Thursday, January 29, 2009

Work in Progress: Leaving South Carolina

For those of you interested in a more literary look on the world, please go check out the Editorial Ass blog and read her interesting take on how Jane Austen suffered many of the same woes we do in terms of getting her work published and dealing with publishers—found here. The more things change, the more they stay the same, eh?

Enticing excerpt:

“The first novel she finished was First Impressions (which would later be retitled Pride & Prejudice, her most famous and beloved novel). Mr. Austen promptly and proudly sent it off to the prominent publisher Thomas Cadell in 1797. He didn't bother to write a diverting query letter, though, and didn't do much research on the marketplace or tailoring his pitch. (Of course no one who reads this blog would make a mistake like that!) First Impressions was sent back, unread, with the note 'declined by return of post.'"


And then for those of you willing to put up with some tidbits about my month of living and teaching in Spartanburg, South Carolina, read on:

I’ll be leaving on Saturday, which is about the right amount of time to have been away from my “real life.” One thing that never fails to fascinate me about life in the South (to make a sweeping generalization), is that the longer you stay, the more you realize that you have no idea of what’s really going on, what the real story is down here. It’s not an easy place to figure out, and I’ve enjoyed talking with students and others about life in the New South. I find it interesting that some people have a love-hate relationship about being from here, that some people like to claim they have no accent (ha!), that some people—at least on the surface—don’t appreciate the rich culture here, whether it’s food or a unique way with language. Yes, there’s a dark past (and present; while I was here, it was reported that racist materials were slipped into some delivered copies of the local newspaper), but where is a place that isn’t complicated in any number of ways? But as is so evident as I walk around town in my East Coast all-black attire, I’m not from here and I really don’t know anything about it. I accept that, and happily: I believe a writer should never feel completely at ease, as if there are no mysteries left to ponder and to tease out.

So thank you, South Carolina, for reminding me that despite Wal-Mart’s best efforts to homogenize the country (and there are two Wal-Marts here in Spartanburg) , there are places in the country that are richly different from and as mysterious as the places I come from.

And I would be remiss without mentioning some highlights:

--I’ve written about the joys of Converse College cafeteria food. I’m still a fan, though I can see that several years of it might wear on me (and make me fat). Still, I finally did get the famous Shrimp & Grits Bar during my last week, and though it wasn’t the best shrimp & grits I’ve ever had, I would have to say that it beat the hell out of El Ranchero, a horrid mystery meat coated with a slick of tomato paste and a slab of American cheese, which was my college cafeteria’s go-to meal. We seemed to get it every three days. Also, I've never before gotten cooking tips from an institutional cafeteria, but yesterday at lunch, I was so taken with the grilled hearts of romaine at the West Coast Caesar Salad Bar that I asked how I could make them at home (grill pan or in the broiler, quickly, with olive oil or Pam).

--The famous Beacon Drive-In still looks like a place from another time, with dozens of employees running around shouting, gabbing, and filling your order. Chili-Cheese-A-Plenty is as it ever was: a cheeseburger drenched in chili and smothered in four inches of French fries and stellar onion rings. After eating dinner there, I woke up in agony at 4 am, with major stomach pain, but it was worth it. The sweet ice tea is PHENOMONAL! And the peach cobbler was also fantastic. And I was touched by the continued employment of a long-time employee, now blind from glaucoma, who stands at the head of the line and repeats your order to a woman who then shouts it back to the crew. The Beacon sells bobble-head dolls of this guy, with the proceeds going to fight glaucoma…of course I bought one!

--I finished one of my half-finished books. I’m not sure if it was worth it, but I did find several notable passages amidst the dreck. I’m embarrassed to name the title, but by God, it’s going in my “books read” journal. Let the biographers wonder why I stuck with that one…

--North Carolinians may squawk, but the blue sky here is very intense, one of the prettiest blues I’ve seen.

--I met a woman who grew up in North, South Carolina. Isn’t that fascinating?

--Converse College has many lovely old buildings with charming, old building touches. For example, the building where my office is has a chandelier in the entry hall.

--Uncle Lee’s Famous Recipe Fried Chicken is pretty good, not as heavily seasoned and processed-feeling as KFC. Don’t tell Steve I ate any…we allow ourselves to eat fried chicken once a year, on the Fourth of July, and I don’t want to miss out on that meal because I jumped the gun with this secret January chicken.

--I got to witness a town that panics more at the sight of snow than the DC area. There was an inch at most, and it had mostly melted by noon…but all the schools in Spartanburg were cancelled anyway.

--I would be remiss in not mentioning the students I worked with. It could be tiring reading a pack of manuscripts every week and having back-to-back hour-long conferences...but it was truly a joy and inspiration to witness the advances people made in their work in this short time. And believe me, I would never complain about getting to talk about writing all day long with smart, challenging, perceptive writers like the ones I met here at Converse College (which, BTW, is now offering a low-residency MFA along with the BFA in Creative Writing for undergrads--more info on both programs at

--And finally, I’m sorry, but I LIKE people always telling me to have a nice day. I will miss so many things about being here, but maybe I will miss most of all how nice people are in their daily interactions with each other. Of course this observation is quickly followed by my friend’s warning: “They’re nice to your face, but then walk away and they’ll be talking about you…concluding with ‘bless her heart.’” (i.e. “She’s such a bitch. Bless her heart.”) So be it. Surface nice is better than the no-nice of big city life!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Writers: Travel to China for Free!

Call for Applications—Deadline February 20, 2009

In 2009, the International Writing Program (IWP), in cooperation with the Chinese Writers' Association, is commencing a pilot exchange project, the Life of Discovery (LOD), between writers and artists from the United States and from the minority ethnic communities in the western regions of the People's Republic of China.

