passion—in agents as well as in the editors who (metaphorically) sign the checks.

5. Be generous. Help your fellow writers—of all levels—when you can. The writing world is not a pie, only so much to go around. If someone else’s book gets published, that doesn’t mean yours won’t published. Promote others—be happy when your writer friends do well—write notes of congratulation—pass along potential opportunities. It’s a small world out there, and don’t you want to be remembered as a generous, helpful writer? As the T-shirt says, Karma is a bitch.

6. Learn to say “no.” Your time is precious; the creative space in your brain that knows how to spin out a story is valuable. Don’t squander either with social engagements that don’t engage you, with obligations that overly burden you. Yes, you’re allowed to put writing—and yourself—first some of the time!

7. Give yourself a break. Writing is hard. Yes, we all know it’s not like digging ditches…but it’s taxing nevertheless, and it’s hard to keep up morale when your wonderful story has just been rejected by some literary journal intern via a terse, form rejection printed on a scrap of paper the size of a gum wrapper. Don’t constantly beat yourself up for not being good enough/hard-working enough/brilliant enough/lucky enough/connected enough. One of my favorite teachers used to say that for a writer, there is only one question to ask: “Did you write today?” If you did, you’re golden. Doesn’t matter if it’s crap—that’s what revision is for. Just get your words on the page.

8. Write today.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Tomorrow: Cyberquestions with Ha Jin

Writer Carole Burns sends along this announcement:

Ha Jin, who won the National Book Award for his novel, Waiting, will join's Off the Page on Thursday, Nov. 29 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his new novel, A Free Life.

Ask questions now or during the discussion:

Ha Jin joins us in the first of a series of Off the Page interviews to kick off the publication of a book based on these interviews: Off the Page: Writers Talk About Beginnings, Endings and Everything in Between, edited by host and writers Carole Burns and being published Dec. 10 by W.W. Norton.

A Free Life is Jin’s first novel set in America, and might be his most autobiographical. It not only explores the world of a recent Chinese immigrant (Jin immigrated to the U.S. in 1985), but also examines his protagonist’s desire and struggle to write in the language of his new home.

Please join Off the Page to ask Ha Jin about his latest novel and other literary topics.

Beyond Santa's "Workshop"

If you’re looking for a writing class or workshop, check out the new line-up at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland. There are topics, times, lengths, and locations to suit everyone. And if you don’t live in the area, be sure to look at the on-line options (go to “workshops,” and click on “internet” under “venue”).

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A New Level of Self-Indulgence: "Valuables"

I know I keep saying this, but truly, THIS will be the most self-indulgent thing I’ve done on this blog. (At least it sets a new bar.) Here is a personal essay that I wrote several years ago that was never published. Maybe there are good reasons for that, but maybe not.

Part of the reason might be that after a certain point this piece felt dated to me, so I stopped sending it out since it’s non-fiction and I can’t change the dates around to suit my writing needs (one of the 10 zillion reasons why I find writing fiction easier than non-fiction).

But I also know that another part of the reason is what we all know: that the business side of our writing lives is always at the mercy of the subjective whims of strangers who may or may not get what you’re saying, who may or may not like the first person point of view, who may or may not like the font you’ve presented your piece in, who may or may not have a killer headache when they slit open your hopeful envelope, who may or may not think the piece you’ve struggled over is any good and who may or may not be right about that two-second assessment.

So, the joy has to be in the process of writing itself, in the desire to find and tell the story artfully. And for me, self-indulgent or not, this is a story that I don’t feel quite right locking forever into a drawer.

(Sorry this is so long—I still haven’t figured out how to continue posts to another page.)

a personal essay by Leslie Pietrzyk

My engagement and wedding rings are in a business-size envelope at the bottom of my safety deposit box. I’ve kept them there for about six years, since my husband died of a heart attack when he was thirty-seven and I was thirty-five. I wore the rings for about six months after his death, then one day I took them off. For a year after, a pale indentation circled the third finger of my left hand—sort of a ghost ring—but that’s gone now, though occasionally my thumb reaches to stroke the diamond of the missing engagement ring.

