Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Creative Genius: "A Single Flake of Snow"

Alas—I’m not especially knowledgeable about Ingmar Bergman or his films, but the occasion of his death inspired me to do a little bit of reading (and YouTube viewing—always an interesting challenge since due to lame laziness on my part, I have no sound on my computer). Thanks to Slate magazine, I found a 1964 interview with Playboy from 1964, which contained this fascinating insight into Bergman’s creative process:

“On the deepest level, of course, the ideas for my films come out of the pressures of the spirit; and these pressures vary. But most of my films begin with a specific image or feeling around which my imagination begins slowly to build an elaborate detail. I file each one away in my mind. Often I even write them down in note form. This way I have a whole series of handy files in my head. Of course, several years may go by before I get around to transforming these sensations into anything as concrete as a scenario. But when a project begins to take shape, then I dig into one of my mental files for a scene, into another for a character. Sometimes the character I pull out doesn't get on at all with the other ones in my script, so I have to send him back to his file and look elsewhere. My films grow like a snowball, very gradually from a single flake of snow. In the end, I often can't see the original flake that started it all.”

You can read the entire interview here.


Congratulations to my friend C.M. Mayo for this wonderful review of her translation of the short story "An Avocado from Michoacán" by Agustín Cadena, part of the bilingual chapbook series she publishes through Tameme.

As you may recall, we were treated to Catherine’s notes on the translation in this previous post.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Writers at the Beach: Contest Guidelines

I've written several times about how much I enjoy my participation in the annual Writers at the Beach: Pure Sea Glass writing conference, held annually in March at the Delaware beach, so I’m delighted to post these submission guidelines for their recently announced writing contest:

Writers at the Beach Writing Contest

: October 22, 2007
Entry Fee: $10.00
Prizes: 1st, 2nd, 3rd Place, will be selected for Fiction, Creative Nonfiction, and Poetry in each category. First place winners will be published in Delaware Beach Life magazine, which will also pay winner's registration fee to the 2008 Writers At the Beach: Pure Sea Glass Conference. First place winners in each category will also be invited to read at the conference.

Each story or essay must be 2000 words or less. Up to 3 poems per entry. Entries must, in some way, touch upon a coastal theme. This does not have to be the Delaware coast, nor does this "coastal element" need to be a significant part of the work.

Type the entry title on a separate cover sheet with your name, address, home phone number and email address. Indicate whether the entry is FICTION or CREATIVE NONFICTION or POETRY and the number of words.

All entries must be original, unpublished, and not submitted elsewhere until the winners are announced. No email entries.

Submit entry via regular mail. Entries will not be returned. All entries must be postmarked by October 22, 2007. Please send a self-addressed stamped postcard if you want acknowledgment that your entry has been received.

Winners will be notified by December 1, 2007. If you have not been contacted by this date, you may assume that your entry is not a finalist.

MAIL ENTRIES TO: Writers at the Beach Writing Contest , PO Box 1326, Rehoboth Beach, DE 19971. For more information about this contest, email mbfischer1@verizon.net

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Guest in Progress: Jean Thompson

Okay, I’m from Iowa so maybe that explains it, but I still marvel at the Internet and how it makes the world simultaneously larger and smaller. One day I’m blogging in this post about a great new book I’m reading, and the next day the author of that book has graciously agreed to share a piece about her creative process with us.

Okay, so there were a few days in-between: special thanks to independent literary publicist Lauren Cerand for facilitating the exchange.

As I noted previously, I picked up Jean Thompson's new book of short stories Throw Like a Girl about two days after reading this review in the New York Times Book Review (registration required). That’s not my usual book-buying pattern, but somehow I immediately knew that this was a book I would love…and I was right. They’re sharp, smart stories about women in difficult situations. Highly recommended!

And here’s Jean commenting on where her stories “come from”:

“So, where do you get your ideas for stories?"

Of all the well-meant, uninformed questions that come a writer's way, this is the one that is hardest either to respond to honestly, or evade gracefully. People are understandably curious. They want to get inside the secret, watch genius at work (or at least, something sweaty and earnest at work), they want some answers.

If only there were some. Stories, or novels, or poems, or any other kind of art, arrive, like baby dear, out of the everywhere into here. Genesis of any sort is a mystery that resists prodding. The only straightforward answer I ever heard to the query was Stanley Elkin's, who said that he came up with an occupation (debt collector, professional wrestler, etc.), and that turned into the impetus for a story.