Five American and five Chinese writers and artists, all aged 25-40, will be invited to join two senior artists, one from each country, in a series of collaborative, bilingual projects, conducted first in Western China (over the course of sixteen days in mid-May, 2009) and continued and elaborated upon in the US (five to seven days at the end of September, 2009). Knowledge of Chinese is not required for American participants, nor English for Chinese participants.

LOD is sponsored through grant funds provided by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the US State Department. These will cover all relevant expenses for the US participants: round-trip international travel to China and travel within China, domestic travel in the US, lodging, per diem for meals, work materials, visa costs, health insurance, translation and interpreting. For more details on the exchange, the dates and proposed locations, go to

The IWP invites applications from
· Early-career writers of fiction, poetry, drama, screenplays, literary translation, and/or non-fiction, who have atleast one published (or contracted) volume.
· Artists from other disciplines, including time-based media, music, dance, or the visual arts. (See the website for application details on the application process if you are not a writer.)

Applications will be judged on a number of criteria, including creative merit, interest in cross-cultural activity, and the ability to contribute to a diverse and long-term exchange with Chinese counterparts of minority status.

Applications for writers may be hardcopy or electronic and should include:
A. Writing sample (no more than 15 pages; may be a photocopy or scan of published work). Provide a self-addressed mailer and sufficient postage for return of all materials.

B. Resumé

C. Project proposal (300-600 words)

D. Statement confirming ability to travel in remote and rural areas. The resumé should include any experience relevant to LOD (such as international travel or grants, volunteer work, other exchanges, etc.), in addition to artistic credentials and professional accomplishments. The project proposal should describe, in concrete terms, a proposed collaboration between some or all of the participants in the 2009 LOD project.

It should take into consideration all of the following:
--Twelve writers and artists of different genres and disciplines will be present.
--There will be a heavy reliance on interpreting and translation.
--The periods spent face-to-face (10-12 days in China, 5-7 days in the US) will occur four months apart. That interval may also be included in your proposal.

If you have participated in a similar collaborative effort in the past, we recommend including this in your proposal for illustrative purposes. While the IWP has experience in creative collaboration, we welcome new ideas.
Please send applications, by post or email, to
Tammy Petro
International Writing Program
Shambaugh House
430 N. Clinton
Iowa City, IA 52245

Contest for Ex-Pats

Guidelines for the 2009 Expatriate Writing Contest invites you to enter its 2009 Expatriate Travel Writing Contest. Professionals, freelancers and aspiring writers are invited to write articles which describe their experience living abroad.

Often your experience abroad may be extended by working or studying in the host country, so living, working, and studying abroad are often inextricable, and we are interested in these aspects as well. Making the move to live abroad is for many the ultimate transition — often the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, in other cases the result of chance and circumstance. We are seeking inspiring articles which also provide in-depth practical descriptions of your experience moving and living abroad, including discussions of immigration, personal and family life abroad, housing, work, social interactions with the natives, food, culture, study, language learning, and potential prejudices encountered.

Apart from practical considerations what were the most important physical, psychological, and social adjustments necessary to integrate into the local communities? Feel free to include anecdotes about locals who may have aided in your adjustment to the physical conditions and social mores of the host community, as well as the role of expats in providing information and support.

While we welcome a good narrative, a listing, sidebar, and/or reference to the most important websites, publications, and other practical resources which have aided you in the cultural adjustment process or enhanced your life abroad is strongly encouraged to help others who may find themselves in similar situations or even similar locations. The inclusion of useful sidebars will likely help determine the winners of the contest.

In sum, we do not seek diaries or personal blogs, but your own perspective in which the host country remains the primary focus, such that the color and taste of the people and land remain in the foreground. Please see the Living Abroad section of our site for some examples of the types of articles we are seeking and see our writers' uidelines for a sense of our editorial preferences. will publish the winners' entries and will provide links to the authors' website or blog if so desired.

Contest Prizes
The first-place winner’s entry will receive $500, the second-place winning entry $150, and the third-place winner $100. Any other articles selected as runners-up for publication on will receive a $50 payment.

Who is Eligible
The Contest is open to professional, freelance and aspiring writers from any location around the globe.

How to Enter
ubmit an original essay of up to 1,500 words relating to your experience living, moving, or working abroad. Focus should be placed on a description of the experience abroad and not primarily on personal feelings, as the descriptions and perceptions of the author should imply the personal impact. Supporting photos in .jpg or .gif format are welcome to illustrate the experience and are considered part of the essay submission.

Please read the writers’ guidelines for Transitions Abroad Magazine as well as sample articles on this site for a sense of our editorial focus.

To enter the Contest, attach your essay in Word format or copy and paste it into an e-mail. Please include your full name, complete postal address and phone number. Please type "Expatriate Writing Essay Entry" in the subject description of the e-mail and send the e-mail to

The Contest begins March 1, 2008, and all entries must be received by February 15, 2009. Transitions Abroad Publishing, Inc. will require first-time North American rights for all submissions which are accepted as contest winners and for publication. In addition, Transitions Abroad Publishing, Inc. will reserve the right to reprint the story in a future publication. The writer may republish the unedited submission as desired after initial publication on

Editors of will judge entries based upon the following criteria:
--Sensitivity to the people and culture being described
--Ability to engage and inspire the reader
--Practical information

Winners will be chosen on or about February 22, 2009 and notified by phone, mail, or e-mail by February 28, 2009 for publication by April 1, 2008 to allow time for contact, acceptance, and international payment to writers living in remote regions of the world.

