Thursday, July 30, 2009

Work in Progress: Endings

Last night I had a conversation with a student about endings in short stories, and I think I was listening to my own comments as much as he was because I’m coming up to the point that I’ve delayed: having to figure out the ending to my new novel. When I was at VCCA this winter, I was able to write up to a certain point, about three-quarters through, and then (at the time) it seemed like a good idea to step back and revise what I had, do some more historical research (the book is set in 1899), and then tackle the ending in a swoop at some mythical “later date.”

That later date is approaching—mentally, and on the calendar. My class will be over in a few weeks, and I’ll have a small but significant patch of time before other responsibilities overtake me again. Since I find that I can squeeze in revision while I’m teaching, it seems to make sense to generate new material in this larger, emptier window I’ve got. Plus, mentally, I’ve found myself wondering (i.e. stressing out about) how I’m going to pull off this plot and, as Tim Gunn so wisely advises, “make it work” (easy for him to say).

Here’s the advice I heard myself giving:

--A good ending is authentic. It’s believable given the parameters of the world set forth in the story.

--Beyond that authenticity, the ending also needs to feel inevitable, as if the book/story could not have ended any other way, given the characters and action that has preceded.

--Beyond that inevitability, there needs to be a simultaneous sense of surprise. Though the story could not possibly have ended in any other way, the reader is nevertheless surprised that it has done so. The classic phrase is “the surprising yet inevitable ending.”

--And beyond that, the hardest element of all, I believe, is that dark, uncomfortable, transcendent squirminess that the reader feels as he/she realizes that the author has found some difficult, universal truth and expressed it so completely that the reader believes his/her life view is forever altered even if not understanding exactly how. If I had to pick one writer to study as a master of endings, it be Flannery O’Connor’s short stories.

And in the end...easy for me to say, right? Now, to try to do all that....

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Merce Cunningham's Creative Process

Embarrassing to admit, but I had no idea that Merce Cunningham had such an interesting creative process when choreographing:

“Where other choreographers looked to music and their own imagination for inspiration, Mr. Cunningham favored the creative strategies of a physicist, a Vegas high roller and a techno-whiz.

“He split the atomic unity of music and dance. No longer were the steps dependent on a beat; in Mr. Cunningham's works, the dancing and the music were utterly independent of each other, existing side by side "in space and time," that is, performed in the same spot for a set number of minutes, but coming together essentially as strangers. He also introduced "chance operations," rolling dice to determine the sequence of dance sections. To make this work, he had to refine and extend his dance technique, coming up with ways to link movements that wouldn't ordinarily be possible side by side. The unnaturalness that resulted was a hallmark of his style, and only the most highly trained and capable dancers could make it look serene and effortless. Cunningham dancers were esteemed as among the best in the world of professional dance.

“In some of Mr. Cunningham's works, even decisions about the ordering of sets, costumes and lighting were made by rolling dice or flipping a coin. This was the case in "Split Sides," a two-part production for which two sets of everything (lighting designs, costumes, etc.) were created, and determining which elements came first was done with great fanfare through dice-rolling in front of the audience just before the curtain went up.”

Of course you can imagine what I’m thinking: how might rolling dice work for a writer? Could one draft a new story making decisions based on chance? If I try it, I’ll report back. (Though, actually, what are these “decisions” I make as I write based on anyway? Hmmm….)

You can read the entire Washington Post appreciation of Merce Cunningham here. I also recommend this Post article, about how a specific modern dance pretty much disappears when a troupe dissolves; other dance groups don’t typically perform older choreography, preferring new stuff:

“The only museum dance has for displaying its creations is the stage. And the best curators are ballet companies, which essentially stockpile works by different choreographers -- performing "The Nutcracker" as well as ballets by, say, Twyla Tharp and Jerome Robbins -- and readily absorb older dances into their repertoires. But the much younger field of modern dance, barely a century old, has grown up around cult figures. These rebels and individualists -- Martha Graham, Cunningham, Paul Taylor, among others -- wanted little to do with one another. Like fashion houses, the choreographers launched their companies as vehicles for their own work. Christian Dior didn't display Ralph Lauren in his shop, nor did Graham want a Taylor piece taking up her time in the spotlight.”

How to Waste Time Online When You're Tired of Facebook

Poet Philip Belcher has been a fount of wonderful information lately, alerting me to two new places where writers can waste, er, spend time usefully online:

1. The Lannan Foundation offers an audio archives that includes “audio files from the popular Readings & Conversations series, other public Lannan events from the past 16 years, as well as selections from the award-winning literary radio program “Bookworm” with Michael Silverblatt.”

2. The Daily Routines blog isn’t being updated—putting together a book, it sounds like—but the archives are fascinating, since the focus of the blog is “how writers, artists, and other interesting people organize their days.”

Flaubert’s routine sounds attractive (except for the part with the pipe):

“Days were as unvaried as the notes of the cuckoo. Flaubert, a man of nocturnal habits, usually awoke at 10 a.m. and announced the event with his bell cord. Only then did people dare speak above a whisper. His valet, Narcisse, straightaway brought him water, filled his pipe, drew the curtains, and delivered the morning mail. Conversation with Mother, which took place in clouds of tobacco smoke particularly noxious to the migraine sufferer, preceded a very hot bath and a long, careful toilette involving the regular application of a tonic reputed to arrest hair loss. At 11 a.m. he entered the dining room, where Mme Flaubert; Liline; her English governess, Isabel Hutton; and very often Uncle Parain would have gathered. Unable to work well on a full stomach, he ate lightly, or what passed for such in the Flaubert household, meaning that his first meal consisted of eggs, vegetables, cheese or fruit, and a cup of cold chocolate. The family then lounged on the terrace, unless foul weather kept them indoors, or climbed a steep path through woods behind their espaliered kitchen garden to a glade dubbed La Mercure after the statue of Mercury that once stood there. Shaded by chestnut trees, near their hillside orchard, they would argue, joke, gossip, and watch vessels sail up and down the river. Another site of open-air refreshment was the eighteenth-century pavilion. After dinner, which generally lasted from seven to nine, dusk often found them there, looking out at moonlight flecking the water and fisherman casting their hoop nets for eel.

