Thursday, August 30, 2007

Guests in Progress: Anna Leahy, Liam Callanan, Anonymous--Back to School Edition, Part 2

Last Thursday, writer and teacher C.M. Mayo shared her insights about how writing students can make the most of their workshop experience, and I thought we might like some additional thoughts on the subject from some top-notch teachers, teaching a range of writing students at different levels:

"Etiquette matters more than we might want to admit. When students come to class late because making copies for the class took longer than they expected, additional class time has to be allotted for distribution. Because students—especially beginning students—often learn as much from discussing others' work as they do from receiving comments on their own writing, it's important not to miss workshop sessions. While absences are often unplanned, other students notice when they've put effort into responding to someone's work and then that someone isn't there for them.

"Nancy Andreassen, in The Creating Brain, admits that artistic production is an isolated activity in many ways, but she points out that creativity is fostered when the artist is part of a community, has interaction with other artists, and engages in processes like critique and apprenticeship. Students who foster a workshop community do themselves and each other a great service." ~~Anna Leahy, North Central College


“Know who you are. I know it's a bit shopworn, but Shakespeare is always worth repeating. And also always true: I think some students come into programs expecting/hoping to be "made" into writers. But they already are; they had to be to get in. And we admitted them BECAUSE of who they are. So even though workshops may seem like exercises in transformation, consider them instead a kind of an audience lab. Change your work. Don't change who you are.” ~~Liam Callanan, University of Wisconsin Milwaukee


And now, a desperate plea from a university professor who wishes to remain anonymous:

"Characters must be human beings. I'm not talking about fully developed, complex characters, though that is always good. I mean no characters who are vampires, dragons, robots or rodents.

"No abortion stories…unless you have actually had one.

"Seeking therapy (attending AA or similar groups) or taking Prozac is not a sufficient resolution.

"Try to avoid writing about writers, particularly writers with writers' block, staring at their computer curser blinking while their roommate snores."


Next week, I’ll offer my thoughts on what makes a good writing workshop and how participants can work toward that goal.

About: Anna Leahy’s poetry collection Constituents of Matter won the Wick Poetry Prize and will be published by Kent State University Press in September 2007. She is the editor of Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom, a collection of pedagogy essays published by Multilingual Matters and recently reviewed in the journal Pedagogy. Her collaborative work with an art historian on the ekphrastic poetry of Pulitzer Prize winner Natasha Trethewey appears in ELN and is forthcoming in an anthology on women's ekphrastic writing.

About: Liam Callanan coordinates the PhD program in creative writing at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. He's the author of the novels All Saints and The Cloud Atlas.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Self-Indulgence: I'm Featured in The Washington Post

A slight break from the writing life: I am featured in today’s “Chef on Call” article in The Washington Post Food section. The premise of “Chef on Call” is that average home cooks—i.e. me—write in to talk about some cooking skill/menu they’d like to learn to do, and reporter David Hagedorn pairs the average person with a professional chef who teaches the new trick.

For as long as I remember, I have been fascinated by canning. (Too many "Little House on the Prairie" books, perhaps? And check out my canning “fantasy” on pages 178-180 of my first novel, Pears on a Willow Tree.) But in real life, every time I read about canning, I always got to the part that said something along the lines of, “And if you don’t boil your jars perfectly, you will get botulism and die.” Kind of scared me off canning.

Ten years ago, I read a memorable essay in the Washington Post called “50 Things To Do Before I Die,” about a woman who had come up with a list of things that she would like to do in her life—mostly ordinary and within the realm of possibility; I mean, sure we’d all like to star in a major Hollywood production or win the Nobel Prize for Literature, but let’s be real. Whenever she was feeling stifled, she’d pull out her list and do something. I liked that idea, and made up my own list (which is a great exercise in itself). Canning was right there.

Now, thanks to the Washington Post responding to my “Chef on Call” plea, I have canned. I spent a wonderful and informative afternoon in the restaurant kitchen of Buck's Fishing and Camping, gaining confidence in canning from D.C. chef Carole Greenwood, who makes her own pickles, hot peppers, and many other goodies. Then I came home and tried it myself. And now, being obsessive, my basement is already filled with too many Ball jars and lids; I’m no expert, but at least I’m confident—or reasonably sure—I won’t die when I eat the peach preserves I canned yesterday.

So, check out the article, and/or come up with your own list of 50 things to do before you die…and get busy!

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Work in Progress: Revisions, or "Yo, Adrian!"

Well, I’ve started revising my third novel, tentatively titled Prodigal Daughters. This is the “final” revision (ha, ha)—but it is the last stage before I send it out into the world for the first time. Usually, I enjoy this final phase of revising—all that tinkering with word choice and commas; the excitement of the exact right phrase—but I find that during the process of writing the draft I have taken on some very bad habits that amuse me now that I see them in full action.

I’ve been working on this book for a while and all along have been showing it in progress to my writing group. I’ve learned that when showing novels in progress to people, it doesn’t make sense to perfect every sentence, since the chances are excellent that the sentence you spend all afternoon working on is the sentence in the scene that everyone agrees is unnecessary. Cut! There goes your perfect sentence…and all that time you spent making it so.

So during the earlier draft stages, I became rather lazy and literally found myself thinking, “Oh, this is good enough for the writing group.” Or—even worse—if I came upon a plotting point that I didn’t think I had resolved: “I'm sure the writing group will know how to fix that.” And the sin of all sins: knowing in my heart of heart that something wasn’t working, but thinking, “Not to worry, I can sneak this lapse by the writing group.” (Yes, they often catch those lapses; but I have put a few things over on them due to the inherent difficulties of reading a novel chapter by chapter over the course of years.)

Now that it’s crunch time and the draft does need to be “perfect,” there’s no falling back on that lazy thinking. No one’s going to bail me out; no writing group eyes are going to look over this revision; no writing group brain trust is going to help me figure out how to end Chapter Two if Callie doesn’t storm off in a huff as I’ve written. See, she also storms off in a huff at the end of Chapter Five, and that’s too many huffs for one person in one book…and because the group only reads a chapter at a time, I did manage to sneak that by them! But now I’m alone in a room with my heart of heart saying, “Nu-uh. Can’t fool me, Miss Smarty-Pants.”

I guess that’s what I love about revising: There are no shortcuts. There’s only you—armed with what you’ve learned about your characters and your story over the years you’ve been working—and it’s you alone up against the word. Mano a mano. You will never wrestle the word into submission. But with perseverance, luck, and faith in yourself, you can be a worthy foe and emerge standing. Like Rocky Balboa, you can go the distance—with the pages and the sweat to prove it.

Monday, August 27, 2007


I've made some small changes to the blog. First, I added some new literary blogs to my list:

--Paper Cuts is written by Dwight Garner, of the New York Times Book Review. I’m usually leery of blogs that might be disguised corporate shills or part of some grand marketing scheme, but that isn’t the case here. Rather, Garner uses the resources of his position at the Book Review to delve deeper into books and authors. There’s also a weekly interview. (Unfortunately, I see that he’s on hiatus until September 3. But there’s lots to read in the archives, and this one deserves a daily stop.)

--Rate Your Students is for all you teachers out there. Get advice, vent, laugh, and cry with your fellow profs. If the thought of “back to school” is like fingernails on a blackboard, definitely check this out!

--If the ranting from teachers doesn’t scare you, the MFA Weblog is helpful for anyone who is thinking about getting an MFA, applying to a graduate program in writing, looking for information on various programs.

I also organized the contents of the blog by the each posting’s identifying label/s (on the left). Now if you’d like to read all the guest essays, simply click on the “Guests in Progress” label to pull them up.