There are no children to pass the rings to. Anyway, these rings are not spectacular. One is a plain gold band, not even engraved with a date or name. The other is a standard mall jewelry store engagement ring: a small diamond solitaire, not worth a great deal of money, though at the time, my future husband cleared out his savings account to buy it for me. Frankly, no one else would want these rings, though they are exactly what I asked for back then.

Recently, I decided to keep my passport in the safe deposit box, and instead of quickly dropping it into the metal box and leaving the vault, I impulsively carried my box to one of the nearby privacy cubicles, which was little more than a short, walled-off area with a hard chair, built-in counter, and a half-door with no lock. Sitting there reminded me of being in a stall in the ladies room, that same faux privacy.

The envelope with the rings was at the very bottom, buried under the car title and computer disks containing my book manuscripts, some photographs, our marriage license, my birth certificate, and the other documents one is expected to keep in a safe deposit box. The bank’s vault is lined with rows and columns of metal boxes, each filled with mortgage pay-offs and appraisals—the things we are told to safeguard against a fire burning down the house, a tornado striking, a flood, someone breaking in like the Grinch and stealing the absolute last scrap of everything. No one expects to need the implied safety of that 3x5x16 inch metal box—in the newspaper or on TV, the houses that catch fire at two in the morning are never ours.

I lift the engagement ring out of the envelope and slide it onto my finger; it still fits perfectly, Cinderella-like; why am I surprised? My finger hasn’t changed. I tilt my hand, trying to make the diamond flash, but the stone won’t catch the fluorescent light. I wonder if there’s security camera surveillance on me—every inch of the bank seems to be under scrutiny—and consider that someone watching me might think I’ve come to the bank specifically to slip on a locked-away diamond ring in the privacy cubicle.

Actually, I hadn’t been thinking about the rings at all. I was just making an ordinary trip to the bank, one of the countless errands to cross off a to-do list, few of them memorable in any way. But here I am, looking down at a ring on my finger. My thumb sneaks inward to touch the diamond, then spins the ring, that old tic apparently not forgotten.

Robb and I were married ten and a half years, together for a total of almost thirteen, which means that right now—six years and these few months—is about halfway to the point where I will have been without him longer than I had been with him. I want to say I catch my breath at this realization, but truthfully I’m not surprised. You don’t want your mind to make these calculations, but it does, trying to make you believe for half a second that life is not as random as it appears—that there actually is a reason to find yourself in the bank, twirling an engagement ring around your finger.

The bank’s interior is tired and dated, everything with a dingy feel, as if dipped in yellow wax. The fluorescent lights buzz, a quiet, insistent, hissy whzz-zzzz. A phone rings softly in the distance, high heels tick across the floor. This is a very secure place, this bank, purposely giving the impression that nothing much has changed since it was built.

Shouldn’t I understand intuitively how a point in time halfway to another point in time is significant—if it is? I stop spinning the ring, place both hands flat on the counter in front of me.

Robb’s gold band is not in this box. When you don’t expect you’re going to die, others are forced to answer those difficult questions for you, like, Do you want to be buried wearing your wedding ring? Of the countless things I suddenly couldn’t imagine, I especially couldn’t imagine Robb’s hand stripped bare of its familiar ring. So I left it on. Some people told me that was the right decision, some said it wasn’t. If I had decided otherwise, his ring would be here with mine in the envelope and I could look at right now. And think what? Feel what? Would a ring make me remember my dead husband better or more clearly or differently?

Then why are my rings here, locked away at the bottom of a safe deposit box? I’m not unique in having rings that can’t be thrown away, pawned, passed along, or worn. The world heaves and overflows with death, divorce, broken engagements—widows, divorcees, girls left at the altar. But my rings are different simply because they’re mine, and I’m remembering my dead grandfather, and that pencil can stuffed with dozens of McDonald’s coffee stirrers that we casually threw away when we cleaned out his house after he died. This? Junk. Gone in two seconds—though it was 1995 when he died, and it’s still vivid to me: that can in the exact center of the dresser, in front of the mirror, precisely where you’d place a trophy.

In the endless week after my husband’s death, I learned that an aunt of his had died unexpectedly, in her early thirties, of a heart attack. No one—including my husband— had ever mentioned her to me, which at the time made me angry. Heredity! Genetics! If only I’d known! Most likely no one had thought of her untimely death as anything other than random misfortune—and maybe her heart attack—and genetics and heredity—have nothing to do with my husband and his heart. Maybe if I had known about the aunt nothing would have changed or maybe everything would have changed.

