Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Follow-Up on February Reading in Chicago

Poet John Guzlowski has posted a photo and write-up of the lovely reading I participated in at the Polish Museum of America in Chicago in February. You can see more here.

Writing Tips Galore from C.M. Mayo

C.M. Mayo has written a series of excellent guest posts for Foreword magazine. All are worthy of your time and attention, but my favorite is probably the one about tools the novelist needs to organize the manuscript, and she gives a shout-out to the all-important index card:

“1. A small (purse-sized) notebook and/or 1/4" stack of blank index cardsI always carry these with me to jot down ideas, words, overheard dialogue, and sometimes even drafts of paragraphs or outlines of plots. By writing things down, I don’t lose them and also—this is subtle, but crucial—by keeping pen and paper with me at all times, I signal to my "artist self," I’m ready to write.”

Here’s the full list of pieces:

Writer's Blogs: What Works (& What Doesn't)

Ten Tools for Organizing the Novel-in-Progress

For the Novelist's Bookshelf: One Dozen Books on Craft & Creating

Use an Egg-Timer If You Must: The 5 Minute Cure for Writer's Block

Monday, March 30, 2009

"Write Uncomfortably"*

On Buzz, Balls & Hype, using her own experience, clinical psychologist Dr. Susan O'Doherty, wrote an excellent piece about facing certain fears and how doing so relates to our writing:

“What does this have to do with writing? Just this: I have been thinking about all of this in Jungian terms, as a hero’s journey. I have embarked, in other words, on a sometimes harrowing quest not entirely of my own devising, to face down certain demons with the goal of transformation. This is the journey my clients engage in when they return, week after week, to confront painful, sometimes traumatic, experiences and parts of themselves that they might prefer to keep hidden. And it is the journey traveled by serious writers, as they stare down the blank page or computer screen, pushing themselves, as I was pushed, to chip away at artifice and easy facility to reveal truth and beauty.

“These journeys are not heroic in the sense that vaccinating children in Congo or rescuing people from burning buildings is heroic. They are of value all the same, and not only to the practitioner. Poets through the ages have reminded us that fear is the antithesis of, and enemy to, love. The more we strive to eliminate fear, the more room there is for love—not the easy, kittens-and-balloons love, but the deep, difficult, scary love that allows us to stick with a troubled child or a friend or lover in crisis; to express deeply held, unpopular convictions; and, yes, to risk our lives in the service of others. Heroism is a process, not a fixed trait; and as Jung reminds us, the true hero is not fearless; rather, [s]he moves forward in spite of fear.”

Read the whole piece here.

*My husband’s most excellent advice while I was at VCCA.

Google Book Settlement: What Does It All Mean?

Confused about the recent Google Book settlement? I know I am. Here’s some background and help:

Complimentary Teleseminar, “What the Google Book Settlement Means for Authors and Publishers”
Thursday, April 2, 2009, at 3:00 pm ET/12:00 pm PT.
Register at www.joybutler.com/seminarinfo.htm

WHO SHOULD ATTEND? If you are the author or publisher of a book published on or prior to January 5, 2009, you are part of the Google Book Settlement and it can impact your rights in your books – whether you know it or not. If you do not want to be a part of the settlement, you must take action by May 5, 2009.

BACKGROUND ON SETTLEMENT: In 2004, Google began digitizing millions of books, including books still protected by copyright. Google displayed snippets – or several lines of text - of the digitized books in search results. In response to Google’s actions, the Authors Guild, the Association of American Publishers, and others from the publishing industry filed a class action lawsuit.

After several years of negotiations, the parties have agreed to a settlement. Under the settlement, Google will pay a monetary fee for the copyrighted books it has digitized. Google will also be able to expand its use of books beyond snippets to uses that include consumer sales, subscriptions to libraries and universities of an electronic books database, and sales of advertising on pages from books. Google will share with authors and publishers the revenue generated from these uses.

THE TELESEMINAR: In this complimentary teleseminar, attorney Joy Butler helps authors and publishers understand the terms of the 300+ page proposed Google Book Settlement agreement. She will address the practical issues authors and publishers should consider when determining whether and to what extent to participate in the settlement:

* What happens if you don’t opt out of the settlement by May 5, 2009?

* What is the income potential for authors and publishers who participate in the settlement?

* What does it mean if Google classifies your book as commercially unavailable?

* How can Google use your book if you remain in the settlement?

ABOUT THE SPEAKER: Joy R. Butler is an attorney practicing entertainment, intellectual property, and business law. She is also the author of “The Permission Seeker’s Guide Through the Legal Jungle: Clearing Copyrights, Trademarks and Other Rights for Entertainment and Media Productions”.

REGISTRATION: The live teleseminar occurs on Thursday, April 2, 2009, at 3:00 p.m. ET/ 12:00 p.m. PT. Register at www.joybutler.com/seminarinfo.htm

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Work in Progress: The Old Switcheroo

While I was in residency at VCCA, I was working on a new novel, writing pages and pages of very rough, first draft material. When I had a bad writing day, it was because I couldn’t think of what might happen next once they were all at the big party, or I got stymied by my characters: Who were they? What would they do in this situation? Why would they do (or not do) that particular thing? I was focused on Big Questions, and the writing itself was allowed to suffer. I relied heavily on my favorite trick, adding the word MORE when I knew I’d want to add in some more stuff later but didn’t want to think of it at that moment. Or, I’d write a crappy, dull sentence (i.e. “He stood there and smiled at her”) and then type in BETTER, to remind myself—as if I wouldn’t notice!—that I needed to improve that sentence when I revised. The point was to move along, move forward.

During this part of the process, a good writing day was really exciting: I’d figure out the answer to some bold question…Oh, so that's how his mother died and why he’s struggling with his wife. Oh, so that's why she married this dud husband. On a good day, it was nothing but the click-click-click of puzzle pieces snapping neatly into place in my head, giving me a lovely vision of the beautiful book in my head.