Hope this is helpful. As always, suggestions are welcome!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Guest in Progress: C.M. Mayo--Back to School Edition, Part 1

With the beginning of the school year just around the corner—and with my first semester experience of the rigors of summer school safely under my belt—I thought it might be interesting to think about how students can use the workshop situation most effectively. That is, we could spend all day debating the merits of MFA programs and the benefits and evils of the workshop paradigm (and maybe someday we will!), but for now, let’s simply proceed from the assumption that this is how it is:

--People interested in writing eventually end up in a workshop of some sort.
--People who take enough workshops often end up in a graduate writing program of some sort.

So, how to make the most of the workshop experience once you’re there? How can you suceed as a student? As a teacher, there’s nothing I find more frustrating than seeing students not taking advantage of the wealth of opportunity available in all but the most meager class. I WANT students to succeed; I WANT people to become better writers—as do, I dare say, most teachers. So why do some people seem determined to thwart our efforts? Yes, we can’t expect to connect miraculously with every student, but some seem ill-equipped and at a loss in the workshop—and not necessarily because it’s a new experience for them.

Our first entry is a piece that writer and teacher C.M. Mayo posted at her blog, Madam Mayo, and is reprinted here with her kind permission.

Catherine has that enviable writer bio line—“she divides her time between Washington, DC, and Mexico City”—and conducts numerous and varied workshops in both locations. (Go here and also here for more information about current classes Catherine is offering.)

Plus, she’s dynamic, generous, and a go-getter! She was in my writing group for many years and I still miss her comments about how she couldn’t “see” what was going on in my pages…prodding me to add some much needed description, which I generally find difficult to write. Needless to say, her own descriptive writing is stunningly lovely. For more details about Catherine, see below or go here.

C.M. Mayo's 10 Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Writing Workshop

#1. Buy and read your teacher's book. (Analogy: would you let a carpenter whose work you've never seen remodel your kitchen?)

#2. Ask him or her to autograph it. (An autographed first edition hardcover can be surprisingly valuable! And: flattery never hurts! Don't be shy about asking for an autograph; authors love this, they really do.)

#3. Expect to learn. (Analogy: do carpenters learn their craft wholly on their own? Maybe what you'll learn is that this is a writing teacher to avoid. Certainly, this is much cheaper experience than having a bad carpenter mess with your kitchen.)

#4. Realize that most people who come to a writing workshop have naive notions about the writing world (think money, celebrity, booze-crazed Bohemia), no clue from Adam how hard it is to write anything worth reading, how tough it is get published, and how consternating an experience it can be to be published (criminey, all these people taking your workshops who never even read your book!!). Realize, you are way ahead of the game by following steps 1-3, and that, therefore, though you might learn a lot about the craft, you do not need validation from this workshop, its leader and/or its participants, which is what you were secretly hoping for, no?

#5. Expect to give thoughtful critiques to others who (though their manuscripts are suprisingly bad, not to mention boring and often tasteless), are, strangely, resistant and argumentative. Expect also to receive unbelievably moronic comments on your manuscript and know that this, actually, is a good thing because learning to take criticism with open-minded equanimity is part of learning to be a published and productive writer—unless, that is, you want to be a writer who cringes at every review, every blog mention, every shark attack out of Nowheresville, and is, therefore, both miserable and miserable to be around. (You can win the Nobel Prize and someone, somewhere, will say something unkind about your writing. So, Buck up.)

#6. Despite all of the above, take very seriously your critiquing of other participants's manuscripts, for good karma and all that, but also because the fastest way to learn to recognize problems in your own manuscripts is by identifying the same in others's manuscripts. I think it was Ann Lamott who said (more or less), "we point, but do not cut, with the sword of truth." Read the pages carefully, and offer honest, thoughtful, and detailed critiques in a spirit of kindness. (Wouldn't you want the same?)

#7. Remember the bicycle analogy. Like riding a bicycle, to take criticism productively, a writer needs to be able to balance between meekness (listening to everyone) and arrogance (listening to no one). Too much of either, your writing falls flat. (Too much of either and your whole life falls flat, now that I think about it.)

#8. Do the assigned reading. To learn the craft, workshops are not enough (see again Tip #4). If you do the assigned reading while in a workshop, rather than later (or never) you have the inestimable advantage of being able to ask questions and discuss it with the workshop leader and other participants.

#9. Remember, what goes around comes around. If you come to the workshop with an attitude of respect and goodwill, you will attract the same. (Any exceptions you will, one day, consider hilarious. You can also put them in your novel, ha ha.)

#10. Before, during and after the workshop, keep writing. In other words, don't let the workshop deadlines become a crutch. Don't give your power as an artist to anyone else; find your own motivation, develop your own habits. Play God. God riding a bicycle. ~~ C.M. Mayo
Copyright (c) C.M. Mayo 2007

For more tips from Catherine and many other resources for writers, click here.

About: C.M. Mayo is the author of the forthcoming The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, as well as the widely-lauded travel memoir, Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles through Baja California, the Other Mexico, and Sky Over El Nido, which won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction. Founding editor of Tameme, the bilingual Spanish/English) chapbook press, Mayo is also a translator of contemporary Mexican poetry and fiction. Her anthology of Mexican fiction in translation, Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion, was published by Whereabouts Press in March 2006.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Giving Voice to Your Work

Here’s an interesting contest announcement for the technologically- and dramatically-inclined:

The Missouri Review invites all writers and writers/producers to participate in our 2007 Audio Competition. We have categories suitable for all kinds of writers.

Voice-Only Literature. If you have a short story, a piece of creative nonfiction, or poetry that you think worthy of recording, enter this category. Pieces in this category are author-read and will not contain other tracks of sound (no music beds or sound effects, etc.) Entries will be judged on literary merit, technical proficiency, and suitability for broadcast. Note: Poets may enter one or more poems as a single entry as long as the total recorded time does not exceed the six-minute limit.
Time: 6 minutes or less.
Category award amount: $500

10-minute Play. Playwrights—here’s a chance to reach a broad audience with your short play. Assemble your voice talent (including yourself if desired) and make your recording. Include verbal stage directions as needed. Entries will be judged on the strength of the script, appropriate voice talent and technical proficiency, and suitability for broadcast.
Time: 10 minutes or less.
Category award amount: $500.

Narrative Essay. Just as in a personal essay, the subject matter and approach is broad. The “I” is present, and the essay is author-read. Additionally, the entry may contain additional layers of sound, including music, ambient sounds, sound effects, etc. Entries will be judged on literary merit, technical proficiency, use of sound, and suitability for broadcast.
Time: 7 minutes or less.
Category award amount: $1,000.

Documentary. This category is devoted to pieces that examine in some depth a time, place, person, event, pastime, trend, or other noteworthy topic. Entries will be judged on the strength of the writing and reporting, technical proficiency, use of sound, and suitability for broadcast.
Time: 10 minutes or less.
Category award amount: $1,000.

Also, up to five finalists selected from all categories will receive the Editors’ Choice Award and a cash prize of $100 each. Winning entries will be featured on the website of The Missouri Review, as Podcasts, and made available to subscribers of the print version of the magazine. In addition to cash prizes, each entrant receives a one-year subscription to The Missouri Review. All entries must be produced in English.

$24 for each entry.
You may send multiple audio pieces in a single envelope, but each piece must be submitted on a separate CD. (For example, three entries on three CDs, with a total payment enclosed of $72.)
Entries must be postmarked by September 15, 2007.
Payment may be made by credit card, check or money order. Checks in US dollars should be made payable to The Missouri Review.

