Monday, April 30, 2007

A Few of My Favorite Things

I have a “favorite books” shelf where I keep—duh—my favorite books. These are not necessarily the very best books I’ve read—though many are quite good. (I’m sure Joseph Conrad would be relieved to hear that Leslie Pietrzyk thinks Heart of Darkness is “quite good.”)

Often, I put books there that feel exactly right in the time I read them, which explains how both Bright Lights, Big City and Less Than Zero are still on this shelf. I will defend BLBC…I still use it as an example in classes to illustrate second person point of view (though I admit that a certain “revelation” at the end seemed pulled from virtually nowhere), but I’m not sure how LTZ would hold up upon rereading. So: I’m not planning to reread it. (An interesting aside: once I was talking to a poet about the idea of the “favorite books” shelf and how some things end up there that aren’t exactly great books but evoked a special time and place for me. He agreed—and promptly cited BLBC and LTZ as two on HIS shelf! A new parlor game for writers: what are the books on your favorites shelf that you’re most embarrassed by?)

In my obsessive quest for order and discipline, I try to limit the space of this shelf, so that if I want to add a book, I really have to take one away. (This is after the shelf is crammed tight and books are stacked sideways on top as high as possible.) So for me to add a book is a huge deal. I have to consider it a pretty seriously unflawed book to get in there. Most recently, I added Intuition by Allegra Goodman and Old School by Tobias Wolff. I thought about adding White Teeth by Zadie Smith and Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris, but didn’t. In fact, as I write this, I’m reconsidering Old School. And, actually, I’m not sure I love-loved the ending of Intuition. It’s a tough thing, getting to be on this shelf and staying on, as it should be. Every reader should be so demanding; every serious writer should aspire to reach this shelf (even knowing the impossibility of the endeavor).

But what books really stand up, year after year after year? Which books would I not dare remove? Some standards—The Great Gatsby, Anna Karenina, My Antonia, The Sun Also Rises—and some surprises—Monkeys, The Mezzanine, Bombardiers, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

Not to discriminate, poetry—Whitman, Eliot, Mark Strand—and non-fiction—Rivethead, Poets in Their Youth, Into Thin Air, Last of the Curlews—are also represented. But by far, most of my favorite books are novels.

I’m sure a smart therapist or a cheesy personality quiz on the internet could tell me exactly what all this means, what it all adds up to: these titles, the proportion of novels to non-fiction, that I cling to Less Than Zero. But I simply like staring at these books from time to time, their haphazard titles the only true story of my life.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Work in Progress: Jane Satterfield

I met then-poet, now poet-essayist, Jane Satterfield at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference way back when; we were both scholars, I in fiction, and she in poetry. For me, anyway, it was a heady time, being at Bread Loaf, being a scholar, being with all these other writers, drinking gin and tonics with agents and Important People (along with the usual Self-Important People). I remember thinking that the group of poets was cooler in that deeply cool way than the group of fiction writers I was hanging out with (sorry, Dan, Dan, Rachel, and Joe!; we had heart!), but isn’t that often the case? Poetry is flash and quickness, capturing light, and novel writing is staying the course, putting in the hours and days and years to get to page 300 and the magical words “the end.”

But very little in writing—or life—is completely broken down into “either/or.” Here is Jane’s beautiful essay:

How I love the word slog.

With its old-country ring, it takes me back to the tidy, generative space of an English garden, the small swatch of earth my grandfather—a steel worker in England’s East Midlands—beautified with roses, petunias, pinks. It takes me back to the moments where I watched him at work in the allotments at the edge of the estate where residents kept their vegetable gardens. “Wo saw the tatty-hoakers,” he’d sing, working his way along the rows. To hoke: a word from a linguistic nether-world. To rummage, poke through, dig.

Slog—in my mind—suggests that one goes slowly, purposefully, unwittingly or unwillingly—as in a spell of hard, steady work. A colloquial word of uncertain origins, it surfaces in 1876 in the Mid-Yorkshire Glossary: “to walk with burdened feet, as through snow, or a puddle.” A secondary meaning is equally interesting: to slog away at something is to deal it heavy blows.

