Friday, May 29, 2009

Report from Spartanburg: 3 BBQs and 1 Cheeseburger

Sorry that it's too hard (and I'm too lazy) to provide the appropriate links, but since leaving on Tuesday morning, I have had noteworthy barbecue three different times:

1) In Durham, NC, visiting my sister, who had researched places to find just the right one: Hog Heaven, where we each had a BBQ plate, two "veggies," hush puppies, and sweet tea. I call them "veggies" because the candied sweet potatoes had so much delicious sugar coating them, that I doubt they were healthy, and macaroni and cheese was one option.

2) In Lexington, NC, just off I-85, another BBQ plate at Jimmy's. The sides were fries and an amazing cole slaw with a tart, red vinegar sauce.

3) My dear friends at the Converse College dining hall served up a great BBQ spread for our first official meal. Yum!

And I'm certainly not going to slight the amazing cheeseburger I had here in Spartanburg, at the Ny-Way grill...named South Carolina's best cheeseburger, and for good reason. The meat was somehow packed loosely but firmly for the best texture I think I've had. Because the place has been recently "discovered," it was packed and service was slow...but totally worth the weight. (haha--I think I'll leave this "I'm brain-dead" typo.)

I also had a nice experience with a friendly, helpful South Carolina auto mechanic. Would you believe that he didn't want to charge me for his service: "I didn't work on your car for but five minutes." So the car is fixed--but I may not want to return home from this land of friendly folk and delicious meat products.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Work in Progress: From the Favorite Books Bookshelf, #1

I’ve written a bit about my “favorite books bookshelf” and I thought that some excerpts of some of the favorites might be in order. Through next week, I'll run one piece per day. See if you can guess the book and/or author. No prizes, just the immense satisfaction of being incredibly smart and well-read. Answers will be provided next Thursday.


Down-stairs we came out through the first-floor dining-room to the street. A waiter went for a taxi. It was hot and bright. Up the street was a little square with trees and grass where there were taxis parked. A taxi came up the street, the waiter hanging out at the side. I tipped him and told the driver where to drive, and got in beside Brett. The driver started up the street. I settled back. Brett moved close to me. We sat close against each other. I put my arm around her and she rested against me comfortable. It was very hot and bright, and the houses looked sharply white. We turned out onto the Gran Via.

“Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”

Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me.

“Yes.” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Okay—that one should be easy. But isn’t it brilliant how there’s that pause before Jake answers Brett? And not to make too much of it, but isn’t it also brilliant how that “Yes” has a period after it instead of a comma? I can just hear that clipped, sad, true word.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Packingtown Review Call for Submissions

Since I’m working on something set in Chicago, of course I’m attracted to all things Chicago:

The editors of Packingtown Review, a journal of the University of Illinois at Chicago, published by the University of Illinois Press, invite submissions for its second issue to be released in 2010. The journal publishes creative work including:

§ drama
§ poetry
§ fiction
§ creative nonfiction
§ literary translation

We seek submission of scholarly papers including:
§ interdisciplinary scholarship
§ literary criticism
§ comparative literature
§ critical theory
§ rhetorical studies
§ cultural studies
§ political theory

We also accept for consideration:
§ interviews
§ critical reviews of books, films and the arts in general
§ genre-bending work that explores or challenges form
§ graphic art and photographs

Whether scholarly or literary, we welcome edgy, fresh writing that may be experimental or that explores boundary crossings of/between genre(s) and form(s). What does it mean when poetry and prose are indistinguishable? What is lost – or found – in translation? When literary form is fluid, what happens to the relationship between art and criticism? Between the creative and the scholarly?

Please send up to 8,000 words (excerpts of longer works are acceptable) of prose (or genre-bending pieces), 40 pages of drama, or 3 to 5 poems (no more than 10 pages) to:
Packingtown Review
UH 2027 M/C 162
University of Illinois at Chicago
601 S. Morgan
Chicago, IL 60607

Deadline: Review of submissions for the second issue continues through September 1.
Response time is approximately three months. For more information, visit or email

Essay Contest for College Students

Platt Family Scholarship Prize Essay Contest

1st Prize $1000 2nd Prize $500 3rd Prize $250

Our topic for 2009: “Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln: Getting Right with Lincoln”

From his campaign announcement in Springfield, to his victory speech in Chicago, our new president has repeatedly made references to being inspired by Abraham Lincoln. Which other presidents have been inspired by the Great Emancipator? What lessons can be learned from Lincoln's presidency by President Obama?