Technical requirements: Entries are accepted on CD only. CDs should not contain other audio other than entry material. Submissions must include:
Completed entry form for each entry
A copy of the entry on a CD, labeled with writer/producer, title and length
Brief program synopsis (short writer/producer bio optional)
Entry fee payment

Send Entries to:
The Missouri Review Audio Competition
357 McReynolds Hall
University of Missouri
Columbia, MO 65211

For more information and to download entry forms, go here.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

"A Vague Possibility of Something Decent"

There's an excellent interview with author David Leavitt at one of my favorite literary blogs, The Elegant Variation. I was especially interested in Leavitt’s views on point of view…and his struggles with the writing process (sound familiar?):

"Generally speaking, I hate starting things. Writing a passage for the first time, I shrink from the ugly disorder of what lands on the page. I'm not one of those writers from whose pens prose flows effortlessly, and who rarely change a word. Instead I hurl something down, print it out, look at it, wince, try to clean it up, print it out again, look at it, see a vague possibility of something decent, work on it some more, print it out again, smile in pleasure, take a break to have a coffee, come back, read it again, cry out in horror that I could think something so hideous was any good, work on it some more, print it out yet again…and so on, until…well, until it's as good as I think I can get it. And even then I'm usually not satisfied. Often I'll pick up one of my earlier books, open it to a page at random, and start rewriting what I'm reading in my head. It's an endless process and it's an essential process. Again, what one is doing, whether one knows it or not, is layering: first you paint the walls, then you put up the curtains, then you lay the carpet, then you arrange the furniture, then you put up the paintings…and lo and behold, you have a room."

Kerouac-ish Roll of Paper Optional

Seems like just yesterday I was noting that a class in which one writes a novel in a semester might be crazy…and then there’s NaNoWriMo, in which participants write a novel during the month of November. But this is the ultimate punishment: the 3-Day Novel Contest, which requires contestants to write a novel in THREE DAYS!

If you’re interested, get moving—the postmark deadline for registration is August 31, and the writing period is Sept 1-3. (What else were you going to do with your Labor Day weekend…laze about eating hot dogs, bemoaning all the Great Books you didn’t have time to read over the summer?) The contest details are here.

The Jan/Feb 2007 issue of Poets and Writers magazine had a hilarious and insightful article by novelist Patricia Chao, author of Monkey King and Mambo Peligroso, who entered the contest last year (alas, she didn’t win). As she reports about the novella she produced:

“There was no space for sentimentality. If I experienced any kind of emotion about my characters it would pass through me without stopping me or leaving an aftertaste. For instance, I did not cry when the narrator’s best friend died. In normal writing time, such a tragic fictional even would have thrown me into a funk. In fact, in one draft of Mambo Peligroso I was so upset about a main character’s impending death that I had another character die instead—which caused a month-long detour in the writing until I got back on track and faced the inevitability of the original plot. In three days, however, my focus out of necessity became Zen-like. Notice the emotion, touch it, and then let it go.”

Her schedule seemed a little grueling:
7 AM: Assessed first eight pages.
11 AM: Started Chapter 2.
4 PM: Lay in bed wondering if I was asleep or not. Couldn’t tell.
6 PM: Coffee—brownie—cigarette break.
7 PM: Blocked. Worked on editing.
9 PM: Wrote a fainting scene.”

But in the end, Chao wrote, “I cannot tell a lie—I loved the marathon of the 3-Day Novel Contest. It made me high….And as well as my mojo, I got my faith back. No matter the length of the journey, what else is writing about if not faith?”

So, who’s going to give it a shot? If you’re feeling brave—or lucky—or desperate—let us know how it goes…once the No-Doze wears off!

Monday, August 20, 2007

Creative Process of the Day

Okay, maybe one shouldn’t trust things one hears on the radio at 3:20 a.m. when one can’t sleep, but I swear I heard this: to generate ideas, Thomas Alva Edison liked to sit and relax in an armchair, leaving his mind open to random wanderings. He also held a pool ball in his hand so that if he fell asleep, the ball would fall on the floor and wake him up. Back to work, Thomas!

So…this is the creative process that earned the man 1093 patents in his lifetime. And I’ve always liked this famous quote of his: "Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration." Applies to writers, too.

This is the radio program I was listening to.

Never Leave Your Desk

If you can’t handle rush hour traffic to Bethesda and the Writer’s Center…or, heck, if you don’ t even live in the Washington area, you might consider an online writing class. Here’s an announcement for two independent novel-writing classes taught by Masha Hamilton, a highly accomplished writer and teacher:

Dates: Sept. 4 through Nov. 13.

Novel Writing I is right for any writer who has been thinking about starting a novel or is up to halfway through. The class will include weekly lectures, critiques, and exercises aimed at helping you see your work freshly. We'll motivate you as we cover discovering the essence of your novel (and learning how to convey it in a single sentence), as well as the importance of the opening chapter. We’ll discuss where to start the story, how to create a strong protagonist, the dramatic arcs of major characters, choosing a point of view, and exploring the voice of your novel as well as individual characters within it. We'll analyze scene and delve into the dramatic possibilities created by strong dialogue. We'll also look at setting, pacing, profluence and psychic distance. Finally, we’ll consider the business end – where and how to market your novel manuscript – and you’ll get guidance on the next step. Limited to 10-15 students. $500 for ten weeks.

Novel Writing II is for the writer who has more than half of a novel completed and is looking for a critical, helpful eye before the manuscript reaches the agent or editor. In this class, more of your work will be critiqued, and you will be called upon to write detailed weekly critiques yourself. Lectures will spring more naturally from the nature of the work. We'll talk about motivation in the soggy middle of our manuscripts. This will be a chance to workshop a large portion of your completed work, and resubmit if you choose. We'll focus on the skills of revision and layering your novel, as well as how to become our own teachers, learning by reading the work of others. The class also will include guidance on what to do once the manuscript is finished. Limited to 6-10 students. $650 for ten weeks.

Classes are small to allow for lots of individual attention to manuscripts. Please email me at masha at mashahamilton dot com for more details about either class.

About: Masha Hamilton has taught novel-writing privately, on-line, and for Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City; 92nd Street Y/Makor in New York City; Ann Arbor Writers’ Workshop in Ann Arbor, MI; Pima Writers’ Workshop in Tucson, AZ; Willamette Writers in Portland, OR; Ocean Park Maine Writers’ Conference near Portland, ME; Poets and Writers League, Cleveland, OH; and others.