“In June 1852, Flaubert told Louise Colet that he worked from 1 p.m. to 1 a.m.. A year later, when he assumed partial responsibility for Liline's education and gave her an hour or more of his time each day, he may not have put pen to paper at his large round writing table until two o'clock or later.”

Source: Frederick Brown, Flaubert: A Biography

Thank you, Philip!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Julia Peterkin Award for Poets

This year’s Julia Peterkin Award is for poets. (Disclosure: I teach in the Converse College Low-Residency MFA program, but I’m not one of the judges for this competition. More disclosure: I won this award in fiction once.) Note that previously published work is acceptable.

Submission Guidelines for the Julia Peterkin Award

The 2010 Julia Peterkin Award is open to all poets writing original works in English. Previously published works are eligible for inclusion in the submission.

Manuscript Format Guidelines
Entries must be typed on quality paper, 8 1/2 by 11. Photocopies or copies from letter-quality printers are acceptable. To enter send up to 10 pages of poetry. In addition, include a cover page with the writer's name, address, daytime phone number, and title of submission. Also include a one-page biography. Author's name should not appear on the manuscript.

Entry Requirements
An entry fee of $15 made payable to: Converse College English Department.

Deadline: Jan. 15, 2010.

Results will be posted on the award web page. Include a self-addressed, stamped envelope if you would like direct notification of contest results. Results will be mailed in June of 2010. No manuscripts can be returned.

Send one copy of the manuscript prepared according to format guidelines.
The winner will receive $1000 and travel expenses for a reading at Converse College. Winner must be willing to read in the Fall 2010 Visiting Writers Series.

Send entries to:
The Julia Peterkin Award
Creative Writing Program
Converse College
580 E. Main Street
Spartanburg, SC 29302

More details:

Residency Deadline Approaching

The deadline for the KHN Center for the Arts is approaching for the January-June 2010 residencies—September 1. I spent a very lovely two weeks in Nebraska City and highly recommend this colony. Read more on their website.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Why You Should Change Your Computer Passwords

Those troublesome computer passwords…but there’s even more trouble if someone hacks in and gets all your information. From Slate:

"Your passwords aren't very secure. Even if you think they are, they probably aren't. Do you use the same or similar passwords for several different important sites? If you don't, pat yourself on the back; if you do, you're not alone—one recent survey found that half of people online use the same password for all the sites they visit. Do you change your passwords often? Probably not; more than 90 percent don't. If one of your accounts falls to a hacker, will he find enough to get into your other accounts? For a scare, try this: Search your e-mail for some of your own passwords. You'll probably find a lot of them, either because you've e-mailed them to yourself or because some Web sites send along your password when you register or when you tell them you've forgotten it. If an attacker manages to get into your e-mail, he'll have an easy time accessing your bank account, your social networking sites, and your fantasy baseball roster."

To get some easy tips about how to make yourself more secure online, read the rest of the article here.

DC-Area Poets: Jenny McKean Moore Workshop

The Jenny McKean Moore Free Community Workshop at George Washington University is accepting applications for the Fall 2009 class. The guest instructor is poet Ed Skoog, and the deadline for applications is August 31, 2009.

Because this program obstinately and bafflingly does not seem to have any information posted on any website that I can find, I’m linking to area poet Bernadette Geyer’s web site where you can find the submission details. I’ve typed out this mailed flyer in the past, but enough already, GW English Department! Post this info on the web!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Guest in Progress: Kim Roberts

Poet and editor Kim Roberts is always up to something fun, like trying to get her work published in a literary journal located in every state in the U.S. She’s also also a wonderful editor (of the online journal Beltway), a promoter of the arts in DC with her literary-themed walks, and a font of useful information (her list of writers’ colonies is incredibly comprehensive and can be found here:

Most importantly, of course, Kim is a serious poet. As such, she’s headed off to a colony to get in some writing. Here’s your chance to be a literary muse and have some fun through Kim’s “snail mail challenge,” which I received, yes, through snail mail and had to share with the world:


Win Fabulous Prizes!
Get Actual Letters in Return!

I am off to the southern tip of the Appalachian Mountain chain, to the tiny town of Rabun Gap, Georgia, near where the three states of Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina meet.

I am hoping you will do the OLD FASHIONED THING and send me mail through the US Postal Service. There’s no substitute for a real letter! And mail at artist colonies takes on an ALMOST MYTHICAL SIGNIFICANCE. It doesn’t really matter what you send—you could mail me the little piece of plastic holding your bread bag together, and if it came to me at an art colony, I would consider it my new prize possession. I might make a shrine to it in my studio. I would probably write a poem about it.

Please send letters, postcards, and miscellania between the dates of JULY 28 and AUGUST 23 to:

Kim Roberts
c/o Hambidge Center
105 Hambidge Court
Rabun Gap, GA 30568

Any mail, no matter how bizarre, or how minimalist, will get a letter in return from me. That is my promise. I also offer, as an added incentive, FABULOUS PRIZES of an Unspecified Nature, Reflecting my Sojourn in the Deep South. Awards will be given in the following categories:

--Most Mail Sent
--Oddest Mail Sent (the Barbara DeCesare Memorial Cherry Pie Pastry in an Unpadded Envelope Award)

Previous Award Winners, from other art colony trips, have included Susan Boscarino (for the Soft Sculpture in an Envelope That Took an Entire Afternoon to Assemble), Dan Vera (for the infamous Photo Rebus of DC Street Signs Letter), and Michael Gushue (for his inspiring Field Guide to Famous Nebraskans).