Is all of it important? None of it? A can of coffee stirrers may not equal a diamond ring. Or it may. Does the ring mean the same thing if I have a jeweler mount the diamond in a necklace? If it sits in a desk drawer instead of a bank vault? If no one knows that here it is, carefully hidden away in a safe deposit box? If my husband hadn’t died and I could have worn it until I was a hundred years old? My brain, so keen to calculate time and assign meaning, is unexpectedly useless at answering these questions. Yet I keep asking, assuming there will be a day when everything makes sense.

I slide the ring off my finger and I suppose this should be a significant moment, seeing my hand once again unimaginably empty. But it’s time to go—that to-do list, a lunch date with a friend…. I drop the ring into the envelope, where it clicks against the wedding band. Then I tuck the envelope underneath all the other papers and disks and things that I’m keeping safe. I open the half-door and leave the cubicle, looking for the bank clerk who will lock up my stuff again.

We step into the vault, heading for Box 628, on the left side of the wall, twenty-two columns in, seven rows from the top—its position could be charted on graph paper. The clerk slides my box into its slot and pushes shut the tiny door. She inserts her key, then my key, and turns them simultaneously. The box is now locked. Who knows when I’ll look inside it again? She sets my key in my outstretched hand and smiles. “Have a great day,” she says.

I will. It’s sunny and bright and blue outside, not too hot. Vietnamese food for lunch—yum. We will always insist on numbers, reasons, answers, logic, because everything is so much tidier that way—six dozen coffee stirrers thrown into the garbage, the aunt who is never mentioned, and the problematic ring—maybe worth about seven hundred bucks—forever locked up and safe in Box 628. His ring, buried. Of course, the number, reason, answer, or logic to any of these things will never exist, but does that matter when flames are racing across the random, dark night?

Monday, November 26, 2007

You Oughta Write Pictures

I sat in on Khris Baxter’s session about screenwriting at the Baltimore Writers Conference, and it was phenomenal. Not only did Khris offer an excellent grounding in the basics of screenwriting, but he also made me think differently (and usefully!) about issues of plotting, characters, and dialogue in my fiction. Now he’s offering a new class at the Writer’s Center. If you enjoy watching movies—even if you have no intention of trying to write a screenplay—you’ll find the behind-the-scenes process of moviemaking fascinating. Next time you’re in the theatre, you can lean over and authoritatively announce, “Here’s plot point one.”


How do you take a 400 page novel or the story of someone's life and boil it down to a 120-page screenplay? How do you take a short story and expand into a feature film? How can you bring a stage play to life on screen and make it visually interesting? This workshop will provide answers and offer fundamental strategies for anyone seeking to write a screenplay adaptation. Using examples from "Brokeback Mountain," "The Sweet Hereafter," "Amadeus," and "A Beautiful Mind," we will examine how other screenwriters have tackled the challenges of adapting different forms. This workshop will also include an overview of the conventions of screenwriting: structure, format, and scene development. No previous screenwriting experience is required.

Khris Baxter is a screenwriter, producer, and script consultant. He has sold and optioned numerous screenplays to Hollywood studios and production companies, including "Voyage," produced by USA Pictures. His screenplay, "Outrider," is currently in development. Khris teaches screenwriting at Gettysburg College, The Writer's Center in Bethesda, MD, and at the Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing at Queens University in Charlotte, NC. He is a member of the Virginia Film Office and a judge for the annual Virginia Screenwriting Competition.

Claudia Myers received her undergraduate degree from Yale University and went on for her MFA at Columbia University's School of the Arts where she graduated as a writer/director. Recently, Claudia directed her script "Kettle of Fish," which won a Nickelodeon Screenwriting Award. The film, starring Matthew Modine and Gina Gershon, premiered at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival and was released in theaters last fall. Her script "Clinical" was a finalist at the 2003 Sundance Filmmakers Lab and she also wrote "Wild Oats," an unconventional buddy comedy that won 2nd Place at the 2004 Slamdance Screenplay Competition. This script has recently been optioned with Claudia attached to direct. In addition to several other screenplays and teleplays, Claudia has had experience as a script doctor and script consultant, as well as teaching private screenwriting workshops.