Masha’s students have gone on to get agents, get published, to be accepted to prestigious MFA programs in creative writing. Here are some comments:

Masha is a born writer—and a born teacher. I believe she can help writers on any level with story, character, even sentence structure. I’ve earned an MFA in writing but I turn to Masha for something that no academic environment offers: concise, practical advice that brings results immediately. Plus, her energy and enthusiasm inspires me to keep writing, which is the most important issue of all. She’s the best! — John, Brooklyn

Masha Hamilton gears her writing classes to suit varying skill levels without sacrificing the pace or content of her teaching. No matter how much you've written, there is always something to learn. Balanced, substantive critiques combine with meaningful exercises and readings to create a productive and memorable workshop experience. Masha's ability to maintain open classroom camaraderie while facilitating rigorous analysis of student work is particularly impressive. If you want to sharpen your craft, and approach your writing and revision with greater depth and objectivity, look no further. — Maggie, New York

The wisdom and energy Masha Hamilton brings to teaching the art of writing a novel are nothing short of inspirational. It would be hard for me to imagine having finishedThe Boy Who Killed Caterpillars and getting it published by a literary press if it weren't for her four workshops that I took during the process of writing it. I charge Masha for my own intense focus on character, voice and subtext. — Joshua Kornreich, author of The Boy Who Killed Caterpillars

When I took the step into novel writing two years ago, Masha was there with open arms. She inspired me to dig deeper, much deeper, in my writing. She was not willing to accept the status quo. At the same time, she respected and nurtured my individuality, not bending me to her will but guiding me through self-discovery. And, as a sign of a truly great teacher, she was never too busy to take time to calm my fears as I struggled through the unknown, deeply emotional waters of writing. — Rob, California

I spent a year working with Masha on completing my first novel. Masha's insights both as a reader, writer and teacher were invaluable to me in understanding how to overcome the challenges of my story. She took the time to carefully critique my work in a positive and constructive way. In class she fostered a supportive environment, which brought out the best comments and feedback from fellow students. As a result of studying with Masha, I completed that novel and recently signed with a literary agent and am working on my next novel. If what you want is feedback and guidance, then Masha's class is the way to go. – Teri, New York

Wow, what a meeting!!!! (I know, don't use more than one exclamation point, but it is necessary in this case.) It was truly our pleasure to have you with us. How you involved us was not only sharing a valuable technique but enlightening/liberating as well. Thank you so very much for sharing your expertise with us. – Jan, Portland, OR

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Guest in Progress: Paula Whyman

Given the following report, it’s appropriate that I first met Paula Whyman at a conference: The 2006 Washington Independent Writers Spring Conference. We happened to sit next to each other at lunch and discovered that not only did we have friends in common, but that we had also attended the same MFA program (at different times).

Several months later, I ran into her at a reading by one of our mutual friends and we went out for coffee afterwards…one of those conversations where you cover miles and miles of ground and return home with a head packed with new ideas and information. (Maybe it was the, it was Paula!)

But I really knew we were simpatico when I was at a Richard Ford reading at Politics & Prose bookstore. Ford gave a lovely reading from his novel The Lay of the Land, and took questions afterwards. Man after man after man asked a question…despite the fact that the audience was about half women. So I walked over to the microphone to ask a question, just so at least one woman would speak. Who reached the microphone just as I did? Paula! In unison, we whispered to one another, “I was tired of hearing only from the men.”

She’s smart and fun and, as you can see from the following piece, very observant and a careful student of writing craft. I’m longing for her to finish her novel and get it out in the world…I’m dying to read it!

Tin House Summer Writers Workshop:
Getting to the Heart of the Matter in the Hula Hoop Zone

I’ve recently returned from a fabulous week at the Tin House Summer Writer's Workshop in Portland, Oregon. Believe it or not, I didn’t go just for the hula-hooping on the quad. In fact, I was initially concerned that I wasn’t hip enough for a conference given by the uber-hip quarterly;—I mean, how many conferences have a signature martini?–however, as it turned out there were many writers in my category, over 40 and what I’ll call “post-hip,” which itself sounds kind of hip, doesn’t it? So hip, you can’t even tell we’re hip (and not yet on our way to hip-replacement, har har…).

The workshop faculty included Colson Whitehead, Aimee Bender, Charles D’Ambrosio, Charles Baxter, and Dorothy Allison (although at the last minute Allison was unable to attend due to an emergency). Add to that the chance to focus on craft for a whole week with other writers in the verdant setting of the Reed College campus, and I thought, Why not? But most of all, I was intrigued by the idea of a one-week novel workshop. I had a draft of my novel ready to go, and I knew full well it needed work. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to focus on it.

My workshop leader was Karen Shepard, author of three novels, including Don’t I Know You, and a teacher at Williams College. There were eleven talented women in my group, and we didn’t suffer for lack of a Y chromosome, as the work was far from homogenous, ranging from Southern Gothic to academic satire. We read the first 25 pages of each participant’s novel along with a synopsis and a description of the goals the writer hoped to achieve with her work.

We all marveled at Karen’s boundless energy and ability to keep discussion focused on the big, important issues. She approached each piece like a work of literature. We talked about what makes a good beginning, and we interpreted what was on the page—narrative voice, time, point-of-view, character, what themes the writer seemed to be working with and how they might be developed more effectively. The general discussions that grew out of each person’s work touched on issues that impacted everyone. For instance, we talked about victims and perpetrators, how victims as characters can be rather flat and uncomplex, and how it’s more interesting and perhaps more realistic to portray characters as both, to include in one’s work the way people can be agents in their own dilemmas.

Karen was generous with her time, eating lunch with us on several occasions and scheduling one-on-one meetings. In my case, she got to the heart of what I need to accomplish with my revisions, which is pretty amazing considering she only read the first few chapters. She’s also a talented line editor—now if only I could persuade her to edit all 300 pages!

Mooning Ducks Comment on New Proulx…

The spiritual center of the conference for me was a pond that was more like a primordial swamp and is known as the ‘Canyon.’ The Canyon lay picturesquely at the center of the campus and behind every reader who stood at the podium at the Cerf Amphitheatre (great setting, brutally uncomfortable bench seats). A tranquil woodland of 26 acres, run through with wetlands and circled by walking trails, the pond was host to ducks and herons, snakes, and nutria (huge water rodents that resemble big groundhogs). Families of ravens flew over noisily at appropriate poetic moments, while dining ducks mooned the audience with their white-feathered bottoms, and the nutria broke the stillness of the water. All this made for great visual interest during the evening readings. When Annie Proulx headlined, she chose her piece to complement the setting, a story about the devil, an ornithologist, and some fake pterodactyls. It wasn’t her best work, but we gave her a pass for being willing to share new, unpublished writing, as many of the faculty members bravely did when their turns came. It was a privilege to get a peek at so much new work, much of it very fine, some of it even transporting, from so many talented writers.

“…The Skull That It Will Become”: Quick bits from the seminars

I must admit to skipping out on the afternoon panels and seminars at least once to take a walk in the rhododendron garden across the street from campus, but most writers attended the majority of the sessions. (“I paid for them,” said one woman.) If there was any disappointment in the conference, it was that a few presenters seemed unprepared for their talks. Even so, the sessions yielded valuable bits of information. (Also, the lecture hall contained the only comfortable seating on campus as well as the only air conditioning in the middle of a record heat wave…)

Here are some highlights—

Charles Baxter, on building a fictional world: The writer notices what’s in front of everyone that everyone else has missed. Baxter added that he likes to start by imagining someone in a situation that’s getting worse.

Jim Shepard (Karen’s husband, and author of Project X) performed an incisive, detailed analysis of Raymond Carver’s story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” focusing on the impact that can be made by leaving things unstated and letting astute readers interpret the subtext. Shepard: “Shape is made by exclusion.”

Charles D’Ambrosio, on conflict: When things are equally true in a story they create tension. Some writers find the tension in a story too much to bear, and they kill it off too soon. Don’t be afraid to introduce tension that will disrupt a poetic mood you’ve created. In my favorite quote of the conference, D’Ambrosio paraphrased Flaubert, saying, “Never look into a baby’s face without seeing the skull it will become.”

I see them everywhere, skull after skull after skull. But what I find really absorbing is to look at the skull and imagine the baby it once was.

Steve Almond led a rousing (oh, sorry) analysis of bad sex writing and how to avoid doing it (there it is again…), in which he read a luridly bad sex scene and then asked everyone to write their own. He had a couple of students read their scenes aloud, and then commented on them. Since I didn’t volunteer to read mine, I’ll reproduce it (oh sorry, sorry) here:

Troy craved the feel of her oily, matted wool against the bare skin of his belly.
“Baaah,” she said.
“Aaaah,” he said.