For all this, the word lacks the sense of excitement implicit in new beginnings; it fails to capture the frenzy of impassioned thought a writer feels at the intersection of work and inspiration. I’m thinking now of the opening lines of “Notes from the Front Line,” an essay by novelist, journalist, and cultural critic Angela Carter. Her inimitable voice--edgy, authoritative, ever questioning--shines through as she reflects on the question of how gender, and specifically feminism, influenced her writing:

"I’ve just scrapped my sixth attempt to write something for
this book because my ideas get quite out of hand the minute I try to
put them down on paper and I flush hares out of my brain which I
then pursue, to the detriment of rational discourse. To say something
simple--do I ‘situate myself politically as writer’? Well, yes of course.
(I always hope it’s obvious, although I try, when I write fiction, to think
on my feet--to present a number of propositions in a variety of different
ways and to leave the reader to construct her own fiction for herself
from the elements of my fictions. (Reading is just as creative an activity
as writing and most intellectual development depends upon new readings
of old texts. I am all for putting new wine in old bottles, especially if the
pressure of the new wine makes the old bottles explode). "

Whatever subject Carter turned her attention to—literature, film, music, politics, fashion, or travel—her essays, collected in the 1997 volume, Shaking a Leg, all embody Hazlitt’s description of the essay as “intellectual walkabout”: a central narrative line or argument is consistently disrupted with seeming digressions and even lengthy parenthetical statements as Carter relentlessly questions assumptions along the way. The unapologetic subjectivity in her voice--its colloquial and even iconoclastic tone--creates a powerful impression of a mind at work on the page. It’s a quality I’d kept in mind while working on nonfiction the past five or so years.

My own “walkabouts,” collected in a recently completed memoir called Motherland: A Year in Britain and Beyond, are—I hope--the more-graceful end-results of slogs through varied terrain: the contradictory demands of eros, history, and motherhood against the backdrop of a year abroad and the break-up of a marriage. A dual British-American national on my first return trip to England in over a decade, I found myself an exile in what should have been my home. Jobless and confined by an unplanned pregnancy, I faced a woman’s fundamental decision: to become a mother against my will or forge a new life on my own. That the decision was not so simple was only the first of many revelations. Along the way I’ve lingered in guilty pleasures, hoping to offer readers a lighter glimpse of mid-'90's Britain with an eye toward its music (the skiffle rock of my mother’s youth, Oasis vs. Blur!), popular culture (football, stone circles!), along with literary detours on the Brontes, Sylvia Plath, as well as the late Angela Carter (for whom I served as babysitter in my Iowa grad school days). Funny, now, to think of Motherland’s unlikely genesis in that year abroad where I put the writing of my first book of poems aside.

These days, during a semester leave, I rummage, poke through, dig, walk purposefully—at least between eight and three while my daughter’s at school—in language, in lines of thought and layers of history; in forms old and new—epistle, refrain, litany, fugue, I-Tunes party-shuffle. In the face of headline news, in the horrors of Baghdad and Blacksburg, the poet’s may seem a tiny voice. Yet I remain convinced the gestures of the lyric as Plath put it, watching her infant dance in the dark of an icy winter night, are “warm and human”; their light “Bleeding and peeling/Through the black amnesias of heaven.” Thanks to a fellowship from the NEA, I’m working on a new book of poems, reflecting on how women’s lives intersect with the larger culture. I’m particularly interested in the ways that poetry can bring to life the experiences of women, whether in the domestic sphere or within environments politically or culturally volatile.