Contest Terms
There is no entry fee required for submissions. Decisions of the judges are final. Transitions Abroad Publishing, Inc. is not responsible for late, lost, misdirected, incomplete, or illegible e-mail or for any computer-related, online, or technical malfunctions that may occur in the submission process. Submissions are considered void if illegible, incomplete, damaged, irregular, altered, counterfeit, produced in error, or obtained through fraud or theft. Submissions will be considered made by an authorized account holder of the e-mail address submitted at time of entry. The 1st, 2nd and 3rd place winners – along with any other runners-up accepted for publication – will be paid by Transitions Abroad Publishing, Inc. either by check or Paypal as preferred by the author. All federal, state, and local taxes are the sole responsibility of the Contest winners.

Illinois Residency for Emerging Writers

Lake Forest College
Madeleine P. Plonsker Emerging Writer's Residency Prize (Prose)

Lake Forest College, in conjunction with the &NOW organization, invites applications for an emerging prose writer under forty years old, with no major book publication*, to spend two months (February-March or March-April 2010) in residence at our campus in Chicago’s northern suburbs on the shore of Lake Michigan. There are no formal teaching duties attached to the residency. Time is to be spent completing a manuscript, participating in the Lake Forest Literary Festival, and offering two public presentations. The completed manuscript will be published (upon approval) by the Lake Forest College Press &NOW Books imprint. The stipend is $10,000, with a housing suite and campus meals. Send curriculum vita, no more than 30 pages of manuscript in progress, and a one-page statement of plans for completion to: Plonsker Residency, Department of English, Lake Forest College, Box A16, 555 N. Sheridan Road, Lake Forest, IL 60045. Submissions must be postmarked by April 1, 2009 for consideration by judges Robert Archambeau, Davis Schneiderman, and Joshua Corey.

More details:

*No major book publication. What does this mean?: a chapbook is ok, as are works where the candidate is translator or editor. Yet, most other small press book publications will disqualify. Query with questions.

ISO Essays by and about Doctors & Lawyers


Are you a doctor? Are you a lawyer? Are you a writer with something to say about doctors or lawyers? Well, this could be your chance to get your voice heard and your writing published (and win $2500 while you're at it). The important details: 1) The deadline is March 15,2009, and 2) $2500 will be awarded for the best essay. The finer points follow:

For a collection to be published by Southern Methodist University Press, Creative Nonfiction is seeking new essays written by or about doctors and lawyers, exploring the two professions' similarities aswell as their divisions and points of conflict. What intrigues, interests, or annoys doctors and lawyers--and, potentially,others--about each other? The objective of this project is to capturethe complex relationship between these two professions. Essays must be vivid and dramatic; they should combine a strong and compelling narrative with a significant element of research or information. We're looking for well-written prose, rich with detailand a distinctive voice. Creative Nonfiction editors will award $2,500 for Best Essay

Essays must be: unpublished, 5,000 words or less, postmarked by March 15, 2009, and clearly marked "Doctors andLawyers" on both the essay and the outside of the envelope. There is a $20 reading fee; $25 includes a 4-issue CNF subscription. Multiple entries are welcome ($20/essay) as are entries from outside the U.S.(though additional subscription postage costs do apply; for rates).

Please send manuscript, accompanied by a cover letter with complete contact information, SASE and payment to: Creative Nonfiction Attn: Doctors and Lawyers 5501 Walnut Street, Suite 202 Pittsburgh, PA 15232

Please email any questions Information is also posted on our website. To view, click here.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

John Updike...

...has died. He should have gotten the Nobel. I guess that leaves Philip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates. The New York Times obit:

Entering the Poem: Andrea Hollander Budy

Poet Andrea Hollander Budy was my roommate way back when at the first Sewanee Writers Conference I attended. We figured out that we were put together because on the roommate questionnaire, after all the questions about night owl vs. early bird, messy vs. clean, we had both written something along the lines of: “The most important factor is that my roommate be a non-smoker!!!!” Voila—we were matched.

Anyway, here is an interesting interview with her on the blog for the journal 32 Poems. An excerpt:

“I have always tried to write as clearly as possible in language that is free of decoration. A poem is already by its nature a dense enterprise — relatively few words attempt to engage readers and provide a compelling experience — and while I don’t wish to write simplistic poems, I do want readers to easily enter a poem and to discover there something valuable not only the first time they read or hear it, but for them to want to enter the poem again and again and to be ushered more deeply into it each time.”

Read the rest here.

More on Elizabeth Alexander's Inaugural Poem

I’m no expert, but I thought the poem was okay, despite her poor reading of it. I’m not sure what I would have expected or how one might write a poem to capture everything of the moment…which I suppose is why I’m a novelist, because I could much more easily imagine writing a NOVEL about the event.

But I was interested in John Guzlowski’s suggested revision, which I think does make the poem stronger. Here's where you can read more about that; he also has some links to various online discussions about the merits/lack of in the poem.

The bottom line for me: I’m happy a poet was included!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Still More Words of Wisdom

Poet John Guzlowski offers his writing “words of wisdom,” which as he reports, he worked up “years ago when I was doing a workshop with some students at Western Kentucky University. The teacher was Mary Ellen Miller, a Kentucky writer.”

Read this, then get to work on your jokes about French-speaking mules!

Advice to Mary Ellen Miller's Poetry Writing Class

First, listen carefully to the advice of older poets, like me.
Some of what they say will be the most important thing
you'll hear about poetry. Some of what they say
will be useless. How can you tell the difference?
You can't right now, but you will in five or ten years.

Second, find someone who believes in your poetry,
a wife, a lover, a friend, and believe what they say
about your poetry, the good and the bad both,
and keep writing, writing all the time, writing emails,
letters, notes on the backs of books, term papers
about Dostoevsky and the rise of realism, write jokes
about mules that speak only French and teachers
who wear red paisley ties and wide-brimmed straw hats,
and writing like this, you'll find you're writing poems,
all the time, everyday, everywhere you're writing poems.