That's fine as far as it goes, and I commend the vocational method to anyone who can make use of it. But where does that leave the rest of us who have to come with an answer, or for that matter, a story? Jayne Anne Phillips has said that she works "guided by whispers", and many of us would agree. Perhaps writers are people who develop particularly fine-tuned antennae, or, at our worst, go stumbling around listening to the voices in our heads.

For myself I suppose there is disquiet, or a curiosity that coalesces around something tangible. This might be as slight as an image, a physical detail, a line of speech in a distinctive voice. My story "Forever", about an unsolved murder, took shape around a quote from the mother of an actual murder victim: "Do you know how long it took me to use a knife again?" That sounds, and admittedly feels, rather exploitative, even though the resulting story diverged quickly from its origin. For "The Five Senses", another story that explores violence, my impetus was something vaguer: the notion of a young woman facing the unfamiliar ocean, and finding nothing there to comfort her. Some stories get swept up by the course of outside events, as when "Pie of the Month", which began as a kind of homage to idyllic pie baking, gained force and momentum as an anti-war tract. Sometimes one begins with a real person as a model for a character, or a real place, or real happenings. But how seldom, if ever, do stories arrive fully formed in the shape of entire narratives, so that one transcribes rather than invents? I suppose this leads into that other unfavorite question: Did this really happen? And the answer to that is something along the line of, No, I did not burn down that house (or commit this or that other transgression), but I did write the book all by myself.

No sure-fire method or never-fail technique presents itself. Different works come to us on different wavelengths, and with varying degrees of clear intent. The one thing that does seem constant is the writer's willingness for patient exploration, to see if one word, or scene, or speech, won't lead to the next. To examine the process too minutely is to risk taking all the art, and indeed the life from it, or, in the words of Emily Dickinson:

Split the Lark - and you'll find the Music -
Bulb after Bulb, in Silver rolled-
Scantily dealt to the Summer Morning
Saved for your Ear when Lutes be old.

Loose the Flood - you shall find it patent -
Gush after Gush, reserved for you -
Scarlet experiment! Skeptic Thomas!
Now, do you doubt your Bird was true?

~~Jean Thompson

About: Jean Thompson is the author of (among others) Throw Like a Girl (Simon & Schuster, June 2007) as well as the novel City Boy; the short story collection Who Do You Love, a 1999 National Book Award finalist for fiction; and the novel Wide Blue Yonder, a New York Times Notable Book and Chicago Tribune Best Fiction selection for 2002.

Her short fiction has been published in many magazines and journals, including The New Yorker, and been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories and Pushcart Prize. Jean's work has been praised by Elle Magazine as "bracing and wildly intelligent writing that explores the nature of love in all its hidden and manifest dimensions."

Jean has been the recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, among other accolades, and taught creative writing at the University of Illinois--Champaign/ Urbana, Reed College, Northwestern University, and many other colleges and universities.

For more information, check out Jean's web site.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Mark Your Calendar: F. Scott Fitzgerald Conference

Here’s a heads-up for a cool conference I’ll be participating in this October. Make your plans accordingly!

The F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference, Inc.
Honoring: William Kennedy, Award for Outstanding Achievement in American Literature
Saturday, October 13, 2007
Rockville, MD

The F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference, Inc., is a non-profit organization that promotes appreciation of the literary arts. Every October, the organization hosts a day-long conference in Rockville where Fitzgerald summered with his family and where he worked on many of his manuscripts. This event is an opportunity for area writers to work with some of the best instructors, authors and professionals in writing today. This conference is open to the public and registration is required. The 12th Annual F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference writing workshops cover many genres and topics, and feature leaders who represent an international consortium:

Making Your Novel Sparkle with Leslie Pietrzyk
The Writing Life with Sharmila Chauhan
Young Adult Fiction with Margaret Blair
Poetry with Carly Sachs
Street to Page…Hip Hop to Poetry with Courttia Newland
Creative Non-Fiction and Sports Writing with Larry Moffi
Screenwriting with Kerric Harvey
Breaking That Block with Mimi Ghez
Clues for Mystery Writers with Donna Andrews
Short Fiction with Alix Ohlin

Special guests and panelists include Jay Parini, Jackson Bryer, Susan Coll, Richard Allan Davidson, Suzanne Fisher, and Judy Hruz, to name only a few. The conference culminates with the presentation of the Award for Outstanding Achievement in American Literature to Pulitzer Prize winner William Kennedy. William Kennedy has been awarded with a National Book Critics Circle Award, a MacArthur Foundation grant and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He has written novels, non-fiction, plays and children's fiction.