I will be driving down to Hambidge, leaving DC on July 24. I will return in the last week of August.

Send me something! Send me anything! I am counting on YOU.

About: Kim Roberts is the author of two books of poems, The Kimnama (Vrzhu Press, 2007) and The Wishbone Galaxy (WWPH, 1994). She edits the online journal Beltway Poetry Quarterly. Roberts has published in journals beginning with every letter of the alphabet, and her poems have been translated into Spanish, Portuguese, German, and Mandarin. This August, she is a writer-in-residence at her twelfth artist colony. Her website:

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Bonnie Parker's Poetry, Crime and Punishment, and Ollie's Trolley: A Day in DC

I was a tourist in my own town for a day last week, and here are a few things I learned:

--Don’t be a tourist in DC during the summer. I was reminded of why I go to tourist attractions only between the months of November through February. Lots of lines. I was amazed at how docile and beaten down the other tourists were, apparently accustomed to standing around before any experience was considered complete.

--Seeing the Constitution displayed at the National Archives is always a thrill. And if you go, take some time to ask questions of the guy sitting at the information booth. How else will you find out the story behind the Constitutional delegate from Pennsylvania with the wooden leg?

--The new Museum of Crime & Punishment is pretty cool, better than the Spy Museum if you ask me. It’s a little grisly (okay, that medieval section was downright horrifying!), but perfect for a teenage boy. Allow more time than you think you need, especially if you’re a plaque-reader. Lots of fascinating stories, and plenty of hands-on stuff—and those quirky oddities that make any museum a success in my opinion (i.e. one of John Dillinger’s eyebrow hairs on display).

--The newly restored Ford’s Theatre is great; go for the ranger talk if you can, so that you can sit in the theatre and visualize the whole, awful scenario of Lincoln’s assassination. I also liked the plaques downstairs that outlined the events of both Lincoln’s and Booth’s day—very humanizing. Booth was frighteningly organized.

--The boarding house where Lincoln died is across the street and admission is included with your Ford’s theatre ticket, but don’t bother waiting if there’s a line; there wasn’t that much to see.

--And lest you think this post has nothing to do with writing, you’ll be interested to know that Bonnie Parker (of Bonnie & Clyde fame) wrote poetry! Some examples are on display at the Museum of Crime and Punishment. Not that going into a life of crime was a good decision, but after reading her poetry, I don’t think she had much of a future as a poet, either. Decide for yourself here.

--Finally, no post like this is complete without a mention of food: we ate lunch at Ollie’s Trolley, enjoying burgers and fries seasoned with 26 herbs and spices. Not the best burger in town, but perfect for our day.

Forty Percent of Books Are Pulped

Why do publishers print so many copies of books even when they know that 40 percent of them will be pulped? Editorial Ass has the (sobering and frustrating) answers here.

A Space Inside Reading Tonight

Elizabeth Pallitto, poet and translator, will read from her original poetry as well as translation from her recent work, Sweet Fire: Tullia d'Aragona's Poetry of Dialogue and Selected Prose as a part of A Space Inside on Wednesday, July 22 at 7 p.m. at Riverby Books on Capitol Hill.

Elizabeth Pallitto is an American of Italian, Ukranian, and Russian descent. In a study abroad program in Italy, she became interested in courtly culture, especially that of the Medici court in Florence, which has resulted in her recent translations of the creative work of Tullia d'Aragona. A graduate of the program in Italian and Comparative Literature at CUNY Graduate Center, Elizabeth holds a PhD and an MA in creative writing from NYU. Elizabeth has taught literature, creative writing, and academic writing at Boston University, NYU, and elsewhere. Her own poetry has been published in journals such as The North American Review, and her translations, in Differentia, Forum Italicum and Philosophical Forum. She has won awards from the Academy of American Poets and the Jewish Foundation for the Education of Women, among others. Last summer, she was an invited researcher at the University of Geneva, and this summer finds her working as a Fellow at the Folger and at work on a novel set in Istanbul.

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

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

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

THIS Is the "Sequel" to Catcher in the Rye?

At the risk of turning this into “Salinger Week,” I do need to point out this Slate magazine piece about the new, so-called sequel to The Catcher in the Rye, which will not be published in the U.S. The article's author assures us we’re not missing much:

"Among the more ludicrous aspects of the novel is that [author] California imitates Salinger's style by having the 76-year-old C think and talk exactly as Holden did at age 16. Just as the original Holden wonders where the Central Park ducks go during the winter, C wants to know if "sparrows fly south." ....

C's adventures in Manhattan play out like a television reunion episode—the gang's together again, reliving old times! He has a cup of coffee with Stradlater, his old boarding school roommate. He spends a considerable amount of time thinking about his brother Allie's death. He returns to many of his old haunts: the carousel at Central Park, for instance, and the Museum of Natural History. He also buys himself a red hunting hat.

California's allusions contain little charm, but his original material is far worse. To reinforce the idea that Salinger's teenager is now an old man, California gifts him a urological problem: References to his full bladder are many and close between, and C's continence fails him on more than one occasion. …"

Ugh. Read the rest of the article here.

Job Opening at AWP

Looking for an entry-level job in the DC area? How about this—

The Associated Writing Project (AWP), a national nonprofit organization serving creative writers, seeks a full-time Conference Assistant for one of the largest literary conferences in North America. This position is entry-level. Duties include assisting the Director of Conferences with registration, mailings, reception planning, general office support, onsite management and customer service. Interest in creative writing is a plus, an M.F.A. is preferred, and customer service experience and experience with nonprofit organization are strongly desired.

Please visit the George Mason University Human Resources website for more information.

(No link was included in this message, but I assume this site shouldn’t be too hard to find. Maybe this is part of a test…if you can’t locate the site, they’ll assume your computer skills aren’t up to speed!)