Contest Rules
Please examine the rules below closely before contacting The Lincoln Forum or the contest coordinator with eligibility questions.The scholarship essay contest is designed for students who are FULL TIME, undergraduate students in an AMERICAN COLLEGE OR UNIVERSITY during the Spring 2009 semester. The July 31 deadline is designed to give these students time to finish their essays, if need be, after final exams.

You do not have to be an American citizen, but you do need to be attending an AMERICAN COLLEGE OR UNIVERSITY during the eligibility period. It is NOT open to high school students. Key question to consider; when we contact your college or university registrar will they be able to confirm that you were enrolled as a full-time college student during the spring 2009 semester? If the answer is no, you are not eligible.

The eligibility of entrants will be confirmed by the Lincoln Forum prior to the awarding of prizes.

Entries will be judged by the essay committee of The Lincoln Forum.

Deadline for entries is July 31, 2009

Entries must contain a minimum of 1,500 and a maximum of 5,000 words.

Essays may be submitted via regular mail (postmarked by July 31, 2009) or via e-mail (time stamped before midnight PST July 31, 2009) to the address below.

The essay must be typed and include a works-cited page or bibliography. End notes are suggested but not required.

There is no application form for the contest. The essay and your contact information serves as your application. Applicants must include the name of their college or university with their entire and all contact information (regular and email address) must be put on the essay proper.

Judging will take place during the fall. The three winners will be announced at the Lincoln Forum annual meeting in Gettysburg on November 18th. Checks from the Lincoln forum will be sent to the winners in December 2009. The scholarship prize money is designed as a reward for academic excellence. It can be used for any purpose the winner desires.

The essay can be sent via email ( or regular mail to the address below.
Don McCue, curator of The Lincoln Shrine in Redlands, California serves as coordinator of the Essay Contest.

If the above information does not answer your question please contact:

Don McCue, Curator -- Lincoln Memorial Shrine
125 W. Vine St.
Redlands, CA 92373
phone: (909) 798-7632

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

1,000,000 and Counting


The English language was expected to acquire its millionth word around April 29, according to Global Language Monitor, an organization in Austin, Texas, which uses software to track and analyze trends in language. They've now delayed the predicted date until sometime in June. (There's even a countdown clock:

Read more on the Washington Post book blog, Short Stack:

Ash Dogs Is Award Finalist

Congratulations to Justin Nicholes, whose first novel, Ash Dogs, was a finalist in the “first book” category for the 2009 Next Generation Indie Book Awards competition.

You can read Justin’s wonderful guest blog posts here (on place in writing) and here (on the advantages of the small press)

Monday, May 25, 2009

Gatsby as Teacher on The Elegant Variation

I can’t give the exact link since I’m posting this in advance, but do click over to one of my favorite blogs, The Elegant Variation, which this week will be “serializing Susan Bell's marvelous essay on revising and The Great Gatsby from The Writers Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House, culminating with a Friday giveaway of same.” That has got to be worth your time! Plus…free book giveaway!

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Off to South Carolina

Happy Memorial Day! I will be teaching at the new low-residency MFA program at Converse College, in Spartanburg, South Carolina, for the next two weeks or so, so blogging will be intermittent, dependent on internet access, time, and sleep. (Our schedule of classes, lectures, reading, and meals is INTENSE!)

While in Spartanburg, I hope to find time for a chili cheese a’plenty at the Beacon. I’ll keep you posted on that little project. (Read more about my previous experiences in Spartanburg here.)

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Work in Progress: On NOT Writing...a Pep Talk

Due to other obligations (not the fun kind), I haven’t been able to do any of my own writing for quite a few weeks now, and I’m going crazy. I don’t mind a writing break on my own terms—vacation, holidays, just needing a break—but to want to write and not have the time and/or energy after doing my other work is difficult. I assume I’m not the only one who finds myself in this position, so I thought I’d try to come up with a little pep talk to make myself feel a little better.

What are the advantages to this situation?

