Thursday, August 28, 2008

Work in Progress: Playing the Waiting Game

I’ve been having a summer of waiting to see what will happen with the novel I finished revising in June. I’m terrible at waiting—I’m the most impatient person on earth—but in this case, there’s no alternative. So…I’ve waited for people to return from vacation and then waited for them to pay attention to my work amidst their piles of post-vacation crap. Then, I waited for more people to return from vacation and am still waiting for several of them. As I understand it, the publishing business pretty much shuts down in August, so this month has been excruciating—I can’t even comfort myself by envisioning someone reading my book because I know it’s simply plopped on a stack of other people’s books, waiting. Of course, once we hit the fall, there’s the Frankfurt book fair that keeps the publishing people busy, then there’s Thanksgiving and the holidays, when of course no one gets any work done. I guess there’s a brief window of actual work in mid-winter and early spring, and then it’s the big BEA book convention and we’re back to summer when no one is around to read manuscripts. I count about six weeks of actual time when someone might focus on a sweet little novel manuscript like mine.

Oh, just a joke, editor-types! I know you work hard for very little $$ and I love all of you dearly, especially any of you with a copy of my book on your stack of post-vacation crap to deal with!

Still…waiting is not for the faint of heart. I’ve been finding it hard to fully launch into a new novel, so this summer I’ve tried to distract myself from waiting with the following semi-productive activities:

1. Cleaning my office. Well, sort of. There was one point where I thought I might buy some (needed!) office furniture, but now I’m waiting on that too. I guess I’m waiting to see if my book sells for so much money that I can buy a mahogany desk or something, though I suppose that finery would actually be lost on me, since at the moment, my desk is an ANCIENT computer table I bought at a thrift store in the late 1980s. Seriously, this thing is so old that it has a cut-out hole where the stack of continuous paper was supposed to feed to the dot matrix printer. I’ve gotten my $10 worth, by golly!

2. Researching my new novel idea. That was a nice way to fill time until it started to feel like “filling time,” and I decided I should actually get busy with some WRITING and use some of this fabulous research. That panicked me, so no more research. After all, why become an expert on the year 1900 if I decide that idea’s not for me?

3. Writing things I don’t normally write. I tried writing a short, punchy, 750-word personal essay that expanded into 5000 words. Then I tried writing a 1500-word essay that expanded into 5000 words. Then I tried writing a 5000 word essay that came in at about 5000 words. So…I guess I know my essay-writing niche now.

4. Writing some humor pieces…because my life feels so hilarious and zany right now and I just love to laugh-laugh-laugh about it!

5. Freaking out at all these alien writing forms and retreating back to an old short story that I’ve been thinking about revising for oh, two years, and finally revising it. That actually felt good because I was able to cut out about five pages, bringing the story significantly closer to…you guessed it, 5000 words.

6. Deciding that as fun as it was to revise an old short story, I shouldn’t race out and revise ALL of them—so I started some new short stories. One I finished, and the other is in progress. Writing them was fun (though I’ll note that the one I finished was supposed to be 5 pages and ended up at 22), so clearly I miss the long form.

7. Which leads us here…I finally started writing what might be a first chapter of a new novel. We’ll have to see. But after all this time and all these projects and after becoming such an expert “waiter,” I’ll have to note that this is the first time this summer since packing up my other novel and sending it out into the world that I don’t feel anxiety-ridden and totally stressed out. Maybe it’s true: writing has to be—and actually is—its own reward.

This doesn’t mean I don’t jump every time the phone rings, fingers crossed for the sound of shriek-with-happiness-good-news!

Regrets...I Have a Few

I regret that I sounded so shallow in yesterday’s post, as if I only waste time by looking at funny cat pictures. Actually, it’s important to note that I also waste time by looking at these beautiful (and intellectually deep) photographs of the universe

Where Are the Women?

Don’t get me wrong. I love the PEN/Faulkner Foundation: the award for writers, the Writers in the School Program, and the reading series…basically, everything they do and all they stand for. So I’m pleased yet distressed to announce the line-up of readers for the 2008-2009 series; there are some excellent, not-to-be-missed writers coming to town. Details are on the website.


But what I immediately noticed on their brochure were the names of SIX female writers…and THIRTEEN male writers. Funny, because what I’ve noticed when I’ve attended these programs is that the audience is always at least 50 percent women, and usually significantly more than that. Why, why, why is it still so hard for women writers to get some attention from the official gatekeepers?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Rough World of Academia

Anyone who has ever applied for an academic job will appreciate this list of “suggestions” for search committees.

Internet: Friend or Foe?

I find that the internet is a major distraction when writing, whether it’s a useful distraction (with a few clicks on the keyboard, I can research exactly how my character would make those shortbread cookies she’s in the kitchen baking) or a more demonic distraction (check out these funny cat pictures!) And it only took about half an hour of observing my pattern to notice that my tendency to “need” the internet coincided exactly with a moment when my writing turned hard…which, of course, is the time when you most need to sit there and let something come to you.

So, yes, the problem has been acknowledged…but what’s the solution? Unfortunately, my willpower to escape the internet’s siren song is very weak, so I’ve tried a number of ways to break free:

1. I turn it off and choose some arbitrary amount of time to stay internet-free (usually two hours or so). This can work for a while, though there’s some white-knuckling as the clock ticks down, and it seems as though I always find some “reason” to hop back on before my time limit is up: “But I really, really, really need to know NOW what an average time for a high school girl running a 5K on a cross-country team might be.” Sure, maybe I need to know that info eventually, but looking at it NOW means risking getting distracted by random emails from my neighborhood listserve about whether it was a coyote or fox sighted running around…and, of course, the cat pictures.

2. I go to work at the Alexandria library (which I wrote about here). This can be helpful especially if I have work to do on paper instead of the computer (since the library has free wireless). It’s a very intense place (though last week I heard someone snoring steadily for about 45 minutes…but it was quite INTENSE snoring), and the aura in the study carrels is that this is a place of sitting in your chair and working—no breaks. The problem there is that I have to drive to the library and back (30 minutes or so) and then when I return home to my computer, I spend a giant block of time catching up on all the “important” things I’ve missed. So, the net result of time wasted on the internet is probably about the same.

3. Here’s my latest solution, and I think it will work as long as the weather stays nice. I have an old. old, old laptap, bought cheaply many years ago with no features whatsoever (i.e. no wireless). Lately, I’ve been taking that old dinosaur outside to my deck and writing out there. With a clunky laptop balanced in my lap, the urge to get up and walk around is stifled, and the only distractions are the lovely yellow butterflies flitting about the trees. Oh, right…and the internet upstairs on my other computer. But because my environment is so pleasant, I really don’t jump up to check out the cat pictures as much as I do when getting online is a matter of a click or two. The only problem with this approach is that the path into the house leads through the kitchen, so there may be more snacking involved. Oh, and the battery runs out after about two hours (told you it was old, old, old).

So I’m set until winter, but once it gets cold, I need a new solution. Any suggestions? I’m open to anything that works…let me know!

Essay Contests for High School Students

Here are two essay contests for high school students:

The annual John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Essay Contest invites high school students from across the nation to write an original essay about an elected official who has demonstrated political courage. The contest is a companion program of the Profile in Courage Award, named for President Kennedy’s 1957 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage, which recounts the stories of eight senators, the obstacles they faced, and the special valor they demonstrated despite the risks.

Winning essayists will receive awards totaling up to $8,500. The first-place winner will be invited to accept the award at the Profile in Courage Award Ceremony hosted each May by Caroline Kennedy and Senator Edward M. Kennedy at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. To encourage student leadership and civic engagement, the nominating teacher of the first-place winner will receive a John F. Kennedy Public Service Grant for $500.

The window for entries is September 1, 2008, to January 10, 2009. For important information about entry requirements and submission information and deadlines, visit the website


Enter the 2009 Girls Gone Great Scholarship Essay Contest
You have a voice, you have great ideas, you contribute, you have hopes and dreams…and, WomanTalk Live wants to hear all about it!

Tell us how you are a girl gone great and be eligible to win a $1000 scholarship and much more! Girls Gone Great is a scholarship essay contest for young women in MARYLAND entering their junior or senior year of high school in the Fall of 2008.

How to Enter
Step 1: Your essay should address each of these questions:
1) How are you making a difference in your community?
2) Why is making a difference important to you?
3) How do your actions support your vision for the future?

Your essay should be 800 words or less, single-spaced in 12-point font and checked for grammar and spelling. At the top of your essay, be sure to include your name, what high school you attend and what grade level you are, your home address, a phone number where you can be reached, and your email address.

Step 2: Submit a reference from someone who is not a family member. At the top of their reference, they should include:
• The name of the girl gone great they are supporting
• Their name, mailing address, phone number and email address
• What their relationship to you is
• How long they have known you
• And, most importantly….what makes you a Girl Gone Great?

Step 3: Submit your essay and reference in a Word Document attachment and email it to

The deadline for submission is midnight, Friday, October 31, 2008. When your submission is received, you will receive a confirmation email within 2 days.