James Wood Reading on 8/19

Mark your calendar: James Wood will be reading from How Fiction Works at Politics & Prose on Wednesday, August 19. Details can be found here.

(Thanks for the heads-up, Juan!)

Monday, July 20, 2009

Salinger and Good Housekeeping

Last week I wondered which story J.D. Salinger had published in Good Housekeeping. Literary editor Laura Mathews was kind enough to tell me: “The J.D. Salinger story is called “A Girl I Knew” and has never been reprinted. But if you have access to a good research library, you can find it in the February 1948 issue.”

The Catcher in the Rye came out in 1951, but apparently 1948 was a good year for him as (according to Wikipedia), 1948 was when he published the story "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" in The New Yorker magazine. Wikipedia tells me that the story was originally titled “A Fine Day for Bananafish” [titling woes for him, too?] and that it came out to such acclaim that this is when he got the [much-envied!] contract with the New Yorker for the right of first refusal on all subsequent stories.

Here’s the text of “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” if it’s been a while since you’ve read it. And, surprisingly, here’s “A Girl I Knew,” which I found to be “For Esme, With Love and Squalor” meets The Catcher in the Rye, with flashes of brilliance and a dire outcome. Read fast…I’m sure these aren’t supposed to be online!

One last thing: According to this site (scroll down), the events in the story are based on an actual experience Salinger had, and the story was reprinted in the Best American Short Stories.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Guest in Progress: Carollyne Hutter

How to keep your characters current with our ever-changing technology: just when you give that high-powered lawyer a Palm pilot, everyone has moved onto to BlackBerries, and iPhones. Did Dickens worry about things like this? We recently had a conversation in my writing group about whether someone’s character realistically would be reading a local, morning newspaper at a hotel in late 2010—maybe (I hope so anyway), but I believe the writer changed that to catching the local morning news on TV.

Tough question, and Carollyne Hutter is here to explore the role of technology in our writing. You may remember that Carollyne posted previously about writing for teens and about helpful resources for YA authors.

Technology in Their Lives

By Carollyne Hutter

A friend sent an email that startled me. I stared for a few minutes at the screen before responding. I had asked him a reference question. He had written back: “It’s lucky you caught me. I only check my emails once a week.”

Once a week? As a freelance writer/editor, I have a close relationship with technology, particularly emails, since my bosses contact me 24/7 with their BlackBerrys.

My friend’s email spurred me to think how dependent writers are on technology, and yet many writers I know don’t include, or rarely mention, technology in their fiction writing. Their characters live in low-tech worlds.

When I decided to write a young-adult (YA) novel, I went around asking other YA writers how they deal with teens and technology. Most said they avoided it, yet many teens mainline technology all day. What gave the teen series Twilight a gothic, old-time feel to it was the lack of technology in the heroine’s life. To me, this absence of teen technology was much more bizarre than her falling in love with a vampire.

As writers, we really should embrace technology in our characters’ lives because our characters use of technology is such a telling detail—just as what clothes they wear, what cars they drive, what they keep on their nightstands are all telling details.

My friend’s comment about only checking emails once a week conjures up an image of a low-tech person, doesn’t it? Just like as the opposite presents a picture: I have a colleague who always checks his emails on his BlackBerry during meetings, even if it’s a small meeting of three people. Or how about this—a friend who appears as a typical suburban soccer mom actually has her own biting, left-wing political blog under a pseudonym. Very telling.

I can understand a writer’s hesitation to deal with technology. I used to joke that I set my YA, Homesick, in 1989 so I wouldn’t have to deal with teen technology.

But the strange thing is I miss technology. Brigit, the heroine of my YA, has to fax her boyfriend in Germany. How slow is that? Or when she needs information, she has to trot down to the library, instead of checking it out on the web.

It’s actually been harder than I thought to leave out technology and go back to a time before cell phones, emails, and the Internet were popular. It’s probably been just as hard for me to exclude technology, as other writers tell me it is to include it.

About: For over a decade, Carollyne Hutter has been a freelance writer/editor in the Washington, DC area, specializing in international and environmental topics. Please visit her website— — to read Carollyne’s stories, essays, and nonfiction pieces. You can contact her at

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Interview with Joseph O'Neill

An excellent, four-part interview with Joseph O’Neill, author of Netherland, is running through the week on The Elegant Variation. Part 1 starts here.

Some excerpts:

TEV: Your wife was your editor at FSG and she turned down your second novel. Have you gotten over that or is it still a thing?

Joseph O’Neill: I’m still punishing her for that ...


TEV: How do you know when your novel is finished? Insofar as it’s ever finished.

Joseph O’Neill: I don’t know. I don’t know if there is a magic moment.

TEV: When did you know you were finished with Netherland?

Joseph O’Neill: I kept telling myself I’d nearly finished, to keep going. You know, when you talk to writers they all say, “Oh yeah, I’m just about finishing my book.” Then, about two years later, you go back to them and you say, “How did the book go?” They say, “Oh, I’m still just putting the finishing touches on it.” It can go on forever.

Good Housekeeping Fiction Contest

Note:  Here's my post about the 2011 Good Housekeeping contest:

I didn’t know about this contest; it’s a great opportunity (and I must say, I'd be QUITE interested in reading the Salinger story that Good Housekeeping published):

To celebrate Good Housekeeping’s 125th anniversary in 2010, editor in chief Rosemary Ellis announced the magazine’s first themed short story contest, focusing on the lives of women today. The breadth of challenges women face and the often heartbreaking decisions that affect their lives are the foundation of the books written by Good Housekeeping’s guest judge, award-winning author Jodi Picoult, whose novel My Sister’s Keeper was the inspiration for the new Cameron Diaz film that hits theaters on June 26.