Third, write a poem everyday, and if you can't write one
everyday write one every other day, and if you can't do that
write one every third day, and if you can't do that
write one when the muse hits you—when two words
explode in your head, appearing out of nowhere.
Whatever you're doing when that explosion hits,
stop, and write down the sound of that explosion
because if you wait 'til later, it's lost--absolutely.

Fourth, find a muse. I'm not kidding. Mine is a mother
of two who died in the snow outside of Stalingrad,
shot in the forehead by a German foot soldier
from a farming village in Bavaria. She comes to me
when I'm busy grading papers or talking with friends
and she begs me to remember her children, all the children.

What will this muse do for you? Ask her, she'll tell you.

~~John Z. Guzlowski

Langston Hughes Days in DC

An announcement from DC poet Kim Roberts:

In the mid-1920s, the celebrated American poet Langston Hughes lived and worked in Washington, DC, where his writing career was launched. Hughes was born on Feb. 1, 1902. And to celebrate his 107th birthday and his Washington literary roots, Holly Bass Performance Projects in collaboration with Washington Musica Viva are proud to present “Langston Days.”

Schedule of Activities

DATE/TIME: Jan. 31 & Feb. 1, tour from 10:30am-12pm (weather permitting)
WHAT: Langston Hughes/ "Harlem" Renaissance in DC walking tour
LOCATION: tour leaves from Busboys & Poets, 2021 14th St. NW @ V St. NW
ADMISSION: Free. Limited to 20 participants.

RSVP required. Email for reservations. Please specify if reserving for walking tour on 1/31, 2/1 tour. Led by Kim Roberts, this walking tour will visit places in the U Street/Cardozo area where Hughes and other black poets of his time lived and worked. Complimentary coffee and hot chocolate will be offered by Busboys & Poets beforehand. Books of Hughes poetry can be purchased in the bookstore.

DATE/TIME: Feb. 1, guided lunchtime discussion, noon-2:00pm
WHAT: Langston Hughes/ "Harlem" Renaissance in DC post-tour discussion
LOCATION: tour leaves from Busboys & Poets, 2021 14th St. NW @ V St. NW
DMISSION: Suggested $10 food/drink minimum. Limited to 10 participants. RSVP required. Email for reservations.

After the Jan. 31 tour, participants can choose to engage in a lively lunchtime discussion facilitated by Keith D. Leonard, professor of literature at American University and author of Fettered Genius: the African-American Bardic Poet from Slavery to Civil Rights. Participants can order brunch from the Busboys & Poets menu.

DATE/TIME: Feb. 1, 2009, 7pm
WHAT: “The Weary Blues”
LOCATION: Busboys & Poets, 2021 14th St. NW @ V St. NW
ADMISSION: $15 general admission, $12 for students/seniors
Live performance of "The Weary Blues" with Holly Bass as Langston along with a six-piece jazz band, featuring bassist Pepe González, drummer Lenny Robinson, trumpeter Chris Royal, guitarist Steve Herberman, pianist Carl Banner, along with saxophonist and arranger Charley Gerard. This performance is a new adaptation of the 1958 collaboration between the poet Langston Hughes and jazz musician Charles Mingus. *This performance will have sign-language interpretation.

DATE/TIME: Feb. 3, 2009, 6:30pm pre-show discussion, 7:30pm performance
WHAT: “Langston and His Legacy”
LOCATION: Grace Church, 1041 Wisconsin Avenue NW, WDC 20007ADMISSION: FreeHolly Bass, accompanied by a six-piece jazz band, will perform excerpts of “The Weary Blues” as well as her own original poetry and the work of other black American poets, highlighting the influence of Hughes’ work on contemporary American poetry.

A Space Inside Reading

DC poets Anne Harding Woodworth and Rosemary Winslow will read from their work as a part of A Space Inside on next Wednesday, January 28 at 7 p.m. at Riverby Books on Capitol Hill.

Anne Harding Woodworth's most recent book is SPARE PARTS, A Novella in Verse (Turning Point, 2008). She is the author of two other books and two chapbooks. Her essays and poetry have appeared in U.S. and Canadian journals, such as TriQuarterly, Painted Bride Quarterly, Connecticut Review, Antigonish Review, and Poet Lore, as well as at several sites on line. She has an MFA in poetry from Fairleigh Dickinson University and is a member of the Poetry Board at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Rosemary Winslow lives in downtown Washington, D.C. and teaches at The Catholic University of America. Her book of poems, Green Bodies (The Word Works, 2007) explores the complexities of love in a difficult world and finds beauty, grace, and forgiveness. Her poetry has been published in numerous anthologies (e.g.,Voices from Frost Place, Beloved of the Earth, The Farmer's Daughter) and magazines (e.g., Beltway, Cafe Review, Gargoyle, Potomac Review, Southern Review, Valparaiso Poetry Review, 32 Poems, and Locus Point. Her work has won three Larry Neal Awards and fellowships from The D.C. Arts Commission and Vermont Studio Center. Dozens of her essays on poetry, rhetoric, style, and teaching writing have appeared in journals and books. She has taught poetry in shelters for the homeless and other community settings.

Starting its fourth 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, January 22, 2009

Highly Important Inauguration Update

According the the New York Times, the lovely green gloves I admired that Michelle Obama wore during the swearing in and parade are from J. Crew. I'll have to get out my credit card and start searching!

Guest in Progress: Richard Goodman

Richard Goodman is one of my favorite correspondents. He always has something interesting to say, and today’s post is no exception. (You might also want to check out his most recent, an amusingly bitter account of the “day in the life of a writer.”)

As for now, eye your computer with suspicion:

By Richard Goodman

I write in longhand—by choice.

No, it’s not because I can’t afford a computer. I have a computer. And I use it. But whatever I write, I write first in longhand.