Registration: $85 per person. (discounts available for seniors, students, early registration)

For more information, please contact: FSFConference@gmail.com

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Harry Potter...Whew! (NO Spoilers Here)

My wrists are sore and I've got a half-formed blister between my thumb and forefinger from holding up that gigantic book, but I soldiered on, finishing it last night around 2:30 a.m. She's an amazing story-teller (duh). My advice: When you get to the last 150 pages or so, you'll have to read them all in one full sweep, so plan accordingly unless you want massive bags under your eyes like mine!

No more Sopranos episodes, no more Harry Potter books...I'm in the market for new obsessions.

New York, New York

With my obsession for all things New York, naturally this posting from GalleyCat caught my attention:

“If you've got a New York story that comes it at 2,500 words or less, Warren Adler wants to hear from you. The author of The War of the Roses, Random Hearts, and We Are Holding the President Hostage is sponsoring his second annual short story contest, which offers a $1,000 prize and a six-month contract for an Amazon Shorts deal. (Online readers will get to vote for a "People's Choice" story receiving a similar deal from Amazon.)”

Virginia Festival for the Book

If you missed last year’s Virginia Festival for the Book down in Charlottesville—or if you’re just looking for an excuse to procrastinate and avoid working on that troublesome scene in your novel—check out the audio downloads here for poetry readings, Carolyn Preston reading from Gatsby’s Girl, the festival luncheon with the late Doug Marlette, and more.

Also, if you’re an author who’d like to participate in the festival, the application deadline is October 1. Check here for details.

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Butler Did It

Do you have a secret (or not secret) hankering to be a mystery writer? Check out the Washington Post "Sunday Source" section’s ongoing thriller. Readers are invited to fill in the storyline, which starts out with an appropriate number of hard-boiled characters and sticky complications.

What have you got to lose?; part of the criteria for the 300-word submission is “coherence.” Surely we can manage that!

Details are here (registration required).

Considering an MFA, Part 2

The recently-released Atlantic fiction issue has an article ranking MFA programs. Agree, disagree, or just nosy—it’s probably worth checking out if you’re about to apply or thinking of applying. After all, with the cost in the $40K range for some of these programs, you want to know what kind of bang you’re getting for your buck! And here's an interview with the author of the piece.

(Link via The Elegant Variation.)


Congratulations to Justin Nicholes, for his fine story “Of Brothers Gone Along,” which has just appeared in the recent issue of the literary journal Karamu. I read a draft while I was visiting professor at Wichita State University in the fall of 2005. As you may remember, Justin wrote a nice piece for Work-in-Progress, found here.

P.S. Karamu, update your web site...it shows the 2003 issue!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Guest in Progress: Katharine Davis

I’m back from Chicago, still trying to settle in. It was one of those trips where though I was only away for four days, it felt like four weeks: that kind of intensity. This was my favorite steak, this was my favorite boat ride, this was my favorite National League team that actually won to sweep the Astros, and this was my favorite new neighborhood bar.

I’m pleased to present this lovely piece by Katharine (Kitty) Davis, a novelist in my writing group. Kitty and I met through the Washington chapter of WNBA, the Women’s National Book Association, a networking group, and speaking for myself, upon meeting her, I had one of those instant, powerful feelings that here was someone I really liked. At the time, she had just finished her first novel and was looking around for an agent. It seems that the next time I ran into her, she had found the agent, and that then the next time after that our paths crossed, the agent had sold the book…but perhaps the truth wasn’t as tidy as all that.

In any event, the happy ending is that Capturing Paris came out in 2006. About a woman in the midst of many dramatic changes in her life, the novel is also the story of Paris—in all its magical glory. From the first paragraph:

“Annie Reed walked along the rue de Rennes wondering if her husband still loved her. Paris was colder than usual that fall. She loved this time of day, la crepuscule, the nebulous period that floats between day and night….Gone were the golden dry October days, like those you saw in movies, where couples strolled along the Seine, pausing to look at old prints and books in open carts. The damp November air had already settled into her bones.”

If you can’t hop a plane, grab the book and turn off the phone…you’ll get your Paris fix.