Putting old wine in new bottles, generating explosions. Not a bad way to start.
~~Jane Satterfield

About Jane Satterfield: Born in England and educated in the U.S., Jane Satterfield received an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa. Her first poetry collection, Shepherdess with an Automatic (Washington Writers’ Publishing House, 2000), received the Towson University Prize for Literature; her second, Assignation at Vanishing Point (Elixir, 2003), received the Elixir Press Poetry Prize. She has received three Individual Artist Awards in poetry from the Maryland State Arts Council and is also the recipient of fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Sewanee Writers Conference, and the Wesleyan Writers Conference. Her nonfiction has received the Heekin Foundation’s Cuchulain Prize for Rhetoric in the Essay, the John Guyon Literary Nonfiction Award, and the Florida Review Editors’ Prize in Nonfiction. She teaches at Loyola College in Maryland.

Scroll down here to read one of Jane's poems.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Quit Your Job; Finish Your Novel!

Okay, maybe I'm going a bit overboard. But I'm quite excited about this new monetary award for a work-in-progress. What a great idea. Perhaps the primary thing that allows work to move from “in progress” to “finished” is enough time (which usually translates to enough money) to complete the work. The catch—not that it’s really a catch—is that the writer provide a community service during the time of the grant period. Yay, Dan Wickett and Dzanc Books!

Here's everything you need to know.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

"I Just Don't Get It"

Slate magazine celebrates National Poetry Month in their typically and amusingly perverse way with this interesting piece, “In Praise of Difficult Poetry” by Robert Pinsky.

I was waiting for Wallace Stevens to come up in the article (though I found his poem one of the most accessible of those mentioned). I want to include an allusion to one of his poems in my novel-in-progress, Prodigal Daughters, but, frankly, I am afraid to, terrified I’ve misinterpreted the poem in some significant, embarrassing, humiliating-for-life way. Freshman poetry class all over again where someone (not me!) thought that "Leda and the Swan" by William Butler Yeats was about a pet bird.

Smart people are welcome to explain Wallace Stevens to me, so I can use the allusion (which is actually the title) with confidence: “Not ideas about the thing but the thing itself.” Doesn’t it sound Very Important?

Monday, April 23, 2007

Genre Envy, Continued

And here it is, an official announcement from Dan Wickett at Emerging Writers Network that May is "Short Story Month." Boy, the power of the blogger…I hope I won’t get carried away, and, you know, declare that July is “Pay Writers Five Contributors’ Copies Instead of Two” Month or something.

Seriously, though, Dan does great work at his blog and is a tireless promoter of new literary fiction. You would be well advised to check him out and join his (free) network.

Also, glance through some of the poems that he’s been running for National Poetry Month. They were written by kids as part of Houston Writers in the Schools . Some of them are awesome!

Friday, April 20, 2007

Neither a Borrower Nor a Lender Be

While I was off seeing the sights of the central coast of California (freezing, I might add—what is with the weather this year??), I came across a “Hints from Heloise” column in one of the local newspapers that seemed appropriate for a literary blog: suggestions for how to ensure your books are returned after you lend them out.

Apparently, the column was sparked by an earlier suggestion that people ask for a monetary deposit before handing over the book. (Helpful hint of my own: If you try that at something called a “bookstore” you’ll get a book you can keep!)

So, people wrote in with less alienating suggestions than shaking down your friends for $$: for example, place an address label inside the cover, and if you don’t get the book back within a few weeks, call to say you need it because you’re going to lend it to someone else.

Another woman covers the book in a brown paper wrapper and writes in Magic Marker: “Please return this book to HER NAME.” (Like I would leave on that wrapper while reading the book on the Metro.)

Someone else takes off all the book jackets and writes the borrower’s name inside them. I love this woman because obviously she is buying hardcovers!

Finally, one woman has made up bookmarks with her photo that she includes when she lends out a book so the borrower is reminded of where they obtained the book. Or, more humbly, she also suggested that the photo could be replaced with your name and address.

My solution: The title says it all. I don’t borrow books—I buy books, passing along my meager financial support to writers. And I don’t lend them, either, unless it’s a book I don’t want to get back. Libraries are wonderful places, and they seem to have figured out a system for getting their books returned.

(“Neither a borrower nor a lender be”: sorry, but I can’t help but hear the “Gilligan’s Island” musical version of Hamlet in my head!)

