Thursday, November 29, 2007

Work in Progress: New Year's Resolutions for Writers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. Write today.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Tomorrow: Cyberquestions with Ha Jin

Writer Carole Burns sends along this announcement:

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

Ask questions now or during the discussion:

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

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

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

Beyond Santa's "Workshop"

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

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A New Level of Self-Indulgence: "Valuables"

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

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

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

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

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

a personal essay by Leslie Pietrzyk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 26, 2007

You Oughta Write Pictures

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


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

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

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

Saturday, 12/1/07, 10am – 4pm

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

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Call for Manuscripts: Sex Ed Stories

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

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

SEX ED STORIES: an anthology of experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 19, 2007

Upcoming Events of Note

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

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

In Mary Kay’s own inimitable words:

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Guest in Progress: Sean Enright

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Agent ISO Writers

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

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

Deadline for queries: December 1, 2007.

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

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

More on Self-Publishing

Entertainment lawyer Joy Butler’s blog features the rest of her exploration of the world of self-publishing, including this post about two novelists who were happy with their self-publishing experiences.

Also, check out this mention of a Wall Street Journal article about self-publishing.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Battling Chaos

Katharine Davis, who posted this lovely piece on the blog after seeing an artist speak about the creative process in Maine, has an article out in the December 2007 issue of The Writer magazine. Unfortunately, there’s no link on line, but her advice is worth a trip to the library or bookstore.

“How to Avoid the Paper Chase” is about managing all the scraps of paper and files and folders and, simply put, crap that can accumulate during the years-long process of writing a novel. Here’s one of her suggestions:

Keep an idea book. I took a notebook when I went to Paris to work on my first novel.* This idea book had to be small enough to carry everywhere. I used it to record details of place—like the color of the aprons the waiters wore in the Café de Flore. I used it for seating charts, because in a Paris novel the characters frequently sit around tables eating and drinking. I kept notes on my characters in the idea book. I wrote down thoughts wherever they came to me: in the middle of the night, while riding on buses, or sitting in a café.

“The idea book is extremely flexible—essentially it’s a place to write any thoughts you don’t want to forget. It’s useful in the early inspirational state of a book, but also a great tool when you come to a stumbling block or feel stalled. Flipping through it may trigger an idea for a scene that gives a character greater emotional depth, or remind you of a detail that will make a setting more believable. The idea book is useful at all stages of a novel in progress.”

Sure beats my system: let scraps of paper, ripped-out newspaper and magazine articles, and scribbled on manuscript pages held with giant binder clips pile up in every corner of your writing area until you want to scream at the chaos and your husband pulls your office door shut every time he has to pass by it; but never, ever throw anything away because you superstitiously believe that once you do, you’ll later realize that was the key to the whole book…if only you could remember what exactly it was that you had written on the back of that last deposit slip you tore out of your checkbook while riding on the Metro.

I fear it’s too late for this current novel—my “system” is entrenched—but I plan to adopt some of Kitty’s strategies with my next book. Maybe my husband will stop recoiling in horror when he glances in my office!

* Capturing Paris—a wonderful book, beautifully evocative of Paris!

Monday, November 12, 2007

Your Best Years May Be Ahead of You

Worried that time has passed you by and you’ll die an unrecognized genius? Even if your worries are more mundane (paper or plastic? cheddar or swiss?) this article in Sunday’s Washington Post about the differences between the genius of youth and of older folk is worth checking out.

I found this encouraging:

"Pablo Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Arthur Rimbaud, Orson Welles and Bob Dylan all revolutionized their artistic disciplines before they turned 30. They were archetypal young geniuses. But Paul Cézanne, Mark Twain, William Butler Yeats, Alfred Hitchcock and Irving Berlin made equally important contributions to the same art forms, and they all produced their greatest work at 50 or older.

"The differences between these artists' creative life cycles are not accidental. Precocious young geniuses make bold and dramatic innovations -- think of Picasso's cubism -- and their work often expresses their ideas or feelings. Wise old masters, on the other hand, are experimental thinkers who proceed by trial and error. Their work, such as Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, often aims at realistic representations of what the artists see and hear.”

Bottom line, folks: No excuse not to keep plowing ahead! Never too late for "wise old masters."