Why? Well, let me count the ways. First, there is a sense of building, of crafting, that comes from writing in longhand. When you look back at a page you’ve written, you’re looking at something you’ve built. There it is: a page of words and sentences you have made with your own hand. When you look at a page filled with your own handwriting, you can say, “I make words. I build paragraphs. I construct stories—by hand. My stories and essays are handmade.”

Practically speaking, writing with a pen or pencil is still the most versatile and portable form of composition. All you need is pen and paper. There are laptops, of course, but outlets aren’t always available, and a battery’s power is finite. Drop me into the forest with a pen and a small notepad, and I can write away. All Abraham Lincoln needed was the back of an envelope to compose one of the most famous speeches in history. (Not that I’m comparing myself with Abe.) The most extreme example of this on-the-spot ingenuity I can think of is the case of Jean Genet. Denied writing paper while he was in jail, he wrote an entire novel on toilet paper. Something to remember if you’re ever sent up the river. Writers have employed a carnival-like array of surfaces when the need calls—the inside of matchbooks, bookmarks, calling cards, drink coasters (remember where writers congregate), the ever-handy paper napkin, even the palms of their hands. That would make an interesting museum exhibit.

I also think words cost you more when you write them out in longhand. They cost you more in terms of psychic energy and simple work than when you use a computer. I think, then, you’re less likely to be profligate. I think you’re more likely to be aware of what you’re writing down, because you’re aware of the personal effort. So when you use a pen or pencil, it can make you more committed to a word, or to a phrase. When you use a computer to compose the act is hidden. Something occurs between your fingers hitting the keys and the words appearing on the page that you can’t see, or feel. You are somewhat disengaged. Who is actually putting those words on the page? Me? Compare this to using a manual typewriter, when you actually slap the words onto the page.

I think, too, that if you’re susceptible to the influence of tradition—and I am—writing in longhand can link you to writers of the past computers never can. You know that Henry James sat with a pen in hand just like you, and he wrote words on a page. Henry James did not use a computer. Neither did Shakespeare, now that we’re naming names. Before the invention of the typewriter, all writers wrote with a pen. So, pick your hero. You’re sitting there with your pen poised—like Proust in his cork-lined room; like Edith Wharton sitting in her bed at The Mount; like Pablo Neruda looking at the ocean from his study on Isla Negra.

There is also the sense of tiredness that comes uniquely with writing in longhand. When I’m through writing for the day, my hand is weak. I’ve given it a workout. Just as my arms and back would be tired after a long morning gardening, to return to that fertile analogy. So in addition to wracking my brain, I get the purely physical sense of exhaustion. And there is nothing like physical exhaustion from honest physical labor. Writing is already an abstract enough pursuit, with many people still seeing it as a dubious profession—not really work. So, when you walk away from the table with a hand that’s weary, it helps connect your calling with labor. Somehow, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome just doesn’t have the same effect.

I know Hemingway used a pencil at least some of the time, because he says so. In A Moveable Feast, he writes, “The story was writing itself and I was having a hard time keeping up with it. I ordered another rum St. James and I watched the girl whenever I looked up, or when I sharpened the pencil with a pencil sharpener with the shavings curling into the saucer under my drink.” Of course the American writer most closely associated with pencils is Thoreau, who actually made them, and expertly, too.

One disadvantage of using either a pen or pencil, is, I suppose, that sometimes the brain is racing too fast for the hand to keep up, à la Hemingway. When that happens, my handwriting starts to turn into strange clipped symbols, portions of words, endings left off, so that it all resembles a secret journal code, something out of Pepys or Gladstone. Sometimes, I can’t even decipher it myself. This is not a unique problem, nor has it ever been. I think the story goes that Balzac’s hand was so bad—and you can find examples of it on-line—it was nearly impossible to decipher his manuscript. Typesetters refused to work more than an hour at a time on his work. I believe they called it “Balzac time.” My problem has been assuaged somewhat because lately my mind seems to be slowing down considerably, and so my hand has no trouble keeping pace.

Children still learn to write letter by letter with their pens or pencils. I hope they always will. One of the great prideful moments a child has is cracking the code of script, making the leap between printing and cursive writing. It’s one of the first great leaps of independence for them and one of the first times they can have something that is uniquely theirs. The feeling of power and accomplishment of this leap I think remains deep within all of us. The faintest doses of this pride are released when we write by hand, even when we are fully grown. Somewhere, we think, “Look: I did this, and nobody else could.”

About: Richard Goodman [] is the author of The Soul of Creative Writing, which is due out in paperback in early March. He is also the author of French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France; He has written for a wide variety of journals, newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, Harvard Review [], Creative Nonfiction, Vanity Fair, The Writer's Chronicle, and The Michigan Quarterly Review. He teaches at Spalding University's brief residency MFA in Writing program []. ; He is a founding member of the New York Writers Workshop [].

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Potomac Review Fiction Contest

Calling fiction writers! The Potomac Review's annual fiction contest is now accepting submissions. First prize is $1,000 and publication in the Potomac Review literary journal. Two runners-up will receive $250 and mention on our website.

*Send 1 story (up to 15 pgs), along with reading fee payable to Potomac Review. The entry fee is $20 per submission. All entrants will receive a one-year (2 issues) subscription. There are no restrictions on subject matter.

*All stories must be unpublished and less than 3,000 words.

*Submissions will not be returned, so please do not include SASE

*Entries that do not follow contest guidelines will be disqualified, so please consult complete contest guidelines before submitting (see below for link)

*Stories must be postmarked no later than March 15, 2009.

*The winning story will appear in issue #46 of Potomac Review. Only the 1st prize entry will be published in the journal.

*Only winners will be notified in late spring of 2009. For complete contest guidelines, please visit:

ISO Writing Teachers

I love teaching at the Writer's Center in Bethesda--the students are enthusiastic and care about writing. Maybe you've thought about teaching there too? If so, this announcement is for you:

"Are you interested in leading a workshop at The Writer's Center? We're looking to expand our instructor pool. If you're interested, please visit this link: The deadline for applications is April 15, 2009."