As always, there were probably more bad days than good days, but the good days were so good, and so genuinely exciting, that they helped me coast along through the bad days. “I’ll figure this out if I just sit here long enough,” was my mantra on the bad days, “didn’t I just so brilliantly figure out that really big thing yesterday?”

That was then.

Now, back home, I’ve decided to revise some of those pages. I had reached a point in the forward narrative where I wanted to step back and think some more, assess what I had, before pushing to the end, so my decision to switch into another part of the process made clear, logical sense.

Unfortunately, what makes sense logically can be hard emotionally. I’m facing an unexpected problem—unexpected because usually I absolutely love revising. It’s the first draft stuff that’s so hard, I always say, I like tinkering and crafting and making everything “perfect.” But I’m finding that this 180 degree switch in the way my mind needs to think has been rough. Moving forward vs. making the details perfect.

Now, a bad day is starting at sentences that are bad and trying to think of yet another way to describe someone, say, walking across the room—without sounding like I’ve digested a thesaurus. (How often do people in real life “amble” or “saunter” anyway?) Now, a bad day is coming up upon MORE and BETTER on my screen…again and again and again.

In contrast, a good day is…well, figuring out a character can “edge over to the far wall” and lean against it, instead of walk across the room. That’s fine…but it’s not really as a grand of a feeling as before; it’s not much to coast along on, especially when scooting the computer cursor down a few lines will reveal—yet again—someone “walking” somewhere. Augh!

As always, patience in writing is everything, and I’m sure I’ll get my revising mojo back eventually. In the meantime, you can imagine me staring at sentence after sentence, making them BETTER by adding MORE and desperately willing myself not to jump screens to see what important email message I may have received in the past 45 seconds when I last checked.

I’ll give the final word to Rilke, in one of my favorite writing quotations:

“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.”

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Conversations & Connections Conference: A Bargain at Any Price, but Especially at $55!

I highly recommend this conference—lots of bang for your buck! I attended the keynote address last year with Mary Gaitskill—she was inspiring and interesting (read more here). This year’s keynoter is short story writer Amy Hempel…another fave of mine.

Note: I’m not entirely a neutral party, as this year I’ll be speaking on a panel about point-of-view in the novel. But really, where else can you get a day of fun AND instruction AND a book AND a lit journal subscription AND a “date” with a lit journal editor for only $55???

Don’t delay…this conference has sold out every year.

Join us on April 11, 2009 in Washington, DC for the third annual Conversations and Connections Writer’s Conference.

Conversations and Connections will help you get the connections and information you need to take your writing — and publishing — to the next level. The conference will take place in downtown DC on April 11, 2009.

Registration is only $55, and includes the full day conference, one ticket for “Speed Dating with Editors, a book, and a literary magazine subscription.

Click here to register online now.

This year’s conference will expand the range of options available in our breakout sessions, with panel discussions and craft lectures on issues that matter to writers, like fighting writer’s block, grants for writers, online publishing, knowing when to take or leave advice and feedback on your writing, and other issues. Our panels include topics like novel POV, agents, and sentence power, as well as more cutting edge fare such as flash fiction and writing sex scenes.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

My Middle Name Is NOT "Patience"

Am I obsessed with how fast/slow various journals respond to submissions? Yes, especially when my own work is out making the rounds and I'm dying for a word or two. Here’s a list of Duotrope Digest’s “25 Most Slothful Fiction Markets”:

The Slothful
(the markets with the slowest average response times reported)

1. Blackbird (286.8 days)
2. Saint Ann's Review / tsarina (218.2 days)
3. Fence TEMP CLOSED (201.1 days)
4. From the Asylum (200.1 days)
5. Grasslimb Journal (176.8 days)
6. Rambler, The (174.1 days)
7. McSweeney's Quarterly (167.1 days)
8. Public Space, A (166.7 days)
9. Aberrant Dreams TEMP CLOSED (166.1 days)
10. Ascent (163.5 days)
11. Doorways Magazine TEMP CLOSED (156.8 days)
12. Harvard Review (156.6 days)
13. Yale Review (154.5 days)
14. Zoetrope: All-Story (146 days)
15. New Letters (142.9 days)
16. Journal, The (142.2 days)
17. Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine (141.8 days)
18. Florida Review, The (140.3 days)
19. Boulevard Magazine (139.7 days)
20. Coyote Wild TEMP CLOSED (139.6 days)
21. Ploughshares (137.5 days)
22. Chattahoochee Review (134.5 days)
23. Crab Orchard Review (133.6 days)
24. Gulf Stream TEMP CLOSED (133.3 days)
25. Baltimore Review, The (130.1 days)

Read the full scoop right here…and check out the speediest responders, too. And if you don’t know Duotrope’s, and you send your work out, check it out ASAP! It’s a great, searchable database of journals, updated regularly.

Teaching at the Writer's Center

I’ll be teaching three classes at the Writer’s Center this spring:

~~Set Your Prose Free Through Word Collage: A One-Night Workshop

Tuesday, April 14, 2009
7 PM to 10:00 PM

Get a fresh view on your fiction, memoir, and/or poetry through the imaginative use of word collage. This hands-on, exercise-intensive, free-flowing, intimate workshop is appropriate for beginners looking for inspiration and for intermediate writers who might be feeling a bit stuck with their project…and everyone in-between! Participants should be prepared to do lots of writing—please bring a pen/pencil (unfortunately, a computer will not be effective here). Note: Due to the nature of this class, we must limit the class size to 15. You’ll be surprised at what you may discover in only one night! Details & registration: www.writer.org

~~Flex Your Creative Muscles! A One-Day Workshop

Sunday, April 26, 2009
12:30 PM-5:00 PM

Spend the afternoon doing a series of intensive, guided exercises designed to shake up your brain and get your creative subconscious working for you. You can come with a project already in mind and focus your work toward a deeper understanding of that—or you can come as a blank slate (that will quickly fill up!). Fiction writers and memoirists of all levels are welcome. Please bring lots of paper and pen/pencil or a computer with a fully charged battery. Details & registration: www.writer.org

~~How to Talk the Talk: Focus on Dialogue: A One-Night Workshop

Wednesday, April 29, 2009
7:00 to 10:00 PM

Dialogue seems as though it should be easy since we all talk! But written dialogue should reverberate beyond the sounds of everyday conversation, serving many purposes: revealing character, moving the story forward, supporting your setting. How to accomplish these effects in your own fiction and memoir? This supportive, hands-on workshop offers tips and techniques that will help the voices of your characters come alive. We’ll be doing a number of exercises in class, so bring pen/paper or your charged-up computer! Details & registration: www.writer.org

Monday, March 23, 2009

Sad News

Poet John Guzlowski passes on word that Sylvia Plath’s 47-year-old son Nicholas has committed suicide. You can read more here.