All essay submissions become the property of WomanTalk Live and excerpts from your essay may be read on WVIE 1370 AM during the months of November and December 2008 and January 2009. In addition, excerpts from your essay may be used on the WomanTalk Live website or in printed materials. The WomanTalk Live 2009 Girl Gone Great will be announced on January 15, 2009.

More details on the web site.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Poets, Beware

Here’s a chilling story about poet Stacey Lynn Brown, who had VERY bad dealings with Cider Press Review, the press that picked her manuscript as the winner of its contest. I’m not sure which is the most frightening aspect of this long, sad tale: when the editor of the press asked to be hired (for pay) to design the poet’s new website or the fact that the previous year’s “winner” also didn’t end up with a published book.

There are always two sides to every story, so the press’s response is also included. But…no-brainer to me, and I feel sad that the exciting occasion of having a first book published has turned into this for this poor poet.

As for the rest of us—as always, don’t enter contests willy-nilly. Do your research and make sure your book is going to a place that will do it well, a place you will be proud to be associated with for your whole writing career. Don’t fall prey to exorbitant fees for poor prizes (i.e. $25 to enter and possibly win $100). And, as seen here, don’t be afraid to speak up when you’re getting screwed.

(Link via Chicks Dig Poetry.­)

Tea & Sympathy

Here’s a blog worth visiting when you’re mired in one of those dark nights of the soul when you fear no one will ever publish your work: Literary Rejections on Display. You’ll probably laugh, and at the least, you’ll see that you’re not alone. Plus, there’s some good info…for example, that Ploughshares regularly takes EIGHT MONTHS to respond. Just something to keep in mind if you’re that rare writer who doesn’t send out simultaneous submissions.

Also, here’s a delightfully juicy bit of revenge that writers live for: an agent’s assistant rejected a submission, but then the agent himself wrote saying how much he liked the work and wanted to see more. Alas—the writer had already signed with someone else! Sweet!

(Link via the new issue of Poets & Writers magazine.)

Therapy for Writers

Filled with creativity angst? Think no one understands your fragile writer’s soul? Need some advice about how to get over your feelings of envy about your former best friend whose book got a movie deal when yours didn’t? And then there are the countless other dark secrets that lurk in the minds of writers…

Sounds like a job for Dr. Sue, who writes one of my favorite features on the blog Buzz, Balls & Hype: “The Doctor is In.” On Fridays, Dr. Sue answers our neurotic-writer questions with empathy and wisdom. If you’re feeling angsty, write in to her at Or just follow the conversations on Fridays here.

Here’s a recent column that I thought was especially helpful about a writer who can’t seem to face revising a novel that an agent is interested in. And here’s one about a writer who can’t enjoy her success.

And here’s a little more about her: Susan O'Doherty, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with a New York City-based practice. A fiction writer herself, she specializes in issues affecting writers and other creative artists. Her book, Getting Unstuck Without Coming Unglued: A Woman's Guide to Unblocking Creativity (Seal, 2007) is now available in bookstores.

Writer's Center Open House Set for September 6

I will be stopping by the Writer’s Center Open House and hope to see you there. Note the discount coupon given to all who attend. Here’s the event announcement:

On Saturday, September 6th, The Writer’s Center will host its fall OPEN HOUSE

Each year, as it has for over thirty years, The Writer's Center offers up to 300 writing workshops across a wide spectrum of genres. At this year's Open House, there will be opportunities to conference one-on-one with instructors; a room for kids' activities featuring Writer's Center children's instructors; and a silent "book" auction. There will also be light refreshments thanks to the generous sponsorship of Trader Joe's.

Open House Prizes:
The Writer's Center will give one $50 dollar coupon to EVERYONE who attends the Open House. The coupon must be used for a multi-session workshop and will be valid until Dec. 31st, 2008. So even if you've already registered for a workshop, you'll still be eligible for the $50 credit.

In addition, one lucky attendee will receive one free Multi-session workshop.

When: September 6th, Noon to 3p.m.
Where: The Writer's Center. 4508 Walsh Street, Bethesda, MD 20815
For more information, please call: 301.654.8664 or email

Monday, August 25, 2008

Does Anyone Else Remember Enid Blyton?

Here’s an article about British author Enid Blyton. I vividly remember reading a series of her books for kids: The Castle of Adventure, The Island of Adventure, The Cave of Adventure (you get the drift), and I can envision exactly their location in the public library I went to growing up. The books were exciting and mysterious (usually four kids who get stranded somewhere exotic, beyond the reach of parental types, and have to battle a band of smugglers or something); they were also so, so British (the kids were flicking on “torches” when I thought they might use a flashlight instead).

But in later life, I never seemed to come across her name or titles, so it’s fun to learn more about her and see that she is a beloved author…but dismaying to hear that her work does not bear rereading as an adult, and so her books are probably best left in the fuzzy past, back on that shelf in the Iowa City Public Library:

“Blyton wrote more than 800 books in her 50-year career - 37 of them in 1951 alone, during which productive peak she was estimated to be churning out about 10,000 words a day. This is not a work rate that lends itself to the refining of prosaic ore into literary gold. Blyton was a one-woman mass production line, turning out workman-like units to serve a particular need at a particular time in a child's life, not finely wrought pieces of art destined to have their secrets delicately unpicked over the years by a gradually maturing sensibility.”

(Link via Bookslut.)

Passager Open for Submissions

Sorry, kids—this call for submissions is for the more mature among us:

Passager announces an OPEN ISSUE for Writers over 50

Submit work: June 1 - September 15 (postmarked date)
Results announced (projected date): November, 2008
No reading fee for Open Issue submissions
3-5 poems, 50 lines max. per poem or,
Short fiction, all stories totaling no more than 4,000 words or,
one Memoir, or a series, 4,000 words max. in total

Include cover letter and brief bio. Include name and address on all pages. All work must be accompanied by a Self-Addressed, Stamped Envelope (SASE) with sufficient postage for reply/work return. No previously published work. Simultaneous submissions to other journals are okay, but please notify us if the work is accepted elsewhere. No email submissions, inquiries only.

More details here. Or, if you need more information, email: , or call: 410.837.6047.

Send all submissions to:
1420 N. Charles Street
Baltimore, MD 21201-5779

Reading at A Space Inside

A Space Inside, one of my favorite DC reading series, announces its next event:

Fiction writer Louise Farmer Smith will read from her work as a part of A Space Inside on Wednesday, August 27 at 7 p.m. at Riverby Books on Capitol Hill.

Louise Farmer Smith, a Pen/New England Discovery winner when she was living in Boston, also won the fiction prizes from Antietam Review and Potomac Review while living in Washington. In addition she was awarded first place in the Glimmer Train fiction contest. Her short stories have appeared in many journals including Virginia Quarterly Review and Bellevue Literary Review, which published "Return to Lincoln," a 2004 Pushcart nominee. She was born in Washington but raised in Oklahoma, the place she calls "the artesian well" of nearly all her fiction. She has taught high school and college English, trained in family therapy, and managed a U.S. Congressman's office. Today, she lives with her husband on Capitol Hill, stages DC homes for realtors, and has just finished a novel currently titled The Underground River.

In September, poets Michael Gushue and Dan Vera, the brilliant writers behind Vrzhu Press, will share their work, and October brings fiction writer Elwin Cotman to the stage of A Space Inside.

Rounding out its third year, A Space Inside provides a space where developing writers, lesser known voices, and the work better-known writers create between books can be heard. Monthly readings alternate between poetry and prose, but all readers are DC-based writers. All readings, which are free and open to the public, are hosted by Riverby Books with a reception following. Questions should be directed to series organizer, Monica F. Jacobe at

Riverby Books is located at 417 East Capitol Street, SE, just north of Eastern Market and four blocks east of the U.S. Capitol. A seller of used and rare books, they are open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and can be reached at (202) 543-4342. Please call for directions, if needed.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Guest in Progress: Marilyn Zembo Day, Part II

Here’s Part Two of Marilyn Zembo Day’s discussion of writing groups: today it’s the nitty-gritty of how to put together and run an effective group. If you missed Part One, it’s here. And if you’d like to read more about writing groups, you can find my take in this post, and another point of view from poet Anna Leahy here.

Creating a Writing Group: Magical Ingredients

“Eye of newt, and toe of frog,/ Wool of bat, and tongue of dog…” You don’t need the spelling-binding words of Shakespeare’s witches to create a writing group that works for you, but there are ingredients that must be considered as you ponder the composition of one that can nurture you and others. Your metaphorical cauldron must fill with answers to the basic questions addressed in any good piece of journalism—who, what, when, where, how and why—although not necessarily in that order.

Your first step in forming a group should be the last of the ingredients listed above, because it defines almost everything else you’ll do. Think of it as the overriding “spell” you’re casting, planning to enhance your artistic life. Ask yourself why you want to become part of a writing group. Are you looking for feedback on your writing from other writers? Serious critique? Inspiration to get past writers’ block? A source for networking, keeping the company of other writers? Are you a new writer, just beginning to put words to paper, looking for support and a safe place to share first attempts?