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Guest in Progress: Ryan Krausmann

I met Ryan Krausmann in the summer of 2003, when he was in my “Beginning Your Novel” workshop at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda. At the time, he shared with the class a very promising opening chapter for a novel about a guy trying to decide whether or not to get married; among other things, I particularly admired Ryan’s spare but evocative prose. After the class, from time to time, I’d get an email from him or hear some scrap of news of him from some other members of the workshop. And then at the beginning of this summer, he wrote that he was quitting his job to work full-time on a new novel.

How exciting, I wrote back, please keep me posted. I was envious and admiring and inspired—and totally curious as to how it would all turn out for him. I was reminded of a wonderful quotation that I think of often—even as I don’t live it nearly enough—that I remember from Julia Cameron’s The Artist's Way: “Make the leap, and the net will appear.” Bold moves like Ryan’s are always exciting to hear about, and often rewarded.

A few weeks ago, I got the update: he had finished a draft of his novel!

Congratulations, I wrote back, now I really want to hear the details. (Okay—I’m paraphrasing, since my emails usually contain too many exclamation points to be quoted.)

And he was kind enough to write up the following for the blog. If you were thinking of a bold move of your own, perhaps you’ll be inspired by Ryan’s experience:

Many people quit their job to do something crazy. Some buy a plane ticket and backpack through Europe. Some hitchhike the U.S. from one coast to another. I decided I’d write the novel that I had in my head for two years. I’d been able to get some chapters done on nights and weekends but what I really wanted was to write every single morning without the interruption of a job. Three summer months – June, July, and August – would be set aside solely for the novel. I wasn’t going to do a job search. I wasn’t going to worry about money. I was going to put as many words on paper as I could.

The first surprise was every friend told of my plan was supportive and excited. They checked-in all summer through emails and phone calls to see how the writing was going. They were proud of me.

My characters – once packed into a short story – now had space for long conversations about high school life over their lunch breaks. They talked about their fears and dreams, frustrations and joys. These dialogues didn’t advance the plot and won’t make it to the next draft but my characters discovered their voices and I discovered that they had parents, brothers, grandparents, mentors, and best friends. A novel is long enough to contain all these people.

My father pretended to understand the unemployment, but he showed patience. This was not something he could offer advice on, disapprove of, or endorse. He takes his self-esteem from success at business: from grueling hard work and making daily sales. He doesn’t see how someone can stop going to the office or the warehouse and not get depressed.

Writers – you realize after a few weeks – need not shave. My face was left stubbly most days. Those Gap khakis I wore every day to work remained on the closet hangar. Instead I wore gym shorts and T-shirts every day and often the same clothes on consecutive days. I was conserving trips to the basement laundry. My brother and his girlfriend visited me for a week and I think they noticed I didn’t change my cargo shorts the whole time.

It’s shocking the sheer amount of words it takes to fill-up a novel: Descriptions, inner thoughts, movements, personal histories, and conversations. Many mornings I’d wished I could draw pictures rather then pounding out pronouns and adjectives just for the variation.

My mother reminded me that all who wander are not lost. Many successful people take a break from their working careers. They re-fresh their batteries and re-sharpen their saws.

I drank two or three Pepsis a day. Novel-writing I originally thought would not be a job dependent on caffeine and I could give up coffee and soda. This was wrong. After two months I took my girlfriend’s recommendation and switched to three cans of Diet Pepsi a day.

The ghost of a character’s grandfather appeared in the library even though that wasn’t in the novel’s outline. This book was to be realistic like the classics East of Eden and Middlemarch, which I never finished. The ghost stayed, however, above all because I was interested to see how things turned out. He was a very nice old man, this ghost. He also took up half a chapter which helps to fill up a novel.

I realized that writers have no meetings, no conferences and no lunch dates with co-workers. I got lonely. I emailed and called everyone in Washington, DC who’d go out to lunch with me. For these lunches, I showered, shaved, and put on clean clothes.

I turned the novel writing process into a marathon race to hit three hundred pages although I never figured out why people want novels to be three hundred pages.

I re-read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and was secretly pleased that this time while reading it I was actually writing every morning and took the book’s advice and used it.

The money in my bank account slowly depleted and I wondered if leaving that cubicle job was the right choice.