What Is Art?

Art is everywhere…if one takes the time to look for it.

Example Number One:
This excellent slide show on Slate magazine examines the architecture of Detroit and finds beauty amidst the ruins:

“Between 1910 and 1920, Detroit doubled in size and became America's fourth-largest city. Thanks to the auto industry, it was a prosperous place, which is evident in the quality of the architecture. When the city of Highland Park, where Ford built the first assembly line, needed a library, for example, it commissioned New Yorker Edward Lippincott Tilton, who built libraries in Washington, D.C.; Wilmington, Del.; Springfield, Mass.; and Manchester, N.H. Tilton apprenticed with McKim, Mead, & White and trained at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and in most cities, his delicate brand of American Renaissance would be considered an architectural treasure; this building has been boarded up since 2002.”

The whole piece, by Witold Rybczynski, is worth checking out here if you—like me—have an odd fondness for industrial cities.

For an even artsier view of Detroit’s industrial past, check out the work of photographer Michael Kenna, in his book, The Rouge, about the big Ford plant. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any of the Rouge photos online, but do look through Kenna’s archive of work here—so many stunning images.

Example Number Two:
Improv Everywhere, a fun, vaguely subversive performance/improve group based in New York City, recently created an art gallery opening on a subway platform, complete with coat check, tuxedoed waiters passing out sparkling cider disguised as champagne, a cellist, and art…which they created by posting art-speak plaques next to various fixtures on the subway platform.

For example, this was posted near a pay phone:

“Telephone Line (2002)
Metropolitan Transit Authority in collaboration with Telecom

This homage to the urgency of communication is meant to highlight the recent necessity, from instant to instant, to maintain the potential for instantaneous, world-wide contact from any location, at any time. That a conversation from such a location would be abruptly interrupted by an arriving train suggests the artist’s intent to lampoon the perceived dependence on telecommunication.”

Unsurprisingly, one of the participants reported that it was easy to get caught up in the spirit of the event:

“In the course of making the art labels, the mundane stuff of the platform really did become weirdly compelling and beautiful. I wasn’t sure if everyone else would have that experience, or if we would be busy consciously pretending that these random objects were art. In the course of the event, some other friends who came made brilliant observations about the pieces that helped bring my mindset firmly back into of-course-this-is-art, rather than viewing the subway as a collection of quick fixes over time. It’s wonderful how we can decide to create a collective reality, and how it can sometimes catch us up within itself.”

Read the whole report (and see pictures and video) here.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Work in Progress: "Every Project Should Grind to a Halt"

Light blogging for me as I try to tackle the pile of stuff that greeted me when I arrived home…not the least of which was moving many, many, many piles of books back to bookshelves after a successful painting job that left Steve living in chaos for many, many days…which explains why moving the books back is MY chore.

And then there's the stacks of magazines to at least look through (New Yorker, I love you, but every week?).

So here’s something I read in an interview with novelist Rebecca Lee in the March/April issue of AWP’s magazine, The Writer’s Chronicle. She was asked, “What advice can you offer to the aspiring novelist, or to any writer struggling to remain committed to a particular project?

Here’s her answer:

“Well, I look around and almost everybody has better habits and than me and a more productive process. Still, I guess it’s salutary to keep reminding each other that writing requires a lot of patience and drive simultaneously. Sometimes the world ‘rolls in ecstasy at your feet’ (Kafka) and sometimes it requires a bit of struggle. The mind has to really struggle to understand, and that’s important. I think it’s easy for writers to think they are doing something incorrectly when the work gets difficult, but it’s just the opposite. Each project should grind to a halt at times for the writer, and give the writer trouble. It’s also easy to forget that the work doesn’t need you to fix it, just hover over it and be attentive. Now that I have a three year old who spends a lot of the day speaking to me insistently in a language I can’t always grasp, I really understand better how to write. You just hover over the work, smile and nod even though you don’t understand it, try to be nice, and hope it all comes out okay in the end.”

For more information about Rebecca Lee, go here.

Cheerios Offers $5K for Children's Book

An announcement for children’s book authors, from Galleycat:

Cheerios announced they will sponsor the third annual New Author Contest, offering children's writers the chance to distribute their book inside cereal boxes. The grand prize is $5,000 and consideration by children's editors at Simon & Schuster.

Entries will be accepted between March 16 through July 15, 2009, and the rules are here. The contest has opened up a brand new book market as well. This spring, 1.5 million paperback copies of the first winning book will be distributed for free inside Cheerios boxes.

Here's more about the first year's winner, Shellie Braeuner, from the release: "Braeuner, a nanny from Nashville, [won] the $5,000 cash prize ... over the past year, 'The Great Dog Wash' came to life. Simon & Schuster will publish 'The Great Dog Wash,' illustrated by Robert Neubecker, in hardcover this summer."

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

2009 Writing Contest for High School Students

A writing contest for the young folks:

2009 Younkin-Rivera Prizes for Young Writers


A nationwide competition for creative writers aged 15-18. Entries accepted
during the month of April in the genres of poetry and prose. Prize in each category: $250 and a full tuition scholarship to the 2009 Young Writers Workshop at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

To enter in poetry: send no more than 2 poems (limit of 25 lines each) per entrant, along with an entry fee of $5.