--I’m ticking things off a to-do list, accomplishing things in a defined way. When I’m writing, I may have a to-do list (i.e. “finish novel”), but often I’m just writing and trying to move forward without putting undo deadline pressure on, say, when to finish a chapter. Plus, in my heart, I know that at the moment no one is exactly waiting for my chapter; there’s no real deadline. But now, with these other things I’m doing, there is a real deadline. Someone is waiting for the results, and I will suffer (okay, “suffer”) if I don’t finish. So when I cross something off my list, I feel a sense of measured accomplishment. My list shrinks.

--My subconscious is working for me. I don’t believe that I’m ever truly too far away from my novel or other creative projects, so I trust that my subconscious is working on things while my conscious mind is focused on more mundane matters. So, when I am back to writing and I come up with a brilliant (okay, “brilliant”) new idea, I’ll thank my subconscious for always staying on the job, even during tough,uninteresting times.

--I’m doing things that will earn money. Enough said on that!

--I believe that every experience goes into the writing. My feelings of frustration can go into my characters when they’re frustrated. My sense of time running askew can be better portrayed in my story because that’s how I’m feeling. The scary dreams about not having any clothes in my closet…yep—right into the book.

--Deadlines make me work efficiently. What’s the saying, give a task to a busy person because she will get it done? True. I’ve done things in one day that might have taken me three—except for the simple fact that I only had one day so I had to find a way to make it work. Evidence A: this blog entry. When I woke up this morning, I didn’t even have half an idea in my head about what I would write.

--Gratitude for my normal life. I will so, so, SO appreciate my time to write when I get back to it! I promise never, never, NEVER to waste time again!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Elise Partridge, "Last Days"

There’s a wrenching poem on Slate by one of my favorite poets (and VCCA buddy), Elise Partridge. Here's an enticing excerpt from "Last Days":

My friend, you wouldn't lie down.
Your wandering IV pole
glided with you, loyal,
rattling on frantic circuits;
crisp pillows didn't tempt;
round, around, around,

guppies cruised the lobby tank,
flickering sunrise-slivers
all guts, mouths urging, urging; ...

Read (or listen) here.

Like Studying for the SATs, Only Fun

My Merriam-Webster word of the day was a good one—“deasil” [DEE-zil], which means "clockwise.” Here’s the example sentence they offered:

“One pictograph shows a group of warriors dancing deasil around what appears to be a gigantic wild boar speared numerous times.”

And here’s the etymology:

“According to an old custom, you can bring someone good fortune by walking around the person clockwise three times while carrying a torch or candle. In Scottish Gaelic, the word "deiseil" is used for the direction one walks in such a luck-bringing ritual. English speakers modified the spelling to "deasil," and have used the word to describe clockwise motion in a variety of rituals.”

I guess what I’m saying is that if you don’t subscribe to a word-of-the-day service, you might think about it. (Writers can never have too many words at their fingertips!) I like Merriam-Webster and their comprehensive word site, which is found here. To subscribe (free) to word-of-the-day, you can go directly here.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Sun Magazine: Looking for Pieces that Move the Heart and the Mind

As I mentioned yesterday, I learned a lot at the Sun conference myself—from the other presenters, the participants, and from the Sun staff. Here are my notes from managing editor Tim McKee’s comments in the “Over the Transom” panel, explaining the process the Sun goes through while evaluating manuscripts for publication (submission details are here).

This is what the magazine looks for in writing, Tim says:*

--Pieces that move the heart or mind…or both.

--Memorable characters.

--Pieces that are rich in settings and descriptions; pieces that evoke a time or place…but within limits. He warned against simply throwing in details, and suggested that the writer demonstrate discernment.

--Show, don’t tell. He thought that in the writing process, the first draft might be the “telling” draft, which is then shaped into the second draft, the “showing” draft.

--The writer should provide a thrilling but gentle ride for the reader, which means always being mindful of the reading experience. So, for example, be especially mindful of transitions and the beginning of the piece: be wary of too many names, themes, characters all dumped in the beginning.

--What makes a piece truly stand out is a remarkable self-awareness on the part of the writer. This is what shifts the personal to the universal. To help illuminate this principle, Tim mentioned this quotation from Cheryl Strayed, a writer whose work has appeared often in the Sun: “In writing, you get no points for the living. Extraordinary consciousness must be brought to bear on extraordinary events.”

*These are my scribbled notes, perhaps paraphrased, and should not be misconstrued as his exact words.

With standards like this, what are you waiting for? Check out the website, read some of the archived works, and then please SUBSCRIBE (if you don’t already)! It’s a magazine like no other.

Twitter as Art?