Saturday, 12/1/07, 10am – 4pm

For more information, please contact:
The Writer's Center
4508 Walsh Street
Bethesda, MD 20815

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving!

I will be away from the blog, focusing on Thanksgiving Dinner—making it today, eating it tomorrow, recovering from the whole experience on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday—and will be back on Monday.

For now, I’ll pass along my fabulous stuffing recipe. I view stuffing as the most important part of the Thanksgiving meal (there’s probably an internet quiz somewhere to tell me what that means about my personality)—and this stuffing is the best there can be, despite (because of?) its simplicity. Honestly, it’s such a revered treat that if I’m not making the Thanksgiving dinner myself, I have to whip up a batch of this stuffing sometime afterwards to satisfy my craving.

Secret confession: I have been known to make this (and only this) for dinner!

Cornbread & Scallion Stuffing
Adapted from Gourmet, November 1992
(It’s actually called Cornbread, Sausage & Scallion Stuffing, but in an uncharacteristic nod to heart-health, I don’t put in the sausage.)

For the cornbread:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/3 cups yellow cornmeal
1 tablespoon double-acting baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
1 large egg
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled

¾ stick unsalted butter plus and additional 2 tablespoons if baking the stuffing separately
2 cups finely chopped onion
1 ½ cups finely chopped celery
2 teaspoons crumbed dried sage
1 teaspoon dried marjoram, crumbled
1 teaspoon crumbed dried rosemary
½ cup thinly sliced scallions
1 ½ cups chicken broth if baking the stuffing separately

Make the cornbread: In a bowl stir together the flour, the cornmeal, the baking powder, and the salt. In a small bowl, whisk together the milk, the egg, and the butter, and add the milk mixture to the cornmeal mixture, and stir the batter until it is just combined. Pour the batter into a greased 8-inch-square baking pan (I actually use a cast iron skillet) and bake the cornbread in the middle of a preheated 425 F oven for 20-25 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean. (The corn bread may be made 2 days in advance and kept wrapped tightly in foil at room temperature.)

Into a jellyroll pan, crumble the corn bread coarse, bake it in the middle of a preheated 325 F oven, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes, or until it is dry and golden, and let it cool.

In a large skillet, melt 6 tablespoons of butter and cook the onion and the celery over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are softened. Add the sage, marjoram, rosemary, and salt and pepper to taste and cook the mixture, stirring, for 3 minutes. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl, add the corn bread, the scallion, and salt and pepper to taste, and combine the stuffing gently but thoroughly. Let the stuffing cool completely before using it to stuff a 12-14 pound turkey.

The stuffing can be baked separately: Spoon the stuffing into a buttered 3- to 4-quart casserole, drizzle it with the broth, and dot the top with the additional 2 tablespoons of butter, cut into bits. Bake the stuffing, covered, in the middle of a preheated 325 F degree oven for 30 minutes and bake it, uncovered, for 30 minutes more. Serves 8-10; fewer if I am one of the dinner guests!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Call for Manuscripts: Sex Ed Stories

Okay, running this announcement will surely add some, uh, interesting new readers to the blog as I imagine “Work in Progress” will now show up in a whole new world of Google searches. And, yes, I actually do expect those people cull through every last match for "sex" in the list of 591,000,000—what else do they do with their free time? (Interesting fact: Wikipedia showed as the number one match in my AOL search, though it was only third on Google.)

Here’s a call for manuscripts forwarded to me by a friend:

SEX ED STORIES: an anthology of experience

Here’s the idea: Maybe you had a great sex ed teacher in high school who showed you how to put a condom on using a banana, or maybe an older sibling explained orgasms to you one night during your family vacation. No matter how formal or casual, righteous or terrifying, some experience along the way shaped your understanding of sex. We want to hear about it.

This collection will illustrate and emphasize the variety in individual sexual education as well as challenge the notion that sex ed only happens in the classroom with charts of STDs and an awkward video. Or that it stops when one reaches a certain age.

Women and men are encouraged to submit, as well as people of all ages, races, ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, and religious affiliations. We are looking for well-developed, thematic essays as well as shorter, statement-like pieces that get straight to the point. Tell us a lot, tell us a little—just tell us something.