To enter in prose (fiction or essay): send one essay or story (no more 1000 words) per entrant, along with an entry fee of $5.

To enter in both poetry and prose: send no more than 2 poems (limit of 25 lines each) and one essay or story (of no more than 1000 words) per entrant, along with an entry fee of $10. Entries longer than the limits listed above will be returned, along with their entry fees.

Entrants must be U.S. citizens or permanent residents.

All entries must be typed on white 8 1/2 by 11 inch paper. Do not put your name on your entries. Include a separate cover sheet with the following information on it: your name, home address, phone number, e- mail address, date of birth, and the name and address of your high school.

Checks or money orders to cover the entry fee should be made out to SIUC, with "Young Writers Workshop" written in the check’s memo line. Please do not send cash. Include a self-addressed stamped envelope for contest results. No entries will be returned, so please keep copies of the work you send. No e-mail or faxed submissions will be accepted.

Prizes will be awarded at a ceremony during the annual Young Writers Workshop at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, a five-day, co-ed, residential creative writing workshop for high school sophomores, juniors, and seniors interested in developing their skills in the writing of poetry and prose.. If a prizewinner cannot attend the Workshop, the prize will not be awarded to that winner. Travel costs to and from the Workshop are the responsibility of the winner. Previous award winners cannot enter again.

The Young Writers Workshop will be held in 2009 from June 23 to June 27, 2009.

To enter, send your submissions, postmarked from April 1 to April 30, 2009, to:

The Younkin-Rivera Prizes for Young Writers
Allison Joseph, Director
The Young Writers Workshop
Department of English
Southern Illinois University Carbondale
Faner Hall 2380--Mail Code 4503
1000 Faner Drive
Carbondale, IL 62901

Win a Plane Ticket for Your Writing

This sounds like an amazing opportunity, but as with all contests, please do diligent research to make sure everything is legit before sending in your work and your five bucks. Where would I go…Italy? England? Alaska? Nepal? Australia? Something to daydream about….

The Writer’s Travel Scholarship -- Win a Round Trip Ticket to Anywhere


This is is a short-form writing contest where the winner gets a round-trip ticket to anywhere in the world. Really.

This is the fifth year of the contest. Previously, I've written the contest announcement from the edge of the Sahara desert in Mali, or the coast of Sri Lanka. This year, I am at home in San Francisco, but my gaze is always elsewhere. I'm lucky to have seen a lot of the world, and I'm writing about it.

Are you writing too? Not about the remote places in the world, perhaps, but about something that matters to you? If so, please enter the 2009 Writer’s Travel Scholarship. As usual, the prize is a round-trip ticket anywhere in the world. As usual, the basic rationale for the contest remains:

I think travel is good. I think writing is good. I think it is important that writers travel.

Naturally, I do see a lot of travel writing submissions, but I’d like to reiterate that this is not about travel writing: it’s about writers traveling. Anything is fair game, as long as it’s prose under 10,000 words. Fiction, non-fiction, memoir, porn, whatever… just make it a good read.

Applications are open until midnight April 30th, 2009. The winner will be announced May 15th.

Changes from last year:
I am now requiring a $5 application fee for each entry. The contest is getting big, and this will help cover the costs of promotion, my time reading through all your submissions, and (part of) the cost of the ticket prize. And, sorry, no more poetry. Poetry just seemed too different to compare fairly to prose.

How To Enter

* Applicants must submit a short prose piece, 10,000 words maximum. Fiction, non-fiction, whatever, on any topic.

* Also tell me a little about yourself, where you would go with your free ticket, for how long, and why. You can’t ever have been to that country before — I impose this restriction to encourage people to go somewhere new, rather than using the ticket to visit their overseas girlfriend. Also, you don’t have to write about your destination. I just want to know why you want to go there.

* Email entries as an attached document in text or Word format to wts@equivocality.net by April 30th 2008. They will be judged by myself and my writer friends, the winner to be announced on May 15th 2009.

* Send the $5 USD entry fee via PayPal to wts@equivocality.net

* To keep things fair, I will not consider pieces I know to be written by friends or acquaintances. What this means is that if you know me(Jonathan Stray), you must anonymize your submission (including your email address!)

* Entries must be previously unpublished, there is a limit of one entry per author, and the ticket is limited to $2000 US. I will work with you to book the cheapest available round-trip ticket, based on departure and return dates given to me by the winner. I will try to accomodate these dates and other preferences as much as possible, but I reserve the right to shift each date plus or minus up to a week, and to make other choices such as routing and airline, in order to find the best fare. Other travel requirements, such as additional destinations or an open return date, may be accommodated if the winner wishes to make up the difference in cost.

* By submitting a piece, you grant me (Jonathan Stray) limited web-publishing rights, specifically the right to display it on equivocality.net and any other sites of I may have editorial control over. I reserve no other rights. If someone sees your work here and wants to publish it, fantastic.

* All decisions are final, and by submitting a piece you agree that I am under no obligation to award any prize at all. I have no funding, no committees, no mandate. I’m doing this just because I think it’s a good idea, so let’s keep it simple.

Full details at http://www.equivocality.net/writers-travel-scholarship

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Joaquin Miller Cabin Poetry Series Seeks Poets

This is a charming venue for giving a reading…or attending! Poets, get busy—the application deadline in March 31.

The Joaquin Miller Cabin Poetry Series is currently accepting applications.

WHEN: Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m. in Washington, DC’s Rock Creek Park, Picnic Area Number 6, during June and July.

WHAT: Two poets are usually featured. The outdoor programs held next to poet Joaquin Miller’s Cabin are sponsored by The Word Works, and the National Park Service.

WHO: Kathi Morrison-Taylor, Rosemary Winslow and Deborah Ager are the co-directors for 2009.

IF SELECTED, you will read your work at the cabin and receive a small honorarium. Copies of a poster/flyer (self-mailer) will be available for you to send to friends and colleagues. If you have books published, you may sell them at the reception. If you live out of town and need a place to stay, we’ll do our best to help you find a place.