“But if Mark Twain, Dorothy Parker and Oscar Wilde were still alive, they would probably all be on Twitter.”

Don’t believe this? You might, after reading this article by Washington Post writer Monica Hesse. (Warning: it’s waaay longer than 140 characters!)

Monday, May 18, 2009

My Story in the Gettysburg Review

My short story “Just Another Abortion Story” is in the new (Summer 2009) issue of The Gettysburg Review.

The story isn’t online, but here’s a tiny excerpt:

“You learn things about people in any creative writing class, especially one in which the participants write about their lives. For example, Shea Shilladay grew up in Greenville, South Carolina, organizing the neighbor children into backyard productions of “Cinderella” in which she starred, using her mother’s Miss South Carolina tiara. Her college-age daughters are named Rin and Fedham Lee. You have never known anyone with names like these or known these names exist. In fact, Shea Shilladay’s real name is Mary-Shea, but she shortened it to Shea when she went off to a college for girls in Spartanburg. You’ve never known anyone with a name like Mary-Shea, either. Girls you played with growing up in Ohio had names like Linda, Susie, Denise, Lisa. Your own name is Mary—Shea’s discard.”

I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but Dana Cann, one of my former students, also has a story in the same issue: “Caterpillar.” You may remember Dana’s inspiring guest blog piece “200 Words and a Cloud of Dust,” found here.

The Sun Gathering: An Intense 48 Hours

I just returned from the Sun Magazine’s gathering in Rowe, Massachusetts, where I met a wonderful group of writers and thinkers. I can’t believe how much was packed into 48 hours—a panel that asked if personal essays were self-indulgent (conclusion: no!) a panel that detailed the Sun’s careful editorial process, editor Sy Safransky’s reading his notebook of musings on writing, classes and writing opportunities galore (I ran four different sessions and was highly impressed with the work that was produced in our ten-minute exercises—truly, some remarkable pieces). Perhaps the most moving part of the weekend was the opening, when 75+ people one-by-one read their prepared “contributors’ note” and we all heard the wonderful range of human achievement and yearning.

I was worried about the food—but the wonderful chef proved to this doubting Thomas that a weekend of healthy food (vegetarian! no gluten!) can be DELICIOUS. In fact, my favorite dinner featured nicely seasoned tofu cutlets (with a yummy side of no-dairy mashed potatoes).

There will be another such gathering this year in the fall, at Big Sur, California. If you’re in the area, check it out. You will not meet such a fascinating, kind, fun, smart group of people. In fact, I was totally disoriented when I got to the Hartford airport on my way home and no one was smiling!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Work in Progress: Detroit Edition

We got back from Detroit last night (in time to watch the third period of the Caps-Penguins Game 7…sad, sad, sad) and today I’m getting ready to head to Massachusetts, to the Sun magazine conference. Since I haven’t been doing much writing in recent days, I thought I’d give a quick wrap-up of our trip:

--Though we were in Detroit for a funeral, we had an afternoon to do some fun things (yes, there are plenty of fun things to do in Detroit!). The Henry Ford Museum is fascinating: we especially liked seeing the aluminum “house of the future” and rows and rows of old cars. We also toured a stunningly beautiful restored diner and learned some Midwestern diner lingo: Saddle blankets, anyone? (That’s “pancakes” to us regular folks.)

--Steve had never had one of Detroit’s famous Coney Island hot dogs, and we managed to drive into downtown Detroit to try the original Lafayette Coney Island, having a coney (a special chili-dog) , order of fries and (famous) Vernor’s ginger ale. Of course, once Steve heard that the two brothers who had started Lafayette had had some sort of disagreement that resulted in estrangement and one brother leaving to start his own Coney place—RIGHT NEXT DOOR—we had to walk six steps over go try that one, too. It’s hard for me to decide whether American Coney Island beats Lafayette, so I suggest you try them both as we did. (We did have a great conversation with “Dan-Dan-the-Hot-Dog-Man” who is the grandson of the American Coney’s founder, so I give the nod for friendliness to American. Plus, they will mail order a Coney Island kit so you don’t even have to go to Detroit.) Interesting side note: Part of the chapter called “I Want You to Have this Now” from Pears on a Willow Tree takes place in Lafayette.