In my case, I needed the support of other writers to keep me going beyond the International Women’s Writing Guild conference, and I found I wasn’t alone in my desire. Over the years of WomanWords, I sometimes heard busy women say to me, “You know, this is often the only time I get to write.” On occasion those same women drafted something so compelling during a group meeting that they pulled out an extra half-hour or hour during the following weeks to hone their work. A few have even had those pieces published. This is the alchemy of the group: something stirs the cauldron of creation when we get together; something transforms.

The Why has lots to do with the What. What you want to create. What you want to nurture. A safe space was paramount for WomanWords and I knew that the mix of creative people would enhance the possibilities for emerging ideas. Listening to each others’ stories, both the written words and the sharing of experiences, helps members to gain perspective about their commitment to their art. I decided these issues were more important to me than creating a critique group. As women met each other, serious line-by-line critiquing might become an alternative for them to consider, separate from WomanWords.

We are influenced by the narratives of others, which is another good reason to join a group. When people complain that they haven’t been writing, I tell them they’re always writing: everything they do and see is about gathering stories. Reading and listening to other writers share their work plants seeds for their own creations… or moves them to finally start the story that’s been fermenting inside them for years.

Stirring the ingredients in your writing group cauldron, you might find that the answer to What goes deeper and becomes more complicated. Will you write during get-togethers or simply bring previously written work to elicit feedback? Do you prefer a group of genre-specific writers (literary fiction, romance, poetry, nonfiction, etc.)? Are you more interested in a “social” group that networks, plans readings, and organizes other activities? Are you contemplating an internet/e-mail exchange? Remember: you’re forming this group because you’re looking for something that’s missing in your creative life so hone in on exactly what it is you require, knowing you will find others with the same needs. And it only takes two to start a group—two people with the same love of words and intention to write.

I realized that the company of women writers worked better for me. I’d found that groups in which men participated, while also excellent places to learn and enhance craft, didn’t develop the same aura of support that women’s gatherings seemed to engender naturally (at least for me). Maybe too much testosterone, I thought, competition reigns over nurturing. Much as I love men, I decided it was a circle of women that I craved.

Another side of What includes who facilitates the group (who’s the boss?). There are two options—you, the creator of the group, can facilitate every session and determine content, structure, etc.; or, alternatively, you could form a more “democratic” group in which members make all of the decisions. There are pluses and minuses with either option. Keep in mind that you’re organizing this group because you need it; the additional benefit is that it helps other writers as well. While you’ll do the bulk of the “work” (which I find to be creative play) for every session for the first option, the second one could eventually subvert your primary goal, as a friend of mine learned some years ago.

A few months after the birth of WomanWords, over lunch at the ’97 International Women’s Writing Guild conference, an IWWG sister from Canada cautioned me about “getting too democratic” with the group. Pat related the story of her own writing group, from which she’d resigned after many years even though she’d been one of its founders. “It wasn’t that they weren’t doing good things,” she said. “It’s just that everyone had their say and it eventually went in a totally different direction than how we started out. It became something else, and I wasn’t getting what I needed from it any more.” Groups don’t last forever, of course, but you might not want to set the wheels turning faster toward a goal you didn’t envision.

Based on Pat’s experience, I decided I would facilitate all sessions. This didn’t exclude the possibility of others presenting a portion of the program, either volunteering to do so or when I asked someone to lead (such as when my friend Judy set up a labyrinth and had us writing from a walking meditation). It ensured that WomanWords would always be my creation, a vehicle both to mentor other women writers and to jump-start my own Muse. It didn’t mean I wouldn’t listen to suggestions from participants. Dictators don’t make good facilitators. A good workshop leader strives to be egalitarian, generous and inspiring. S/he tries to be encouraging rather than autocratic. And it’s especially important in a creative group that s/he never impose her own vision on others.

The magical Who ingredient in forming your group ties in with how you answered What—and there’s a How part to this one too (i.e., how do you find them?). If you’ve already determined what kind of group you want to organize, look for built-in sources for potential members. In my case, it was women—I was already a member of IWWG, a great resource for names of women in my area interested in writing. I also belonged to a couple of other women’s groups. All of these provided PR possibilities.

Think about who will make up your group and expect to target places where they’ll see your call for participants. For example, you may want the company and feedback of a genre-specific group. If so, find out if there are professional groups in this genre; e.g., romance writers, sci-fi writers, etc. (check out for a good listing). Join, get their newsletters, see if there’s a local chapter where you might meet others interested in a smaller group, and/or attend one of their conferences to meet people. Or maybe you’re looking to meet with writers working at the same level as you are. Perhaps you have a targeted group in mind: seniors writing memoirs, students, survivors of abuse, children of alcoholics…? Keep in mind your intended group make-up and you’ll be planning your How-To-Make-It-Happen even before composing the first invitational flyer! And always, always, always bring your announcements to bookstores, libraries, and open poetry mics (where else would you find writers?).

Before drafting your announcement, you’ll also need to decide about the Where and When of the group. Again, it’s your group. It’s nice to be democratic—you could put out an announcement noting you’ll decide on a convenient time for everyone once you have a list of interested parties; however, if you get 10 takers you could get 10 different days and times, with few matching your availability. Better to decide when you can best facilitate; then put out the word. Those who really want to be there will respond and those who would’ve liked to, but couldn’t manage it, may contact you to ask that you keep them in mind if the dates/times change.

Even as you select dates and times convenient for yourself, however, keep in mind the population that you are targeting. If you’re retired and want a daytime writing group, be aware that you’re most likely going to fill the room with seniors and perhaps a stay-at-home mom or two (if they’re lucky enough to find a babysitter). Daylight hours on weekdays won’t work if you want a more diverse group, age-wise, and certainly not if you hoped for students (unless it’s summertime). You are never going to pick the perfect time for everyone—so make it good for you and hopefully convenient for a few other like-minded writers

your group will meet is another critical issue. Place is important: it must feel safe and be comfortable for attendees; it should provide sufficient privacy so as to support confidentiality; it must be as quiet and distraction-free as possible. Is it amenable to writing, e.g., does it have chairs, tables, sofas, cushions needed? Is it conveniently located, easy to get to for attendees? What about parking? If you’re not meeting in someone’s home (meeting in your home has its advantages, although you might waive this option until you get to know group members better), will you have to pay a fee to use the space? If so, will you charge a fee or ask for donations to cover costs?

After mulling over all of the above questions, you’ll want to have some idea of How to structure meetings. The answer to this question need not be etched in stone before distribution of notices about the group, but it is helpful for the person picking up your flyer to know what kind of group you’re anticipating. It could save you a few minutes on the phone, too, explaining to the caller that , No, you’re not sending around writing beforehand so everyone can do extensive critiquing, or Yes, you will write during the session but, No, you won’t be required to read it out loud if you don’t want to. Perhaps you expect to write from prompts. Maybe each session will be themed. Certainly you’ll want people to know if they should bring work written outside the group, for sharing and/or feedback.

WomanWords sessions are scheduled for two-and-one-half hours, with a 10-minute break (with light refreshments), and they center around a theme (some have been The Woman in the Mirror, Masks, ReWriting Fairy Tales and Bedtime Stories We Grew With, First Kisses/First Loves, Boxes, Where I Come From, What Remains…—more than 100 themes over the years). I light a candle when we commence, stating that it symbolizes our Creative Fire and that we acknowledge it is our time to write, our time to be creative. At the end of the session (before networking time), the candle is snuffed, noting that “We extinguish the candle but never our Creative Fire. It burns within us, always.” Everyone then stands and repeats the WomanWords affirmation, “We are Women Who Write!” The power of ritual to suggest and inspire works for us—we invite our Muse, telling him/her that we have eked out time from our busy lives to write.

Groups are organic, which is the true Magic. Put out the word and something happens. You find each other and meet, you talk, you write, you grow. There could be issues to overcome (but that’s a whole other essay), and it might not last forever. Perhaps it expands beyond your needs or desires; or you move in another direction, away from the core group. No matter. Participating in a writing group changes you, opens you up to new ideas, offers connections to others who—like yourself—feed on the sumptuous feast of words. Remember the Magic… it works. ~~Marilyn Zembo Day

About: MARILYN ZEMBO DAY writes and collages in a suburb of Albany, NY. Her work has appeared in Akros Review (U. of Akron), Knock! (Antioch U., Seattle), Oasis Journal 2005, Sage Woman, the Albany Times Union, Metroland, PEER GLASS—An Anthology: Writings from Hudson Valley Peer Groups and other print venues, as well as online at WriterAdvice! Several of her essays have aired on public radio, and she has been featured at many open poetry mics. She is a Regional Contact for the International Women’s Writing Guild ( and a member and former Board Member of the Hudson Valley Writing Guild ( Contact her at

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Life and Death

I’ve been writing a lot lately about life and death (wait, that’s what all of us are always writing about!), so this evocative piece musing on visiting Willa Cather’s grave and then watching a production of Our Town performed in Peterborough, NH—the town believed that Grover’s Corners is based on—caught my attention, winding its way beautifully to this conclusion:

“For those of us still on earth, straining to make something of ourselves, it seems there is no weaning away from the people we love and lose: they are always there, dissolved into the completeness of eternity, waiting patiently--and, I suspect, indifferently--for the little resurrection that is memory.”