TO APPLY to the series, send the following:

* 5 poems, typed, one poem per page. No one poem longer than two pages.

* Name, address, telephone numbers, email on first page of the submission. Name on every page.

* Brief biographical note, including publications, readings, literary
studies, prizes.

* Stamped, self-addressed envelope for reply (for return of poems, add
sufficient postage as needed).

NOTE: All manuscripts must be typed. Any form or style of poetry will be considered; selection is made on the basis of the poems submitted. The biographical note is for information only. The director is assisted by a panel of writers in choosing poets.


Rosemary Winslow , Co-Director
Joaquin Miller Cabin Poetry Series
Department of English
The Catholic University of America
Washington, DC 20064

DEADLINE: Postmarked on or before March 31 of each year.

Monday, March 16, 2009

VCCA, Week Three...A Sad Goodbye

I can’t rhapsodize enough about my three weeks here at VCCA. Being obsessive, of course I set some goals for myself, which I thought were pretty on target. Wrong—I far exceeded what I had hoped to accomplish, and now feel grounded in my new novel, having generated a great deal of first draft pages that I can now review and revise here at home (before summer school starts up!).

I loved the “room of one’s own” that I occupied—for those of you who have been here, I was in the “corn crib,” a cozy little dollhouse set on stilts (if you’re imaginative they look like stilts) that has the advantage of being a stand-alone building, which means I didn’t hear anyone else and they didn’t hear you. The disadvantage might be that the windows are not at desk level, but that meant that I didn’t spend a lot of time staring out the window at cows and such—but that every now and then when I glanced up I had the perfect view of hawks wheeling across the sky. I loved listening to the varied birds staking out their territory and calling for new girlfriends, and in the evening I listened to the spring peepers (frogs), and I even heard an owl calling one night. (Yes, they really do say, “Who.”)

Also, my bedroom was pretty awesome too as it was one of the two bedrooms designed for artist couples, so it was larger than the ordinary rooms, I had my own bathroom, and—best of all!—I had a double bed instead of a twin. Needless to say, this isn’t something to go around bragging about as it’s all the luck of the draw, but I was pretty happy to have gotten so lucky.

I’m not sure I could be here in the spring, though. The warm weather distracted many people, and it’s definitely harder to stay inside when it’s 75 degrees vs. 30 degrees. As I left, I noticed that several flowering trees were starting to bloom. Maybe the solution would be to bring the kind of work that is portable and shift to editing outside…though I’m still not sure I could keep my eyes on my paper.

I also enjoy meeting other writers and visual artists. Mealtime conversations are lively and range from the ridiculous to the sublime; it's an initmate and pleasureable way to be introduced to a wide range of thought-provoking work.

Finally, and ultimately, it's uplifting to be ensconced in (literally, I barely left) a place that values art and creativity and believes in creating and offering the time and space needed for that sort of work. Count on this: I will be back!

The next application deadline is May 15 for fall residencies. I can only imagine how beautiful it is here in the fall, with the Blue Ridge Mountains off in the distance. And for those with the travel bug, check out the programs VCCA offers in France! Details can be found on the website: http://www.vcca.com/

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Work in Progress: You Will Know When You Need to Know

Having so much focused time on writing in these past few weeks has re-taught me some lessons that apparently I needed to be re-taught. Right now, I’m working on very rough, first-draft material, so I’m trying very hard to simply get down the story, to not worry about the exact word and the exact phrasing. Still, that’s hard for me—it feels discouraging to be spending hours writing what is, at this point, crap. But I don’t want to get bogged down and write the perfect, perfectly revised scene set in a restaurant and then later realize they’d be eating dinner at home.

Consequently, at this stage I often don’t feel pressed to figure out details like, oh, say the names of minor characters; there are several people walking through my book with the first name of XX and the last name of XX. I named a Polish lady “Sue” because there were too many XXs in one chapter and I didn't want to stop to think about what her name really is.

So I didn’t think it was a big deal when a character in a bar showed up with, in my mind, either a birthmark or a burn on his face. Having him slightly disfigured in some noticeable way was the main point, and it didn’t really matter which it was. I was writing along, keeping him at “birthmark/burn” stage for quite a while, getting him talking and interacting with my main character…and, suddenly, I understood absolutely and without question why the mark on his face had to be a birthmark, and immediately that birthmark became an integral part of the story. It did matter—it always matters. The difference between a birthmark and a burn can be crucial—they are entirely different things, giving a character a different background and life.

So, keep it loose as long as you can, but remember that those details ARE important, not simply cosmetic. Sometimes you will tell the story what you want, but sometimes if you’re lucky, the story will tell you what it needs.

Potomac Review Creates New Blog

The Potomac Review has started a new blog: http://www.potomacreview.blogspot.com/. The associate, managing, and chief editors will post with PR news, events, insights, odds and ends, and assorted (brief) tangents. Check it out and see what goes on behind the scenes at this excellent, local literary journal.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Learn How to Write: Imitate

Glimmer Train literary journal offers this interesting piece by recent contest winner Cary Groner about learning to write. Here’s an enticing excerpt:

“When I read writers I admire—a long list that includes Chekhov, Alice Munro, Updike, Antonya Nelson, Aimee Bender, Joyce, George Saunders, Ishiguro, Michael Chabon, Kafka, Murakami, Richard Russo, David Foster Wallace, and others—I try to pay attention to their strengths, to what they do well, and learn from them. I write imitations of, and variations on, their work—as exercises and sometimes even as stories.