--Dearborn, Michigan—where my father grew up—now holds a large Lebanese/Arab-American community, so of course we had to go to a Middle Eastern restaurant. We found Ollie’s Lebanese Restaurant, which was another fabulous experience, complete with a round of baklava on the house because we were told “we all had to try it.” For an appetizer to share, Steve selected a cauliflower dish; I gave him the stink-eye, but he persisted (he loves his vegetables), and this ended up being the best cauliflower I’ve ever had.

--After the funeral, we enjoyed a wonderful family luncheon at the historic Dearborn Inn (which was the nation’s first airport hotel). I heard a bunch of new family stories (if only I’d had a tape recorder!) that will surely inspire me in new and interesting ways—and it was wonderful to reconnect with some special people I don’t get to see often enough.

--And finally, as “Dear Abby” often concluded in the old days: Confidential to Cynthia: A special cyber-hug to you! xoxox

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

An Excuse to Talk Like a Pirate...the Fun, Old-Fashioned Kind of Pirate

Arrrgh—ahoy, matey…got any short stories about female pirates? Then you’ll be interested in this call for submissions:

Call for Submissions: Skulls and Crossbones
A collection of short stories that features women pirates in any setting, any time period.

Editors: Andi Marquette and R. G. Emanuelle.
Publisher: Mindancer Press (Bedazzled Ink), print and ebook editions

-No longer than 7000 words; no shorter than 4000 words
-Will consider original and previously published stories.
-$35 per story, paid after contract is signed. Story rights revert back to authors 18 months after date of publication. Each contributor will receive one print copy as well as one ebook copy of the anthology.

GLBTQ/heterosexual characters are welcome BUT EACH STORY MUST FEATURE A WOMAN PIRATE, either as the main character or the focus of the story (e.g. another sailor on the ship who hates the woman pirate and through his/her eyes, we observe the woman pirate). Again, the main character or the focus of the story MUST BE A WOMAN PIRATE. We will consider main characters that identify as transgendered (male to female), but that identity must figure prominently in the story as a driving force and/or something that speaks to the character’s experience as a woman pirate.

Extra caveat: The focus of the story cannot be a romantic hook-up/sex/erotica. Sex, eroticism, and romance may be part of the story (as long as they fit within the story’s overall plot), but they cannot be the reason for the story or the driving force of the story. We want stories that feature adventure, intrigue, antiheroines/heroines, battles (epic, personal, or small-scale), something to be accomplished/overcome, vengeance, trickery, thievery, and/or assorted banditry and outlaw behavior.

Absolutely NO stories that feature acts of pedophilia, incest, bestiality, or rape.

Deadline for submissions is September 1, 2009
Final selections will be made by October 1, 2009, with publication tentatively slated for January 2010

To submit your story, send as an email attachment in RTF format, double-spaced to

Please include your name, pen name (if applicable), mailing address, email address, story title, and word count on the first page of your submission.

More info:

f you have questions, drop us a line at

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

"Listen When the Muse Sings"

Thomas E. Kennedy: “Henry Miller once said that if you don't listen when the Muse sings, you get excommunicated. The fastest way to a writer's block is to be super-critical of the words that are offered up from whatever part of our mind, soul or body that the words are offered up from. A writer has an impulse to write something but generally, in my experience, does not know what he or she is going to say until it is said. To berate and reject the words that are being offered up to you even as they are being offered up is to insult that in you which is most important to you as a writer, that place where the spirit becomes word and takes form.

“Thus, the fourth most important lesson I have learned and try to share with my students is just that. Allow your story to tell itself, allow your words to take form, do not discourage them. Afterwards, after you have a draft, that is the time to put your critical spectacles on and begin to cut, expand, rephrase, polish, revise. But first allow the vision to come forth; only later the revision. Allow your words to speak, allow your stories to be told.”

Read the three other writing lessons from Thomas E. Kennedy here, in a piece from the Glimmer Train newsletter.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Blogging Lite

Blogging will be light this week as I will be away, attending the funeral of my uncle.

Virtual Writing Groups

Here are some interesting ideas from poet Erika Meitner about working with a writing group online:

“In terms of my own writing process, I currently belong to two virtual writing groups. One is constant, and it’s a password-protected blog where a few other poets and I post exercises and the poems that we write from them. This tends to get more active when the semester gets less busy, as most of us teach. I have another virtual group that’s a closed Google group. We pick 2-week or month-long chunks about twice a year to meet online, and when we meet, we write intensely–usually a poem-a-day. It came out of the NaPoWriMo idea, but we usually tend to meet in the summer for a month, and over winter break for a few weeks, as again, most of us teach and April (which is actually officially Poetry Month) tends to be too hectic in the academic calendar for anyone to get much writing done. We don’t comment on each other’s work, but I think we all like the group accountability of these virtual communities, and the fact that they help mitigate the loneliness of plugging away on your own a bit.”