Thursday, April 19, 2007

A Short Trip Down 95

James River Writers (JRW) is a non-profit Richmond-based group of professional writers and friends of literature promoting the art of writing and the love of books in Virginia. They’re always offering a fabulous array of programs, and here’s one that caught my attention, perhaps because I recently taught a class about effective openings and the topic has been on my mind.

The Writing Show: The First Five Pages
Do your opening sentences capture your reader's attention? Do your first five pages grab your audience so that they can't wait to read on? What makes a great beginning to a work of fiction or non-fiction? The April Writing Show, presented by JRW and the Richmond Times-Dispatch, will feature Ed Falco, Nancy Schoenberger, and David Stevens, all accomplished writers and teachers from three of Virginia's top universities, along with moderator David L. Robbins, discussing the essential features that can make your opening a page-turner.

Thursday, April 26
Eureka Theater
Science Museum of Virginia
2500 West Broad Street
6 PM Member Social \\ 6:30 PM Writing Show begins
$10 General Admission \\ $5 with valid college/university ID
Information and online registration

Important Travel Tips: While you’re in Richmond, be sure to check out one of my favorite used bookshops, Chop Suey. And you might as well have some barbecue, too; it’s not the best barbecue I’ve ever had, but it’s the first good barbecue you'll encounter on 95 heading down from DC. (In another life, I was an official barbecue judge, so I’m very fussy about my barbecue.) And by all means, don’t forget the limeade!!

Poor Jane

Poor Jane Austen. I heard on NPR this morning that a painting reputed to be of her is up for auction today. However, many experts believe the painting couldn’t possibly be a portrait of Jane. Why not? The girl shown is too pretty! Obviously, female writers must be unattractive word-nerds, more accustomed to sitting in the corner observing rather than dancing the night away as the belle of the ball.

It’s doubtful we’ll ever know the truth, but it is interesting to ponder whether English literature would be lacking one of the greatest opening lines ever if Jane had only had a few more dates

Monday, April 9, 2007

Work in Progress: Justin Nicholes

I will be away from the blog until April 19ish.

In the meantime, I am delighted to present this essay written by Justin Nicholes, an almost-graduate of the Wichita State University MFA program. I was the visiting writer at WSU for a month in 2005, which is when I met Justin. I knew we’d hit it off because one of the first things he told me was that he had already read all of John Gardner’s writing books, which are among my favorites. Not only that, he held the writing books in such high esteem that he had decided to read all of Gardner’s novels, too. Such single-mindedness bodes well for the beginning novelist, it seems to me. (And apparently seems to Gardner himself: “After verbal sensitivity, accuracy of eye, and a measure of the special intelligence of the story teller, what the writer probably needs most is an almost daemonic compulsiveness.” [On Becoming a Novelist]) Indeed, I read one of Justin’s short stories while at WSU; after our discussion about the piece, he continued to work on it and revise it, and now it’s about to be published!

So it was no surprise to see Justin’s essay open like this:

John Gardner in On Becoming a Novelist aims, as his chief goal, to help beginning novelists answer the questions, “Can I do it and, if so, how?” One “how” question we usually have concerns where to write. According to Gardner, it doesn’t matter. We should forget about where we’re sitting and typing, or scribbling on paper, because forgetting about self allows us to slip into the story’s dreamworld.

But can we completely disappear when writing? What if, say, we’re writing about Cleveland, Ohio on a beach of Majuro in the Marshall Islands? Will sand never, ever, dust the storyscape’s walkways?

Having finally finished, with the help of the three-year MFA program at Wichita State, a polished draft of my novel, I find myself remembering where it began. The writing started in February of 2004 while I was teaching English as a foreign language in Dresden, Germany. On the campus of Technische Universit├Ąt Dresden, in Dresden’s Old Town, I lived on the fourteenth floor of one of three buildings where international students dwelled. The Russians had built these edifices as apartment buildings, but then the structures became dorms after Reunification. Out my balcony hulked a church that had survived the February 13th/14th, 1945 firebombing, though little else had.