“I'm not talking about plagiarism, of course, because by the time I'm done, even those authors probably wouldn't recognize the original in the copy—or if they did see it, I hope they'd also see that my riff was more an homage than a ripoff. But you can learn an incredible amount if you do this carefully, and I'd recommend it to anyone. See how Updike describes a snowstorm, or traveling in a car with a friend. See how Antonya Nelson deftly and strategically inserts backstory to drive frontstory forward, not merely to provide information. See how Munro buries the central conflicts in her stories well beneath the surface, so that you sense them even without being able to articulate what they are. See how Henry James leads you on a POV continuum from very close third person to very distant third person, changing perspective and language accordingly, sometimes within a single paragraph. See how David Foster Wallace shifts back and forth between the close-third of different characters so subtly you barely notice, and infuses writing of great intellectual power with incredible sweetness. See how Chekhov brings in weird details that are never explained and seem irrelevant, but that somehow bring his stories to life. Find other techniques you like and admire, then try to replicate them in your own stories.”

You can read the rest here: http://www.glimmertrain.com/fodec08.html

"Nevermore," Said the High School Student

This sounds like a fun writing contest for high school students (not to mention the museum exhibition):

"Poe: Man, Myth, and Monster" Young Writers' Competition

The Library of Virginia and the Poe Museum are looking for next Edgar Allan Poe. In observance of the 200th anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe’s birth, and the exhibition “Poe: Man, Myth, and Monster” featured at the Library of Virginia from July 20 through December 31, 2009, the Library and the Poe Museum present the “Poe: Man, Myth and Monster” Young Writers’ Contest. High school students are invited to submit their poetry and short stories, written in the veins of the genres Poe mastered—mystery, science fiction, and horror. Entries must be received no later than May 8, 2009, at 4:00 PM. Entries may be mailed or delivered to Tameka Hobbs, Library of Virginia, 800 East Broad Street, Richmond, VA 23219-8000. For a list of contest rules and prizes visit: www.lva.virginia.gov/whatwedo/k12/PoeCompetitionv.2.pdf.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Recommended Novels about Work

One of the things I liked about Revolutionary Road is that it was an excellent novel about work, and how I’ve noticed there seem to be so few novels that really capture the worklife—especially considering how many hours we spend working!

Here are some of my favorite novels about work; please let me know if you have any additional suggestions:

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates (life in a 1950s cubicle)
Bombardiers by Po Bronson (bond salesman, I believe—high-flying 80s financial biz)
Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris (advertising industry at the end of the dot-com bubble…remember how bad we thought those financial times were?!)
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (the military, but really any job anywhere)
Independence Day by Richard Ford (real estate)
Intuition by Allegra Goodman (science lab)

I guess I'll add The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, though with an asterisk. It isn’t especially well-written and borders on preachy, but it certainly does talk in great detail about life in the Chicago meat-packing industry. I know more than I want to about that work life....

Why Harriet Potter Doesn't Exist

From Katha Pollitt’s “Scribblers of the World Unite,” on Slate, asking, “Are women writers undervalued because of what they write or how we read?”:

“Showalter sees women's writing as a story of progress toward self-definition: from feminine (imitation of prevailing modes) to feminist (protest) to female (self-discovery), and, finally, free. "American women writers in the twenty-first century can take on any subject they want, in any form they choose." We have indeed come a long way, but I'm not so sure we've reached nirvana yet. The marketplace, with its many gendered strictures and codes, has not disappeared. Thus, it matters that girls and women will buy fiction by and about both sexes, but boys and men—the relative few who buy fiction at all—stick to their own gender. (There was a reason that J.K. Rowling used her initials instead of her name, and that her student magician hero was not Harriet Potter.) It matters that the Great American Novel for which critics are always hunting is imagined as a modern Moby-Dick, not The House of Mirth. It means there's a certain kind of critical receptivity, a hope of greatness for certain kinds of books by men that hardly ever comes into play with books by women, no matter how wonderful they are. Moreover, in literature as in life, men have much more license to display their whole unlovely selves and be admired for it, as the career of Norman Mailer shows.”

Read the whole article here: http://www.slate.com/id/2213111

Help for Writers in Need

An announcement from Publishers Lunch:

The PEN Writers' Fund Committee would like to remind the literary community of their program that provides grants of up to $2,000 to professional writers in "acute" financial crisis. The next filing deadline is mid-June. Please check out the PEN info page for details.

Writer's Center Open House

On Saturday, March 14 (Noon-3:00 P.M.), The Writer's Center will hold its annual Spring Open House. Join workshop leaders, staff, and board members. As usual, there will be light refreshments, door prizes, and an opportunity to meet individually with workshop leaders. In addition, there will be special promotional discounts on workshops for those in attendance, which will be announced. For more information: www.writer.org

Monday, March 9, 2009

VCCA, Week Two Update

I finished my second week here, and the six foot icicle (no exaggeration) outside my bedroom window has melted away. I became sort of obsessed (shock) watching it daily—like a pet--
and was sad when warmer weather meant its ultimate demise. In fact, being in this hyper-creative mode made me start thinking how my work here was like the icicle—every day I’d head off to my studio and stare at my novel slowly taking place on the computer, adding to it bit by bit—or, drip by drip, just like the icicle, growing, growing, growing. When I noted this to another writer he added, “Until it gets big enough to kill you”—which was suitable literally for the icicle and metaphorically for the novel. And I admired how the icicle hung in there, sticking around through increasingly warmer weather…until the day that was 70ish. I got back to my room and saw it was gone. That’s when I abandoned the “novel as icicle" metaphor.

I also finished reading Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates and HIGHLY recommend it, though it isn’t exactly cheerful. I would have to study it more closely, but it may be as nicely structured as The Great Gatsby (how dare I say such a thing!). But on page 200ish, there was an important turn, and I happened to notice that I was 2/3 of the way through the book. So I flipped back to page 100ish, and sure enough, there was another key and important turn—at 1/3 of the way through the 330-page book.

I haven’t watched T.V. since I’ve been here. I’m no snob, and I was sad to miss the "Top Chef" finale (though since I was unhappy with the outcome maybe it’s just as well that I wasn’t watching and throwing shoes at the TV set), but I will say that going without any TV for three weeks is probably good for me.