Ellis, the editors of Good Housekeeping, and Picoult, who had her first two short stories published in a national magazine while still in college, will select one grand-prize winner and two runners-up. The grand-prize winner will receive $3,000 and the winning story will be featured in the May 2010 issue, the magazine’s special 125th anniversary issue. The runners-up will each receive $750, and their stories will be featured on

From J.D. Salinger to Daphne DuMaurier, Good Housekeeping has always featured well-known writers. Regular contributors to the magazine have included Ray Bradbury, John Cheever, and Rona Jaffe. More recently, Good Housekeeping’s fiction pages have featured the work of Nicholas Sparks, Maeve Binchy, Allegra Goodman, Jennifer Weiner, Elinor Lipman, Ann Hood, and this year’s guest judge, Jodi Picoult.

Readers 21 and older can submit their short stories of 3,500 words or less, focusing on the lives of women today at Submissions must be original, not a previously published work or finalist for any other prize or award. All entries must be received by September 15, 2009, winners will be notified in December 2009.

Last Call: F. Scott Fitzgerald Contest

I don’t like the high fee for this one, but it’s a local group and I know they’re legit. But the deadline is Friday, so get going!:

The F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference is sponsoring its 14th annual short story competition. The F. Scott Fitzgerald Short Story Contest is open to residents of Maryland, Washington D. C. and Virginia.

Send in your polished and unpublished stories of no more than 3,000 words. The contest is broken up into an Adult and Student section. For the Adult section, first prize includes $1000, presented at the 14th Annual F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference, and publication in The Potomac Review. Three runner-ups will receive $200 each at the conference. The Student section has a slightly smaller monetary award, but in our hearts, the acclaim is the same.

If you are interested, visit

For either adult or student division, there is a $25 entry fee, and the deadline to enter is July 17, 2009.

For more information about the F. Scott Fitzgerald Short Story Contest and Conference, visit

James River Writers Conference in Richmond

This conference in Richmond has always looked like a good one:

Announcing JRW Conference 2009
Friday - Saturday, October 9 & 10, 2009
The Library of Virginia
--Katherine Neville
--Thomas Lux
--Michael Knight
--Lee Boudreaux
--Karen Lotz

Costs and Deadlines:
JRW members receive first prioritywith one-on-one scheduling through July 31
Registration until August 31: $150
Registration after September 1: $175

More information and online registration

Here is what people had to say about last year's conference:
I drove 400 miles to be here. It was well worth the trip. Meeting published authors, literary agents, and editors made the weekend what I was hoping for and needed.

The diverse panel for each session...gave a more realistic picture of how things are done and appealed to a variety of styles.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

"Chimps Watching General Hospital"

I was listening to the Terry Gross show on NPR yesterday and heard an interesting interview with a guy who had written a book about retired chimps (i.e. retired from performing or lab experiments). As it turns out, chimps really enjoy watching TV, according to this guy, and they like action shows, nature shows, and—surprisingly—soap operas. Apparently, General Hospital is a big favorite with the retired lab chimps, which the guy said was because they’re so familiar with people wearing white coats. (He seemed serious when he said this!)

Where is this leading?

Wouldn’t “Chimps Watching General Hospital” be a GREAT title for a poem? I wish I could write it, but since my poetic skills are less than nil, I send it out into the world for inspiration for others. No need to thank me….

Here’s the guest and book info from the website: Charles Siebert's new book, The Wauchula Woods Accord: Toward A New Understanding of Animals, details his encounters with Roger, a retired former circus chimp, who lived at the Center for Great Apes in Florida and preferred the company of humans to chimps. More info here.

Crabs: The Good Kind

This has nothing to do with writing, but reading this New York Times article about eating crabs on the Eastern Shore made me want to hop in my car and play hooky for a couple days. Try to tell me that photo doesn’t make you want to dive in and get cracking!

Gravity Dancers Event on Sunday

Here's an event I wish I could attend:

Sunday, July 19, 5 p.m.
Gravity Dancers
Join Paycock Press impresario Richard Peabody, publisher of Gargoyle magazine and the recent Stress City: A Big Fat Book of Fiction by Fifty D.C. Guys, as he and some of the area’s finest women fiction writers introduce Paycock’s latest anthology of local short stories. Michelle Brafman will serve as M.C. and host the following authors: Maud Casey, Ellen Herbert, Kyi May Kaung, Raima Larter, Molly Woods Murchie, Judith Turner-Yamamoto, Paula Whyman, Joyce Madelon Winslow, and Laura Zam.

Politics & Prose
5015 Connecticut Avenue, N.W.
Washington, DC 20008
More information here.

Monday, July 13, 2009

"Dialogue Is the Least of It"

Ann Hornaday wrote an excellent Washington Post article about writing screenplays with some advice and comments that would also be apt for structuring a novel:

"But to call a movie well written is far more than a question of dialogue -- in fact, most filmmakers agree that dialogue is the least of it. Instead, good movie writing comes down to what defines good writing in general: a command of structure, voice and momentum, all in the service of a story that grabs spectators by their throats, then leads them along a path they simply must follow or they won't be able to eat, sleep or lead a happy life.

In short, it's the screenplay that, when it's well written, makes a world come to life with plenty of vivid detail and, in creating characters with just as much singularity, makes the audience care. And it's precisely that emotional investment that, by way of enlightened direction and superb performances, creates an indelible cinematic experience. "

Don’t miss this great sidebar that gives the basic (which doesn’t mean easy or simple) principles of structure that most movies follow.

C.M. Mayo to Speak about New Novel

My friend C.M. Mayo will be speaking about her new book at an American Independent Writers Pubspeak:

Thursday, July 16, 2009
Program 7:00-9:00 p.m., food and beverage orders from 6:30 p.m.
Venue to be announced.