Dresden is a bone yard. Vonnegut says so in Slaughterhouse Five, and a little imagination makes it easy to see why. The entire city was in flames, and everyone burned. Even now, bones riddle the ground all around campus, on either side of the Elbe River, for acres and acres, even if no one can see them anymore.

And like blasted cities, final drafts of novels, too, hide dead forms.

My novel’s title, now, is Weary Travel’s End, but when I began the novel in 2004, it was called God’s Funeral. I remember that early, early draft involving a character, whom I later had to kill, secretly having an abortion. She was the sister of the character who’s now the polished draft’s protagonist, but all that is gone, now, at least from sight.

Although writing is partly play, I’ve realized novel writing requires mercy killing. We not only kill unnecessary characters and, well, some years. We also discard used up versions of ourselves because they turned out to be no good anymore or created flawed visions: ultimately, we’re supposed to mature through this process that demands compassionate embodiment of others. Writing a novel, which began in Dresden and ended in Wichita, changed me (unless I’m fooling myself) into a person who’s more mature, more capable of deep feeling, and of course more mesmerized than ever—confused, really—by the complexity of human nature.

I think, then, that writing in Dresden reminded me not only of human sacrifice but also of the inevitability of the human heart resurrecting itself. Perhaps it’s this kind of reminder that helps us strive to write about characters overcoming personal crises, which forms the material of the only type of fiction worth writing (at least according to Faulkner in his Nobel Prize speech). Faulkner beseeches us to write about the conflicts of the human heart because, in every case, such literature features characters overcoming personal and external crises. For me, this fundamental reminder happened because I’d written in a place whose history fascinated me with its newness.

Yet any place will do. The entire U.S., after all, is a burial ground. ~~Justin Nicholes

About Justin Nicholes: Concluding his final semester at Wichita State’s MFA program, Justin serves as fiction editor of his university’s arts and literature journal, Mikrokosmos, as well as fiction reader with the journal Our Stories. A story of his will appear this spring in Karamu, and he has recently finished a polished draft of his first novel, which is about a marine back from Baghdad who seeks out a half-brother in Mexico and struggles to understand the boundaries of family. He can be reached at justin.nicholes AT

How NOT to Behave

I love Miss Snark's blog. She's an anonymous agent who offers excellent advice on finding an agent and the marketing side of the writing life. Here's a good post about how to handle meeting an agent at a writing conference. I might humbly suggest that it applies to meeting a writer at a conference as well.

If a Tree Falls in a Forest...

I liked this Sunday Washington Post article, about a world-renowned violinist (Joshua Bell) who played his Stradivarius anonymously at a Metro station during the morning rush hour. How many people stopped to listen? How much money was dropped into his violin case? How many passersby could tell that this was no ordinary street musician? The article sounds sort of gimmicky, but it evolved into a fascinating discussion of life and art: is it still art if no one listens? Are we so busy and self-important that we can’t pause for moment and be open to beauty? Especially interesting: The reporters noted that every single child walking by with a parent wanted to stop and listen but was dragged away.
Here’s the article (registration required).

Worth Leaving Your Desk

Some upcoming events of note.…

Thursday, April 19 at 6:00 pm
Graveside observance for Walt Whitman's great love, Peter Doyle. Meet at the cemetery gates, for a reading and to place flowers for the 100th anniversary of Doyle's death. Led by Dan Vera, presented by the Washington Friends of Walt Whitman. Congressional Cemetery, 1801 E St. SE, DC. (202) 543-0539.

April 19 - May 19.
The Big Read. Celebrating Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, this city-wide festival and reading project, coordinated by the Humanities Council of Washington, includes readings, parties, walking tours, book discussions, film, workshops, a writing competition, and more. The celebration starts with a Kick-Off party at MLK Library and Busboys and Poets. Other events include a reading by Hurston's niece, Lucy Hurston, author of Speak So You Can Speak Again, a film festival on films related to the book, discussion groups at DC branch libraries, a WritersCorps performance at Gala Hispanic Theater, a discussion on race, class and Hurricane Katrina at the Hip Hop Caucus Institute, a dance performance by Step Afrika!, a mother's day tea at Chapters Literary Books, and two guided walking tours of Zora Neale Hurston's Washington (see below).