And this informed discussion of different versions of Our Town through the years was fascinating: “Regarding the 1940 film (with the happy ending in which Emily doesn’t really die) the less said, the better.”

I’ve loved Our Town since reading it to prepare for the auditions for the production at my high school. Of course I wanted to be Emily, and it was one of the great disappointments of my high school life that I didn’t. But, thinking of the previous post about Shawn Johnson, I’m suppose this “tragedy” made me a stronger, better person in the end, and I was better able to value the things I did achieve. Or not…though, honestly, would I even remember the experience at this point if I had played Emily? Isn’t it NOT getting the part that makes that experience so memorable? (For the record, I got some stupid bit part—a paperboy!—but played it beautifully, since there are “no small parts, only small actors.” The good parts came along eventually in other productions; yes, I was a drama nerd.)

In any event, one benefit of being a writer is indulging your bitterness, and in Chapter 7 of my novel A Year and a Day the high school puts on a production of Our Town, and yes, there’s some drama as the main character Alice auditions for the part:

“I read the play twice that weekend. Dr. Ellis had called it a ‘brilliant chronicle of life and death’ in the audition schedule handout, and I had to agree. Our Town wasn’t like what we read in English class, filled with symbols, like The Scarlet Letter, or too long, like David Copperfield. Thornton Wilder’s words were beautiful and simple, so easy to understand. I pictured myself asking the Stage Manager if people ever really realized life while they were alive, and the Stage Manager shaking his head, murmuring about how maybe the poets did. Then a pauses as women in the audience pulled Kleenex from their purses, everyone overwhelmed by ten different emotions at once—none of which they’d ever felt until they saw me as Emily, delivering Thornton Wilder’s perfect words. Oh, Mama was right; I just had to get Emily! What did Linda know about how precious life was? Why did Becky think she could understand the world’s fragile traumas?”

Bitter Note: Thornton Wilder’s words may have been “beautiful and simple,” but his f-ing estate wouldn’t grant me permission to quote them in my novel. Grrr….

Shawn Johnson Envy

Why do I envy Iowan Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson? Is it her skill, talent, adorable smile, medals, bouncy ponytail, grit; is it her fresh-faced million dollar marketing potential and her ability to fly and twirl upside-down without batting an eye, sometimes on a four-inch wide board? Surely it’s not HER calorie count, which is undoubtedly fewer than Michael Phelps’ allotment.

I envy Shawn Johnson her ability to ignore the irritations and inherent unfairness of being judged in a highly subjective and often mysterious way (as writers are), nevertheless keeping her eyes on the prize (as writers need to) and moving forward, confident that persistence, hard work, and skill will result in success…or will be their own reward (as writers must think). I’m sure getting a gold medal in the first competition would have been absolutely fabulous, but I can’t help but believe that it’s the journey here and the struggle (as is so often the case with writers) that makes this hard-earned gold medal so much more valued.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

By the Time We Got to Woodstock...

Okay, I wasn’t there. I wasn’t even there at the second Woodstock. Nevertheless, I bet this call for submissions will elicit some great stories…maybe one of yours! (I have to note that considering Woodstock was such a free and easy event, there are a LOT of rules for these submissions, so read carefully and double-check the website. Honestly, it's sort of laughable how many rules there are, leaving me to suggest, "Hey...lighten up, man. It's all groovy.")

Seeking TRUE 850-1100 word stories. Adams Media pays authors $100 per story, plus one copy of the book. Literary Cottage offers prizes as follows: $75 first prize, $50 second prize, $25 third prize.

DEADLINE: SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 7, 2008 No phone calls, please - Finalists will be notified by October 30, 2008

The Woodstock Festival, touting three days of peace and music in 1969, became one of the most unique and legendary events in world history. The festival materialized amidst highly controversial military conflict abroad and unnerving racial discord at home, and yet became a huge counterculture party, where hippies and ordinary youth mingled to celebrate and watch some of the most prominent musical artists of the 60s perform—JimiHendrix, The Who, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Joe Cocker, Janis Joplin, Santana, Jefferson Airplane, and many others. Lack of seating, downpours, oozing mud, food shortages, and poor sanitation failed to dampen the spirits of attendees, who blended, bonded, and got along swimmingly.

WOODSTOCK REVISITED will contain fifty stories written by people who attended the original, 1969 Woodstock Festival. Since all the books that preceded it have focused on the musicians, promoters, and staff, this book will be the first one that chronicles the audience’s experience in an up close and personal way. Our intention is to document the event itself, but to also provide a portrait of America as that tumultuous decade came to a close. Stories should be historical within the context of 1969 and yet unique to your experience.

Stories must be TRUE, 850-1100 words, vivid, and substantive. If you did not attend but know someone who did attend, you can write an “as told to” story. Please read the following to gain a sense of what we want, i.e., textural stories that together will offer a historical account of the actual event in the context of what was happening . . . and a few paragraphs about how it affected you and who you have become. Please touch upon the following:

Who you were then –economic and social background, educational level, hopes, dreams, aspirations. PLUS how you felt about the Vietnam War; were you participating in demonstrations; were you counter-culture or preppie; were you a hippie; were you following the straight and narrow, i.e., did your parents already have your life mapped out for you, or somewhere in between, what were your primary social concerns, were you into the music scene, etc.Other considerations: Your Woodstock experience; why you went; how you got there, the nitty-gritty details, obstacles, etc.; what you saw, felt, loved, hated, never forgot, changed your life, etc.; what it was like to experience physically, emotionally, spiritually; what, if any, long range effects in your evolution; what was retained; what was lost; how did music affect your life, how was music intertwined with social changes; what are your most poignant memories about the late Sixties & early Seventies; what major societal (or global) changes do you credit to the Woodstock Generation, and what fell by the wayside; what shaped your individual character, ideals, life; paths your life has taken - Fits and starts? Surprises? Not what you planned?

Formatting Requirements:Stories must be original, true, and in English.

STORY LENGTH: 850-1100 words

TITLE: Choose a unique title that applies to your story. Do not use "Woodstock" in the title.

POINT OF VIEW: First-person or third-person (no second person). If you know someone who attended, you may write an "As told to" story.

STYLE: Narrative nonfiction, creative nonfiction, literary nonfiction.

FORMAT: Times New Roman, 12 pt. Everything single-spaced, flush left, with one space between paragraphs, and only one space between sentences. Read all instructions below: Those not properly formatted may be returned unread.

Send all stories as a separate WORD document. If you don’t have Word, send as a "Text" file, or as a last resort, embed the story into the body of the e-mail. Name file as follows: Your Last Name, Your Initial (DO NOT USE TITLE or "Hero")No headers or footers; No page numbers.

Use one-inch margins: top, bottom, left, and right.

Use 12 pt. Times New Roman; single-spaced with one space between paragraphs.

Make Paragraphs flush left; NO indentations.

Only use ONE space after a period.

Do not put titles in all CAPS; type your name as you want to be credited one space beneath titleDo not put “The End” or a # symbol at the end.

At the bottom of your document, please provide a tightly focused three-sentence bio that includes selected writing credits, but limit self-promotion to mention of a website. Humor is good. Link it to the story if relevant. Do not type in "Bio:" Sample: Susan Reynolds is a freelance writer . . ."

TONE: Stories must be uplifting and can be poignant, heartwarming, and/or humorous. Humor is not only acceptable, but encouraged.

INFO TO INCLUDE: Each submission must include the following in the top, left-hand corner of the first page of the story file (not in the e-mail):
Your full name, as you want it to appear in the byline
Your mailing address
Your phone number
Your email address, if applicable
Story word count
Story title

DOCUMENT: Save your document as a Word file named as follows: “Last Name,Initial.doc” (example: “Reynolds,S.doc”) Do not save your story file as “Woodstock” as it may get lost in the shuffle. If you don’t have Word you can save it as a Text document, or as a last resort cut and paste the text into the e-mail. Word docs are strongly preferred.

NOTE: We do not publish magazine articles, fiction, poetry, profiles, eulogies, sermons, testimonials, letters, commentary, expository essays, persuasive essays, diatribes, academic papers, confessionals, erotica, pornography,=20or experimental literature. Stories with religious themes or references will only be published if religious beliefs are truly inherent to the story and delicately woven into the story (not as the focus!), and will be a very small percentage of accepted stories, as in less than 5 percent

Terms & Conditions:Adams Media pays $100(each) for stories published in the book. Only one per volume, per author.They also send authors one complimentary copy of the book upon publication. Literary Cottage offers prizes to the top three stories: $100 for First Prize,$75 for Second Prize, and $50 for Third Prize, awarded upon publication. Some previously published material is acceptable, if you own the rights and it was not on an Internet site. Include information as to where and when your story was published, including who owns the rights at the bottom of the story file.A publishing agreement will be mailed to the Author of each story selected as a finalist. Adams Media purchases the book rights to this version of your story; author retains rights to publish the purchased version in an anthology containing solely their own work. The Agreement will spell out further details.