Kitty’s work in progress is a novel set in Maine. Every time we read chapters in the writing group, I’m ready to jump in my car and head up 95, not stopping until I get to that foggy shoreline she describes so beautifully. Kitty is such a visual, evocative writer, that it’s no wonder she found inspiration in this artist’s talk:

Letter from Maine

July 10, 2007

Dear Leslie,

I am just home from a gallery talk at the Ogunquit Museum of Art, a small museum close to me in southern Maine. The speaker was the artist, Connie Hayes, one of the best painters now working in Maine. Her show, “Oils and Pastels from France," will be at the Ogunquit Museum from July 1- August 21. Connie Hayes’s paintings have been exhibited all over the state, including the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine.

Connie is well known for her series of “borrowed views” which she began in 1990. Connie has traveled all over Maine, around the United States, to Italy and France at the invitation of homeowners who ask her to stay in their homes when they are away. While in residence (she calls this her own personal “artist-in-residence” program) she paints the interiors and surrounding landscapes of many extraordinary places.

I’m sure you are wondering what this has to do with writing. Connie is a most articulate speaker. Tonight, as she spoke about her work as a painter I kept thinking, Wait this applies to writing fiction. She spoke of the importance of making mistakes, getting the mistakes out the way (draft after draft), being totally present in the work, and looking and studying the work of the masters hanging in museums. “Look at the paintings of the artists that astound you. Ask yourself, how do they do it? How do they solve the problems that you are trying to solve?” We writers turn to our own masters--Henry James, Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and others for help.

Finally, and most important, there were three qualities she wanted to achieve in a finished work. Connie explained that a good painting doesn’t need to be accurate, but convincing; not real, but believable; not predictable, but inevitable. Connie was speaking of her paintings, but the very same principles would apply for good fiction.

It was a real pleasure to spend an evening enjoying the visual arts and to come home with a strong message that applies to the literary arts as well. Here is more information about Connie Hayes.

All the best from southern Maine--Kitty

About: Katharine Davis began writing fiction in 1999. Capturing Paris (St. Martin’s Press, May 2006) is her first novel. Recommended in Real Simple Spring Travel 2007, the novel was also included in The New York Times' (8-8-06) suggestions for fiction set in Paris. She is an Associate Editor at The Potomac Review. Katharine is completing a second novel that takes place on the coast of Maine. She can be reached through her web site.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Work in Progress: Details Matter

My husband and I will be celebrating our one-year wedding anniversary in one of our favorite cities, staying at the hotel where we were married on July 15, 2006, so I’ll be away from the computer until July 19ish. In the meantime, here’s something I’ve been thinking about:

I’m teaching a fiction workshop this summer at Johns Hopkins, and we’ve been talking a lot about how every single detail matters—especially in a short story. That details shouldn’t be chosen randomly—or if chosen randomly, then used purposely during the revision process. (For example, when writing my novel Pears on a Willow Tree, early on I had one of my characters teaching English in Thailand simply because that’s where my sister happened to be at the time. As I got deeper into the book, first I cursed myself for picking a location I had never been to—and then I congratulated myself on the good fortune to have randomly sent my character to a place that fit precisely with the themes and storyline about immigration and leaving home, as various characters in the book move from Poland to Detroit to Arizona to Thailand.)

So, every detail matters. Why does someone have blonde hair instead of brown? What does the fact that she grew up with blonde hair (instead of brown) mean to her as a character? Why does my character Robert in my novel-in-progress Prodigal Daughters have a dog? First, the book is set in Old Town Alexandria, and everyone there (except me) has a dog, so it’s a natural detail to include. But once there’s a dog in the story, what else can the dog do? And why a mastiff and not a poodle or a basset hound? People who don’t write are always amazed at how much time writers spend thinking about these tiny details that may seem irrelevant to a reader. (Or, if not irrelevant, then seamlessly included so as not to draw attention to themselves to the reader: nothing like a drop of blood appearing on a white dress to announce itself as a big, flashy, IMPORTANT SYMBOL.)

The concept sounds so simple and essential to any art form (I don’t imagine Vermeer was simply slapping down the paint), and yet it’s complicated and hard to grasp. Yes, EVERY detail; yes, every one; YES, even that one.

So I was pleased when one of my Hopkins students sent me this email: “My dark secret is that I was addicted to the The XFiles. It's re-running on the Scifi channel now and after not watching it for several years, I am rediscovering the joy of how complete a universe it was. Wacky but still very character-focused. I was reminded of your ‘everything must serve a point’ this week with one particular episode that did just that. Even from the very first scene, a magazine one character is looking at means everything to that character, and matters a few scenes later. It was so pleasing to have that detail matter. Seems so obvious why it is and why we shouldn't just add ‘flavor’ willy-nilly.”