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

What I Loved about the Inauguration

--that I was inside on a snowy (!!) South Carolina day, feeling warm and cozy as I watched

--that I have the life I do that allowed me to arrange my schedule to take time to watch TV in the middle of the day; I was sad when the garbagemen came by, imagining that they’d rather be watching the inauguration.

--Aretha’s hat…not many women could carry that baby off, but she did, perfectly!

--the quartet (how challenging to play instruments in that weather)

--that a poet was included in the proceedings. I need to reread the text of the poem, but my initial impression was favorable, even though I thought she ended sort of awkwardly

--Michelle Obama’s gloves

--Jill Biden’s boots

--those funky purple scarves the elder Bushes wore

--the fact that cranky, cynical old me felt the tiniest bit of hope that better days might be ahead

The Heartland Beckons...

This girl from the heartland was quite intrigued by this announcement:

A New Writers’ Residency:

Writers in The Heartland is now taking applications for its inaugural season. Writers in the Heartland is a writing colony for creative writers in all genres. The colony is located in Gilman, Illinois, approximately 2 hours south of Chicago. It is located on a beautiful 30-acre wooded site with lakes and walking paths. A limited number of one-week residencies are available for September 18-25 and October 3-10. Lodging and food are included. Applications must be received by April 15, 2009, to be considered. Decisions will be announced by July 1st.

For further information about applying to Writers in the Heartland, see our website or contact us at

ISO Ethnic Poets & First-Generation Immigrant Poets

A message from poet John Guzlowski*:

“I found out recently that Steel Toe Books, the poetry press that published my book Lightning and Ashes, is currently looking for book-length poetry manuscripts from ethnic minorities and first-generation immigrant, non-native speakers of English. You can read more about its submission process at their website:

*Check out John’s fascinating blog about his parents and their experiences in Nazi Germany, a topic that also informs his poetry:

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Continuing Problem of Half-Read Books

I’m not the only one who worries about half-read books. Becky Wolsk, a wonderful writer from one of my novel workshops at the Writer’s Center, sent these excellent suggestions for how to cope with the angst of the book that can’t be finished:

“Your post [last week] strikes a chord because like you, I maintain a record of all the books I read, and it makes me reluctant to dump out of a book that I'm slogging through instead of enjoying. Here's how I dump out of it anyway:

1) If you don't like it or see something useful in it by the 100th page, dump out.

2) In my book journal, I write "dumped out of xxxx by xxxx." That way, I have a record that I was interested in it. Because my book journal is not just a list of accomplishment, so to speak, but also a way I can document where I was steering my reading life for that year.

3) Instead of saying, "I'm not going to finish this book," consider saying, "I've now read enough to transfer this book over to #857 on my Books I Want to Read list. That means, I'll get back to it at some point, maybe, but it's not really on my radar screen anymore.

Books that bore me are like boring friends. I may decide, from now on, that I will white-lie my way out of getting together with them.”

More Words of Wisdom

Following up on last week’s post, here are some more words of wisdom that various writers live by:

Cheryl Aubin ( has an interesting idea. She actually wrote some words for herself. I like the idea of writers coming up with our own inspiration—our mission statement! Here’s Cheryl’s:

“To write is to travel to far universes and interior landscapes. To write is to spill your life and your energy on to the page and those words, once released, join with the hopes and dreams and successes and challenges of all writers and become eternal.”

She also likes this, from Robert Frost: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”

Debbi Mack ( offers this one:

"The difference between a professional and an amateur writer is persistence." -- Parris Afton Bonds

And here are two short but sweet suggestions from Katharine (Kitty) Davis (

"Art is work." Ursula LeGuin

"Talent is a long patience." Flaubert

I will be stealing these for my classes to be sure!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Guest in Progress: Julie Wakeman-Linn

Writer Julie Wakeman-Linn is one of those dynamos who seems to be able to do about sixteen things at once, so it’s no surprise to me that among her many projects—teaching, running the F. Scott Fitzgerald literary conference, editing the Potomac Review, writing…and I imagine she also has a personal life!—she was also able to recently create the perfect writing retreat for herself. Caution: After reading this, you’ll want to hop in your car and head off on your own retreat at the beach!

How to Create Your Own Writing Retreat
By Julie Wakeman-Linn

Didn’t get into Yaddo? Couldn’t accept those VCCA [Virginia Center for the Creative Arts] weeks in the middle of September? Still desperately need a getaway for your writing sanity? You, too, can craft your own writer’s retreat with a little planning. Here are ten easy suggestions to have a wonderful relaxing productive runaway.

First: Find an insular community, preferably one that had a Brigadoon atmosphere. What is Brigadoon in 2009? One town with no chain restaurants, two independent bookstores, and an excellent spa is Duck, North Carolina. Go in the off-season; the beach is beautiful and not crowded. Also it’s cheaper so you can rent a great big house and everybody spreads out in its corners.

Second: Only take people you can totally trust, who are either amused or enraptured by your first draft outbursts. The dog actually works the best for this role but spouses and best friends are all right. Once I and my old dog revised 150 pages in a week long retreat in the Outer Banks. But if your retreat is the Christmas/New Year runaway, take lots of nice wine and the people you bring along will listen to you anyway.

Third: Recognize that writing routines may change on a customized retreat. At VCCA the rigor in the daily schedule is a wonderful boon, but this isn’t the case at the beach. As the days unfold, somebody wants to walk, somebody wants to shop, somebody wants to do watercolors and you never know what the next hour will bring. Use the confusion of many people and many activities to sneak open the laptop and be so absorbed they leave you alone. A totally devoted spouse is very handy here. He will hush the others and lead them away. Very important -- Be open to a change in bio-rhythms when the tides and dolphin hunting factor into it. I found that I could write in the late afternoon, when at home I never can.