Saturday, April 21 and 28 at 10:30 am
Guided walking tour: "Zora Neale Hurston's Washington," led by Kim Roberts (additional tour group on the 28th led by Judith Bauer). Presented as part of The Big Read, by the Humanities Council of Washington. The tour lasts approximately 2 hours and involves quite a bit of walking. Wear comfortable shoes!
Free, but reservations required. Meet in front of the Founders Library, Howard University campus, Georgia Avenue at Howard Place NW, DC. (202) 387-8391.

Saturday, April 21 at 1:00 pm
"Every Cot Had Its History: A Look at Walt Whitman and His Soldiers," a panel with Brian Spatola, anatomical collections manager of the National Museum of Health and Medicine, Martin Murray, founder of the Washington Friends of Walt Whitman, and Rosemary Winslow, of Catholic University, discussing several unique anatomical specimens in the museum and their relationship to Whitman's works of the Civil War era
Free admission and parking. National Museum of Health and Medicine, Walter Reed Army Medical Center Campus, 6900 Georgia Ave. and Elder St. NW, DC. (202) 782-2200.

Friday, April 6, 2007

A Literary Saint

Author/editor Allison Joseph runs a wonderful list-serve for literary contests —CRWROPPS—that is free, well organized, reliable, comprehensive, and useful. If you’re sending your work out to journals and contests, you should look into it. Every day you’ll get a list of legitimate contests (she seems to weed out most of the scams), complete with all the rules and guidelines.

Not all contests are equal, in my view, so I’m cautious about what I enter. But I do enter a number of contests each year, and have won several in the past, which is an undeniable ego boost and a boost to the checking account. (Oddly, the electric company doesn’t seem to like it when I try to pay my bill with contributor’s copies.) My favorite was getting a special delivery envelope that included a letter announcing I won the contest; a check for $500; and a copy of the journal with my published piece. Talk about instant gratification! (Though it did not escape my notice that this particular story had been rejected 23 times. And this story ended up as the first chapter of Pears on a Willow Tree.)

I can’t promise you fame and fortune—just a daily list of contests, prodding you to get off your duff and send your work around.

To join the list send a blank e-mail to: crwropps-subscribe AT OR go to and click on "Join This List."

Note: Certain internet providers tend to block all messages from,,,, and are some of the internet services that tend to block all messages received from as spam. If you have a Spam blocker on your e-mail account, messages will be blocked. So you might want to switch to CRWROPPS-B, which has the same postings as the original CRWROPPS list, but is hosted on (The two lists are identical.)

To join CRWROPPS-B: Go to and click on "Join This Group." Or send a blank e-mail to crwropps-b-subscribe AT

CRWROPPS is also available in "daily digest" format--meaning you can receive one long posting of all of a single day's messages. Contact the moderator at crwropps AT and she will switch your subscription to digest format if you prefer to receive only one long message per day.(This is what I have.)

If you want to look before you leap—or your inbox is too cluttered—you can access the list at:

Finally, if you are an editor or contest organizer who would like to post an announcement on the list, send it to the list moderator at crwropps AT .Please send the announcement in the body of an e-mail message; do not send attachments. No live links in the announcements, and do not use fancy fonts, bold and/or italic lettering, or color in the body of the announcement. Do not send anything other than calls for submissionsor literary contest announcements--anything other than calls for submissions/literary contest announcements will not be posted.

I’m not greedy: I only expect a five percent finder’s fee off anything you win from this list!