(And I will never be one to get high and mighty about TV shows as examples of good writing. Read this post for my passionate defense of the near-perfection of the final Sopranos episode, and just wait until The Wire starts up again this fall. Dare I say it? I’d rather watch top-level TV than almost any contemporary movie.)

Anyway…that email reminded me of my own humbling “ah-ha” experience back in the day. I was at the Sewanee Writers Conference and was delighted to be in Tim O'Brien’s workshop. Only…he was making us work! We were having lectures about writing instead of talking about our own manuscripts and how brilliant we were. We had exercises to do outside of our class, and we had to read assignments at night…which, frankly, interfered with the gossipy cocktail parties that were going on. Jeez Louise. All my friends were off having fun, and there I was, copying by hand the first pages of Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, supposedly to learn what genius looks like on paper or something.

Tim O’Brien (and the workshop’s wonderful co-teacher, Amy Hempel) were focusing on the idea that every detail matters, that everything in the story must be purposeful. It sounded good in theory, but I was totally disgruntled and couldn’t believe that anyone would worry about every last word in the obsessive way that they seemed to.

We were assigned to read “The Country Husband,” by John Cheever, a classic, beautiful, longish short story (here's a detailed summary). “Go to the party without me,” I martyrishly told my friends, “I have work to do.” So I tucked in and started to read. The story opens with a suburban man riding in a plane that nearly crashes. As he returns home, no one in his family is interested in hearing about his brush with death, and then there’s a lot of description about where the family lives, including a whole paragraph about the neighbor’s dog, Jupiter. I crabbily thought, “Oh, like this dog matters to the story.”*

The dog was not mentioned again for page after page after page.

I read on as the sounds of the cocktail party on the lawn wafted through my window, envisioning all the fun everyone else was having, all the literary gossip I was missing, the agent who was probably visiting that night, eager to read my work.

And then I came to the very end of the story, where, indeed the dog shows up again: perfectly, beautifully, importantly. Two sentences—but sentences that are essential to the story.

I immediately became a believer: in these teachers, in art, in John Cheever, in making every detail matter. YES, every detail…even the dog.

*NOTE: Now that I glance at the story again, I see that the dog is given a whole paragraph. Though the story is long, I’m embarrassed that I was so arrogant or stupid as to think that a writer of Cheever’s caliber would waste a paragraph on irrelevant detail. I guess we have a pretty clear picture of my work from that time, eh?

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Path of the Novel-in-Progress

As many of you undoubtedly know—or have discovered—or will discover soon!—the process of writing a novel does not exactly follow a clear pathway. Perhaps that’s one of the things I enjoy about cooking: Follow these directions and you will produce a cake. With a novel, it’s more like, Follow these directions and God be with you.

We know the famous sayings:

You only learn how to write the novel you’ve just finished.

“There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” Somerset Maugham

Or consider this quote from an interview I read long ago with Alice McDermott: “I write the first half of a novel without knowing what I’m doing. I write the second half knowing exactly what I’m doing and that I’m totally wrong in doing it.” (Note that Alice McDermott is a best-selling, major-awarding-winning, totally accomplished novelist.)

So I was amused to see this chart that actually does outline the steps of novel-writing—quite accurately. Before you click too soon, beware…if you’re partway through a novel, you may not want to see what lurks ahead. And if you haven’t yet begun…well, God be with you! As for my novel in progress, dare I confess that I may be in the homestretch, heading to the final destination on the chart…at least for this draft?

(Link via Tingle Alley.)

The Smartest Man in Publishing

Check out this article (registration required) about the editor who originally bought the U.S. rights to publish J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. And giving hope to underpaid writers across the land, her advance from the British publishers for the first book was in “the low four figures.”

Yes, I’ll be getting my copy on Saturday, July 21!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Interested in an MFA?

If you’re thinking about applying for an MFA in creative writing, you might want to check out MFA Weblog, written by former and current MFAers who will answer questions, offer advice, and give insight into the process. Under a slightly different format last year, it was a great resource that I recommended to potential MFA students. This new set-up looks even better.

Reading Series for Poets

This sounds like an interesting reading series; I like that poets are asked to read their own work along with the work of other poets (though, given my futile attempts at writing poetry, I guess I need to participate in the reading series that calls for ONLY the work of other poets):

The Poetry at Noon Reading Series at the Library of Congress seeks submissions for the 2007-08 season. To apply, pick one or two themes from among these: Magic and Magicians (reading Oct. 9), Love Poems (reading Feb 12), or Family Names and Nicknames (reading April 22).