Aren’t you relieved that was all I got down in the time allotted? The upshot of the lecture was that sex should reveal something about the characters and/or advance the plot, and it should be organic to the story, or get rid of it.

Stephen Elliott on writing from experience: A writer should not deny himself the tools provided by his own experience when he creates a story. To get going, list your five most powerful memories and choose one as a starting point, even when writing fiction. Elliott suggested asking permission to use a story if you think someone will recognize herself. (So, what do you do about people who “recognize” themselves in your work when it’s not about them??)

One of the more contentious discussions occurred during a panel on the question of authority, or who “gets to” write about what. Some in the audience bridled at the suggestion that it’s all right for a writer who’s not a member of a particular culture or group to write about that group, to presume to tell “someone else’s” story—Does that in effect constitute “stealing” their voice? Panelists and other audience members pointed out that one person from outside a group writing a story doesn’t prevent someone inside that group from writing a story. (And, interestingly, those who protested were not members of those particular groups.) Karen Shepard said that writers are all truly “reptilian” beings—In other words, isn’t that what we do? Once we filter a story through our imagination and put it into words, it’s our own story, no one else’s.

Several mornings I awoke East Coast time, before the heat, to shuffle along the trail that goes around the pond. Something about it must have inspired me, because by the end of the week, I was jogging, having never done so before.

I came home from the conference with a renewed sense of purpose and ready to get to work, plus I have some new colleagues who I’d trust to read and comment on my writing, and a jogging itch I need to scratch. Now if only I could find a swamp with some nutria or even some ill-mannered ducks... ~~Paula Whyman

About: Paula Whyman received the 2006 Washington Writing Prize for a story that appeared in The Hudson Review. She’s a graduate of the American University MFA program, where she received the Myra Sklarew Thesis Award. She’s in the process of revising her novel.

Here is more information about the conference.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Reading Lolita in Alexandria

I have a terrible confession to make and today seems as good as any. I started re-reading Lolita in February, and I got about halfway through it and could go no further. The book sits in limbo on my nightstand. Yes, the writing and language are beautiful. Yes, the narrator is unreliable and the writer is playing games with us. Yes, the book captures America in all its quirkiness. Yes, the characters are deep and complex. Yes, Humbert is self-loathing and clever. Yes, there’s a moment of redemption at the end. Yes, yes, yes.

But Humbert Humbert is GROSS and what he’s doing is WRONG. I shocked myself by not being able to overcome these feelings of repulsion. (Keep in mind that I recently recommended a unsympathetic book here that explores the psychology of the mother of a boy who commits a Columbine-style mass murder…so I don’t think of myself as shirking from tough stuff.)

I know that Lolita is considered a modern masterpiece. And I read the book twice in college for classes and at the time thought it was brilliant (not that there was a choice in one of the classes, since the professor was the man who’d written the annotated version:* his way or the highway). But I memorized the famous opening paragraph, recited it to my boyfriend, who memorized it too. It’s beautiful poetry; I thought it was a beautiful book.

Now, I can’t help but notice that both professors who assigned the book were men. Does that make a difference—or did it at the time? (The book wasn’t assigned in my Women’s Studies class.)

Or is it that now we know that much more about sexual abuse and its horrible aftermath? All I could think about as I read was how screwed up poor little Dolores was going to be (not that she was on the road to normal with that crazy mother, but still). And yes, if she weren’t Lolita, she wouldn’t be remembered; she wouldn’t be immortalized. Even as an artist myself though, there has to be a line drawn. Or was Faulkner right in his famous Nobel speech: “If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate: The ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.” Does art trump all?

Anyway, today I’m conceding defeat and moving the book off my nightstand. I seem to remember that there were a couple books that came out within the past ten years or so from Lolita’s point of view. Maybe all turned out swell for little Lolita and she lived happily ever after…ha!

*Yikes! On amazon, this version is paired with Model Student: A Tale of Co-eds and Cover Girls!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Language of Corn

Back when I was 14 and detasseling corn for minimum wage in Iowa, I had no idea there was much to know about corn. (For a fictionalized account of the torture of detasseling, see Chapter 5, “Cornfields,” of my novel, A Year and a Day.) We were simply told to yank out the tassels.
“Because that’s what you’re paid to do.”

Yet, as reported in my post yesterday, the inadvertently lovely language at the Corn Cam’s official crop report from the the Iowa field office of the National Agricultural Statistical Service in Des Moines indicates there’s much more to know about what’s going on in those fields.

Happily, now we have a full explanation of the crop report courtesy of Doyle Ryan, a retired eastern-Iowa farmer who is now living in Las Vegas, via his son, Dan Ryan, an aspiring writer living in Cheverly, MD (a friend and former Writer’s Center student of mine):

“The silking is an important time for the plant because that is when it pollinates and you don't want weather extremes. Each kernel on an ear of corn has a silk and it needs to be pollinated from the tassel in about a 10-day period. After it is pollinated the kernel starts to grow and has a milky fluid in it. The fluid turns into a doughy paste (hence dough stage). The dough continues to harden and the kernel instead of being round on top gets a dent in it (dent stage). It continues to turn from sugar to starch from the top of the kernel down and is considered mature and safe from frost when this is complete.”

Again, I am reminded that writers not only need to be connoisseurs of the human heart and mind…but that also knowing some interesting facts makes our writing alive and authentic, too.

Thanks, Dan and Doyle. Readers of the blog now know where to go for farming info!

Worth Leaving Your Desk

The PEN/Faulkner Reading Series tickets are now on sale. It’s a great line-up this year, with a wide variety of authors and topics, including Stephen King, Dennis Lehane, Alice McDermott paired with Frank McCourt, and Thomas McGuane, one of my husband’s favorite authors.

And if you’re not familiar with the setting, the Folger Shakespeare Library is a lovely venue, impressive yet intimate. Following each reading is a book signing and reception with the authors.

Get all the details here.

Monday, August 13, 2007

An Interlude in Iowa

Being from Iowa, I couldn’t resist sharing this lovely quotation from an interview with writer Paul Theroux from The Glimmer Train Guide to Writing Fiction: Building Blocks, edited by Susan Burmeister-Brown and Linda B. Swanson-Davies (link via Paper Cuts):

“I have a quite romantic notion of when I was very young. I saw the movie “Picnic” with William Holden. Whenever I think of “Picnic,” I think of hot summers, the picnics, small towns, something dramatic happening. To me, the quintessential American experience is a summer picnic. It’s hot; it’s kind of steamy. It’s very sensual to me. The way the people are dressed, what they say, darkness falling, the crickets, all of that stuff. And I suppose the film was part of it. That moment in middle America when the corn is ripe.”

Upon reading that, I hopped over to the Corn Cam in Iowa to check out if the corn is “ripe” and discovered a lovely, vigorous vocabulary of corn lingo within the official crop report from the Iowa field office of the National Agricultural Statistical Service in Des Moines, (emphasis mine):

”Corn silked, at 96 percent, is 2 percentage points behind last year, but 1 day ahead of normal. Corn in milk stage is at 71 percent, 2 days ahead of last year and 11 days ahead of the five-year average. Corn in dough stage is at 28 percent, 2 percentage points ahead of last year and 5 percentage points ahead of the five-year average. Corn condition is rated at 2 percent very poor, 10 percent poor, 27 percent fair, 44 percent good, and 17 percent excellent.”