You can read the rest of this excellent interview at the 32 Poems site, found here.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Work in Progress: Red Hat Ladies

An odd convergence has led me to think about the “Red Hat Ladies,” those groups of older women who form clubs and do things like go to tea, all the while wearing red hats or boas. Here’s the official website of the Red Hat Society, and the motto seems to be, “We celebrate life at every age.” Nothing wrong with that, is there?

In yesterday’s post, I talked about a Lee Smith short story in the new issue of Shenandoah that as a plotline involves a group of “red hat ladies” accidentally showing up at the narrator’s house, mistakenly thinking it’s on the house tour. I admit that when I was reading and first came across the phrase “red hat ladies,” I had an instant image in my mind and perhaps I rolled my eyes and got ready for the writer to poke fun at these ditzy, older women. (Note: Lee Smith, the author, was born in 1944.)

Certainly there were some easy shots, and Lynn (the narrator) is terribly cruel to these women as she fabricates a mean-spirited ghost story about her house. But in the end, I think that we see how Lynn—who hadn’t been able to tell anyone about her husband’s recent abandonment, who doesn’t feel very connected to her community—might have benefited if she had dropped her superior attitude and joined up with the women and had some fun, and there is, in my mind, a hopeful note to the ending.

Still, you write “red hat ladies” and we’re all quick to make fun of them in the way that we don’t necessarily make fun of groups of male war vets all gathered together and making too much noise at the same restaurant we’re at. Or guys riding Harleys. Or men in a sports bar.

My mother happened to read yesterday’s blog entry and told me she wanted to read this story to see how the red hat ladies were treated. I assured her that it wasn’t as bad as it may have seemed, but she wants to see for herself. She’s a smart woman, a good and wide reader, a discerning critic. Also, she noted, “The women I know in those red hat groups would NEVER make a mistake like that on a house tour.”

Then today, this information was in the Writer’s Almanac entry:

“It's the birthday of a woman who—when she was only 28—wrote a famous poem about growing old: Jenny Joseph, born in Birmingham, England (1932). She wrote:

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn't go and doesn't suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we've no money for butter.

The poem, "Warning," was printed in anthologies and on T-shirts, magnets, and greeting cards. It was voted as Britain's favorite post-war poem, beating out Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night."

And it led to the creation of the Red Hat Society, groups of women over the age of 50 who get together for tea parties, wearing purple clothes and red hats. The groups spread quickly, and today there are more than 40,000 chapters.”

And honestly, I have to ask, Is there anything so wrong with having a little brandy in your life? With living it up? With taking care of yourself now and then? And if a red hat is what allows you to get to that place, so what? Why is it wrong and subversive somehow when middle-aged women want to have fun?

What does any of this have to do with writing?

This was a reminder to me that as a writer, we work to create nuanced characters and not rely on easy “brand names” to shortcut to the reader certain assumptions we believe our reader automatically shares (i.e. red hat ladies = stupid old ladies). As it turns out, of course Lee Smith is a better writer than that, and I don’t think she automatically did that –though IMHO she skirted the line with bringing in these women into the story to make fun of them, assuming that most readers of literary journals would have the same opinion of these groups. And in the end, she pulled it off because the Red Hat Ladies became women, characters, people…not mere caricatures to poke fun at. But in lesser hands, I’ve seen it go the other way: the country club Republican in the story is only there so we can laugh at him. The woman who thinks NPR is boring who’s in there so we can feel superior.

One of the good writing teacher sayings goes something like this, Your “bad” characters don’t think that they’re bad; try to see the other side of who they are. I would add: Your “dumb” characters don’t think that they’re dumb, either. Treat your characters—even the icky ones—with respect.

Here’s the complete text of “Warning”—what a great title, when you read the whole poem. (Note: I admit to having sat on the pavement when I was tired!)

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Shenandoah's New Issue Is a Must-Read

I gave up feeling guilty if I didn’t have a chance to read every single page of every single literary journal that crosses my path, but Shenandoah’s new issue (Spring/Summer 2009) is making me want to linger over every page.