Due to the large volume of submissions received, we will acknowledge receipt of submissions, but after that we cannot report on the status of individual submissions (with the exception of finalists, who are notified in writing). The prize winning stories and the list of contributors for each volume are posted on the website upon the book's publication. Manuscripts are not returned.

How to Submit Your Story: Electronic (emailed) submissions are preferred; mailed submissions are acceptable.Write “Woodstock” in the subject line of the e-mail, and send the document as a Word attachment named as follows: “Last Name,Initial.doc” (example “Reynolds,S.doc”)Do not save your story file as “Woodstock” as it may get lost in the shuffle. See titling information above. If you don’t have Word you can save it as a Text document, or as a last resort cut and paste the text into the e-mail. Word docs are strongly preferred.E-Mail: (Strongly preferred): Replace (at) with @Or, send USPS regular mail to: Susan Reynolds, Literary Cottage, P. O. Box 1070, Pembroke, MA 02359. NOTE: No computer disks or CDs. SEND VIA USPS REGULAR MAIL. Please DO NOT send Certified, and DO NOT use Fed Ex, UPS, etc. as these packages cannot be accepted at this address and will be returned unopened. Please direct questions and suggestions to:


Be the Rejector, Not the Rejectee

This is surely someone’s dream job…it would be close to mine. (I especially like the requirement that the candidate have “excellent human relation skills suitable for dealing with diverse artistic personalities.”)

The Southern Review Announces a search for Managing Editor

The Southern Review announces an opening for Managing Editor. This is a permanent, full-time position. Founded in 1935 by Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks, The Southern Review is published four times a year on the campus of Louisiana State University.

Required Qualifications: Bachelor’s degree; three years editorial and copyediting experience on the staff of an established literary journal, university press, or national press; able to demonstrate the following: editorial expertise with fiction, nonfiction, and poetry; a broad knowledge of literary history, literary criticism, and contemporary fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction; computer skills including Word Perfect; a solid understanding of the publishing, especially small presses and literary magazines; web design and database management.

Additional Qualifications Desired: Excellent human relation skills suitable for dealing with diverse artistic personalities; terminal degree (M.F.A., Ph.D. or equivalent); knowledge of languages other than English.

Responsibilities: Oversees management and distribution of incoming manuscript; reads, evaluates, and provides detailed comments on manuscripts; copyedits and fact-checks, giving special attention to content, style, etc.; corresponds, when required, with authors regarding changes required to accepted manuscripts; works with designer and printer toward final publication.An offer of employment is contingent on a satisfactory pre-employment background check.

Application deadline is September 8, 2008 or until a candidate is selected. Applications should include: a letter of application, CV or resume (including e-mail address), one-page statement of editorial philosophy, and contact information for three professional references.

Applications should be sent to the following address:
Jeanne M. Leiby
The Southern Review
Old President’s House
Louisiana State University
Ref: #018159
Baton Rouge, LA 70803

More details here.

Monday, August 18, 2008

RIP: L. Rust Hills

L. Rust Hills, the former fiction editor of Esquire has died. From the Washington Post obituary here:

“Mr. Hills worked at Esquire on and off for almost 40 years and helped create the fictional landscape for a generation by guiding such renowned writers as Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, William Styron, Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver and Bernard Malamud. He was the author of a well-received book about how to write short stories, but he never turned his hand to fiction himself.

“He was not well known to the public, but in literary circles Mr. Hills was held in almost the same regard as Maxwell Perkins, who edited Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe in the 1920s and 1930s, and William Maxwell, a longtime fiction editor at the New Yorker magazine.”

Paper Cuts, the New York Times Book Review’s blog, has an appreciation, additional links, and an interesting reminiscence in the comments by writer Beverly Lowry, here.

As for my personal appreciation, there is a diagram on page 20 of my ancient Bantam paperback edition of Rust Hills’ book about writing, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular, that changed my writing life. It shows with precision the concept of the “surprising yet inevitable” ending. The diagram looks like the veins of a leaf and when you start on the left at point A, it seems that at every point “A” (your character) has a choice in how to act, as we trace the path all the way to point “B” on the right. This is the “surprise”: which path will the character take?

But when you look backwards, from point B to Point A—you can see that there is actually only one path that was ever possible: and here’s your “inevitable.”

Speaking of inevitable…it’s inevitable that I pass out this “leaf drawing” at virtually every writing class I teach. Half of the students are struck immediately and see its brilliance as I do. And the other half thinks it’s crazy and confusing! I accept this reaction—teaching writing is always a matter of finding language to convey the inexpressible, so this was just something didn’t translate for them. But for me, this is one case of perfect translation, so thank you, Rust Hills.

Reason 218 to Love AMC's "Mad Men"

References to literature: In last night’s episode, gorgeous Betty Draper was curled up on the couch reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s collection of short stories, Babylon Revisited. That's more literature than most TV shows offer during their whole existence, but "Mad Men" goes above and beyond: In the first episode of this season, we also saw Don Draper become interested in the poetry of Frank O’Hara. And last season, one of the copywriters inspired ridicule/jealousy when his short story was published in The Atlantic Monthly. (Okay, to my ear, it didn't sound nearly good enough to be in The Atlantic, but admittedly we only heard a quick paragraph.)

Three Days to Write a Novel? Piece of Cake!

Feeling ambitious? Marilyn Zembo Day (who blogged here last week about writing groups) reminds us of the upcoming 3-Day Novel-Writing Contest. I get exhausted thinking about it…here’s a piece from last year that I wrote about the contest, including comments from one brave writer who actually participated.

Kudos to you if you’ve got this sort of energy. (Maybe this is what the remarkable Michael Phelps should do next, now that he’s conquered the Olympics!)

The International 3-Day Novel Contest
Categories - Fiction, General, Horror, Mystery, Romance, Science Fiction
Fees (if applicable)- $50 per entry
Prizes (if applicable)- Prizes: 1st prize: publication; 2nd prize, $500; 3rd prize, $100.

Description: Every Labor Day weekend, entrants all over the world strive to produce a novel in only three days. Finished works are mailed for judging and the winner is published! Novels may be written in any location. Outlines are permitted, but the actual writing must take place over the 2008 Labor Day weekend.

Deadline: Register by Aug. 29, 2008.

Contact Info:
International 3-Day Novel Contest
200-341 Water St.
Vancouver, BC, Canada V6B 1B8.

Nebraska City Is a Great Place for a Residency

The KHN Center for the Arts is a wonderful place for a residency (as long as you’re not afraid of the Midwest). I enjoyed my two weeks there, writing hard and hanging around the small town of Nebraska City, learning what “red beer” is, staring off at the historical marker that noted where the wagon trains embarked on their westward journey after provisioning up, listening to train whistles at night, and watching the kids at the school across the street practice lining up for graduation. I also admired the western wear at what was, I believe, billed as the “world’s largest western wear store in the world.” All this and one of the most fabulous steaks I’ve ever eaten! (Mmmm…I also remember some amazing tamales as a special at the tiny Mexican restaurant three blocks away.)

If this appeals to you, the deadline for the next round of residencies is coming up: September 1, 2008. Details are below and on the web site:

The Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts offers up to fifty juried residencies per year to working artists from across the country and around the world. Residencies are awarded to visual artists, writers, composers, interdisciplinary artists, and arts or arts education scholars. The Center does not discriminate on the basis of disability, sex, age, race, religion, or national origin.

Residencies are available for two-, four-, six-, or eight-week stays. Each resident receives a $100 stipend per week, free housing, and a separate studio.

The Center can house up to five artists at any given time. Artists interested in applying can learn more by reading the information provided here regarding the facility and the local setting.

Questions? E-mail us:

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Guest in Progress: Marilyn Zembo Day

I’ve been meeting with a writing group since 1998 and find it hard to imagine my writing life without their wise guidance and manuscript tough love. (See this post for more details.) People often want to know more about writing groups: are they for everyone? What makes a good group? How do you keep the ball rolling? And, of course, for each of these questions, there are any number of answers, as just like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, each writing group is different.

Here, in two parts, Marilyn Zembo Day explores what a writing group can do for you, and offers her suggestions on how to keep a group running smoothly.

I’ve never met Marilyn, but I’ve been receiving her free writing/reading newsletter for several years. She never fails to be inspiring and interesting, and reading her chummy emails makes me feel that her wide circle of writing friends are my writing friends also. If you’re interested, you can subscribe by emailing her at I always look forward to seeing what she has to say!

Part One: The Alchemy of Writing Groups

Even when you’re on a roll, when words are flowing and images and metaphors spill onto your blank pages (or computer screen) like flood waters over bursting dams, writing is still a lonely task. Who’s there to know you just got over that chunk of writer’s block? Worse still, who’s there to help you get over writer’s block, to tell you we all go through it (well, most of us anyway), to listen to your words and offer praise and constructive ideas for potential editing? Who understands this crazy drive to create story, whether or not you get paid the Big Bucks that Stephen King or Danielle Steele pull in? Whether or not you get paid, period.