On the afternoon I wrote the scene where Nicole dumped David, I was sad for the rest of the day and night. These teenagers spent three months with me and became a sort of family. I had empathy for them.

When buying toothpaste at CVS the lady at the counter was not impressed with me no matter how great I wrote that morning.

When I finished the book I know I had only finished a first draft. It had taken until October and five months rather than the allotted three. On the day that I finished I felt frustrated, angry, and wasteful of my money and energy. But in two days or maybe three or four I felt peace and contentment and knew I would collect my energy for the writing of draft two.

Most importantly after having spent the summer as a novelist I emerged as a looser and more open writer. The next draft needs better dialogue, a tighter plot, more detail in the secondary characters, a better ending, and cleaner prose – but that is all for 2008 and even beyond. As of now, I am less afraid of the white page and more open to let the characters evolve as they want to evolve. My fingers are even literally looser on the keyboard as the words come to me. I have grown to be more open and loose and in sympathy with my characters and hopefully with the world. ~~Ryan Krausmann

About: Ryan Krausmann has lived in Florida, Washington, DC, and now resides in Philadelphia, PA.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

What About Self-Publishing?

If you’ve thought about self-publishing or print-on-demand or any of the brave new technologies that allow writers to bypass the traditional, “New York editor” approach of publishing, you need to keep an eye on lawyer Joy Butler’s blog. She was recently on a Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) panel about self-publishing and she’s posting her remarks in a five-part series on her new blog, to include, according to her, “the pluses and minuses (in my opinion anyway) of the various approaches to publishing: (i) publishing with a traditional publisher, (ii) publishing via POD printing, (iii) using a subsidy press, and (iv) working directly with distributors and wholesalers.”

The first installment is up right now, and Part Two will be posted on Thursday on her blog.

P.S. If you missed it, Joy wrote up a great piece for Work in Progress about using copyrighted material in our work, which you can find here.

P.P.S. For the information every writer should know about copyrighted material, you might want to get her book, The Permission Seeker’s Guide Through the Legal Jungle: Clearing Copyrights, Trademarks and Other Rights for Media and Entertainment Productions, which is both comprehensive and comprehensible!

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Fifth Wednesday Wants You

Fifth Wednesday, a new journal with its first issues hot off the presses (are things printed on “presses” these days?), is looking for submissions, reports Guest Poetry Editor Anna Leahy. She was kind enough to give an insider’s view of the editorial process, noting that because the deadline for the upcoming issue is January 15, 2008, NOW is a good time to submit, “when readers aren’t as swamped as in January.” She also mentioned that the Managing Editor reports that creative nonfiction and black and white photography submissions are running a little low. So…can you alleviate that situation?

Here’s some additional information from the journal’s mission statement on the web site:

“We are dedicated to encouraging good writing and good reading. We seek to bring together readers and the best poets and storytellers we can find, both established writers and fresh new voices. We are committed to quality writing, which is entertaining, intellectually stimulating, and emotionally meaningful for the reader. In short, we seek to publish work that we enjoy and can enthusiastically recommend to our readers.

"We welcome prose and poetry in any style—traditional, realistic, modern, and experimental—you name it, as long as it meets our standards for high quality in content and form. We intend to offer a broad range of poems and stories with appeal for a wide range of quality readers. If you think we might like your work, but are in doubt, submit it and find out.”

And, from the submission guidelines:

“All submissions to Fifth Wednesday Journal must be original, unpublished work in English. By submitting your work to FWJ, you indicate your consent for us to publish your work in our print journal. For publication FWJ acquires first North American serial rights. After publication, all rights revert to the author.

“We offer two copies of the issue in which your work appears and all the exposure we can generate for you. We welcome simultaneous submissions with the understanding that you will inform us if your work is accepted elsewhere.

“Each fiction work accepted for publication will be eligible for an annual Editor's Fiction Prize of $35. Each poem accepted will be eligible for an annual Editor's Poetry Prize of $35. Each photograph accepted for publication will be eligible for an annual Editor's Photography Prize of $35.

Manuscripts must be submitted electronically using the form on the web site or as a CD sent by surface mail to Fifth Wednesday Journal, P. O. Box 4033, Lisle, IL 60532-9033.”