Include a cover sheet with the theme as the title; list your name, address, phone, and email; include a one-paragraph bio. Submit 2 of your own poems on the theme and 3 by other poets.

Open to poets who have not read in the series in the past 3 years. Deadline: July 15 (postmarked).

Send to: Patricia Gray, Library of Congress, Poetry and Literature Center, 101 Independence Ave. SE, Washington, DC 20540-4861. More info here.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Dzanc Prize for Writing Well and Doing Good

Another interesting call for submissions:

Dzanc Books announces the inaugural Dzanc Prize – a monetary award to a writer with both a work in progress, and an interest in performing some form of literary community service.The award itself will be a total of $5,000 to be distributed in two payments over the course of a twelve month period.

The purpose of this prize is to give monetary aid to a writer of literary promise, in order to provide a budgetary cushion for them, allowing the author to concentrate his/her efforts on the completion of their work in progress.

Eligibility: Any author with a Work in Progress, and a project in mind that can be deemed Literary Community Service. The author must be working on literary fiction, and the community service must occur within the United States of America.

Timing: The Inaugural Dzanc Prize will be issued for the 2008 calendar year. We will accept submissions from authors from now through November 1, 2007. The announcement of the winning author will be made during the month of December 2007. The announcement will be made via email to the author, here on the website, as well as sent to trade journals (P&W, Publisher’s Weekly, etc.).

Submissions: Authors please send your current cv, a description of your Work in Progress, along with a ten page excerpt, and your planned Literary Community Service. These should be sent as MS Word Attachments in an email to info(at)dzancbooks.org (replace (at) with @).

Dzanc Books will be selecting the author who will receive this $5,000 Prize based on a combination of the Work in Progress, and the intended Literary Community Service. It would probably benefit authors who are submitting to become familiar with Dzanc Books and the types of authors we will be publishing, as well as the Educational Programs Dzanc Books sets up and runs.

Some examples of Literary Community Service:
- Running a series of writing workshops in a school
- Volunteering to do a storytime session or series at your local library
- Volunteering to work at a local book festival (if the festival is run as a non-profit)

The winner of the Dzanc Prize will receive a check for $2500 in the month of January 2008. The remaining $2500 will be paid once the Literary Community Service has been completed.

Dzanc Books will make no claims towards the winner and their Work in Progress. If at the time the author has completed the work, they wish to submit it to Dzanc Books, we will be delighted to have a look. Their manuscript will go through the same reading process every other submission goes through.

The submissions for the Dzanc Prize will be reviewed by, and the prize will be awarded by a panel of Steve Gillis, Dan Wickett and Keith Taylor. All writers, including friends and associates of the panel, are eligible for the prize. The integrity and objectivity of Dzanc Books will not be compromised and, given our vast connections to so many great writers, exclusion of any kind would be impossible.

Any questions can be submitted to: info(at)dzancbooks.org. (replace (at) with @)
More information.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Guest in Progress: Carolyn Parkhurst

I was driving to the park where I liked to go running when I first heard Carolyn Parkhurst interviewed on the NPR-affiliate Diane Rehm Show, and I sat in the car to catch the end of the program. I had started out listening in a vaguely jealous way—I wish my first novel had been selected by the Today Show Book Club—but by the end of the interview, my jealousy had given way to admiration. In the interview, Carolyn sounded smart and down-to-earth; and I couldn’t deny that the concept of her first novel, The Dogs of Babel, was both brilliant and marketable—a man is so distraught over the death of his wife that he decides to teach his dog, the only witness to the event, to talk so he can learn whether the death was a suicide or an accident.

Then I read the book: it was so more than a marketing pitch line. Evocative, beautifully written, a deep exploration of the tangled path of grief…I finished it on my patio as the evening sky darkened, sniffling away, unwilling to interrupt the experience to go inside to find a lamp and Kleenex.

So how fortunate I felt when Carolyn joined my writing group and I discovered firsthand that, yes, she IS smart and down-to-earth and funny and generous and a terrific writer and a generally great person. (Check out the end of this post for a great writing tip from Carolyn that involves an old Doritos commercial!) It was a pleasure to read along in draft as she wrote her wonderful second novel, Lost and Found, now out in paperback. The book examines the complicated emotional landscape of a number of contestants competing on a reality TV show—while you might expect the humor in such a situation, Carolyn is an empathetic writer who also finds poignancy in her characters’ lives.