Fourth: Avoid the news. It’s generally all bad and very distracting. On retreat, I only scan the NPR arts and entertainment headlines. It’s delightful that some pundits think our new president will be a strong positive force for poetry and the arts. I knew I liked him. Instead of the news, take a huge pile of books in a wild variety. Encourage your housemates to also bring a pile of books. Sample everybody’s.

Fifth: Satiate on excellent food, preferably served by a waiter. Again this is fairly hedonistic but I have this theory that fresh seafood is good for the left brain. Remember calories don’t count on a writer’s retreat. Just work in two beach walks a day. It helps if you become the person who goes out for the daily dolphin report.

Sixth: Unlike a ‘genuine’ retreat where the schedule is set, drift into moments of creativity. If everybody else in the house wants to go play miniature golf or see that latest blockbuster film, feign a headache and stay home. The quiet of a beach house can be perfect. Or if you were very good the night before and drank nothing so the headache excuse is too fake, then give the crowd a dreamy look and say your main character is up to no good and you have to see him or her through it. My crowd will shake their heads and leave me alone. It is very helpful if your housemates are all numbers people--economists, finance professors, even accountants —they dismiss and forgive the voices in the writer’s head.

Seventh: Use Hemingway’s adage. Stop in the middle of a scene or the middle of a sentence when you close up a writing session. It makes it much easier to resume. I find my characters are working out their own problems while I’m napping or reading or putting in a jigsaw puzzle piece.

Eighth: Get a massage. Lying there on the table, totally relaxed, is wonderful for the creative juices. I came out of a massage with a renewed vigor and a clear idea how to handle the opening order of scenes.

Ninth: Eschew any marketing worries. They are anathema to relaxation and to creativity. Save the research and queries and spreadsheet organizing for the cold harsh light of January, or whenever you return.

Tenth: Have a HUGE goal, so huge you can never achieve it in the time allowed. It is very freeing to face an impossible task. I set out to write 100 pages. I was nuts but I’m tickled to have produced 5 pages of notes and 5 new scenes in progress and polished another 15 pages. What is a novel but an impossible task anyway?

Eleventh: Be open to amazing self revelations that arise out of oddball activities. Every day I had to seek out a new spot to watch the sun set. This obsessive activity cleared so much junk out of my head that real ideas blossomed from the compost of to-do lists, syllabi planning, and impending committee tasks.

I know I cheated because I promised you ten and gave you an extra one. That is the glory of a little self indulgence like a retreat –you reap unexpected gifts.

So create your own retreat. Relax, recreate, re-envision. Your writing life will be stronger and your regular life will be more peaceful for your escape.

About: Julie Wakeman-Linn edits The Potomac Review and teaches at Montgomery College. Her novel, Chasing the Leopard; Finding the Lion, was a finalist for the 2008 Bellwether prize and a number of her short stories have been published in literary journals and in the anthology Enhanced Gravity. She is program co-chair for the F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary conference. Check out all the news at and You can contact Julie through either website.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Is Half a Book Better Than None?

I brought to South Carolina two half-read books that I thought I might finish. One I’m totally interested in, so it’s a mystery to me why I simply don’t finish it, but I started it in October, and yet here it is January, its bookmark nestled at page 213. The other one, a memoir, keeps annoying me—it’s self-indulgent and irritating for pages and pages, yet then comes up with some amazing insight that makes me fold over the corner of the page. It’s also extremely easy and unchallenging to read, so given how busy I’ve been here, I find it relaxing to pick it up before bedtime when I’m tired of thinking. (Until yesterday night—yeah cable guy!—I’ve had basically one or two snowy and fuzzy channels on my TV, so I guess this is a book fulfilling that role of relaxing mindlessness.)

But the real question is, why don’t I just set it aside? Why do I keep pushing through it? (It’s 365 pages, and I’ve got a ways to go.) Is it because I’m from Iowa, because I’m so darn stubborn that I need to FINISH a book, even though it isn’t satisfying? I’ve heard of people who read 50 pages or so and if they don’t like it, they’ll happily set the book aside without a lick of angst and move on to the next one. In my next life, I hope I’m one of those people.

Several years ago, I tried to read Atonement, and got halfway through—to the place where “Part II” was about to start and just stopped, even though I thought the book was fine enough. But the bookmark is still there, and I still feel guilty about the whole situation. (I even thought about bringing it to South Carolina, too!)

I guess I don’t like that state of limbo. If I don’t finish, I can’t list it in my “books journal” and move it to a new bookshelf. So I guess I’ll just keep plowing. I’ll let you know if I ever finish or if it quietly disappears onto the shelves in the basement, to the place of guilt, next to Atonement.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

"Nice to Meet You, Ishmael"

We were talking about characters in class the other night, and I asked for ideas about how to develop characters. One woman said that she likes to write sketches where she introduces her new character to characters she’s already written about. I thought that sounded like a great idea…for myself, I can imagine that Ginger from Pears on a Willow Tree would have had a LOT to say to Mama in A Year and a Day. Too bad I never thought to get them together.