Will I use this in my writing some day? You never know, but just understanding that the world is filled with such exactness is crucial for effective creative writing. So, read the newspaper, troll the internet, listen to people on the street, read obscure out-of-print non-fiction. Pay attention!

P.S. Dan, if you'd like to expound upon those terms for us, please drop me a line!

Money for Nothing; Great Class for Free

The Jenny McKean Moore workshop is one of the best things to know about in the DC literary community. Every year, George Washington University hosts a free, semester-long workshop open to all (though acceptance is competitive). Genres alternate—this year it’s poetry—as do teachers, who are usually active writers who have been hired specifically to teach these classes.

I was pleased to take part in the program way back when, in a workshop with writer Carole Maso. She was a good, challenging teacher, who focused on exercises in class and experimentation. And other people I’ve known who have participated have generally had excellent experiences.

So, top-notch instruction for free! What are you waiting for? Here are the application guidelines and official announcement:

Jenny McKean Moore Workshop
Thursdays, 7- 9 p.m., Sep. 13 - Dec. 6, 2007
Led by Ryan G. Van Cleave

Come take part in a free semester-long creative writing workshop! You do not need any academic qualifications or publications to apply. Beginning and/or intermediate writers might find this weekly workshop the most beneficial, though anyone with a genuine interest in improving their own poetry would be most welcome. The class will focus on reading poetry by established writers, as well as provide roundtable critiques of work submitted by class members. There are no fees to participate, but you will be responsible for making enough copies of your writing for all ten participants. Students at Consortium schools (including GWU) are not eligible, nor are those who have already participated in a Jenny McKean Moore Free Community Workshop.

To apply, please submit:
-brief biographical statement (please include contact information)
-statement of interest, outlining your writing history & your motivations for taking this course
-8 to 12 pages of your best original poetry
-SASE if you would like writing samples returned--optional.

APPLICATIONS must be received by SEPTEMBER 3. ACCEPTANCES will be sent by September 11.

Mail to:
Poetry Workshop
Department of English
The George Washington University
801 22nd Street, NW (Suite 760)
Washington, DC 20052

RYAN G. VAN CLEAVE is the author of five poetry collections, including Imagine the Dawn: The Civil War Sonnets and The Magical Breasts of Britney Spears. He also edited two creative writing textbooks and co-edited four poetry anthologies, including Like Thunder: Poets Respond to Violence in America. For more information, please visit:

The George Washington University is an equal opportunity institution.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Guest in Progress: Mary Kay Zuravleff

Mary Kay Zuravleff was in my writing group for several years; we read her wonderful and hilarious novel The Bowl Is Already Broken in draft. (And how fortunate for the world that she ignored our continuous whining about how we “felt uncomfortable with” the omniscient narrator; the book is a zillion percent better for her steadfast vision.) For those people who like to complain that there aren’t enough literary books set in Washington, DC, check out Mary Kay’s work. She takes readers to the really interesting parts of the city beyond what the tourists get to see.

She’s also an inventive teacher…or is it crazy? Last year she led a workshop at George Mason University where the requirement was to write a whole novel in one semester. !! Even more admirable (or crazy?) than that modest goal, was that she worked along with the students, writing her own novel in that short time span. You can read her inspiring newsletter about the class here.

Say What?

A good quote can spur a writer on. And I do mean spur. Although I copy down the occasional carrot, my inspirations are generally pointy sticks that goad me into plodding along. When writers gather, they invariably take turns reciting their motivational quotes, and my turn comes after the luminous words of Roethke or James, Blake or Woolf. Would you believe a call-out quote from a Science Times profile, namely: “Two biologists peered at dead fruit flies every day for two years.” That’s the clipping I hung above my computer for more than two years.

I have others, equally humbling, like Annie Dillard’s “Why not shoot yourself, actually, rather than finish one more excellent manuscript on which to gag the world?” or Flaubert’s “Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.” I find those quotes heart-breaking and soothing in equal measure. Another, more matter-of-fact quote whose author I’ve lost, says, “We have this idea that we have to be in the mood to write. We don’t.” And last year, when I was leading a class to write a novel in ten weeks, I calmed myself with Teddy Roosevelt’s advice: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

But time after time, I return to those biologists, peering at dead fruit flies under magnification, taking note of every blessed gene as it relates to that fly’s distinguishing features (they’re fruit flies!) in order to push forward the study of living creatures writ large. That’s what I do too, on my best days. And on my worst—well, not the very worst, because at least I’m writing—I think of the tedious hours those biologists must put in before any patterns emerge, before clarity begins to break on the horizon and they have a better inkling into who we all are, what we suffer from, and how they might help. As Woolf might have written in response: On then, on to the next fruit fly. ~Mary Kay Zuravleff

About: Mary Kay Zuravleff is the author of two novels, The Bowl Is Already Broken, and The Frequency of Souls (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). You can read more about her at

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Writer's Center Fall Workshop Schedule

Attention DC-area writers: the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, announces that the Fall Workshop listings are now posted and open for registration at

I will be teaching two classes this fall:

Dialogue: How to Talk the Talk
Dialogue seems as though it should be easy since we all talk! But written dialogue should reverberate beyond the sounds of everyday conversation, serving many purposes: revealing character, moving the story forward, supporting your setting. How do you accomplish these effects in your own fiction and memoir? This supportive, hands-on workshop offers tips and techniques that will help the voices of your characters come alive. We’ll be doing a number of exercises in class, so bring pen and paper! 1 hour lunch break.
One day, Saturday, October 27, 2007, 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., in Bethesda, MD

Finding Your Voice: Creating Memorable Fiction and Memoir
Have you always wanted to write but couldn’t quite find the courage to pick up a pencil? Or perhaps you’re a secret writer, scribbling stories in private notebooks, compulsively filling the pages of your journal? This supportive, hands-on workshop will give you courage to write and direction about how to proceed. Through discussion and writing exercises, participants will learn some basic techniques of fiction/memoir writing. The goal is to leave with several promising pieces to finish at home. Bring a pen and lots of paper!
One day, Sunday, November 4, 2007, 12:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m., in Leesburg, VA

And for those who’d like to get a flavor of what else is available, or if you’re not familiar with the great and wide-ranging offerings at the Writer’s Center, mark your calendar for the Open House, on Saturday, September 8, 2007, from noon to 3:00 p.m.

Special hint for out-of-towners or those afraid of rush hour traffic to Maryland: The Writer’s Center also offers a number of online classes!

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

What I'm Reading: In Praise of Darkness

I just finished an incredibly dark, challenging, fascinating novel: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. It’s about a mother whose son has committed a Columbine-style mass murder. The book explores all the nooks and crannies of how such a thing could happen, and none of the characters is left unscathed.

When I say that, what I mean is that Shriver does what I’m always trying to do in my own work and encouraging students to do, which is to PUSH HARDER. So, it’s not enough to have as the centerpiece of the book this horrid mass murder—the point-of-view character, the mother, is quite unsympathetic (though explored in great depth; and with her immense and painful self-awareness, I did sympathize in spite of what she was revealing about herself). The son is also unsympathetic…a baby who seemed uninterested in life and love who grows into a too-smart, nasty boy, a boy “onto” the world at a young age. And yet there are a few moments of vulnerability, and we have to remind ourselves that we’re always seeing him solely through the mother’s eyes. As for the husband/father…you guessed it: unsympathetic! But again, I found myself caught: is it so awful to want to try so hard to have the nice little family you’ve dreamed of?