Some possible areas of exploration include:
--School-based sexual education
--Pornography as sex ed
--The role of family members and friends (think older siblings, cousins, aunts, etc)
--First-time discoveries and ongoing explorations in your sex life
--Books, websites, music
--Sex ed as you age

Please send completed pieces (and inquiries!) to and include your name as you want it to appear as well as your age, location, and occupation (last three are optional). Entries can be anonymous and all personal information will be kept confidential.

Selected entries will be made into a zine anthology with the expected publication date of Spring 2008.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Upcoming Events of Note

Check out the following events if you need a post-Thanksgiving culture boost that you can’t find amidst the dehumanizing crush of holiday shoppers at your local mall:

“Old Books & New Stories”: Mary Kay Zuravleff
Reading at Riverby Books on Capitol Hill
Wednesday, November 28, 2007, 7 pm
417 E. Capitol St., SE (near the Folger Theater)
Washington, DC

In Mary Kay’s own inimitable words:

Mary Kay Zuravleff is the next author featured in “A Space Inside,” the popular reading series at D.C.’s Riverby Books. Zuravleff is the author of THE BOWL IS ALREADY BROKEN, which the London Independent called, “A highly original, extremely funny, and surprisingly moving novel” and THE FREQUENCY OF SOULS, which one critic deemed, “The best short comic novel ever written about refrigerator designers with psychic powers.” She will not be reading from either of these books. The reading is free, the books are used, and the wine is new. Spread the word.”


Local literary impresario Richard Peabody has sent along the following announcement:

Electric Grace: Still More Fiction by Washington Area Women will launch at Politics & Prose on Wednesday, December 5 . Rose Solari will MC a panel of contributors that will include: Michelle Brafman, Merle Collins, T. Greenwood, Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, Faye Moskowitz, Barbara Mujica, Jessica Neely, Amy Stolls, Hananah Zaheer, and Christy J. Zink.

Politics & Prose
Wednesday, December 5th at 7pm
5015 Connecticut Ave NW
Washington, DC

The book is $18.95 and features 42 women writers. Copies are available at the launch, from our site, and from and the Writer’s Center.

“They may all be from Washington, but they fling their fiction far, imagining medieval torture—how like love!—cocktails in dog parks, old flames, gangsters, pregnant wives—the many possibilities of female life. This is a rich and varied anthology—in tone, in pace, in setting.” — Martha Tod Dudman, author of Augusta, Gone and Black Olives

“The unique voices in this collection, with a winning combo of freshness and maturity, perfectly capture the impact of the everyday in the way that only the best fiction can…Revealing how certain moments, both great and small, can disturb us all the way back to ourselves—our true selves.” — Cara Haycak, author of Red Palms

“Electric Grace is a marvel, a glorious humming party-line of voices. Bend your ear to the wire and have a listen. You won’t be disappointed.” —Ann Downer, author of Hatching Magic and The Spellkey Trilogy


For those farther afield, help support DC’s Spilt the Rock Poetry Festival by attending this benefit reading. (Editor’s note: I heard Mark Doty read at Bread Loaf; he’s a compelling presence.)

A Benefit Reading for Split This Rock Poetry Festival
With Mark Doty, Regie Cabico, and Kathy Engel

Monday, December 10, 2007, 8 pm
Bowery Poetry Club
308 Bowery, New York, NY
Tickets: $25 at the door

Split This Rock Poetry Festival, Washington, DC, March 20-23, 2008, calls poets to a greater role in public life and fosters a national community of activist poets. Featuring readings, workshops, panels, contests, walking tours, film, parties, and activism! See the website for the incredible line-up of poets, including Mark Doty, Sonia Sanchez, Martín Espada, Naomi Shihab Nye, and many more. Or contact:

Mark Doty will be featured at Split This Rock in March. The only American poet to have won Great Britain's T. S. Eliot Prize, Doty is the author of six books of poems, including My Alexandria (1993), which received both the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He has also published Atlantis (1995), Sweet Machine (1998) and Source (2001), and School of the Arts (2005), as well as the memoirs Heaven's Coast (1996) and Firebird (1999). Among his many other awards are two NEA fellowships, Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundation Fellowships, a Lila Wallace/Readers Digest Award, and the Witter Bynner Prize. Doty teaches in the graduate program the University of Houston, and is a frequent guest at Columbia University, Hunter College, and NYU. He lives in Houston and in New York City.