So I’m very pleased to share this essay Carolyn wrote in which she explores yet another complicated emotional landscape: can everyone in a writer’s life be “material”?

In the spring of 2000, my husband and I adopted a puppy. We returned him three days later.

That’s all you’re going to hear about that, unfortunately. I’m sorry it’s not a better story. Those two sentences were going to be the beginning of a different essay, a piece about a rough patch my husband and I have gone through this year with one of our children. It was going to be insightful and engaging and valuable. At least, that’s how it was in my head; I never got to see how it looked on paper.

The reason I’m writing this essay instead of that one is that when I told my husband about my idea, he said no. He argued that making my children’s lives public would be crossing a line that’s pretty clearly uncrossable. Of course, I knew that’s what he was going to say; it’s the reason I asked. I’m usually the only one who has veto power over any writing projects I’m considering, but in this case I knew I needed a little help. Because as a writer, there’s a part of me that isn’t sure which is the greater good: protecting the people I love or exposing a new truth. It’s actually a question for me, which makes me wonder if I’m missing some crucial moral piece. (Writers and sociopaths…maybe those categories overlap more than we’d like to admit.)

It’s clear that self-exposure is a necessary component of writing. You can’t see your own book on a bookstore shelf without feeling a little naked, knowing how many of your quirks and fears and unflattering thoughts it contains. Fiction is easier than memoir, because you always have a place to hide: it may be that you strongly resemble your protagonist in a million different ways, but if she lives in Arizona and you’ve never even visited, then it’s clearly not about you. But even with those safeguards in place, readers are going to know that every word reflects the contours of your own messy mind.

For me, the desire to lay myself bare this way comes less from exhibitionism than from an idea that our own life stories are important. If I write about my own sorrows, my own failures, it might help illuminate some of the darker corners of a problem that someone else is struggling with. Feeling less alone—that’s part of the reason we read, right? But there aren’t many things in my life that are really just about me. The shampoo I use, maybe. What I decided to have for lunch today. (You want to hear about that? I’d be happy to write something up for you. It might really shed some light on your own toiletry and sandwich issues.) The minute you leave the territory of your own skin and enter the larger world, things get a lot more complicated.

The boundaries aren’t always clear, but it’s obvious to me that writing about my kids is different from writing about my parents or my husband or my sixth grade teacher. I’m the only mother my children have, and I have to be very careful about the things I say about them. It turns out that the difficulty of juggling writing with parenthood isn’t confined to finding time to work between preschool drop-off and pick-up. Being a mother has produced some of the most complex feelings I’ve ever known, and it’s come as something of a shock to me that I can’t do whatever I want with that material. (And yes—I just said that feelings equal material. Make of that what you will.)

The story about the puppy we didn’t keep may yet find life somewhere else—in a novel, or a story, or an essay on a less contested subject. And some of the trickier things I wanted to write in that piece will no doubt find their way onto paper as well, but they’ll have to be disguised or diluted or written only for my own eyes. It’s not a terrible loss. I’ve still got plenty to write about, and I can always, you know, actually make stuff up. I hear some fiction writers think that’s the best part. ~~Carolyn Parkhurst

About: Carolyn Parkhurst's first novel, THE DOGS OF BABEL, was a New York Times bestseller, as well as a Today Show Book Club pick, a Book of the Month Club Featured Selection, and a New York Times Notable Book. Her second novel, LOST AND FOUND, which Elle Magazine called "a deeply affecting page-turner" follows several contestants on a reality show as they criss-cross the globe and try to keep their relationships intact. LOST AND FOUND, which has been chosen as a Target Bookmarked Club Pick, was released in paperback this week. Carolyn Parkhurst lives in Washington, D.C. with her family.

Here's an interview with Carolyn about The Dogs of Babel, if you’d like to read more.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Independence Day

My husband, a history buff, recently attended a business meeting at Gettysburg, PA, and had the opportunity to tour the battlefield. The stories he brought back of the battle and the dedication ceremony during which Lincoln gave his famous address inspired us to reread the speech, which remains a remarkable piece of writing still today, not just for its message, but for its brevity and beauty.

The battle—which started on July 1, 1863, and lasted three days—resulted in more than 7500 dead (think: 7500 bodies on the ground in the heat of July). The townspeople were left to cope with this tragic aftermath, and they purchased the land to create a cemetery to honor the dead.