So I very much admired how this book uses the first person, unreliable narrator and how it tells us from the beginning what the horrific outcome will be. There’s never suspense about the school murder itself—but plenty of tension as we try to understand how it all came to pass. And how does one write an ending to this set-up? Lionel Shriver totally pulls it off!

The book won the prestigious Orange Prize in the U.K., accumulated a barrel of favorable reviews, was selected by the “Good Morning America” book club, and the rights were sold in 11 other countries. So you writers needing a boost of perseverance will be interested to know that in an essay following the text in the paperback edition, Shriver writes that when she finished this novel, her agent claimed it couldn’t sell, sending an email saying, “I just don’t think anyone is going to want to publish a book about a kid doing such maxed-out, over-the-top, evil things, especially when it’s written from such an unsympathetic point of view.” Shriver spent 8 months sending the book around to various agents. Finally, she sent it directly to an editor: “She read it over the weekend and made an offer on Monday.”

Great book, great backstory. Read—study—learn. And if you’d like to know more, here's an interesting interview with Lionel Shriver.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Novellas: The Forgotten Step-Child No More

I love novellas: Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter; Ethan Canin’s collection of three novellas, The Palace Thief; The Old Forest by Peter Taylor; The Age of Grief by Jane Smiley; Hunger by Lan Samantha Chang. Sadly, there’s little incentive to write novellas (beyond their own inherent satisfaction) since they’re so hard to get published. That’s why I’m always pleased to see publishers and/or journals step up and offer opportunities like the following. In my opinion, the contest fee is a little steep, but at least you get a copy of the winning novella. Here are the contest guidelines:

The Miami University Novella Contest

The novella form has had a long and distinguished place in American literature, and has triumphed in the hands of Herman Melville, Henry James, Katherine Anne Porter, Stanley Elkin, Cynthia Ozick, Jane Smiley, Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, William Gass, John Gardner, Andrea Barrett and Tobias Wolff, to name just a few.

As commercial publishers are driven more and more by marketplace concerns, novellas, by nature of their length, often fall between the cracks of short story collections and novels and wind up being published-if at all-not as individual volumes but as part of a collection of stories. Because the form is such a pleasure for readers and writers alike-short enough to be read at a single sustained sitting, but long enough to allow the writer greater freedom in character and plot development than does the short story-we are happy to present a rare venue for publishing individual novellas as stand-alone volumes.

Manuscripts submitted for the award will be read and evaluated by our creative writing faculty, all of whom are active publishing writers. The manuscripts will be read "blind;" in other words, all identifiers will be stripped from the pages before the manuscripts are read, and the author’s history of previous publication will not be available to readers. Each year a different member of our faculty will serve as the final judge and will decide from among the list of finalists submitted by the other readers. This year’s final judge is fiction writer Brian Ascalon Roley.

Students, former students, faculty, former faculty, or anyone connected to Miami University will not be considered for the award. Though we believe strongly in the talent of those we have worked with and taught, we will do everything we can to assure that this prize is administered impartially, fairly, and without regard to association.

Miami University Press is a non-profit organization. Though we are requiring an entrance fee, we wish to make it clear that this money will be used to pay for the administrative costs of the contest, to help with the costs of publishing a book of high quality, and to allow each entrant to receive a copy of the winning volume. We want that book to be a pleasure to hold in the hands and to read. The winning volume will be distributed nationwide.

Submission Rules and Guidelines:
Winning entry receives $1,000 and book publication.
Postmark by November 1, 2007.
Reading fee $25, payable to MU Press.
All entrants receive copy of winning book.
Submit manuscripts, 40,000 words or less, two title pages, one with author’s name, address and phone number, one without. Author’s name must not appear elsewhere.
The minimum word count is 60 pages times 300 words or 18,000 words.

For more information, click here.

Mail to:
MU Press Novella Prize
English Department
356 Bachelor Hall
Miami University
Oxford, OH 45056

Guest in Progress: Follow-Up News

Marty Rhodes Figley, who entertained us in this amusing post about the writing life, will now be writing a regular humor blog here.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Guest in Progress: W.T. Pfefferle

It’s the classic question for any writer: Where do your characters come from? Like the other popular question—So what’s your book about?—the answer is never simple. Except when it is.

Here’s a remarkable story about where one writer found his character in a seemingly easy way…though, of course, nothing about writing is ever as easy as it seems, right?

I’ve known W.T. Pfefferle for about a thousand years (that’s what people say when they don’t want to give clues about how old they are): we met in graduate school at American University. Together we endured each other’s slavish Raymond Carver imitations in fiction workshops, wolfed cheese cubes and pate at visiting writer readings, and together, with much angst and many arguments, started Folio, the wonderful literary journal that is still published at AU. (Who knew such a fine journal once had staples down its spine?)

He’s an unforgettable guy and a marvelous writer. His new book, The Meager Life and Modest Times of Pop Thorndale, is a collection of narrative poems in which we meet Pop Thorndale, a slightly more motivated Prufrock of our time, “writing it all down” to create:

A staggering memoir.
Heavy enough to conk a cockroach,
but light enough to carry with a beach chair
and the last four bottles of Amstel Light.

Character Studies
W.T. Pfefferle

For more than twenty years I’ve been a writer. I’ve published a variety of books: a textbook, a guide to internet resources, and a sort of travel memoir about a year I spent traveling the country in a motorhome to interview and photograph other writers.

My own creative work has been in poetry and short stories. Many years ago, I wrote a couple of thin novels that I was never able to sell, but my poetry has appeared widely in literary magazines all around the country.

Because of my fiction background, my poetry could best be described as narrative. I’ve always known – and had been taught – that characters are at the heart of good storytelling. We crave “good” characters to read about or watch on the screen. We want them to be real, at least as real as a made up person can be, and we want to identify with them, feel for them, wish for them. A good character can make a lot of bad medicine – or writing – go down smoothly, and it’s rare that any literature can be very good without at least one extraordinary and rich character.

Three years ago, I was in my car at an intersection when a “character” drove by, a man in his early 50s in a red convertible. All I could see was his bald head and his heavy trunk, one hand on the steering wheel, and one arm resting casually across the back of the front seat. His head was tilted back as if he was drinking in the pleasure of that day. He didn’t look crazy; I don’t mean that. As his car floated through the intersection in front of me I thought, “That guy is really living. That guy knows who he is.”

His name came to me right away, Pop. I thought of him as Pop. I even had a line, “Pop goes the mighty freaking weasel,” when I first saw him. I don’t know where it came from, but I imagined him to be – in the old parlance – a wiseacre. I imagined him a wife and a son. I saw him standing behind the counter of some shop or store. I pictured him at day’s end tallying up what he’d accomplished. I knew right away that I’d write about him.

Never in 20 years of writing had a character presented himself in this way to me. I’d dreamed up people, created countless faux copies of myself, and I’d even lifted characters off of TV shows for my own purposes. (One only needs to change a physical characteristic or an occupation when stealing TV people for a short story or a poem. Think of Jerry Seinfeld no longer as a comedian, but an ice skater. He’s funny like Jerry, has friends like George and Elaine, but now he is a low-rent ice capades guy looking for happiness and love.)

So, although it had not happened before, Pop came into my life and I began to write about him.

Pop came to life for me in prose first. I had a chapter of his “complaints,” just a list of things he was mad about. I imagined myself in the passenger seat of that convertible listening in as he talked. At first, I worried that Pop was just another version of me – I am close to 50, bald, heavy, etc. But Pop’s voice – which I could hear in my head – was different. His concerns weren’t the same as mine. He was crankier than me, for example, and more importantly, less afraid to be cranky. I finished a chapter and moved to another, one about his wife, Judith. I did a chapter about Grease, his son. I wrote about his job. These little chapters (2-4 pages) were full of information. I felt as though I were making a movie and I was writing background notes for the actors who’d play Pop, Judith, Grease, and the rest of the folks in Pop’s world.