Who knew that Mexico once had a half-American prince? Or that this little boy’s future was hotly debated not just in Mexico but in Washington D.C. and in every court in Europe? Set in the mid-19th century when Maximilian von Habsburg was Emperor of Mexico, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire is based on the true and never before completely told story about a half-American boy who, as in a fairytale, became the heir presumptive to the throne of Mexico and then, when his American mother wanted him back, a pawn in the struggle-to-the-death over Mexico's destiny. This novel incorporates original research into what is also a very Washingtonian story, for the prince's mother, née Alice Green, was from a prominent Washington family, and his father, Angel de Iturbide, second son of Mexico's first deposed emperor, Agustín de Iturbide, had come to Washington as a young boy and eventually served as the Mexican legation's secretary.

In her Pubspeak presentation, C.M. Mayo will detail the story behind the story of the prince and why it has been obscured for over 150 years.

C.M. Mayo's books include the widely-lauded travel memoir, Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles through Baja California, the Other Mexico, and Sky Over El Nido, which won the Flannery O'Connor Fiction Award for Short Fiction. An avid translator of contemporary Mexican literature, Mayo has edited the anthology Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion, a portrait of Mexico in the fiction and literary prose of 24 Mexican writers.

Click here for registration prices. More details here.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Guest in Progress: Anonymous

It’s every struggling writer’s fantasy: your first book is coming out in the fall. What a magical, perfect time—everything’s coming up roses, right?

Maybe not, as this author, who wished to remain anonymous, reports below. (And I’ll have to note that these feelings are not limited to debut authors!)

Secret Confessions of a Debut Author

Less than four months from the date my book is due out, I woke up today at three a.m., sweating. My first thought was one of sheer panic to match the stabbing pain in the middle of my back just under my rib cage. As if someone were whispering in my ear, I heard the clear words that my publisher was yanking my book before publication. Why? With the downward spiraling of the economy and the loss of book sales, my publisher was cutting its losses, contract or no contract. It didn’t matter I’d already held the beautiful ARC in my hands. The immediate second thought was that the book was still going to come out, but that felt almost worse because I knew it would debut to bad reviews and even more dismal sales. My writing career would be over. Ironically, having a book come out was shattering the dream that I could “some day” be a published writer, a good published writer.

What’s the antidote for such panic? Work on book two, everyone says. That’s like my aerobic instructor’s cure for pain—transference. If those leg muscles are screaming, focus on the bicep curls with the heavy weights. Novel two is a forbidding prospect of its own as it sits in various shambles on my office floor. A stray scene waits for the novel to catch up to it—or pass it by. A new character inserted herself mid-stream. Now what do I do with her?

It took me a long time to return to sleep, and I know no unpublished writer will have any sympathy for my three a.m. panic attack. It seems grossly neurotic to confess these fears, too, so I do so anonymously to avoid insulting my editor (after all she picked the book!) or my agent (who selected me out of a horde of wannabes). In hopes that other debut writers might be feeling the same way but equally ashamed of saying so out loud, I’m confessing for you. Now get back to the computer—and find that next scene to focus on. Transfer that anxiety and make it work for you. I’m giving it a try.

About: Anonymous’s first novel will be published in October 2009.


Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Truth Is Beauty

Here are two pieces that wrestle with the tension between the words “creative” and “non-fiction” in the words “creative nonfiction.” I think I disagree with these authors, coming down on the truth side. If you want to embellish and make things up in your quest for capital T Truth, then why not write fiction? For me, memoir would be INFINITELY easier if I got to play around with the facts…which is why I respect good memoir, though I guess I now need to view it all with a slightly jaundiced eye.

I’m sure many disagree.

Anyway, the pieces:

“Memoirs Are Literature, Not Journalism” by Vivian Gornick: “At the heart of my memoir lay a revelation that had taken me two years of writing to isolate: I could not leave my mother because I had become my mother. This complicated insight was my bit of wisdom, the history I wanted badly to trace out. The context in which the book is set -- our life in the Bronx in the 1950s, alternating with walks taken in Manhattan in the 1980s -- was the situation; the story was the insight. What mattered most to me was not the literalness of the situation, but the emotional truth of the story. If the book has any strength at all, it is because I remained scrupulously faithful to the story, not the situation.”

“Fiction, non-fiction and 'truth' Rao's 'In Hanuman's Hands' is as 'true' as it can be” by Cheeni Rao: “People want to know if I wrote a "fake" memoir, a la James Frey's "A Million Little Pieces," and, honestly, I can't blame them. Few people can trace their family line back nearly a thousand years or babble wide-eyed about the hallucinatory conversations with gods that led them back from the abyss of crack addiction and crime.

“That I eventually got a college degree and then graduated from the Iowa Writers' Workshop -- and now am more likely to be seen walking my dog than mugging a wayward drunk -- makes it seem all the more preposterous.

“It probably doesn't help that in the preface I say my memoir isn't a factually accurate account. All the same, when asked about the question of "truth," I always say the same thing: writing manufactures its own truth.”

If You Can Make It There...

You don't know how much I wish I could write a poem for this contest:

Four Winners will receive $750 each, plus a trip to New York City to read their winning poems at an event in Times Square on September 17th, 2009.

Submission period: June 15 - July 15, 2009

The Poetry Society of America and the Times Square Alliance: Help celebrate Times Square, and the qualities that Times Square represents—diversity, desire, dynamism and the marriage of commerce and culture—through poetry.

For rules and entry information, visit

About the PSA: The Poetry Society of America was founded in 1910 for the purpose of creating a public forum for the advancement, enjoyment, dissemination, and understanding of poetry. PSA programs foster our mission "to place poetry at the crossroads of American life" by raising public awareness of poetry, deepening the understanding of it, and encouraging more people to become readers and writers of poetry. The PSA continues to bring diverse poetry programming that is accessible, engaging, vital in concept and broad in scope to myriad audiences.