Inviting Lincoln to speak at the dedication ceremony in November was an afterthought (check here to search* for a copy of the letter Lincoln received asking him to participate; use the keyword “Gettysburg address”). The featured guest was Edward Everett, a man considered the best orator of his time. In fact, the ceremony was postponed from a September dedication date to the November 19 date because Everett said he couldn’t write a proper speech in time. No wonder he needed so much time…his speech was TWO HOURS long and ran 13, 607 words (I’m guessing about 50 d-s typewritten pages today).

According to Wikipedia, here’s how Everett’s speech began:
Standing beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature. But the duty to which you have called me must be performed; — grant me, I pray you, your indulgence and your sympathy.
Two hours later, the end:

But they, I am sure, will join us in saying, as we bid farewell to the dust of these martyr-heroes, that wheresoever throughout the civilized world the accounts of this great warfare are read, and down to the latest period of recorded time, in the glorious annals of our common country, there will be no brighter page than that which relates the Battles of Gettysburg.
Compare this to Lincoln’s masterpiece (he didn’t actually write it on the back of an envelope on the train ride up…though I feel better knowing he worked on the speech, and knowing that such polished writing wasn’t slapped down off the cuff):

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Ten sentences.
Two hundred seventy-two words.
Two minutes. (Not even enough time to get a photo of him speaking.)

Search* here for the Nicolay copy, which is considered to be the first of the five copies written in Lincoln’s hand, a draft given to one of his two private secretaries. The Bliss copy is considered the definitive version; Lincoln wrote it out for charitable purposes in 1864, and it’s the only one he signed. This copy is displayed in the Lincoln bedroom in the White House.

Happy Fourth of July!

*Note: Unfortunately this site seems to create only a temporary file, so requires a search every time.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Writer Talks for Technopobes

I’ve heard of podcasting, but unfortunately at this point, that’s about as far as I go down that road. (Dare I confess that I don’t even have an iPod?) So, it’s nice to know that us old-fashioned folk can buy copies of the readings and talks at DC’s Politics and Prose bookstore on technopobe-friendly CDs. Click here for more information and a complete list of available talks.

The archives include dozens of writers, including Richard Bausch, T.C. Boyle, Jennifer Eagan, Alice McDermott, Linda Pastan and Calvin Trillin.

And if you listen closely to the Richard Ford reading, you’ll hear a question I asked at the event during the Q&A!

JRW Conference in Richmond

An announcement from our friends down 95, the James River Writers, based in Richmond:

Get plugged in to the art and the business of writing at JRW Conference 2007, with critically acclaimed and best-selling authors, industry-savvy agents, experienced editors and more.

Friday-Saturday, September 28 & 29, 2007 at the Library of Virginia

--Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Claudia Emerson
--Sheri Reynolds, Oprah Book Club pick and New York Times best-selling author (The Rapture of Canaan, The Firefly Cloak)
--New York Times best-selling author Eric Van Lustbader (The Bourne Betrayal, The Testament)
--New York Times best-selling author Sharyn McCrumb (St. Dale)
--Michael Sterns, editorial director, HarperCollins
--National Magazine Award winner Andrew Corsello of GQ
--Richard Ernsberger, editor, Virginia Living, author, and former senior editor, Newsweek
--Thriller writer Kyle Mills (Darkness Falls, Rising Phoenix)
--Editorial consultant Marcela Landres
--Literary agents Liv Blumer, Lori Perkins, Jenny Rappaport, and Jessica Regel

How do you find an audience, get published, work with an agent? How do you write about sex, or science, or the South? How do you find your voice, find a point of view, find the time to write? Whether you're an aspiring author or seasoned professional, there's something to be learned at JRW Conference 2007.

One-on-One with an Agent sessions
Panel discussions
First Pages Critique
Manuscript Reviews

Early registration through August 31, 2007: $140

More information, including complete schedule and panel descriptions, plus online registration now available at JamesRiverWriters.com.

Monday, July 2, 2007

A Bit of Inspiration

I suspect these interesting poetry prompts could work just as well if used as flash fiction prompts.

New Issue of Beltway

DC poet Kim Roberts announces a new issue of Beltway Poetry Review. The Summer 2007 issue (found online) features five poets:

JOSHUA WEINER, winner of the Rome Prize from the Academy of American Poets;

VENUS THRASH, writer-in-residence at Ballou Senior High School;

FRED JOINER, who has given readings at Busboys and Poets, Grace Church, and Howard University, among other venues;

BERNADETTE GEYER, editor-in-chief of The Word Works; and

FRANCISCO ARAGÓN, director of Letras Latinas at the University of Notre Dame.

Happy reading!


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