Regie Cabico is Artistic Director of Sol & Soul, a Split This Rock founding sponsor. He is a poet, playwright, and spoken word performer. He took top prizes at the 1993, 1994, and 1997 National Poetry Slams. His work appears in over 30 anthologies and he co-edited Poetry Nation: A North American Anthology of Fusion Poetry. He received a NYFA Artist Fellowship for Poetry in 1997, NYFAs in 2003 for Poetry and Performance Art, and two Brooklyn Arts Council Poetry Awards. Cabico has been a teacher for Urban Word and developed a poetry and performance program for teens with psychiatric illness at Bellevue Hospital. He received the 2006 Writers for Writers Award from Poets & Writers in recognition of his work with diverse communities.

Kathy Engel’s books include Ruth's Skirts (IKON, February 2007), a collection of poems and prose pieces; and We Begin Here: Poems for Palestine and Lebanon (Interlink Books, March 2007), which she coedited with Kamal Boullata. She is an advisory board member of Split This Rock, a communications/strategic planning consultant, and a producer for social justice, peace and human rights organizations. She founded the women's human rights organization MADRE and was the executive director for five years. Before that she worked at the Academy of American Poets, New York Mobilization for Survival and as executive director of the Fund For Open Information and Accountability.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Guest in Progress: Sean Enright

This great essay originally appeared in Writer’s Carousel, the newsletter of the Writer’s Center, and I’m pleased to have received permission from the author and the Writer’s Center to reprint it here. I expect you’ll enjoy reading it, too—who can resist an essay that gracefully manages to quote Robert Frost, "Project Runway," and Tom Waits? And speaking from my own perspective, Sean’s comments definitely apply to more than poetry.

Sean Enright regularly teaches poetry classes at the Writer’s Center, which is where I ran into him about a year and a half ago at an Open House. The funny thing is that as we eyed each other’s nametags, there was a moment of shocked recognition, an intake of breath, a simultaneous stammer of, “Are you—were you—did you—?”

Yes! Yes, we had gone to college together long ago, knowing each other primarily through a mutual friend, primarily during freshman year. I had seen his name in the Writer’s Center brochures and had often wondered if it could be the same Sean Enright…how delightful to find an old friend in a new place.

(Speaking of friends, I’ve fallen out of touch with that mutual friend, Mitchell Duneier, author of the excellent book, Slim’s Table: Race, Respectability, and Masculinity…so, Mitch, if you come across this blog some rainy day when you’re self-googling, drop me a line! I’d love to catch up with you, too!)

Of Course It’s Impossible to Teach Poetry: Now Listen to Me

Of course it’s impossible to teach poetry: but if you’ll just listen to me, I’ll tell you how it’s done. That’s the quandary of teaching an unteachable art. One might study the history of poetry and literature, the forms that the great poets have written in over many centuries, the subjects they have chosen. One might ask workshop members to imitate some great poems, either in form or subject. But come on – this is poetry we’re talking about. Many people secretly believe that one is born a poet – that you either have it or you don’t. It’s nature, not nurture.

Others believe it can be taught – I suppose any sane poetry workshop leader does. But one feels there must be chicanery implemented– and black magic unleashed– if one is truly going to pass on something about the art.

In an essay entitled "Education by Poetry," Robert Frost wrote, Poetry begins in trivial metaphors, pretty metaphors, 'grace metaphors,' and goes on to the profoundest thinking that we have. Poetry provides the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another. People say, 'Why don't you say what you mean?' We never do that, do we, being all of us too much poets. We like to talk in parables and in hints and in indirections - whether from diffidence or from some other instinct.

That seems to me a central, essential “trick” of poetry – to be able to hold steady two thoughts or two frames of mind at the same time, to write metaphor gracefully, keeping your eye on both balls somehow, dancing with two partners at the same time. When I catch someone trying to saying what he actually means in a poem, I’m almost always going to criticize the line and assert that it is sentimental or over-written. Instead, I ask that I be made to feel that way. Make me think that thought.

And poetry is not perfect – you are not going to move every one of your readers. Some you will positively disturb. (I sort of take this as a good sign in itself. At least something got through!) You tend to remember – and give more credit to – the ones who do like it, though.