Highlights include:

--“House Tour” by Lee Smith, a funny and sad story about a woman who ends up with a group of “red hat ladies” who mistakenly think her rambling, falling-apart house is on the town’s annual house tour. Oh, and the narrator has not told anyone for several months that her husband has left her for another woman. Oops! Quite a bit to see on this “tour.”

--“Imaginary Tucson” by Geoffrey Becker. In this short story, Joe and Kate are young and in love and in academia, which means two cruddy jobs in two different locations. Sensitive, beautifully-observed, and funny (MLA anyone?).

--“Revelation” by Jessica Treadway. Tessa is getting mysterious notes quoting the Book of Revelation. A stalker or her ex-boyfriend? Does it matter? Maybe it does, since she doesn’t seem to want a restraining order to stop the notes.

And I don’t want to neglect the poetry here:

--“Fear of Giants” by Philip Belcher, which was inspired by Diane Arbus’s photograph, A Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents in the Bronx, N.N., 1970 (Check out the photograph here.)

--“Betrayal” by Andrea Hollander Budy, a chilling, concise exploration of marriage.

--“A Thousand Reasons” by Mark Sanders that asks, “What is there not to love?”

All this and more, inside a sharp-looking cover with a painting by Billy Edd Wheeler. For more information about Shenandoah (including subscription info), go here.

Genre Fiction Meets Lit Journal

If you like your fiction hard-boiled, here’s the place for you:

Call for Genre Fiction: Oregon Literary Review

The Oregon Literary Review's "Genre" section is currently looking for science fiction, western, horror, and detective fiction for its upcoming Summer/Fall 2009 Issue. Guidelines are as follows:

Stories should be between 4000-10000 words.
Original illustrations accompanying the stories are accepted.
Preference is given to pulp-style stories. S
ubmissions must be MS Word .doc or .rtf
Submissions should include author's name, a short bio, and email address.

The Oregon Literary Review is an online non-profit.

For more information, visit Stories may be submitted via email to the genre editor at

Charm City Events

Some goings on up the road in Baltimore, as reported by CityLit Project:

WORKSHOPS: New "Write Here, Write Now" workshops start on May 7 and May 12 as we explore the art of short story/flash fiction and erotica. Both workshops take place at Creative Alliance. Complete information, as well as a link to registration, can be found here.

MWA CONFERENCE: The annual Spring "must do" for writers convenes at the 21st Maryland Writers' Association Conference on May 9. The wonderful line-up covers an array of writing genres and issues, plus there will be agents! Yours truly will deliver a session on "The Publishing Matrix," which covers options and expectations for aspiring authors so that they have the most rewarding experience possible.

SMARTISH PACE FANDANGO: The fine folks at Smartish Pace announce the next in what are becoming fantastic shin-digs: their new issue release parties. May 15, 8pm, location TBA. Just $10 gets your foot in the door, a magazine in your hand, and "all the merriment you can stomach." Readings by Matt Anserello, Lucy Biederman, Maggie Glover, Reginald Harris, Alex Irvine, Aaron Poochigian, and Mark Wisniewski. Music by Pree and others.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A Thousand Poems a Month

First Person Plural, the blog of the Writer’s Center, has had some excellent interviews with poets recently. Check out the interview with Jody Bolz, who’s a wonderful poet as well as the co-editor of Poet Lore. Here’s a behind-the-scenes peek at the editorial process:

You and E. Ethelbert Miller, your co-editor, take great pride in reading every single poem submitted to Poet Lore. How does the process work? How do you manage to read so many submissions?

Each month Ethelbert and I read close to a thousand poems on our own before getting together to make selections at our editorial meeting. We usually have a stack of 10 large manila envelopes next to Ethelbert's dining room table: each envelope contains 20 or so submissions, each submission includes about five poems. Having read all of the work beforehand, we spend the evening reading poems we're interested in aloud and discussing them. Only three or four submissions in each packet come up for that kind of close consideration.

Often one of us will champion a poem that the other didn't choose (or chose to reject!) and the process of arguing with one another is exciting and meaningful and occasionally hilarious. We've got complementary approaches, which keeps the journal's voice unpredictable and rich. We've learned from one another, as well as from the poets we publish….

Read the rest here.