If you’re lucky, it’s your writing group that’s there for you. If you’re lucky, you’ve managed to find the right mix of people, the perfect place to meet and all the other components that make up a safe space in which to nurture your writing life. If you haven’t been quite so fortunate, then perhaps you might want to start thinking about creating your own group, which I did it over a decade ago. It transformed my life.

My writing life took a long vacation between school scribblings and the onset of my 40s. Worklife included editing a few agency newsletters and a mess of correspondence, but nothing more of the creative ilk spurted from my pen other than a few (not very good) poems until a family illness brought me to a support group at a local psychiatric center. The two qualifications for joining were that participants be “a family member or close personal friend of someone with a mental illness” and that they like to write. By the time I left my first session, I felt like a sweets addict who’d spent an evening in a candy factory.

Workshop leader Rochelle Brener formed Relatives Writing Workshop as part of her field work toward an advanced degree and certification as a poet-therapist. For a few years, I flourished under Rochelle’s tutelage and the group’s enthusiasm. I loved her multi-faceted expressive arts approach as we wrote for healing and self-empowerment through art. Without realizing it, I was studying how our leader inspired the writing and sharing of our stories, encouraging us to speak our souls and listen with our hearts. She was also the first person to hand me a brochure for the annual summer conference of the International Women’s Writing Guild at Saratoga Springs, saying, “You’ll love this. It’s your kind of thing.”

First attending that event (appropriately themed, each year, “Remember the Magic”) in 1995, I was awestruck by a campus swarming with supportive, enthusiastic, writing women. I knew our group at the psych center wasn’t destined to go on forever (Rochelle was already making bigger plans), and here was a whole campusful of writers who surely conjured up inspiration enough to last throughout the year, until I could return to the conference once again.


By November, I wondered where all that motivation went. Someone, it seemed, had pulled the plug on my flow. Occasionally I’d hear from one of my dorm-mates, but Carol’s letters, with mentions of her own active writing circles, sometimes made me sad (and a little jealous) because Rochelle’s group had now disbanded and she was busy making plans to open Mandala Center for Creative Wellness.

At the ’96 conference I pledged, in poet/writer/photojournalist Jan Phillips’ class, to find a way to “Remember the Magic.” I would either locate a writing group in my area that modeled the spirit and support of the IWWG conference, or I would have to create one. By December, I knew it would be the latter.

My writer/workshop-leader journey began with a title—WomanWords. The IWWG experience had taught me that I was most comfortable writing in a circle of women. Surely there were other local women seeking the support of a group? And I expected there were others who preferred writing in the company of their own gender.

WomanWords began in April 1997 and has continued to expand beyond the initial group. We’re now called The WomanWords Collective, having been dubbed as such several years ago the host of a local open mic at which WomanWords was featured. We’ve created and hosted retreats, a 9-month open mic series, field trips to IWWG (and other) workshops, book signings, readings and more over the past decade-plus. We’ve been featured at open poetry mics as far away as the Catskills and were included in Hudson Valley Writers Guild’s peer writing group anthology, Peer Glass. The WomanWords E-Newsletter travels to both women and men across the country and beyond, urging all to create via inspiriting quotes, writing prompts, suggested readings, potential submission opportunities and upcoming events (to receive this free e-news, e-mail me at Along the way, several smaller sub-groups formed from the larger WomanWords Collective, meeting more often in homes in a less structured format.

Meanwhile, as I traveled to Saratoga each year for another dose of Magic, I continued to hear from women bemoaning the same sorry situation I’d encountered following my first IWWG conference: Where does the Magic go? How can I continue this inspiration/motivation when I leave here? I’m not in a writing group—how do I find one? I wanted to share what I’d learned with these women, to help them bring the magic home. It’s really a matter of the right mix, the proper alchemy, I thought. As Natalie Reid, workshop leader at the summer conference, notes in her new book, The Spiritual Alchemist: Working with the Voice of Your Soul (, the word alchemy comes from the Hebrew abarah k’adabrah, “I will speak my soul.” Sometimes it’s not just about putting words to paper (or about trying to get published)—sometimes we need to verbalize our stories and poems in order to feel their cadence and know their power. Anne Lamott says, “Even if only the people in your writing group read your memoirs or novel, even if you only wrote your story so that one day your children would know what life was like when you were a child and you knew the name of every dog in town—still, to have written your version is an honorable thing to have done.” This is powerful, soulful stuff.

Hannelore Hahn, founder and director of the Guild, liked the idea of a workshop on writing groups. In 2004, I led "Secrets of Successful Writing Groups: Taking the Magic Home" at the conference I’d first attended nine years before. Providing helpful handouts and stories about my own experience, I was able to give back to the Guild some of what they’d given me: support, information and networking. Especially well-received was the panel session of women from various parts of the country who’d formed thriving writing groups. Subsequent to this workshop, I’ve also sat on panel presentations for Hudson Valley Writers Guild (one in conjunction with the New York State Writers Institute) regarding writing groups (their benefits and how to find/form one).

Not everyone, of course, desires or feels they can benefit from a group. But for those who crave the support, networking, companionship and camaraderie that the right group setting can provide, stay tuned for the second segment of this Guest Article. Included will be the basics: the Who/What/When/Where and How of creating and sustaining a writing group—even the Whys (just in case you’re thinking it’s not worth the effort!). Believe me, it can change your life, just as it transformed mine.

About: MARILYN ZEMBO DAY writes and collages in a suburb of Albany, NY. Her work has appeared in Akros Review (U. of Akron), Knock! (Antioch U., Seattle), Oasis Journal 2005, Sage Woman, the Albany Times Union, Metroland, PEER GLASS—An Anthology: Writings from Hudson Valley Peer Groups and other print venues, as well as online at WriterAdvice! Several of her essays have aired on public radio, and she has been featured at many open poetry mics. She is a Regional Contact for the International Women’s Writing Guild ( and a member and former Board Member of the Hudson Valley Writing Guild( Contact her at

Things to Do Before You Die: The Blues

If you’ve never seen good blues played well, in a live performance, you must! And if you’ve never seen one of the old-time bluesmen play, you must! Sadly, there aren’t many of those guys around anymore, so it’s time to get cracking. I was fortunate enough to see Buddy Guy at Wolf Trap last night, and he was amazing! (Here’s his tour schedule.) I’ve also seen B.B. King, and was lucky to see both Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker before they died. A dark, smoky bar on a lonely night is probably the best venue, but anywhere, live blues can shake your soul and wring it out until you think you can’t take it.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

More on Jenny McKean Moore

About the information on the Jenny McKean Moore Free Community Workshop in Monday’s posting…apparently there was an incorrect start date I copied from their flyer (no web site? come on, people!) : The Wednesday of the first class would be September 17. Thanks to Dan Ryan for that catch.

And thanks for Dan Ryan for finding this interesting interview in The Dublin Quarterly with Mary Morrissy, the writer coming to teach these free community workshops (there will be a second one offered in the spring). Here’s a sample:

tDQ: Typically, what subject-matter attracts you, and why?

Morrissy: I can’t say what is typical and often one only sees patterns in retrospect. With regard to my novels, I have always chosen real-life events or characters as a springboard for the fiction. Mother of Pearl, for example, is based on a kidnapping that happened in Dublin in 1950 and my interest was sparked when I read of the death in her thirties of the child at the centre of the events. There was something so poignant not only about this woman’s premature death, but that her life had clearly been defined by the transgressive act of another. With The Pretender, which focuses on the Polish woman who claimed to be Anastasia, the daughter of Tsar Nicholas 11, the interest came from a nerdy adolescent interest in the Russian royals. I suppose you could say that that’s one of the perks of being a writer – you’re allowed to indulge your obsessions.

Indulge our obsessions…oh, for sure!!

And while I’m thanking Dan Ryan, I’ll thank him again for writing up this technologically informed piece for the blog about writing software.

Kim Roberts Moves Closer to Her Goal

Poet Kim Roberts has written here about her modest goal, to have poems published in literary journals in each of the fifty states. To refresh your memory, she wrote:

“This might take some doing, though. I know of only one journal in North Dakota, for instance, and they've rejected me six times. Unless someone else starts publishing in that state, I'm probably doomed. My other missing states are Iowa, Montana, New Mexico, and Vermont. There are a lot of journals in Vermont! Believe me, I've tried all of them.”

Well, I’m happy to report that she has found success in the fine state of Iowa! She emailed me yesterday: “A small (but sweet) journal out of South Amana, Argestes, took two poems. I have only four more states left (Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, and Vermont). Ah, sweet, sweet victory...”

Yay! Now, someone out there…please start a literary journal in North Dakota and publish Kim!

Related note only because I’m always happy to find an excuse to mention food: Careful readers may recall that when I last went to Iowa I had a fabulous meal in the Amana Colonies, where this journal is based.