My workshop members are almost always people who have spent a good portion of their lives writing poetry – and believing in some private sense that they have the makings of a “real” poet inside them, if only the combination could be found, and the troubadour liberated. This works for me. The key to the art of poetry lies within – there is more than a little faith involved – one must trust oneself as a writer, give a poem room to breathe as it is being composed, allowing the actual process of creation to affect the poem itself – allowing room for accident, for indecision, for wavering and wandering.

I can only say what works for me, the habits or subjects that keep me going, or what makes a draft of a new poem “fresh” and “the real thing” for me. I have a host of tricks and rituals I might use to start, continue or finish a poem – outside the main tricks of memory and reason, the workhorses of the Imagination. But in the end, it’s what you yourself can make of your own poetry that matters, nothing else – the distances you have felt and which you can entrap within a poem, the momentary instances you have experienced as unique and worthy and decided to try to make permanent, the actual sounds you make when you mean something.

The poetry workshop that I’ve taught on and off for years now – "Writing One Good Poem" – is meant to lure people in with its title. But what does it mean? I’m asked. Are we just going to write one poem? Can you guarantee I’ll write one good poem? I make up a response every time: come in and give it a try. Pick up the pen. All you have to do is commit to the habits of consciousness that Gertrude Stein once wrote about: “Be continuously present, begin again and again, and use everything.” Three tiny phrases, three enormous mental labors. To never leave the moment of your focus and concentration, the idea of the poem, to make every line as fresh as if it were the very start of the poem, and, finally, to plumb the riches of your imagination, where the only limit is the limit of your efforts.

I’m always pushing the strategy of “circling” within a poem – if you don’t know how to end it, go back to the beginning and take a piece of that and rewrite it for the ending. Switch the beginning and the ending. Switch the beginning and ending of a line, a sentence, a phrase. Make it work, people! Can poetry possibly be like "Project Runway," where one is given a finite amount of material and time, and told to spin almost nothing into beauty, like Rapunzel? Well… of course it can.

The musician and songwriter Tom Waits once said, "I like a beautiful song that tells you terrible things. We all like bad news out of a pretty mouth." I like that as a catchphrase, a mantra, too – I will ask writers to ambush their own thoughts on purpose, to tell a bad story about a good person, a good story about a person.

Do something in language that you can’t do in your life. In the end, end up with the words of the poem – they are the only value, they are the meaning of the poem. Read it aloud, I tell people in the workshop, read it aloud again and again and again. Say the poem to someone like it is a speech – the person doesn’t have to really be there – that is the poem’s meaning, to be spoken and heard and, with luck, repeated. ~~Sean Enright

About: Sean Enright lives in Kensington, Maryland. His poems and reviews have appeared in Triquarterly, Threepenny Review, The Kenyon Review and Sewanee Review, among others. Currently he is finishing up a novel manuscript (tentatively titled The New Playboy of the Western World), and last year completed a manuscript of a novel called How to Disappear Completely. Information about his book of short fiction, Goof and other Stories (Creative Arts Books, 2001) is available on his website. (Editor's Note: Check out the awesome cover!) In 2006, his play about the Lincoln assassination, The Third Walking Gentleman, was named a semifinalist in the New Playwrights Contest at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center, and a brand new play, a black comedy about dysfunctional families and domestic terrorism, Home for the Holocaust, is searching for a first production.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Agent ISO Writers

I noticed this opportunity in a recent issue of the Writer's Chronicle magazine. Something to consider if you’re a novelist with a book to shop, heading to the AWP Conference in New York City in January:

Avenue A Literary Agency, a boutique NYC literary agency, wants to meet writers during the 2008 NYC AWP conference.
1. Send email query only to awp_query AT Include brief plot synopsis, previous publishing history, bio, contact information; then
2. We will request more materials if interested; and
3. We’ll schedule a meeting if we think there may be a fit.

Deadline for queries: December 1, 2007.

No reading fee, no poetry. For more information, go here.

Note: This all seems very legitimate to me, but keep in mind that this is a paid advertisement. As always, do your homework on any agent/agency, and proceed cautiously (if at all) when any literary agent starts wanting money from YOU. Agents should make their money from selling books to publishers, NOT from reading fees and editorial services.


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