When I had the foundation of his story, of his life, I had some other projects that needed tending, and Pop and his world stayed on my hard drive unwatched.

Almost a year passed and I opened a file called “PopThorndale.doc.” I didn’t even remember giving him a last name, but there it was. It felt wordy to me, and I began excising lines wholesale. A whole paragraph of material became this opening line: “I am mad about 5 things today." The way I was deleting text gave the page a ragged right hand margin, and suddenly the thing became poetry. I took out any authorial narrative and just let Pop speak his poems directly to the reader, dramatic monologue-style, each poem bringing the reader bits of Pop’s past.

As time went on, Pop’s world became more complex. With the foundation in place, I was able to plumb Pop’s past, problems with his son, his wife’s indiscretion, Pop’s longing to be more than he had been. I ended up writing about one year in Pop’s life – as it turns out, his last. Seventy-five poems and a year later, I had told Pop’s story in his own voice. It was a novel in poems, perhaps a memoir in poems. I began entering the book in poetry contests – about the only way to secure publication of poetry anymore – and after being a finalist a half dozen times over a two year period, won a contest and shepherded the book to publication. It’s called The Meager Life and Modest Times of Pop Thorndale, a title – I hope – that Pop himself would love.

When I read from it at a national convention of poets, more than two years removed from its writing, I felt Pop’s voice in my own, recalled again the first image I had of him in that convertible, and I marveled at the richness and complexity of Pop as he had been created on the pages I held. I read poems about his troubled childhood, his courtship of Judith, the birth of his son, his wife’s affair, and his life-long malaise. I knew him, and felt his story was something worth telling.

I’ve been writing fiction and poetry for more than 20 years, and it alarms me to realize that never had I been blessed with a character so real, so alive. For me, characters had always been names and descriptions, a cute phrase, an intriguing – but one-dimensional – background that led to some action that led to some kind of climax, and then a sad dénouement. This was always followed – as it often is for writers – by a vain and sad attempt to get someone (anyone) to publish the thing.

In this case, Pop came about organically. I didn’t force him into being. I wasn’t looking for Pop. Pop found me. And his story got told only after I knew who he was, what he wanted, what he was missing. The day he drove across that intersection was a day when I wasn’t looking for a story. It was not a day when I was trying to wrestle with my very mediocre and unimportant career as a writer. (Despite many years of trying, I’m absolutely nobody in the world of literature. I’m a pretty good teacher of writing and a damn fine golfer, but I’m only a half-able temp in the corporation called LiteratureAmerica.)

So, when Pop drove through that intersection, and when I let his image and his story grow in my brain without pressure, without panic, he became real. I have writer friends who dutifully note the details of mundane life, caching ideas, lines of dialogue, and artifacts for future writings. One pal can’t stop himself from asking new acquaintances a variety of questions designed to mine new material: “What was on the walls of your bedroom when you were a kid?’ or “What was the weirdest job you ever had?” and “If someone were to punch you, would you ‘do’ something first, or ‘say’ something?”

And I suppose in my own writing I’ve done similar things, forcing characters into being, rolling them down a mountain of conflict, urging them, coaxing them into a sort of fake real world that makes up a short story or a poem. And my feeling is that it was always a mistake. Forcing characters to life is not a path to anything real. I can blow up 20 rubber dolls and arrange them around my living room, but that doesn’t make it a party. And my characters in the past were about that real, shiny on the outside, empty inside.

Better yet to keep one’s eyes open, at the intersection or elsewhere. ~~ W.T. Pfefferle

About: W.T. Pfefferle’s most recent book is The Meager Life and Modest Times of Pop Thorndale, available through He came to the U.S. from Canada in the late 1970s, did several years of college work, and then settled in Texas for more than a decade where he taught writing by day and played in bad bar bands at night. He published two books with Prentice Hall in the late 1990s, and then moved into writing program administration. He took a sabbatical from teaching in 2004 to research and write his third book, Poets on Place: Tales and Interviews from the Road (Utah State University Press), a travel memoir. His own poetry has appeared in a variety of journals, including Antioch Review, Virginia Quarterly, Nimrod, Greensboro Review, Carolina Quarterly, Mississippi Review, and North American Review. He has been married since 1984, and favors Finlandia vodka, Fender Telecasters, and Nike forged blades.

Free Workshop for Kids

Here’s an announcement from local children’s author Erica Perl:

“I’m going to be teaching a free writing workshop for kids at the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ Festival of Books (located in downtown Washington, DC at 1250 New York Ave, NW, near the Metro Center metro stop), this coming Sunday, August 5 at 1:00 p.m. I invite you to attend and/or let friends know about this event. The workshop is free, as are all Festival of Books activities, but the museum requires that you call and reserve a spot. For more information or to make a reservation, please go to the museum web site.

“The workshop is geared to kids ages 6-12 and their parents. Katy Kelly and Jacqueline Jules, two of my fellow DC-based children’s book authors are also participating. The events run from 1:00 – 4:00 p.m. and it should be a really fun afternoon!”

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

It's Still a Dark and Stormy Night

Results from the 25th annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest were announced. As you probably know, this is the contest in which bad is good, named for British novelist Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton who gave us this memorable gem:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness." ~~Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)

The 2007 winning entry was written by Jim Gleeson, from Madison, Wisconsin:

"Gerald began--but was interrupted by a piercing whistle which cost him ten percent of his hearing permanently, as it did everyone else in a ten-mile radius of the eruption, not that it mattered much because for them "permanently" meant the next ten minutes or so until buried by searing lava or suffocated by choking ash--to pee."

I confess that my favorite category is the “Purple Prose” award. Here’s the winner, followed by some fun “dishonorable mentions”:

"Professor Radzinsky wove his fingers together in a tweed-like fabric, pinched his lips together like a blowfish, and began his lecture on simile and metaphor, which are, like, similar to one another, except that similes are almost always preceded by the word 'like' while metaphors are more like words that make you think of something else beside what you are describing." ~~Wayne McCoy, Gainesville FL

"The tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife, not even a sharp knife, but a dull one from that set of cheap knives you received as a wedding gift in a faux wooden block; the one you told yourself you'd replace, but in the end, forgot about because your husband ran off with another man, that kind of knife." ~~Lisa Lindquist, Oak West, Jackson, MI

"The car headlights were pale--like a struck match viewed through a piece of smoked glass which you think you remember using to watch a solar eclipse around the time Alison and the children were still living here, which would have been the year before you got the job at the all-night bakery, twenty humid summers ago--because the alternator was faulty." ~~Richard Preddy, London, England

"She had curves that just wouldn't quit, like on one of those car commercials where a stunt driver slides a sexy new sports car around hairpin turn after hairpin turn while some poor musician, down on his luck and having been forced to sell out his dream of superstardom for a lousy 30-second ad jingle, sings "Zoom, zoom, zoom" in the background." ~~ Amber Dubois, Denver, CO

"Her hair was the color of old copper, not green with white streaks like you see on roofs and statues where birds have been messing, but the kind you find on dark pennies from back in the nineteen-forties or fifties after God knows how many thumbs have been rubbing Abe Lincoln's beard." ~~Michael A. Cowell, Norwalk, CA

For a complete list of winners, check here. And if you think you can do better (worse?) and want to enter next year’s competition, get out your purple pen and follow these guidelines.


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