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Genre Envy: Memoir Week

April is National Poetry Month, and last week was Memoir Week at my favorite online magazine, Slate. (I guess we should get up a petition: maybe the fiction folks can get the crumb of a weekend: Weekend of Stories that Aren’t True and Aren’t Written in Stanzas; isn’t it the least we deserve? It’s not as though I’m advocating “2008: Year of the Novel.”)
But moving beyond my pathetic genre-envy…plenty of people had interesting things to say about memoir. The question Slate posed is one that I know many writers (fiction and non-) grapple with:

“How do you choose to alert people who appear in your books that you are writing about them—or do you not alert them at all? If you do, do you discuss the book with family members and friends while the work is in progress? How do you deal with complaints from people who may remember events differently than you?”

The responses—from memoirists as varied as Frank McCourt, Mary Karr, Sean Wilsey—were fascinating. I mean, I guess there’s a reason I write fiction, where people who may or may not be real can be hidden by that thin veil of, “just fiction!” But those people are tough.

Here’s what Rich Cohen said (He's the author of Sweet and Low: A Family Story, a memoir about the family of the man who invented the sugar packet and Sweet’N Low.):

“Hemingway once said something to the effect that there were many stories he could not write until a lot of people had died. So he was waiting. I am a fan of Hemingway, especially the early 'Up in Michigan'-type stories that seem the most autobiographical, so I always thought it was a shame that either 1) those people did not die sooner; (instead of more stories about Petoskey, we got Islands in the Stream and The Dangerous Summer) or 2) he did not break his rule. Because while you are waiting for someone to die, you might just die yourself, either by falling off a ladder, or putting the barrel of a shotgun in your mouth. …

“This book was the most painful piece of personal writing I've done—because it deals with the big dark secrets in the back of the mind of my family—so I decided, while working on it, to twist the Hemingway rule. I would not wait to write until everyone had died. I would write as if everyone had died long ago. You would be surprised what a good way this is to work.”

Or this from My Lives: An Autobiography author Edmund White, after publishing a memoir seen as a betrayal by a former lover and dear friend, who hasn’t forgiven him or reconciled in the 20 months since the book’s publication in England:

"Would I do it over again? Yes, since it is one of my strongest pieces of writing—and that's the kind of monster every real writer is."

Is that true; are we all monsters? If we’re not a monster, are we not a “real writer?” I wish these sorts of questions were more easily dismissed.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Work in Progress: Prodigal Daughters

Lately, I have been telling everyone that I plan to finish my novel this year. I laugh when I say this, also adding, “I’m telling everyone so that the pressure, guilt, and potential shame motivate me.” They laugh back or look at me nervously, depending on whether they’re writers or people in the real world.

I’ve been working on this novel off and on since July 23, 2002. (I know this because I obsessively don’t erase my old computer files…“just in case.”) I had started thinking about the idea months before that, collecting newspaper and magazine articles to stick in a file, writing down thoughts on scraps of paper and blank checks and gum wrappers.

What could possibly keep me (or anyone) going for all this time? When I approach a novel idea, I always need some strong characters, a setting, and a central question that can’t be answered automatically. So, I’ll start my discussion of work in progress by talking about the central question, which I envision as a backbone running through the book. I stole this idea from Arthur Miller (and undoubtedly garbled it and modified it and twisted it beyond his recognition, so please don’t get mad, ghost-of-Arthur-Miller). I saw him speak at the Sewanee Writer’s Conference years ago, and he said that he started a play with a paradox—contradictory things that both can’t be true—that is gradually defined over the course of the play. His example was Death of a Salesman, which for him started with the idea of a son loving a father, and a father loving a son; yet they can’t be with each other without trying to destroy each other. Secondly, Willy Loman lives in the richest society in the world and believes in it totally; yet that very same society destroys him and makes him irrelevant as a salesman, so that killing himself is his greatest success. Ever since hearing the idea of the paradox at the heart of Miller’s process, I’ve been trying to apply it to my own creative process, and have found that asking myself a paradoxical question is what works for me.