About the TSA: The Times Square Alliance, founded in 1992, works to improve and promote Times Square—cultivating the creativity, energy and edge that have made the area an icon of entertainment, culture and urban life for over a century. In addition to providing core neighborhood services with its Public Safety Officers and Sanitation Associates, the Alliance promotes local businesses; encourages economic development and public improvements; co-coordinates numerous major events in Times Square (including the annual New Year's Eve and Broadway on Broadway celebrations); manages the Times Square Information Center; and advocates on behalf of its constituents with respect to a host of public policy, planning and quality-of-life issues.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Recommended Reading: New York in the Fifties by Dan Wakefield

I loved this memoir of being a writer in the 1950s in New York City. I’m always a sucker for anything about New York in the 50s, and since this is about a group of writers, I was immediately drawn to it. I also met author Dan Wakefield who teaches nonfiction at the Converse College Low-Residency program where I teach and he was a fount of wonderful stories from back in the day (i.e. I’m paraphrasing, but there were endless examples of something along the lines of, “I remember the day I got the phone call from Maxine Kumin to join the group celebrating with Anne Sexton, who had just won the Pulitzer Prize”).

So New York in the Fifties is a book filled with those sorts of stories—not in a name-dropping way but in a wonderful, “I wish you’d been here” sort of way. The book was originally published in 1992 and reissued in this new edition by Pif Press.

I also liked that there was a fair amount of reporting, too, that Dan didn’t simply rely on his own experiences and own memories, but sought out people he’d known back then to get their impressions of the same events and experiences. He also interviewed some famous acquaintances who weren’t necessarily his friends back then but who would have to be included in any writerly remembrance of the time: Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg.

The book is organized by topic, not a simple chronology, so there’s a chapter on the Beats and on the influence of jazz and romance and life at Columbia University and psychoanalysis and so on.

Enticing excerpt from the introduction:

“Even while it was all happening, I knew that the time and the place were special. I remember walking down Broadway in mid-town and seeing people I identified as tourists and feeling sorry for them because they didn’t live in New York! I felt privileged to be there, and now I feel proud as well, of the friends I had and the work we did and will continue to do for as long as we have the time and chance. Whatever we’ve done was shaped by the fortunate fact that we started out in the most exciting city of its era, a mecca that, like Paris in the twenties, exists now only in memory. Its naming now seems legendary: New York in the fifties.”

More details about the book on

More about author Dan Wakefield

Other non-fiction books about groups of writers I’ve enjoyed reading:
Poets in Their Youth by Eileen Simpson
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
Partisans: Marriage, Politics, and Betrayal Among the New York Intellectuals by David Laskin
Minor Characters by Joyce Johnson

Monday, July 6, 2009

What, Me Organize?

Yes, my office is a pile of piles of paper and books. Yes, I could probably use a wee bit more organization in my life. Do I think that a “web-based task manager system” will solve everything and make me a happier, thinner, more creative person? No…but maybe you’re not is the desperate state I’m in and Slate’s article ranking online organization programs will be helpful:

“"Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler." Albert Einstein, whose famously messy workspace has made him the patron saint of slobs everywhere, apparently said that, and it roughly sums up my approach. I wasn't looking for the simplest task manager, but I wasn't looking for the most complete one, either. I was looking for enough.”

Read on for the winning system.

New Issue of Beltway Poetry Quarterly

Poet and editor Kim Roberts sent along an announcement about the new issue of Beltway Poetry Quarterly:

We're a little late in getting the photographs published in this issue--but they are now up and the issue is complete! Please take a look at this terrific group of 19 new photos by Thomas Sayers Ellis, all set in Washington, DC. You'll find one on each author's page and one in the Introduction.

And if you haven't yet read the issue, now's a great time to do so! The newest issue celebrates the 15th anniversary of the It's Your Mug reading series. The Mug, as it was commonly called, was a coffeehouse that once could be found in the Georgetown neighborhood of DC--and it was the epicenter of the Spoken Word poetry movement in the city. The new issue includes poems by 18 poets who were active members of the Mug series, edited by the woman who started it, Toni Asante Lightfoot. With the addition of an Introduction by Holly Bass, giving some historical context for the series, and--now!--some amazing photos from Thomas Sayers Ellis, this is an issue to savor.

You can find the new issue at

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Guest in Progress: J.P. Dancing Bear

I “met” J.P. Dancing Bear on Facebook. Having come late to the Facebook game, I found myself friending and being friended by a number of writers, which, I must say, has been fun. Obviously a group of smart witers will excel at the writing cocktail party of chatter that Facebook is. Who could compose better, cleverer, funnier, more heart-wrenching status updates than a bunch of writers? (My problem was trying to get my material up to speed with the group, but that’s another story.)

I had noticed that J.P. Dancing Bear wrote and posted “birthday poems” every week or so, along with artwork. Yes, click-click, I “liked” his work--very much. And then it was my birthday…and there was a lovely birthday poem for ME! I had assumed the poems he wrote were for people he knew beyond the Facebook sense, but no…so I invited him to tell me more about these beautiful birthday poems of his:

I’ve been working on a poetry project for the better part of 7 months now. I’ve been blessed by having many friends, colleagues, and fans connect with me on Facebook, so on my birthday I received an overwhelming number Birthday greetings. I’d been a member on Facebook for roughly six months and had tried to send a birthday greeting to all the people who had befriended me leading up to that point. But sometimes I missed some, or they missed it. So originally, my plan was to use other people’s applications to send them a birthday poem. I had some 1000+ friends on Facebook and I wanted to give something I’d created in their honor to them. This is something I’ve done all my life, either a painting or a drawing and/or a poem.

I quickly found that Facebook applications have some limitations like no special formatting and no line breaks. So this left me to work with a prose poem format. I’d written a total of perhaps 10 prose poems up and unto this time. I was quickly using up the common applications. About 3 months in to writing the Birthday Notes I discovered an application that was most of Salvador Dali’s work. I’d always been a fan of Dali, and had read his the book about his life and was familiar with most of his paintings. This really opened my eyes to the potential of what I could do.