Your Chance for $$, a Trip to SC, and Chili Cheese A-Plenty

I’m pleased to help publicize this fine fiction contest. I was thrilled to win it (yes, after entering several times), and I greatly enjoyed my resulting visit to read at Converse College, where I made some wonderful friends with whom I am still in touch. Plus, they were kind enough to comply with my crazy request to be taken to the famous Beacon Drive-In while I was visiting; I tell you, a giant platter of Chili Cheese A-Plenty really hits the spot at 9:30 pm. (For the uninitiated: This is a cheeseburger covered with chili, cheese, and french fries.)

Submission Guidelines for the Julia Peterkin Award

Eligibility: The 2009 Julia Peterkin Award is open to all writers of fiction writing original works in English. Previously published works are eligible for inclusion in the submission.

Manuscript Format Guidelines: Entries must be typed on quality paper, 8 1/2 by 11. Photocopies or copies from letter-quality printers are acceptable. Each entry must include one short story or chapter from a novel--a maximum of 15-18 pages. In addition, include a cover page with the writer’s name, address, daytime phone number, and title of submission. Also include a one-page biography. Author’s name should not appear on the manuscript.

Entry Requirements: An entry fee of $15 made payable to: Converse College English Department. Deadline: Feb. 15, 2009. Include a self-addressed, stamped envelope if you would like direct notification of contest results. Results will be mailed in May of 2009. No manuscripts can be returned. Send one copy of the manuscript prepared according to format guidelines.

The winner will receive $1000 and travel expenses for a reading at Converse College. Winner must be willing to read in the Fall 2009 Visiting Writers Series.

Send entries to:
The Julia Peterkin Award
Converse College
Department of English
580 E. Main Street
Spartanburg, SC 29302

For more information, contact Prof. Rick Mulkey at or see the web site.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Michael Phelps Envy

Why am I envious of Michael Phelps? Not his immense talent, not this apparent and genuine good nature, not his incredibly fit physique, not his bajillion Olympic gold medals, not his buoyant (ha, ha) youth. I am envious of Michael Phelps because I heard him tell an NBC interviewer last night that he is “supposed to eat 8 to 10 thousand calories a day.” 10,000 calories…what I could do with that allotment!!

"If you really want to hear about it..."

Here’s a great post on the Hayden’s Ferry Review blog about the evolution of the covers of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Does it need to be said that eventually, Salinger exerted strong control over the images (lack of) on the covers of his books?

But if you’ve never seen the initial paperback (I have a copy!), with the overwrought jacket copy, “This unusual book may shock you, will make you laugh, and may break your heart—but you will never forget it,” do check it out. Looks like Holden Caulfield by way of Sam Spade.

And I had never seen the British edition, with Holden watching Phoebe run toward the carousel horse. Hmm…something to watch for at the local used bookstore. Confession: I check under “Sal” in the novel section in every used bookstore I go in—on the off-chance that I discover one of those rare, first editions that magically escaped the notice of the owner!

"Like Driving a Team of Horses"

Here’s a nice piece on the Glimmer Train literary journal site from Roxana Robinson, talking about the difference between writing a novel and writing a story:

“Writing a short story is, I imagine, sort of like driving a team of horses—stylish, high-stepping Hackneys, say, with a polished harness and an immaculate carriage. My task here is to control the energies and the spectacle, to restrain the faster horses and urge the slower ones, so that all of them pull in concert, so the story will reach the finish line with all the parts of it—the plunging narrative drive, the hidden emotional baggage, the formal vehicle that contains it—are moving in unison, and so that everything will arrive together.”

As you might guess, the novel is a slightly less tidy endeavor.

Speaking of Glimmer Train, the Very Short Fiction Award contest closes on August 31. Details for entering are here.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Apply for Jenny McKean Moore Workshop!

The FREE Jenny McKean Moore Community workshop is one of the great opportunities available in the DC area. Open to all, regardless of past experience, it’s sponsored by George Washington University and is accepting applications NOW:

The George Washington University Jenny McKean Moore Free Community Workshop
Fall 2008—Fiction
Wednesdays, 7 – 9 pm
September 17 – December 10, 2008
Led by Mary Morrissy

Come and take part in a semester-long creative writing workshop! To apply, you do not need academic qualifications or publications. Writers who are at beginning or intermediate level will benefit most from this weekly workshop. The class will focus on reading short fiction by established writers, as well as roundtable critique of work submitted by class member. There are no fees to participate in the class, but you will be responsible for making enough copies your story for all fifteen participants. Students at Consortium schools (including George Washington University) are not eligible. The Workshop is open to those who have participated in no more than two Jenny McKean Moore Free Community Workshops.

To apply, please submit a letter of interest, outline your experience with creative writing and your motivations for taking the course. Make sure you include your name, address, home and work telephone numbers, and email address. Enclose a 10-15 page sample of your writing. If you wish to have your sample returned, please include an SASE. Applications must be received at the following address by close of business on September 2, 2008:

Fiction Workshop
Department of English
The George Washington University
802 22nd Street NW, Suite 760
Washington, DC 20052

Mary Morrissy, a well-known Irish writer, is the Jenny McKean Moore Writer in Washington for 2008-2009. She is the author of three published books—a collection of short stories, A Lazy Eye, and two novels, Mother of Pearl and The Pretender, which have been nominated for major prizes in the United Kingdom. She won the prestigious US Lannan Foundation Award in 1995 for A Lazy Eye and Mother of Pearl. Her short stories have been widely anthologized in both the United States and the United Kingdom.

Two Readings

Some upcoming readings of note:

Fiction writer George Pelcanos will be reading at Politics & Prose Bookstore on Tuesday, August 12th at 7 p.m. He’ll be reading from his new novel, THE TURNAROUND: Three teenagers go to an unfamiliar neighborhood on a hot summer afternoon in 1972, setting off a chain of events that’s still unfolding 35 years later. With his characteristic attention to both the psychology of his characters and their larger social context, DC’s own George Pelecanos has written another complex, compelling thriller. 5015 Connecticut Avenue, N.W., Washington, DC 20008, 202.364.1919

Poet Kim Roberts will be reading with Thomas Sayers Ellis on Sunday, August 17 at 4:00 pm. in the Langston Room of Busboys and Poets, 14th and V Streets NW, DC. Kim will be reading new work! Free admission, although donations will be collected. More info: (202) 387-POET. Kim wrote for the blog here and here.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Guest in Progress: Dana Cann

This introduction will be short because nothing I can say will improve upon this piece. Dana Cann was a student (and wonderful writer!) in one of my novel workshops at the Writer’s Center, and at our final meeting, he told us a shorter version of the following. The room was silent: we were in awe, totally inspired. No more complaining about “not having time” to write, we all vowed. Now, when I'm feeling lazy, I think of Dana and sit my butt in the chair and get to work.

“200 Words and a Cloud of Dust”

So says the banner taped to the base of my computer screen. I typed it up years ago, and printed it in one of the largest-point fonts in the MS Word arsenal. I use the phrase as one of those motivators writers rely on to keep the faith and stay on task. I imagine its creation also allowed me to procrastinate one night when I should have been writing but didn’t think I could. Disgusted with myself, I acted, and spent the evening typing, formatting and cutting and pasting (in the physical sense, with actual scissors and tape) seven words, one-hundred-ninety-three short of what was to be my supposed daily minimum. Still, a productive night, considering those seven words became my mantra, and have carried me forward since.

I came to fiction late. I was supposed to be a rock star. I played guitar and wrote songs. When I turned thirty and I wasn’t a rock star (or anywhere close to being one), I stopped writing songs and started writing stories. I was still single. I could write most nights after work. I carved out two-hour blocks, from seven-thirty to nine-thirty. After I wrote, I went for a run. Aside from my day job, my writing situation was ideal.

Then I got married. We bought a house. We had kids. Each of these additions, though essential to me, claimed more of my time. The two-hour nighttime chunks became unworkable.

I was flummoxed, blocked. Was it possible to accomplish anything in under two hours? I stared at my blank screen in my few free minutes, squeezed by the bookends of responsibility.

And then I realized: my goal wasn’t time; my goal was words.

Woody Hayes was the head football coach for Ohio State in the fifties, sixties and seventies. He was extremely successful, if a bit of an asshole, but what successful football coach isn’t a bit of an asshole? Woody’s conservative offense, a monotonous grind of up-the-middle runs and an occasional short pass, became known as “three yards and a cloud of dust,” meaning it was effective for the Buckeyes, though unspectacular, even boring, for their fans. The description was pejorative, yet it also defined a path to success, and I co-opted it for my own creative purposes, when I replaced “three yards” with “two hundred words” and voila: a new offensive scheme to employ for my writing.

Sometimes I write two hundred words in fifteen minutes. Hopefully, on those days, I drive on, and write another hundred or two hundred words. But I won’t beat myself up if I don’t. Writing is hard work. There are good days and bad days. The point is that there are days (or nights or pre-dawn mornings) where something—even if it’s only a couple hundred messy words—gets done. It’s amazing how even small stacks of words pile up, their clouds of dust settle, and, after days or weeks or months of gaining and building, pruning and molding, they come to form something stunning and strong. ~~Dana Cann

About: Dana Cann’s stories have appeared in The Sun, The Florida Review and Blackbird, among other journals, and are forthcoming from The Gettysburg Review and Fifth Wednesday Journal. Awards include fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation. He’s currently at work on a novel.