My novel is tentatively called Prodigal Daughters (remember what I said about titles? that I lack both skill and confidence?), and it’s based on the biblical parable in which the good son gets screwed after the bad son spends his inheritance and comes home to have a dinner of fatted calf lovingly prepared by the father. (Oops—clearly I’m an oldest child!) Anyway, there’s much more to the story than that, of course, and I’ve spent many years pondering it and the idea of forgiveness, which is at the core of the story and has become the central question of my book: Can you forgive someone who has done something unforgivable? Are certain things absolutely unforgivable?

My characters have done some very unforgivable things to one another. It’s time to face up to all that, as one sister returns home after an absence of 18 years. Time for the fatted calf…or not. And that’s what keeps me going, more than the guilt, pressure, and potential shame: pondering those questions.

(For the record, in my mine the question of Pears on a Willow Tree was, Why does one continue to want something they know they can never have? For A Year and a Day, How can people who have died be both with us and gone?)

Next installment: Setting

"Unwise Purchases"

"The Writer's Almanac" had a great poem today, about the items we buy that we imagine will change our lives in some profound way: Unwise Purchases. (We're warned that this link may expire, so check it out ASAP.)

This new house is too small to let too, too much accumulate--and I'm an exhausted pack rat battling a strong-willed minimalist husband (okay, I'm strong-willed, too)--but I have at least eight (easy!) books on physics...I've read exactly one (the easiest, and I understood about 12% of it). Somehow I imagine that if I truly understood the theory of relativity my life would be totally different in a remarkable way that is presently beyond my imagination.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Words of Wisdom

Thanks to Paula, who passed along this great quotation about the novel-writing process:

from David Lodge, "The Novel as Communication," in D. H. Mellor, ed., Ways of Communicating (Cambridge, 1990)

"Until the writer has completed it he doesn’t know what it is that he is communicating, and perhaps doesn’t know even then. You discover what you have to say in the process of saying it….You cannot possibly hold the whole complex totality of a novel in your head in all its detail at any one moment. You work your way through it word by word, sentence by sentence… The future of a novel in the process of composition is always vague, provisional, unpredictable - if it were not so, the labour of writing it would too tedious to bear. When you have finished the novel it is not that you have really finished it, but that you have decided to do no more work on it….And when the novel is published and goes out of your control to modify it, it also goes out of your control to intend the meaning of it. It is read by different readers in a bewildering variety of ways, as reviewers and readers’ letters attest."

Personally, I'm relieved to learn that I'm not the only one unable to hold the totality of my novel in my head. Every few months or so I read over the whole thing, just to remind myself what happened way back on page 15. And I'm a big believer in learning the story as you go. In fact, I say, "Ditto," to the whole darn quote!

Feel free to share your favorite writing quotations: Lpietr AT aol DOT com.

Poetry Month, Day Two

More excitement for Poetry Month….

The Spring 2007 issue of Beltway Poetry Quarterly, guest edited by Kwame Alexander, features five women whose training in science and medicine influences the way they write about relationships. Featuring poems by:

Jennifer Gresham * Katy Richey * Maureen O'Dea *
Tonya Maria Matthews * Deanna Nikaido

As Kwame Alexander writes in his introduction, "Scientists are finding that, after all, love really comes down to a chemical addiction between people. Here I was thinking that my wife was attracted to my sonnets and sestinas, and all along it was Dopamine. Maybe it’s not so cut and dry, but certainly there is a connection, and this issue of Beltway takes a look at the intersection of science and love..."

Beltway Poetry Quarterly publishes poetry by authors who live or work in the capital of the United States. Poet (and Beltway founder) Kim Roberts edits three issues a year, and the fourth issue is guest edited by another area writer (who has previously been featured in an issue). Each issue typically features four to eight poems by five authors.

Subscriptions are free (bottom of the page), and as an added plus, Beltway’s site offers an incredible list of resources for writers (local poetry readings series and venues, artist residency opportunities, and more).

Always nice to be reminded that there’s more going on inside the Beltway than policy wonks, bureaucrats, and former high school class presidents jostling for position!


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