Ruth Reichl & Christopher Buckley Readings This Week

Two upcoming readings at Politics & Prose I wish I could attend:

Thursday, May 7, 7 p.m.
Ruth Reichl
Not Becoming My Mother(Penguin Press, $19.95) Typical of an upper middle-class American woman at mid-century, Reichl’s mother acquiesced in community norms but was unhappy and bitter as a result. When she married at age thirty, Miriam left the bookstore she’d started and became a wife and mother. Reichl has studied her mother’s letters and diaries, embracing an opportunity to understand her better. » BUY NOW

Friday, May 8, 7 p.m.
Christopher Buckley
Losing Mum And Pup (Twelve, $24.99)A departure from his humorous novels, Buckley’s latest book is a memoir of his parents, William F. Buckley and Patricia Taylor Buckley. Each was larger than life, and together they were formidable. Their son’s memories of them are sometimes harsh, but also full of wit and warmth.» BUY NOW

Politics & Prose Bookstore and Coffeehouse

5015 Connecticut Avenue NW

Washington, DC 20008

(202) 364-1919 or (800) 722-0790

More details here.

Monday, May 4, 2009

"Breaking Bad": I'm Addicted!

Steve is a fan of the AMC TV show “Breaking Bad,” and he’s finally gotten me hooked. Basically, it’s about a high school chemistry teacher in New Mexico who’s dying of cancer who decides to cook/deal meth to make money to provide for his family after he’s gone. Last night’s episode was an achievement, metaphorically focusing on the helplessness of coping with a killer disease like cancer.

Walt is waiting for the results of his PET-CT scan. He secretly catches a glimpse of the scan and sees big, ugly blotches all over the place; that, and the fact that he’s suddenly coughing up blood, lead him to believe the test results will not be happy.

He and his partner—Jesse, a former student of his—drive off to the middle of nowhere in their meth lab/RV so he can crank up meth production so he can accumulate more money now that time is getting short. Due to a series of well-conceived, suspenseful events, the two of them are stranded in the desert with no water and no way to get back to civilization, unless Walt’s scientific knowledge and skill can save them.

Sadly, while intellect may (or may not) save one from being stranded in the desert, of course we all know how it fares against the random and unfair ravages of cancer. And though the test results are not what one might expect, Bryan Cranston, the actor playing Walt, beautifully captures the residual rage, frustration, and powerlessness of being forced to live with cancer. Great acting, great writing…and a great way to spend Sunday night now that HBO has fallen by the wayside.

Arts Club of Washington Annouces Winners; Reading May 21

News from the Arts Club of Washington:

What do these two Americans have in common? Elusive, inward-looking Emily Dickinson. And the swashbuckling movie director Victor Fleming, who built idealized masculine personas for Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable.

Both are considered iconic American voices—yet they couldn’t be more different, one the epitome of feminine identity, the other the ultimate strong-but-silent male.

New biographies of each are co-winners of the National Award for Arts Writing, sponsored by the Arts Club of Washington. Authors Michael Sragow and Brenda Wineapple will split the purse, with each receiving half of the $15, 000 annual award, which honors nonfiction books on the arts notable for prose that is “lucid, luminous, clear, and inspiring—writing that creates a strong connection with arts and artists.”

The National Award for Arts Writing is relatively new, only in its third year, but is one of the largest annual book awards in the U.S. This year’s award was judged by noted book and film critic David Kipen; Linda Pastan, former Poet Laureate of Maryland; and Reynolds Price, National Book Critics Circle Award-winner and author of twenty-two novels.

The winning books are:
--Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master, by Michael Sragow (Pantheon Books)
--White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, by Brenda Wineapple (Alfred A. Knopf)

On the selection of the two winners, judge David Kipen says, “The idea of the passionate but chaste Emily Dickinson on a blind date with Byronic, swashbuckling Victor Fleming, if only for one night, encompasses precisely the breadth of inspiration that these awards exist to honor.”

Those in the Washington, DC area can come to a reading by the winners on Thursday, May 21 at 7:00 pm. Admission is free, and the event will take place at the Arts Club of Washington, 2017 I Street NW, Washington, DC.

The Club will begin accepting books for the 2009 Awards in June. Publishers, agents, or authors may submit books for consideration. There is no entry fee. Three copies of the book and the official entry form are required. Nominations must be postmarked by October 1, 2009. Full information can be found at:


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