There are additional requirements for each category, so please check the web site for details.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Writing Exercises: Pen to Paper...Now!

I gave one of my favorite classes this weekend, “Finding Your Creative Voice,” and was reminded once again how valuable (and fun!) writing exercises can be. Though the results of this exercise wasn’t shared, many members of the class reported discovering some interesting things writing memories and free association about “basements” for five minutes. And we had some excellent results from a visualization exercise where everyone spent time thinking about a house they knew well and then writing up a scene set there: some great details that probably wouldn’t have come to the surface without the five minutes first spent visualizing.

Here are two books of exercises I recommend (i.e. steal from) all the time:

--Writing Without the Muse: 50 Beginning Exercises for the Creative Writer, by Beth Baruch Joselow
With this book, you could open to any page and just let yourself go. Sadly, it’s out of print, but it’s easy to find used copies.

--What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers, by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter
This book is organized by topic, so if you wanted to focus on, say, point of view, you could find a slew of exercises geared to helping you with that.

I would be totally remiss if I also didn’t mention my friend C.M Mayo’s 365 Daily 5 Minute Writing Exercise—yes, one for every day of the year—which can be found here. Here’s today’s exercise…so you have no excuses not to get started!

“November 5: Welcome to Your Kitchen
Assume that you are a refugee. After an entire year in a refugee camp, you return home. Now describe your actual kitchen -- but do not mention anything about being a refugee or the refugee camp.”

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Work in Progress: NaNoWriMo

Today is the first day of NaNoWriMo—how many words have you written? For those unfamiliar with National Novel Writing Month, the DCist provides a nice background article along with some motivating tips from area writers. Basically, the idea is to write the first draft of a novel (or 50,000 words) during the month of November (guess Thanksgiving’s not at your house when you sign on for this!). To be official, you register at the NaNoWriMo web site—which offers two important factors I feel are necessary to many writing and artistic undertakings, guilt and pressure. Now everyone knows you’ve committed to completing that draft…but on the plus side, now you have a community of support that can help you reach your goal. You get support, motivating tips, a chance to meet others who are suffering the same wicked writing pace you are. (FYI—50,00 words = 1,667 words per day if you write every single day of November, or about 5-6 pages depending on your font.)

I’ve never participated in NaNoWriMo myself, but I like the underlying principle, which is simply to KEEP WRITING. Under this plan, there is no time to revise, no time to worry that your sentences aren’t perfect (they aren’t; they never are and never will be). The goal is to produce the draft—and then, once you know your story, that’s when you get to go back and revise. To me, that’s the most fun part of the writing process: shaping the story, getting it, well, not perfect, but as perfect as you can.

I’m always advocating to students that they write forward in their novels. After a workshop critiques a chapter, yes, it’s tempting to go home and fix everything and incorporate the new ideas you have. But I really wish these students wouldn’t do that…. First of all, you don’t know what your story is—how do you know that somewhere down the line you might turn Ann into Andy and change that scene you’ve so beautifully crafted from an airport to the bar? Or, maybe you’ll cut that chapter altogether? It doesn’t make sense to work and work and work on one chapter when you have a story of 20 chapters ahead of you. Get it all out on paper and then go back and worry about that first chapter. You’ll have a much clearer idea of how to fix it then.

It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen to those critiques. My writing group has been reading my novel-in-progress, and as we go along, I reflect on their comments and make adjustments as I write forward. It can be a bit confusing—“Remember how the mother was an alcoholic in Chapter 2? Now she isn’t.”—but it’s the best way for me to get my book out. By the end of the book, I’ll know for sure that she isn’t alcoholic—and I’ll also know a thousand more things about her that I didn’t know in Chapter 2, that I can now return to and revise, letting my new knowledge inform and shape the work.

The first draft is the “let it loose” stage—and you have to accept that you, the writer, don’t even know what “it” is or will be. But you will by the end, whether your last day of writing is November 30, or however long it takes. Write forward—trust that your pages will accumulate into your story. Once the story’s there, you can revise and shape and, okay, make it perfect!

(Hey—if anyone is participating in NaNoWriMo, let me know. I’d love to hear a dispatch from someone down in the trenches…you know, in your spare writing time, after you’ve put in your 1667 words!)


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