I’ve started reading The Jungle by Upton Sinclair for research. I’ll tell you, it’s hard to complain about ANYTHING when you’re reading about turn-of-the-century immigrants falling into meatpacking machinery and being turned into lard. It’s interesting that Sinclair wrote the book hoping to raise concern for the workingman’s plight—which was wretched, and surely still is—and got instead a public outrage over food safety standards. Yes, that was good, too, but it’s hard to imagine reading this book and not feeling moved by the people, too. (It was more than a bit creepy to be reading the book one afternoon and then to hear the famous VCCA cows suddenly start mooing in an agitated way in the distance.)

I'm looking forward to another productive week, and then it's back to the real world for me.

Literary House Job at Washington College

Looking for a job? This sounds interesting (note the March 16 deadline):

Writing: Literary House Director - The Rose O'Neill Literary House provides a
haven for Washington College's (MD) thriving literary community. Some of the nation's most distinguished writers, editors, critics, and scholars have given readings, lectured and interacted with Washington College writers on the Literary House's wraparound porch or within its poster-clad Victorian walls. To direct the Rose O'Neill Literary House, the College is seeking a person with administrative and teaching experience and a distinguished record of publications in creative writing (genre open; non-fiction preferred). M.F.A or Ph. D. required. The successful candidate will demonstrate expertise in designing co-curricular programs in writing that function in support of the liberal arts mission of the College. Evidence of teaching excellence on the college level is expected as the director will teach writing courses on both the upper- and lower-level. 1/1 load. Major responsibilities include the development and promotion of co-curricular literary and creative writing programs in support of existing academic programs; management of the Literary House and Literary House Press; public outreach; student recruitment; and fund raising and grant writing. Washington College is located in historic Chestertown on Maryland's Eastern Shore, enrolls approximately 1,300 students, and is within easy driving distance to Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and Baltimore. Applicants can learn more about the Rose O'Neill Literary House, the minor in creative writing, and the Sophie Kerr prize at

This is a twelve-month administrative position that reports to the Provost and Dean of the College. Tenure or tenure-track appointment negotiable depending upon qualifications. Anticipated starting date: July 1, 2009. Salary competitive. Applications should be submitted electronically. See instructions and more details at

Review of applications will begin March 16, 2009, and will continue until
position is filled. Washington College is an Equal Opportunity Employer.
Minorities and women are strongly encouraged to apply.

Writing Contest for High School Students

Here’s a contest for high school juniors and seniors (note the 3/15 deadline):

The Howard Nemerov Creative Writing Awards

Sponsored by Washington University in St. Louis.

This competition is open to juniors and seniors currently enrolled in high school. Three prizes of $250 each will be awarded both in fiction and in poetry. Students may send a single entry in each genre (one poem and/or one short story or novel chapter). All entries must be typed, with the student's name, home address, telephone number, high school name and address, and the genre (poetry or fiction) of the work on the first page. Entries must be postmarked by March 15, 2009. Awards will be announced May 15, 2009. Please keep a copy, as entries cannot be returned.

This competition will be judged by faculty in the Writing Program at Washington University, including fiction writers Kathryn Davis, Marshall Klimasewiski and Kellie Wells, and poets Mary Jo Bang and Carl Phillips.

Send entries to:

The Howard Nemerov Creative Writing Awards
Washington University
Campus Box 1122
One Brookings Dr.
St. Louis, MO 63130-4899

For further inquiries, contact David Schuman at (314) 935-7130.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Work in Progress: My New Magic Trick

Here’s a new trick that really worked for me: I was feeling extremely stuck in my chapter, not able to figure out what was going to happen next, and I’d been staring at the screen for far too long. AND—it was time for lunch. The thought of returning from lunch and continuing to stare at my empty screen all afternoon was totally depressing.

So I told myself to come up with three things that could happen, just really quickly: “You don’t have to use them,” I assured myself. “Just type three things really fast even if they sound ridiculous. Then you can go off to lunch.”

Tippety-type on my computer keys—and voila! One of the three things was exactly the right thing to happen next. So it was off to lunch, and then a return to an idea already set up, which made for a much more pleasant and productive afternoon.

Try it when you’re stuck: three things, even if they’re stupid. At least you’ll then have something to work with. I think this would work at the end of the writing day, too, to leave yourself some shreds of possibility for the next day.

And Steve offered some good advice when I spoke to him on the phone; he suggested I “spend the day writing uncomfortably.” And he didn’t mean write while standing up. But what would happen if I pushed myself beyond the familiar and comforting, what if I tried something new? We’ll have to see….

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Do It Yourself: Word Clouds

Writer Dan Ryan passes along the following site where you can create a “word cloud” of your novel or short story:


You may have seen word clouds in the newspaper or magazines, often associated with a political speech (i.e. how many times Barack Obama said “change”; how many times Sarah Palin said “you betcha”); the more often a word appears, the larger it is in the cloud.

I’m saving this bit of fun for when I return back home (“how did you spend your residency at VCCA?” “making word clouds of my oeuvre”), but it seems as though a word cloud could be useful—do I really over-use the word “sigh” as much as I think I do? What other verbal tics will be revealed?

Here are the word clouds Dan created for The Great Gatsby and Moby Dick...no surprise which words appear the most there, huh?

Is a Paradelle in My Future?

There was a reading here at VCCA the other night and the poet read a paradelle she had written. This is a form invented by poet Billy Collins that has incredibly strict (and almost laughable) requirements as evidenced by the footnote he included when he first published his paradelle:

"The paradelle is one of the more demanding French fixed forms, first appearing in the langue d'oc love poetry of the eleventh century. It is a poem of four six-line stanzas in which the first and second lines, as well as the third and fourth lines of the first three stanzas, must be identical. The fifth and sixth lines, which traditionally resolve these stanzas, must use all the words from the preceding lines and only those words. Similarly, the final stanza must use every word from all the preceding stanzas and only these words."

He told people that this form had been invented in 11th century France, when in fact he had made it all up to poke fun at restrictive forms (parody + villanelle = paradelle). But even though it was a joke form, a number of poets have given it a whirl, and it seems just crazy enough that I might try one. (As you may recall, I’m obsessed with villanelles, not that I would dare think of attempting one of those; that's serious stuff!)