By this point I had some 1300 friends on Facebook. At times I was writing anywhere between 1 to 9 poems a day, with the average around 3 a day. Within about two months I had gone through most of Dali’s work. And then I discovered that I could post a painting on someone’s wall, and in doing so I could use line breaks—no bolds or italics, but I could at least use line breaks. But I also found I stick with prose poetry for this project anyway.

The most recent, predominant style I started using at about the same time as I started the using the Dali paintings is a prose style I found C.D. Wright had employed in a few of her poems which used colons as the main form of punctuation in her book Tremble.

With most projects I do, I had set up some rules/guidelines for myself:

The poems have to be written on the day they are to be presented. Sometimes, I will write a few after midnight, go to bed, and write a few more in the morning, and/or the afternoon. Almost everything is in second person. For ekphrastic* pieces, I usually try to occupy the world of the painting, use its rules whenever possible. And when I can, I try to move forward or backwards from the moment captured in the painting. But basically, I try to live inside the painting for that moment. This avoids some of what I think are the more awkward or clumsy moments in ekphrastic painting which are about the painter and/or the application of paint, etc. Obviously, with time being of the essence, what with so many poems to write in a day, I have to work “quick.” So I try to spend no more than twenty minutes on each. After everything is written, I spend a few minutes reading everything aloud, just to make sure it sounds right—so a very cursory editing process. And as I pick these up and submit them to magazines, I will do another reread/rewrite/editing at that point. The other thing I try to do is make references to other arts like film, music, novels... and/or science (biology, chemistry, physics, etc. etc) and/or sometimes (philosophy/theology/mythology). Like any ekphrastic poem, the art piece is nice to have accompanying the piece but it should not be an anchor or a necessity for the writing to live. And finally the piece has to be a minimum of five lines. Whenever possible, I try to zip through people’s walls and information and photos to see if there’s something I can use to make it more personal (again, I normally can’t spend a lot of time, so I usually pull something and run with it—that tends to be the survival rules for the project: pick something and run with it).

So far, I’ve written about 850 poems, which is far more than I had imagined when I started the project (because not everyone likes to publish their birthdays). I still have about 5 months left and the average has risen to about 4 or 5 poems a day.

What I’ve found is: the ekphrastic process along with the time constraints and the deadline helps avoid all the blockage-procrastination-over-thinking stuff that most writers can fall into. This process has also proven to me that you can write probably a lot more than you think you can. Last year, I wrote possibly twenty poems for the whole year. I was making excuses for why I couldn’t or wouldn’t write and I had overburdened my editing/writing process to slow down the process. So the project has been an eye-opener for me. ~~ J.P. Dancing Bear

*Ekphrastic poem = a poem that comments on another work of art, i.e. a painting

If you’re a member of Facebook, you should be able to view the poem and painting that J.P. wrote for my birthday right here. Note: The reference to bats in the poem is from my status update about a birthday card Steve gave me that said, “It’s when you can’t hear the bats, that’s when the bats are coming.” Inside the card said, “Other than that, I have no birthday advice,” and Steve wrote, “I’m not really sure what this means, but I thought it was funny.”

About: J. P. Dancing Bear is the author of Conflicted Light (SalmonPoetry, 2008), Gacela of Narcissus City (Main Street Rag, 2006), Billy Last Crow (Turning Point, 2004) and What Language (Slipstream, 2002). His poems have been published in Shenandoah, Poetry International, New Orleans Review, DIAGRAM, Mississippi Review, Natural Bridge, Verse Daily and many others. He is the editor of the American Poetry Journal and Dream Horse Press, and the host of "Out of Our Minds" a weekly poetry program on public radio station KKUP. His next book, Inner Cities of Gulls, will be published by SalmonPoetry in 2010. Website: (with links there to the APJ and Dream Horse Press).

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Motivational Quote of the Day

I read this last week on the blog About Last Night and am still thinking about it:

"Why are you stingy with yourselves?" George Balanchine used to ask his dancers. "Why are you holding back? What are you saving for--for another time? There are no other times. There is only now. Right now."

New Fellowships for Writers

Two new opportunities for writers at the Writer’s Center, the first for DC-area writers, and the second open to all:

The Writer's Center seeks promising writers earning less than $25,000 annually to apply for our undiscovered Voices Fellowship. This fellowship program will provide complimentary writing workshops to the selected applicant for a period of one year, but not to exceed 8 workshop in that year. We expect the selected fellow will use the year to make progress toward a completed manuscript of publishable work. Please see our Web site here for complete information.

The Writer's Center, metropolitan DC's community gathering place for writers and readers, is currently accepting submissions for several competitive Emerging Writer Fellowships. Emerging Writer Fellows will be selected from applicants who have published up to 2 book length- works of prose and up to 3 book-length works of poetry. We welcome submissions from writers of any genre, background, or expererience.

Emerging Writer Fellows will be featured at The Writer's Center as part of our Emerging Writers Reading Series. The readings, to be held on Friday evenings, bring together writers in different genres with a backdrop of live music. The Writer's Center book store will sell titles by the EmergingWriters throughout the season in which they appear. Please see our Web site here for complete information.

River Styx ISO Managing Editor

This job isn’t full-time, but it looks like a good one. (Act fast—the deadline is July 6!):

Position: Managing Editor—Part Time

River Styx, one of the nation's premier independent literary magazines, invites applications for the part-time position of Managing Editor. The areas of primary responsibility include general editorial, event coordination, volunteer management, grant writing, and data base management. Candidates must have a minimum of a BA, with experience in literary publishing and computer literacy in both MAC and PC environments. Attention to detail, creativity, self-initiative and a passion for literature are critical to success in this position. Experience with nonprofit management is highly desirable. Please send application letter, resume, and writing samples by July 6 to: Richard Newman, Editor, River Styx, 3547 Olive St., Suite 107, St. Louis, MO 63103 or email


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