You can see an example of what can be accomplished by 200 words a day here, by reading Dana’s short story “The Bridge,” published by Blackbird.

Personal note: I’m a Big Ten football fan so am compelled to note that this message in no way should be construed as my endorsement of Ohio State. Go Cats! Go Hawkeyes!

Call Me Lame

Terrible confession: I’ve never read Moby-Dick. And I call myself a writer…shameful. But after listening to actor/director/genius Orson Welles read the (short, I promise!) opening section here on the arts blog About Last Night, I was ready to race out and get a copy and read until my eyes fell out.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

"No One Can Write a Cheever Story"

John Cheever sounds like a handful. (I’m sure this is not an original observation.) I enjoyed reading an essay in the Autumn 2008 issue of The Gettysburg Review about the fall semester Cheever spent teaching in Iowa City, where I grew up, as a guest at the famed Iowa Writer’s Workshop in 1973. He had quite the workshop: students included Ron Hansen, T.C. Boyle, and Allan Gurganus. Nearly forgotten as a writer, drunk much of the time (despite promises to family and friends that he wouldn’t drink), he still sounds like quite a formidable teacher:

“[Allan] Gurganus later worked with Stanley Elkin—a ‘genius teacher’ who provided a study in contrast. Elkin ‘was like an architect looking at a building and telling you exactly where the stresses were,’ said Gurganus. ‘John would either say yes or no. Either it would do or it wouldn’t do. He said yes to me more often than he said no, but it was frustrating when he said no because it was hard to get him to tell you what could be changed.’ The most disheartening part was that Cheever tended to be right, though it often required a lot of painful labor in the dark to discover why this should be so. Gurganus admitted that his own no stories were, in fact, buried at last in files somewhere (‘with all the Christian rites and honors’), and even Cheever’s formidable contemporary, Hortense Calisher, conceded the ‘ruthless’ accuracy of his literary judgments. ‘Come now, Hortense, that’s a fudge,’ he said when she had protested that she was still reading a book and hence was uncertain to its merit. ‘You can read a page and tell if it’s alive or dead.’ In workshop Cheever would express rejection with a vaguely grim poker face, perhaps a slight shrug, which was tantamount to a loud and insulting harangue. And if a student made the mistake of pressing him as to why a story didn’t work, or (worse) how it might be improved, Cheever would respond with a sort of pensive sarcasm: ‘If that character is supposed to be gay,’ he might say, feigning careful deliberation, ‘maybe you could show as much by having him lick his fingers and wipe his eyebrows…’ As [Ron] Hansen explained, ‘He meant to suggest that the story was such a mess that even a detail like that wouldn’t help.’”

I was surprised that the students then really didn’t have an appreciation of what a remarkable writer Cheever was:

“Mostly, though, Cheever was the soul of kindness and tact, and was even prepared to forgive his students’ dislike (or more often) total ignorance of his own work. ‘I’m terribly out of mode,’ he said again and again. ‘Nobody reads me anymore.’ The young [T.C.] Boyle agreed; like so many of his peers, he worshipped at the feet of ‘experimental’ writers such as Barthelme and Barth…’All writing is “experimental,” Tom,’ [Cheever] said. ‘Don’t get caught up in fads.’ Boyle inwardly scoffed and continued to regard Cheever as an ‘old stick in the mud’—until he finally got around to rereading his work with care. To this day he is still reading it, though a long time has passed since he has read any Barthelme or Barth. ‘Anyone can write a Barthelme story,’ said Boyle. ‘No one can write a Cheever story.’”

The essay is by Blake Bailey, author of Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates. (Richard Yates: Another brilliant handful of a writer!) Bailey is coming out with a biography of John Cheever in 2009, which, based on this piece, is certainly worth watching for.

: Here, an “ah-ha” moment that transformed my writing, thanks to John Cheever’s “The Country Husband.”

The Great Blurb Hunt

It can’t be denied: having a book you’ve written is a thrill (duh). What is less thrilling is a number of hoops—all marketing related, it seems—that the writer must jump through before arriving at that happy day when the book is on the bookstore shelf. Perhaps the most trying is collecting those flattering blurbs from famous authors to tell the world how brilliant you are (and you thought your editor was responsible for that…ha, ha).

Here’s a funny piece by Rebecca Johnson about the hunt for blurbs. (Link via The Elegant Variation.)

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

So, You're Applying for an MFA?

If you’re thinking about applying to an MFA program, there’s some good advice here on MFA Weblog. The summary might be, Don’t Stress Yourself Out. An excerpt:

“I spent most of last summer stressing about the GRE and my application essays, in addition to the constant questioning of my poetry portfolio. I know now that was wasted time. Despite three months of vocab cards and math worksheets, I scored poorly on the GRE, as I do on every standardized test. The essays I drafted months in advance ended up changing five times over because I either didn’t like my tone or found mid-way through an application that my 3-page personal statement perfect for X school wouldn’t fit into Y school’s 200 word limit.

“For all my preparations, I found that some things, like the essays, work out better under pressure. Then others, like your portfolio, need to be massaged over time and cannot be rushed. And had I the confidence to move forward diligently, I could have pushed out a few more finished poems before the deadline instead of worrying myself into writer’s block.”

More on Reading the Oxford English Dictionary

It’s a week of follow-up…here’s more about Ammon Shea, the guy I mentioned yesterday who read the entire Oxford English Dictionary. (Not sure why I’ve become so interested in this…I’ve never even imagined for a minute reading a whole dictionary, let alone the granddaddy of them all.)

Here’s a piece from Paper Cuts, the blog of the New York Times. And here’s a piece on Galleycat. An excerpt (from Galleycat):

"I don't particularly enjoy writers who use big words for their own sake," Shea said. "In fact, I find them boring." For the most part, he says, there are two simple guidelines for using a word: Would readers understand what it means? And what does to the text's atmosphere? There are cases when the second question can trump the first; Shea cited a passage in Nabakov where the author recalls the "long-drawn Westinghousian sigh" of a train coming to a stop—readers can grasp the long-drawn sigh readily enough, but a special few will recognize that locomotive air brakes were manufactured by Westinghouse. Knowing that a word exists for some objects or phenomena, Shea added, has inspired him to pay more attention to such things, like psithurism, "the whispering of leaves moved by the wind."

I will have to remember to drop psithurism into a few conversations.

Rejected Poems Can Live Another Day

A call for submissions that offers new life for rejected poems. Sort of takes the sting away a bit….though I wonder what it feels like to have rejected poems rejected by the journal that accepts rejected poems??

The Redheaded Stepchild only accepts poems that have been rejected by other magazines. We are accepting poetry submissions only during the month of August for our inaugural Fall 2008 issue. For more information, please visit our site. We accept only email submissions via

In the body of your email, please include the following:
a brief bio
3-5 poems
the publication(s) that rejected the poems.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Caught Being a Blowhard

I had a very short piece in Sunday’s Washington Post Magazine. It was the response to the Editor’s Query section, with the topic being, “Tell us about a time you got caught being a blowhard.”

Ahh…so many examples for me to choose from, but I knew this was it, and in a rare and happy writing zone, I simply wrote up my less-than-250 words and sent it off. If only a novel could feel so effortless!

Here’s the link.

And Then There's OBSESSION

And I thought I was obsessive. I enjoyed this book review in the Sunday New York Times Book Review about a man who decided to read the entire Oxford English Dictionary. Yes, the entire thing—the 20-volume version with the tiny print (only slightly less tiny than the shrunk-down 2 volume version that came with its own magnifying glass).

Sounds like quite the fun project:

“[Author Ammon] Shea decided to make the attempt and to record his progress in this book. Each letter gets its own chapter. In Chapter A the volumes arrive, wrapped in the “regal and chitinous gloss” of their dust jackets. Shea sits near the window, his feet up on an ottoman, and begins to read. Difficulties ensue. He gets pulsing headaches and sees gray patches on the edges of his vision. His back bothers him. His neighbors make salt cod, and the odor is distracting. He’s tempted to look things up in his other dictionaries, comparing definitions, which slows his progress.

“So he ventures out into the city, reading on park benches and in public libraries. No place is right. Finally he settles on a location in the basement of the Hunter College library, among books in French that don’t tempt him away from the task at hand. He drinks many thermosfuls of coffee. He gets eyeglasses and finds, much to his surprise, that they help him see better. His headaches continue.”

Nicholson Baker, the reviewer, seemed a good match for this book: anyone who’s ever read his 133-page novel The Mezzanine, about ten (or is it five?) minutes in the life of an office worker riding the escalator (complete with footnotes) would suspect a similar level of obsessive tendencies. (Naturally I loved The Mezzanine!)

Anyway, the book is called Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages by Ammon Shea. It’s only 223 pages long.

Slightly related fun fact: during college, my favorite section of the library for studying was the area that shelved the Asian books collection. Like Shea, I had to place myself out of temptation.


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