Here’s another great character exercise that I may have mentioned before but that’s always worth resurrecting. Again, I swiped this idea from a student, who told me that she was in a class with Michael Cunningham (author of The Hours) who had everyone come up with a list of THIRTY phrases/words to physically describe their characters. I’ve tried this, and while the first ten or so aren’t that difficult (5’6”, brown eyes, etc.), to get to thirty, you really have to come up with some new, interesting stuff. Of course, this is the stuff you keep for the work, not the boring brown eyes.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Words of Wisdom (Not Mine)

Ever since way back when, I’ve been collecting quotations about writing that I find inspiring. Here are some of my favorites:

I can’t remember if this is from the deservedly beloved Bird by Bird or not:
“If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must. Otherwise you’ll just be rearranging furniture in rooms you’ve already been in.”
~~Anne Lamott

I think I find an excuse to read this out loud to every workshop class I teach--
“…in fiction every element has effect on every other, so that to change a character’s name from Jane to Cynthia is to make the fictional ground shudder under her feet.”
~~John Gardner

Workshops classes also get to hear this one quite frequently:
“Write with fire and edit with ice.” ~~Ernest Gaines

Here’s a cheerful one:
“A writer’s life is only ever acceptance or rejection, surfeit or famine, and nothing in between. That’s an emotionally draining way to live. As a result, it isn’t necessary to discourage young writers. Life will do that soon enough. There are yards of writers under the age of thirty, but not many who stay the course. The ones who do aren’t necessarily the most gifted, but those who can focus well, discipline themselves, persevere through hard times, and spring back after rejections that would cripple others.” ~~Diane Ackerman

I can’t quit you, John Gardner!:
“Really good fiction has a staying power that comes from its ability to jar, turn on, move the whole intellectual and emotional history of the reader. If the reader is a house, the really good book is a jubilant party that spreads through every room of it, or else a fire.” ~~John Gardner

This is perhaps my absolute favorite:
“There is no measuring with time, no year matters, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without the fear that after them may come no summer. It does come…patience is everything.” ~~Rilke

And, perversely, this one gives me hope at many points along the way:
“I write the first half of a novel without knowing what I’m doing. I write the second half knowing exactly what I’m doing and that I’m totally wrong in doing it.” ~~Alice McDermott

I’m always interested in the magical words that other writers find helpful, so if you’re inspired to do so, please send along one or two of your favorites and I’ll post them.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Dorm Food Update

A follow-up on yesterday's post: We had the best "bar" so far today at lunch in the dining hall: "Bleu Cheese Wedge Bar"!! A hunk of iceberg lettuce with a choice of bleu cheese, tomatoes, bacon, and red onions, all topped off with dollops of bleu cheese dressing. It didn't seem too popular with the young ladies of Converse College (it's a women's college), but I loved it. Luckily, I wasn't too full and could still investigate the "Fried Rice Bar."

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Light Blogging Schedule

Still trying to work out some computer issues here in South Carolina, at lovely Converse College where I'm teaching for the month of January. Remind me NEVER to complain about my own computer...I'm using a computer that hasn't been updated (or used) in, oh, about a hundred years!

Nevertheless, I'm enjoying my stay down here. College food service has really changed since back in my day; now, food is served almost exclusively in "bar" form, and though of course there is a Salad Bar, that's pretty passe. So far, I've enjoyed: Fajitas Bar, Gyros Bar, Pasta Bar, Mac-n-Cheese Bar, and Quesadilla Bar. I hear there's a Shrimp and Grits Bar in the rotation, and I'm very much looking forward to that....(for real!).

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Beltway Features Poems about Museums

An announcement from the wonderful Beltway Poetry Quarterly:

Beltway Poetry ( opens 2009 with a new issue devoted entirely to poems about museums. Thirty-three poets write about museums, historical sites, and other public places devoted to preservation and exhibition. The poems address the institutions and "their collections, their workers, and the many ways in which they fulfill their founders’ hopes of enlarging the scope of civic life," as guest co-editor Maureen Thorson writes in her introduction. "In these poems, poets engage in conversations with artists, their subjects, and with art itself. They stand in witness to the forces of history."

So join us in this luminous collection of poems. Saundra Rose Maley asks King Tut," there a crossing over/ Or is this life just what it is, a sandal strap/At best?" Margaret Yocom speaks in the voice of a man who amassed old logging equipment for a museum in Maine. Kendra Kopelke lets the woman in a Hopper painting speak: " He put me here/like a candle/to ignite the room." Stephen Cushman imagines painter's models, "posing in a yoga twist,/head going one way, torso another." David Gewanter writes of a museum store clerk, " I love to see my mother behind//the counter, tidying up the fossil fish/and reptile rulers." Linda Pastan contemplates death from a safe distance, asking, " Whose skulls are these,/and isn't it dread/that informs our pleasure//in this canvas?"

And more!

Beltway Poetry Quarterly, now in its ninth year of online publication, is available for free online at

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Converse College Offers Award to Fiction Writer

Speaking of Converse College, where I’ll be teaching for the month of January, here’s a contest I recommend*:

Submission Guidelines for the Julia Peterkin Award

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 (864) 596-9000 or email at

*Important note: I have nothing to do with the administration or judging of this contest!

Friday, January 2, 2009

2009: Heading to South Carolina

Welcome to 2009…surely it can’t be as unnerving as 2008…right?

On Sunday, I’m heading off to teach for a month as the visiting writer at Converse College, in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and I’m thinking it will take me a while to get settled and figure out the internet etc., so I’m pre-posting a few quick items to show up in the early part of the week. But I hope to be up to full speed ASAP.

I taught for a month in Spartanburg several years ago and am very much looking forward to a return visit. The students are fun; I get to eat dorm food (!!); I will get to spend time with some lovely friends; and I’m looking forward to stuffing myself with chili cheese a-plenty at the famous Beacon Drive-In…last time I enjoyed that delicious treat, I didn't feel like eating for approximately 24 hours afterwards.

Here’s a quote from their web site:

“Famous for our Chili Cheese A-Plenty, a chili cheeseburger on a bun buried on a plate underneath piles of sweet onion rings and French fried potatoes and the great drive-in tea of the South – generously sweetened, laced with a touch of lemon, served over a pack of shaved ice . We sell more tea than any other single restaurant in the U.S.A.!”

Yes, the tea is amazing, too. Between this and the delightfully starchy dorm food, I will return home F-A-T.


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