I actually liked the woman’s paradelle, though unfortunately I don’t have a copy to share. But here’s where to read Billy Collins’ paradelle—which is pretty silly.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Masters of the Short Story

I mentioned yesterday that I always like to read some masterful short story writers while I’m at a colony. Here’s a list of other story writers I explored in past residencies:

--Flannery O’Connor
--Katherine Anne Porter
--James Joyce, The Dubliners
--Richard Ford

And I was reading my copy of the newest issue of Poets & Writers and liked that in the interview with Mary Gaitskill, they asked her for a list of five short stories she recommended to writers. Here’s my list, off the top of my head, limited by the fact that I’m not surrounded by my books and am probably forgetting something very obvious (no particular order, and I’m not stopping at just five):

“A Perfect Day for Bananafish” by J.D. Salinger
“In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” by Amy Hempel
“Pet Milk” by Stuart Dybek
“People Like That Are the Only People Here” by Lorrie Moore
“Reunion” by John Cheever
“Pale Horse, Pale Rider” by Katherine Anne Porter
“Strays” by Mark Richard
“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor

(Speaking of Flannery O’Connor, be sure to check out the review of the new biography about her in Sunday’s New York Times Book Review: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/01/books/review/Williams-t.html
I promise you’ll laugh out loud—and feel humbled and awed.)

Monday, March 2, 2009


This has to be among the most beautiful snowfalls I've ever seen--pristine and untouched, branches lacquered with snow, the blue sky, dusty mountains in the distance. It helps that all I have to do is spend the day cozily tucked away in my little studio, writing...and that someone even helpfully shoveled paths for us. Nothing will interrupt the creative process here!

Last night in my stand-alone studio, with the wind whipping, snow falling like crazy, and all the blackness, I felt like I was in a Laura Ingalls Wilder book. Luckily, it didn't turn out to be The Long Winter--more like the coziness of Little House in the Big Woods.

Week One Report from VCCA

While on my residency, I’m working on a new novel, living in that wretched first draft stage where everything seems bad but needs to get slapped down on paper anyway. The real fun (for me) comes later, when I get to revise all the crap into something readable. But for now, it’s just plugging away. Another novelist referred to our daily life here as “plowing another field, hoping something will grow.”

I feel compelled to offer a report on the food, though it’s not nearly as exciting as my food situation down at Converse College back in January. In short, dinners can be delicious and inspired (chicken curry! gumbo!), breakfasts are rote, and lunches border on bleak (I’ve never seen salami that looks like that, and I brought back a mini-package of Ritz crackers to my studio and happened to catch the expiration date…December 3, 2008). But—as I remind myself—I didn’t have to think about food, shop for it, cook it, or clean up after it…so no complaints here. I’ll survive.

I love the luxury of reading, and reading several different books at once for different purposes. Here’s what I’ve got going now:
--The Little Disturbances of Man by Grace Paley, because I always like to read one or several short story masters while I’m at a colony.
--Polish-American poetry—an anthology edited by John Minczeski called Concert at Chopin’s House and Amber Necklace from Gdansk by Lina Nemec Foster –to keep my mind in the Polish experience for my novel.
--Some historical books for research.
--A couple writing books: Naming the World edited by Bret Anthony Johnston and Richard Goodman’s lovely The Soul of Creative Writing
--And, before going to bed, for “fun”—Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates, which is masterful, and may be the next book I try to force upon everyone. (I can’t believe I read this once before and didn’t appreciate it—I must have had a hole in my head. Literally, there is no possible explanation for my not loving this book.)
--I’ve also got a giant stack of New Yorkers that piled up while I was away in January, and a stack of literary journals I collected/bought during AWP.

For more information about VCCA, check out their website: www.vcca.com

What Rhymes with Chicago?

Having recently been in Chicago for AWP, of course this caught my eye:

City of the Big Shoulders: An Anthology of Poems About Chicago
Edited by Ryan G. Van Cleave

One of the largest cities in North America, Chicago’s metropolitan area boasts 10 million residents, placing it in the world’s top 25 urban areas by population. A leader in transportation, telecommunications, and finance, Chicago is a city of great architectural significance, ethnic diversity, and cultural wealth. It’s also the birthplace of house music, the Poetry Slam, the skyscraper, chemotherapy, and improvisational comedy.

For these and many other reasons, Chicago has long been the inspiration for and subject of poems (Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago,” Marge Piercy’s “Visiting a Dead Man on a Summer Day,” Ezra Pound’s “Epilogue,” and Maxwell Bodenheim’s “South State Street: Chicago” to name just a few), though no definitive collection currently exists. Edited by Chicago native Ryan G. Van Cleave, City of the Big Shoulders intends to fill this void by gathering the best new poems about Chicago from natives, visitors, friends, and critics of this exciting city.

While any Chicago-related poems are welcome, possible topics might include:
The Great Chicago Fire
O’Hare International Airport
Al Capone
Lake Michigan
Grant Park, Lincoln Park, & Jackson Park
Chicago Bulls / Bears / White Sox / Cubs / Blawkhawks
Lake Effect snow
The El
The “Magnificent Mile”
Soldier Field
The Shedd Aquarium
The Adler Planetarium
Navy Pier
The Chicago Tribune
Chicago pizza
The Chicago Loop
The Sears Tower
Lincoln Park Zoo
Mayor Richard J. Daley (Sr. & Jr.)
McCormick Place
The TV show “ER”
Barack Obama
1893 World Expo
Louis Armstrong
Chicago’s Native American background (Potawatomi, Miami, Sauk, Fox, Ottawa, Ojibwa)

As part of his commitment to lessen his own environmental impact, the editor requests that all submissions be emailed (along with a 3 – 5 line bio) as .rtf or .doc attachments to: chicagopoetryanthology@yahoo.com (If you absolutely must send in hard copy, email and ask for a snail mail address). Payment will be in copies. Tentative publication date is early 2010. The deadline for receiving submissions is May 1, 2009.


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